Women Who Write: Julie Kane

This is the third in a four-part series featuring Louisiana women poets in celebration of National Poetry Month. Each profile will highlight a poet from New Orleans or Southeast Louisiana including interview, biography and an original poem selected for this feature.

Julie Kane

Julie Kane

Our featured poet today is Julie Kane. Julie’s poetry collections include Rhythm & Booze (University of Illinois Press, 2003), which was Maxine Kumin’s selection for the National Poetry Series and a finalist for the Poets’ Prize; Jazz Funeral (Story Line Press, 2009), which won the Donald Justice Poetry Prize, judged by David Mason; and Paper Bullets (White Violet Press, 2014), a new collection of light verse. Together with Grace Bauer, she co-edited the anthology Umpteen Ways of Looking at a Possum: Critical and Creative Responses to Everette Maddox (2006), which became a finalist for the Southern Independent  Booksellers Alliance book prize in poetry. The nonfiction Vietnam memoir that she co-authored with Kiem Do (Counterpart: A South Vietnamese Naval Officer’s War, 1998) became a History Book Club featured alternate selection. Recently she wrote the libretto for Starship Paradise, a one-act opera with music by Dale Trumbore that was produced by Center City Opera Theater of Philadelphia. Her poems appear in over forty anthologies and in journals such as Barrow Street, Prairie Schooner, Rattle, and The Southern Review. They have also been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor. The 2011-2013 Louisiana Poet Laureate,she has also been the George Bennett Fellow in Writing at Phillips Exeter Academy, the New Orleans Writer in Residence at Tulane University, a faculty member of the West Chester Conference on Form and Narrative in Poetry, and a Fulbright Scholar to Vilnius Pedagogical University in Lithuania. Currently she is a Professor of English at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana, and a Contributing Editor to Light Magazine.

THOSE SUNDAY DRIVES

You used to bore me with your monologues
on drives through old “New Awlins” neighborhoods:
what family had what house when you were young
and where some candy store or bank had stood.
Who cares about the past? I used to think.
We Yankee Irish pulled up roots a lot,
escaping relatives with chicken coops
and cabbage boiling in a kitchen pot.
But that was all before the hurricane
our Mason-Dixon love did not survive—
a minor loss beside a thousand dead,
four houses flooded out of every five.
So much has changed: Time speeded up her clock,
and now I bore all riders with my talk.

What is your earliest recollection of the desire to write down your own thoughts?
When I was seven years old, I had a collection of fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen with several blank white pages at the end. I knew with absolute certainty that I was supposed to write my own story on those pages, and I did, printing it in pencil. It was about a girl who was helping her mother make whipped cream, but she whipped it too long and it turned into butter, and then her fairy godmother appeared and granted her one wish, and she turned the butter back to “wiped cream.” I still have that book.

Do you remember your first poem? What was it about?

I don’t remember the very first one, but I have a copy of one I wrote in 5th grade, when we were studying logging in our social studies textbook (God only knows why). It begins: “The loggers are busy cutting trees / with saws that sound like bumblebees . . .”

Is writing your full-time occupation?

Ha! Advice to any aspiring poets out there: don’t quit your day job! I am an English professor at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. Before I got my doctorate, I worked for many years as a technical writer and editor.

Is poetry your primary genre? Do you work in any others?

Yes, it is my primary genre, but I also publish creative nonfiction, and I write scholarly essays and book reviews about literature. Last year I wrote the libretto for a one-act opera that was produced by Center City Opera Theater of Philadelphia.

I’m always interested in the writing process. Tell us a little about yours. Do you ponder a poem for a while, keeping it in a draft stage and working on it periodically or do you write it all at once, as the inspiration and words strike you? How much editing do you do on a piece?

I can write prose when I am not inspired and produce a lousy first draft, and then go back to it and improve it later, but poetry is different—I have to be feeling inspired to write a poem, or it just does not flow. I handwrite in pencil on lined paper, and I keep crossing out and crumpling up sheets of paper—the first draft of a one-page poem might take me several hours. Then I have to put it aside for awhile, a few days or a few weeks, before I can look at it objectively and tweak word choices or individual lines. Sometimes I will get the idea for a poem but know that I am not ready to write it yet. There are a few poems that have taken me years between the time the idea came to me and the time I felt ready to write it.

Do you have a favorite place to write that’s particularly conducive to your creativity?

I have a huge study with bookshelves and a desk, but my favorite place to write is a little breakfast table that looks out on my yard, with birdfeeders and trees and flowers.

I read an interview where you said you can not force poetry if you’re not feeling
inspired (and I silently cheered!). So many writers advise to write every day, to
actually force yourself, that it’s good practice. What do you think about that p.o.v.?

I think it’s a good idea to write every day if you are working on a novel or a dissertation or
another long prose work, but it does not work for me in terms of poetry. It does for some poets,though.

Where was the strangest place that inspiration hit you for a poem and how did it turn out?

There have been times when I was driving my car and a line or idea would come to me, and I have had to fish in my purse for a pen and the back of one of the deposit slips in my checkbook to try to write it down while driving. Then sometimes I go back to those cryptic jottings and wonder, What on earth was I thinking?

Are there any recurrent themes in your poems? If so, why do you think that is?

Other people are better than I am at spotting themes, since I am inside the poems and they are outside. But certainly, love and the breakdown of contemporary relationships, fate versus free will, alcoholism, mortality, Irish Catholicism, Louisiana nature and culture.

I am somewhat a collector of words. Do you have any favorite words?

I think my favorite is “newfangleness,” from the 16th century poem “They Flee from Me,” by Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder. It means “fickleness.”

Do you have any tips to share regarding motivation and/or discipline in completing a piece?

You have to love the act of writing enough to finish what you start, or what’s the point? There are so many other things competing for our time and attention—there is no need to torture yourself, if you don’t love to do it. It can be hard sitting down in the writing chair and getting started, but once that creative flow takes over, it should be more fun than Netflix or Facebook!

I know that you studied briefly under Anne Sexton at Boston University. What is the one most important thing you learned from her?

She told us not to be afraid to be a fool for poetry—not to worry about whether anyone would like us or respect us because of what we wrote. It was the opposite of the advice my mother drilled into me while I was growing up, which was to always worry about what other people were thinking, to be well-behaved at all times.

You were Louisiana’s Poet Laureate for 2011-2013. Do you remember how you felt the minute you were told that you were chosen?

I was sitting in my office at work, getting ready to teach a night class, when I opened an email message from a member of the governor’s staff. It said that the governor would like to name me the next Poet Laureate. I was so happy and excited, I let out a very loud scream! And then a student who was out in the hall poked his head in my office to ask if I were OK.

Did you learn anything that surprised you during your time as Poet Laureate?

I was stunned to find so many thousands of people who care about poetry, all around the state: from teenaged dropouts in an alternative high school to the Colonial Dames of Shreveport.

There is a burgeoning poetry community online and new lit journals popping up all the time. Some people think it’s just so much “look at me” noise and unworthy of notice while others celebrate more open and diverse opportunities for poets to share their work. What do you think?

I think online publication is wonderful—it means that anyone can find and read your poem online, and that the size of the audience is potentially unlimited. I love the look and feel of a beautiful print journal or a book, but I also love the democracy of online publishing. Also, online forums and listservs and social media make it possible for writers who share a certain interest—such as those of us who write in form, the so-called “New Formalists”—to share news and build a sense of community that counters the isolation of writing.

I find it impossible to name one poet who is my favorite – I have several. Who are some of your favorite poets and/or poems?

It is impossible for me to name all of my favorite living poets, but I can name some of my favorites who are no longer living: the ancient Chinese poets including Po Chu-i, Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder, John Donne, Charles Baudelaire, Constantine Cavafy, William Butler Yeats, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, Anna Ahkmatova, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Seamus Heaney.

Finally, do you have any upcoming readings or appearances you can share with us?

I have several readings coming up in Washington, DC, next week. Together with the current Louisiana Poet Laureate, Ava Leavell Haymon, I will be reading at the National Press Club of Washington, DC, at 12 noon on April 15. That reading is sponsored by the American Women Writers National Museum. That same evening at 7 PM, Ava and I and two other women poets will be reading at the Arts Club of Washington. The following day, we will read our poems for a taping of Grace Cavalieri’s radio show, “The Poet and the Poem.” Later this month (April 27), I will be taking part in a reading at the Zachary Public Library that will honor the memory of Wilmer Mills, a Louisiana poet who died young.

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Thank you, Julie, for sharing your thoughts with us today!

To read all interviews for Women Who Write, click here. Next Friday: Valentine Pierce.

Women Who Write: Cassie Pruyn

This is the second in a four-part series featuring Louisiana women poets in celebration of National Poetry Month. Each profile will highlight a poet from New Orleans or Southeast Louisiana including interview, biography and an original poem selected for this feature.

Cassie Pruyn

Cassie Pruyn

Today we feature Cassie Pruyn. Cassie is a New Orleans-based poet born and raised in Portland, Maine. She is currently studying at The Bennington Writing Seminars. Her obsessions include geographic history, geographic mystery, and the impossible struggle to express place through language. Her poems have been featured in The Double Dealer, she placed second runner-up in the 2013 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition, and she was a finalist in the 2013 Indiana Review 1/2K Prize.

THE NEW ORLEANS AFFAIR

Poor Mississippi. 
Barge-laden, crowned with bluffs. 
She’s been scorned by this city, 
who once loved her enough 

to lay himself down along 
her S like a set 
of ribs (overeager stone- 
stacker, naive architect). 

Her lover’s put a wall up. 
He won’t touch her, won’t 
let her leave––he’s boarded shut 
the windows, girdled her, stripped 

her banks clear of “debris.” 
In the beginning, he smelled 
of blood and fresh pralines. 
She lapped at him nightly, cradling 

his churches and ridges, 
porches and cisterns; she flooded 
him yearly, tickled his drainage. 
Still he insisted 

on having her tamed. 
Planning her revenge, crisscrossed 
with tourniquets, she’ll claim 
him again––it’s his loss, 

she’ll make sure of it. For near 
the levees’ concrete bases,
small cracks have begun to appear. 
She strokes the crevices

with her long tongue, reminiscing: 
Remember those hand-dug canals?
Canoes made of cypresses? 
Even those vulgar sawmills 

she’d prefer to this half-sunk grime. 
Only muffled voices 
now, as she considers her choices; 
seagulls, girders, and plenty of time.


How long have you been writing and what inspired you to choose this craft?

I’ve been writing poetry, at least semi-consistently, for about fifteen years. Like many writers, I started out as an avid reader, but primarily of novels and stories. I’ve given a fair amount of thought, therefore, to the question “why poetry?” as opposed to any other genre or craft, and my best guess is that it comes out of a strong love of words––for the musicality and physicality of words in specific––and also for the compactness inherent in poetry as opposed to prose. I always loved a good story as a kid, but I also loved song lyrics. I loved the container of the song, the way a song can be used as a vehicle for expression. But I was not cut out to be a musician—the words would come, but never a melody.

I also think the way I experience and think about the world lends itself to writing poetry––or at least the desire to write poetry. Any writer has to be a keen observer, but I imagine for a fiction writer this act of observing has more to do with the way human beings relate to one another, or to themselves, as it pertains to the sustainment of a narrative. Well, really, I have no idea how fiction writers think—narrative and imagining characters is never something that has come naturally to me. Rather, I seem to experience the world as a series of atmospheric moments––a kind of holistic sensory impact, as encapsulated by specific moments in time. This is also why I love writing about space and place.


Is poetry your primary genre? Do you work in any others?

Yes; and not yet. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve attempted to write a story, and they were all in response to prompts given by teachers. As I mentioned above, I’m a reader of narrative but not yet a writer of narrative. At some point, I’d really love to expand that part of my brain (because they really do feel like separate mental faculties––the writing of poetry vs. the writing of narrative prose) and challenge myself to attempt a novel, but who knows when and if that will happen. I do love writing critical prose—reviews, close readings, and the like—however.


What is your earliest recollection of writing and poetry as a passion? Do you remember your first poem?

I love this question! It’s been great to think back to those sentimental, angst-ridden poems of my adolescence. While I can’t remember my absolute first poem, I know I began writing them in earnest when I was 11, my first year in middle school and my first year in a new town. I grew up in an 18th century farmhouse in rural Maine, but when I was 11, after my parents had split up, we moved to the suburbs. If a new school, combined with the onslaught of puberty and a huge geographical/atmospheric change wouldn’t inspire a young poet-to-be to begin writing, I don’t know what would! I remember coming home from school, gazing out the window, and writing rhyming poems in my journal. I seem to remember a poem that revolved around the trope of  a red rose with prickly thorns (obviously!).

Is writing your full-time occupation? If not, how do you fit writing into your work and personal life?

I consider writing to be my full-time job at the moment, in part because I am finishing up my MFA this semester, but I also work as a full-time nanny. Right now, my schedule involves dropping the kids off at school, writing most of the day, and then picking them up and working until 7 o’clock. It’s a lucky little life I lead; I love my job and I love having a lot of structured time to write. At some point, I’d love to teach in some capacity, but I also feel inclined to hold onto the schedule I have. Aside from money, time seems to be that thing that professional (or non-professional) writers covet the most. I feel lucky to be able to have that right now.

I’m always interested in the writing process. Tell us a little about yours. Do you ponder a poem for a while, keeping it in a draft stage and working on it periodically or do you write it all at once, as the inspiration and words strike you? How much editing do you do on a piece?

I find it really difficult to talk about process, because I find my process is constantly shifting to accommodate whatever project I’m working on. And in general, I find the process of writing a poem/series of poems to be an often frustratingly fluid experience. I try to balance structure with inspiration, routine with spontaneity, in order to be the most productive I can be without at the same time choking my poems before they even have a chance to come out. I’ll say, “Ok, I’m going to start writing at 9:30 and stop at 1:00, I’m going to turn off my phone, I’m going to take one or two short breaks, I’m going to work on developing this part of my project,” etc. but then who knows what actually happens on any given day within the parameters I’ve set for myself. I might strike upon an entirely new idea, I might finish something I hadn’t planned on finishing, or I might get virtually no writing done and spend the day sighing and un-inspired. If I ever start to feel uninspired, though, I run to the bookshelf immediately!

The amazing essayist Jo Ann Beard, in a lecture I heard her give once, said that process is as unique as a fingerprint: it’s utterly different for everyone. I find that idea really liberating. She said, regardless of whatever form it takes, though, that it has to do with entering into and staying inside of––for as long as possible––that realm of imagination, with sustaining the imaginal logic of whatever the piece of writing may be. This is an insanely difficult thing to do. She likened it to trying to hold a beach ball underwater for hours at a time, without letting it bob back up to the surface. I think that analogy is really apt. Process is definitely an unwieldy beast.

I do know that I spend an incredible amount of time editing––or reimagining––every poem I write. I tend to work in series of poems, and so I spend a lot of time rearranging and re-conceiving how my poems relate to one another, as well as tweaking individual lines and words. Writing successfully, for me, has everything to do with editing, which is not to discredit the value of those momentary bursts of inspiration––but those, for me, can come at any time during the process of working on the poem, and not just when I’m first setting it down on the page.

Do you have a favorite place to write that’s particularly conducive to your creativity?

When I’m trying to come up with a new idea, I really enjoy writing in coffee shops. I like the buzz and the energy (although I’m always the dork in the corner with ear plugs in; I can’t write to music because it messes me up when I’m trying to “hear” my poems). But, because I tend to come up with long-term “project” ideas that often require research or printing a bunch of poems out and rearranging them, I do a lot of my writing at home. I’ll write anywhere in my apartment––on the couch, on the bed, at my standing desk, at the counter. I find when I’m really trying to sit with a poem or group of poems, really trying to “hold the beach ball under,” as it were, I like to be at home. As most writers seem to be, I am very introverted. While I enjoy being the fly on the wall sometimes, the occasional “flaneur” about town, at the end of the day I really just want to be alone in my little cave!

Do you have any tips you can share regarding motivation and/or discipline in completing a piece?

Don’t give up! Allow yourself to struggle! Sit with the discomfort of struggling. This is something I’ve learned the hard way, and will probably learn the hard way again. I’m a perfectionist, and I like to achieve––but this is something you have to both cultivate and push against as a writer. You have to want it enough to keep going, but be humble enough to understand that you’re going to have to mess it up to get it right. I’ve been circling about one project––one source of inspiration––for over five years now, and failed countless times in trying to give voice to this inspiration. Like, really failed. But, it’s like Bob Dylan says: “There’s no success like failure.” It’s such a cliche but it’s true. Understand that you’re going to “fail,” but don’t let it demoralize you; learn from it instead. And, during those occasional moments of confusion and panic, if you come back to your essential love for writing, the reason you came to it in the first place, you’ll push through to the other side. At least this is what I tell myself literally every. single. day. It’s far easier said than done, but I think it’s the difference between writing and, well, not.


Who’s work has inspired yours?

There are many poets who’ve inspired me, but Elizabeth Bishop is someone I’m thinking a lot about right now. Bishop achieves this very real intimacy with the reader, but never by giving the reader information about herself directly. You get to know her by looking with her. She describes objects and landscapes with such detail and texture, and the way you end up feeling close to her is by getting to see these things too, in the way that she sees them. It’s about witnessing the rhythms of the poet’s unique mind, thinking the way she thinks for the duration of the poem. I am not what you would call a “confessional” poet. Even when I am writing on or from emotion, I am always fictionalizing it to a certain extent. I think I am an inherently private person. But a writer has to make the reader feel welcome, nonetheless; she has to let the reader get to know her in certain essential ways, even if it’s not the way she’d let, say, her best friend get to know her. Bishop really exemplifies this. Plus, she writes about geography too.


I find it impossible to name one poet who is my favorite – I have several. Who are some of your favorite poets and/or poems?

I could never pick just one favorite either, but here are some poets I love:

Frank Bidart, Rita Dove, Anne Carson, Elizabeth Bishop, Rainer Maria Rilke, Sarah Messer, Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, Maggie Nelson, Frank Stanford, Lyn Hejinian, Donald Hall, Joan Ashbery, Joseph Brodsky, Marianne Moore, Sylvia Plath, Shakespeare….and that’s just poetry! I could go on and on….


Where do you see yourself with regard to your writing in 5 years?

It feels silly to try and predict what I might be working on in 5 years, although it seems as though I’ve got two projects going at the moment––I thought they belonged together at first, but now I don’t think they do. I’m working on a series of historically-based poems about Colonial America, and another series having to do with a particular relationship in my life. It’d be great if, say, I finished one of those projects and published it as my first book of poems, and were on my way into writing my next book in five years. Who knows how these plans will change, though. It may take considerably longer to achieve that. I also have an idea for a series of poems on the Mississippi River. I’d like to write a magical-realism history of the Mississippi River, in verse––go big or go home, right?!

Whatever I’m doing, I hope I’m making time to write and feeling inspired. That’s all I really want for myself, period––but it’d be nice if something got published here and there along the way….

Are there any online or print journals you read and recommend? Are there any venues for sharing/listening to poetry that you recommend?

I’m definitely in the beginning stages of combing through all the awesome journals available online or in print. As in, I’ve only been playing the trying-to-get-published game for about a year (although that’s not the only reason to read literary journals!), and not as consistently as I ought to be. I find the process pretty overwhelming. There is so much out there. And if I could afford to just buy subscriptions to all of the journals that look interesting, and had the time to read all of them, I really would. It seems really difficult, however, to put quality time into your writing and to also find enough time to really expose yourself to the world of published work. I don’t know how people do it!

As for the second part of the question, I think any poetry event––readings, Slam performances, etc.––in New Orleans is worth going to. It’s such a welcoming (and relatively small) city, so going to these events is a great way to meet people, and to connect and reconnect with other local writers. I’m easy to please with this type of thing––I love just being around other people who also find it worthwhile to sit down and write every day, regardless in our potential aesthetic differences. I think New Orleans is a great place to be an artist right now, for many reasons. It’s a highly inspiring, highly stimulating place with delightfully low levels of pretentiousness, and you’ll start to hear it creeping in to everyone’s work, your own included, which just serves to create another connection between you and other local writers.

What are some of your favorite words and why?

This is even harder than picking a favorite author! In general, though, I like English words with more Germanic sounds, words with texture and punch. I also like single-syllabic words a lot.Straw. Gut. Hook. Orange. Those are my favorites tonight!

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Thank you, Cassie, for sharing your interesting pov with us today!

peauxdunqueCassie will be reading at the upcoming literary event Yeah, You Write, a Word Rebellion: Readings and Music, on April 18 at Cafe Istanbul. For more info see the FaceBook page of Peauxdunque Writers Alliance, sponsors of the event.

 
To read all interviews for Women Who Write, click here.

Next Friday: Julie Kane

Women Who Write: Kelly Harris

This is the first of a four-part series featuring Louisiana women poets in celebration of National Poetry Month. Each profile will highlight a poet from New Orleans or Southeast Louisiana including interview, biography and an original poem selected for this feature.

Kelly Harris

Kelly Harris

This week we feature Kelly Harris. Kelly earned her MFA in poetry from Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. She has been awarded fellowships by Cave Canem and the Fine Arts Work Center and won a Wendy L. Moore Emerging Artists Award from the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland. Her poems have appeared in Say It Loud: Poems for James Brown, Yale University’s Caduceus, PMS, The Southern Women’s Review, PLUCK Magazine, DrumVoices Revue and other publications. The Kent State University graduate serves on the board of STAIR, (Start the Adventure in Reading) and is the editor/founder of brassybrown.com

Kelly will be speaking at The Contemporary Arts Center on April 18th in celebration of National Poetry Month and the 30 Americans Exhibition.

 

Stick Fighter
for Winnie Mandela

his breath on your neck

    his morning posture
    at the breakfast table

keepsakes of an ordinary wife

    freedom is not a love story

jumping the broom
is a weapon against those

    who see no danger in a woman

wearing a gele
crossing the threshold

    of her forbidden country

she is mad as the man
she married

can’t wait for God’s will

    demons are necessary
there must be blood

concrete to kiss
a modest woman will not have

    her name carved in stone
freedom is not a love story

               Winnie

the iron that sharpened him
all those years
               into a fist

~ ©Kelly Harris

How long have you been writing and what inspired you to choose this craft?

As a child I could always recite speeches and poems. I don’t really know how I developed the skill. I just always remember speaking somewhere and being mindful at an early age. I’ve been writing seriously since I was an undergraduate at Kent State University. I entered the university as a magazine journalism major, but it was always poetry that had a hold on me. I won a pageant contest my freshmen year. My talent was poetry, and soon after I become a poetry editor for the Black student’s publication and ran a poetry series that’s still active today. I don’t think I ever woke up one morning and said to myself, “I’m going to be a poet today.” I believe life calls us to become who we are meant to be.

Is poetry your primary genre? Do you work in any others?

Poetry is my first literary love. My blog, BrassyBrown.com, allows me to stretch my writing and of course, share my poetry. I just finished a major writing project about Black women in New Orleans that should be released soon by a nonprofit. I also do freelancing when I can. I am in the process of trying to find interest for my children’s book manuscript called “My Hoodie Keeps me Warm.” It’s the story of a group of African-American teenage boys being racially profiled. I am looking for a press for my poetry manuscript, “Revival.”

What is your earliest recollection of writing and poetry as a passion? Do you remember your first poem?

My first poem was called “Be a Leader Not a Follower.” I wrote it in 5th grade at my grandmother’s coffee table. I used to write poems in a spiral, pink Mead notebook. I threw
away many of my earliest poems because I was teased for being a poet. There weren’t a lot of poetry programs in the schools I went to. I didn’t pick up writing again until about 11th grade. I grew up in a very poor neighborhood. The great thing about my street was people were always talking, gossiping, cussing, and when you juxtaposed that with jump rope songs, hip-hop, my mother’s music collections, attending church with my family and black girlhood, it makes for great poetry.

Is writing your full-time occupation?

I wish. I’m a stay-at-home-mom and do contractual gigs in literacy, strategic planning and business writing. This may be hard to imagine, but I think becoming a mom has helped me become a better writer. It’s sharpened my attention to details and sound. To watch my 18-month-old daughter’s evolution of speech really has helped me think about language as a unit of the body.

I’m always interested in the writing process. Tell us a little about yours. Do you ponder a poem for a while, keeping it in a draft stage and working on it periodically or do you write it all at once, as the inspiration and words strike you? How much editing do you do on a piece?

I can sit and write a blog a lot easier and faster than a poem. Being a mother has forced me to write at God-awful-times, but I get it done because I do see writing as my life’s job. Most of my poems begin handwritten. When I type poems, I edit too fast. It’s just too convenient to backspace. I’m more likely to delete lines or words that may be useful later. I often do mental mapping of my poems. It helps me weed out clichés and tendencies and helps me see the possibilities for a poem.

Do you have a favorite place to write that’s particularly conducive to your creativity?

I write when and where I can, but I must admit I don’t write well in crowds or with lots of noise. Libraries used to be my ideal place, but now they are not guaranteed places of silence. There are very few public places where you can find solitude. Usually when everyone is sleeping, I am writing.

Do you have any tips you can share regarding motivation and/or discipline in completing a piece?

I have an MFA in Creative Writing and I sat through all sorts of lectures about motivation and discipline. First, it takes courage to write and hard work to write well, but the writing process is a lot more complicated than that. I’ve learned that everyone is different. I’ve tried to sit down each day and write on a schedule. I just can’t do it. I’m not wired that way, and my life is too hectic for structured writing. I make sure I take in a lot of music, interviews, reading, conversations and vocabulary words so that I am stock piling ideas and energy for poems to come. I’m always working on about 3-4 poems at a time. And I keep a journal of lines I’ve never used and mental notes that I sometimes use for things I’m working on. (See photo sample below)

kelly harris graphic

Whose work has inspired yours?

It depends where I’m at in my life and what I’m writing. I recently just bought “Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth” (Mouthmark Press) by Warsan Shire. She packs a lot into a line. Recently the poetry world lost Wanda Coleman and Jayne Cortez—two amazing poets of color. I’ve been re-reading a lot of their work. I bought a Sonia Sanchez album, “A Sun Lady for All Seasons” last month and she’s really got me thinking about how to effectively use repetition and sound.

Speaking of sound … Bobby McFerrin. I’m not talking about “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” He’s amazing. To me there is no other human voice on the planet that creates sound and words the way he does. My 18-month-old taps her chest and improvises with him when I watch him on YouTube. It’s pretty funny, but in watching her and him, it’s a great lesson in the art of timing.

Where do you see yourself with regard to your writing in 5 years?

Hopefully I can increase my publishing credits and teach. I really miss teaching poetry to young people. I’ve had brief opportunities to guest instruct at NOCCA and Lusher, and I loved it.

Please share five poetry books you’d recommend.

“Blacks” by Gwendolyn Brooks (I mean, do I really have to explain?)

“Rice: Poems by Nikky Finney” (“Head Off and Split” won the National Book Award for Poetry but her other books are worth reading too).

“Trouble the Water: 250 Years of African American Poetry” edited by Dr. Jerry Ward (Former Dillard University Professor)

“How I Got Ovah: New and Selected Poems by Carolyn M. Rodgers” (Not as widely known, but should be).

“The Never Wife” by Cynthia Hogue (I bought this book at Dauphine Books in the French Quarter and had no idea there would be some poems about NOLA in it. It’s a wonderful book)

~~~

Thank you, Kelly, for this inspiring interview!

 

On Moderation

Granted, I write on my personal blog less frequently these days due to a number of circumstances, but I’m both proud and saddened to say that I haven’t linked to an online Times-Picayune article from my site since 2009.

Why is that? Let’s take a look…

Every so often, Alex Rawls of the local music and culture site My Spilt Milk gets on a virtual hazmat suit and takes a look at the interactivity of the Nola Media Group/Advance Internet/Newhouse Publications’ Nola.com site so that the rest of us don’t have to. What he found on the site wasn’t pretty:

…I saw the list of stories with the most comments stories, and it’s hard to imagine that it’s a coincidence that the top five all involved African American males – three on Nagin, one by Jarvis DeBerry on Martin Luther King Day, and one an African American male who strangled a woman. When I started looking at this issue this morning, a story titled “For Some, Attending Obama Inaugural is Relief from Anti-President Rhetoric” was on the Most Comments list (and with 147 comments as of press time, it’s the second-most comented upon active story, above four currently on the list). It includes such gems as:

You can be certain only worship for the aObamanation will be offered.

Down with the USA (created by white men)!

Down with the Constitution (written by white men)!

Hooray for the DPRK (Democratic Peoples Republic of Kwanzaa)!

Gordon Russell’s story on Ray Nagin’s efforts to settle into a Dallas suburb did offer a moderate cause for hope as the target of hostility moved off of African Americans and landed on Texas in the Comments. Evidently being Black is better than being a Texan, and it’s probably better than being a Falcons fan, but Nola.com really has to find a better solution to the Comments Section question than whatever it’s doing now.

Admittedly, much of what is there is simply bitter cynicism directed toward almost everything, and not simply coded racism. That’s harder to deal with because it doesn’t cross borders so clearly that it can be taken down, but it lays out an ugly, hostile discourse that adds a mean dimension to the site.

 

It saddens me that, since Newhouse has decided to go with less dead-tree publishing and more emphasis on the website, it hasn’t addressed this.

I wish I could say it was a surprise as well, but it isn’t. It’s been the modus operandi of the organization for quite a while now. As long as the number of hits the website gets can be translated into some sort of monetary gain for Nola.com – hey, we get this many hits per day, come advertise with us! – then any and all traffic is going to look good, even if it leaves behind a trail of filth at the bottom of each article. The racism, sexism, and plain old incivility will continue, no matter how many people from within New Orleans and without are dismayed, offended and horrified.

It’d be nice to think that the recent Sal Perricone commenting brouhaha resulting in Jim Letten’s resignation may have made some commenters a tad more cautious about typing something up straight from their ids and hitting “post,” but a lack of civility still rules online.  I keep telling people that once they get on the Internet, unless they are supremely technically savvy, their computer screens are not one-way glass (helloo, IP addresses), so they’re better off still behaving as they would were they talking to someone face-to-face. It’s been years, and that hasn’t gotten through to the general public yet. People still think their anonymity relieves them of the apparent burden of being a compassionate, thinking person…

…which leads to the other, more awful part of when comment sections are allowed to run amuck. A bunch of comments that are most likely the first, unfiltered thing to slither out of the recesses of the more reptilian parts of our brains can take the hard work of dedicated journalists and relegate it to being ripped apart in a manner akin to Cinderella’s stepsisters tearing the hell out of her first ball gown before her fairy godmother comes along to set things right. The scorched earth atmosphere that results can weaken the self-esteem of even the hardiest newshound. This doesn’t mean that journalists shouldn’t be criticized for what they do – but any references to their skin color, their families, or their lifestyles (as well as those of the journalists’ subjects) should be left out of it, and leaving it up to the commenters themselves to “flag” anything they deem offensive clearly isn’t working, judging from Alex Rawls’ examples quoted above. It’s why I subscribed to the dead-tree Picayune until the laying off of half the paper’s newsroom – to support the journalists’ work, not the commenters’ spew.

James O’Byrne of Nola Media Group kept emphasizing at this past year’s Rising Tide conference the increased use of smartphones and tablets among readers that supposedly helped push the decision to publish the TP 3 days a week. I know that when I go to a Nola.com link via my Droid phone, most of the time I don’t see the comments unless I click on another link for them. I want to hope that the monitoring of hits is taking that into account, but as long as this remains a numbers game, I don’t see that happening.

With all the current hubbub over the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras, the hand-wringing by City Hall over the good impressions we locals need to impart to this season’s big shot & tourist onslaught, and the technological innovations being touted, it’s sad that Da Digital Paper, putting itself out there as THE New Orleans news source online, cannot seem to consider all of this and take the steps to preserve whatever integrity it has left.

Yeah, admittedly, there’s not a lot of integrity there, but monitoring or eliminating comments outright would be a good step towards getting some back.

NOLAFemmes and How She Grows

I recently received my yearly report from WordPress on the progress NOLAFemmes made in 2012 and thought I’d share some of it with y’all. It was all good and some of the stats included in the report were:

  • NOLAFemmes was viewed about 190,000 times in 2012. (!)
  • The busiest day of the year was February 24th with 85,727 views.
  • The most popular post that day was Lit Up Like a Parade.
  • The top referring sites were Facebook, Twitter, WWL TV and Nola.com.

NOLAFemmes was just a baby of an idea I began tossing around in my head about four years ago because I realized there was no local group blog made up entirely of women writers at the time which I saw as a serious flaw in the NOLA blogosphere.  As far as I know, we are still the only local blog staffed entirely by women. Some people say blogs are dying but our stats and our readers call BS on that. :) Our first post was published on July 12. 2009 and it’s been full steam ahead ever since.

It was a very busy 2012 for this blog and it started off with a Very. Big. Bang. in February with A.L. Mueller’s heartfelt post “Lit Up Like A Parade” which went viral nationally very, very quickly. (Examples here, here and here.) Emily Gras grew out of that post and was one of WWL TV’s most viewed stories for 2012 and WDSU’s Top Stories.

In March Lunanola was the first New Orleanian to tweet about the sidewalk defacement in the French Quarter by representatives of CoCa Cola looking to advertise during the NCAA Men’s Final Four event. She quickly blogged her outrage in her post “Historic French Quarter and Faubourg Tremé defaced with graffiti advertising Coca-Cola products” and was joined in her outrage by many New Orleanians. Due to her activism, Coca-Cola subsequently apologized and had reps scrubbing the sidewalks.

Liprap’s poignant and personal post “Help. Now.”, including helpful information for victims of Hurricane Sandy, earned the blog a prominent spot on WordPress’s Freshly Pressed page. This is a big deal in the WordPress community and gives a blog great exposure. (This made our third time on FP!) It was a well deserved honor and we thank Word Press for the nod.

These are only three of the many well-written, informative and entertaining pieces written by the women of this blog who were all hand-picked for her individual talents. We strive to be a well-rounded site incorporating local issues of interest to New Orleanians as well as cultural and personal pieces of interest to all. We don’t want to be only a “political” blog, a “mommy” blog or a “pop-culture” blog; we want to be all of that and more. We want to inspire, inform and entertain. Our readers are why we are here at all and we always want to give them a perspective they won’t read anywhere else. Our perspective.

So I want to thank all of our readers for choosing to read this blog in a world where an internet surfer’s interest is increasingly being vied for, especially in the social media world. We couldn’t exist, much less thrive as we have, without you.

I also want to thank my writers:
Maringouin
Pistolette
Lunanola
Shercole
Emofalltrades
JudyB
Nola Notes
Laura Bergerol
A.L. Mueller
and also welcome once again our newest
T. Kaupp
Liprap
Bayou Creole

Thank you all, my writing companions, for all you do for this blog. You’re the best!

We look forward to another great year here on NOLAFemmes. May you all have a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year!

Invitation to Profiling?

I’ll admit it: I’m a slacker mom about many things, among them my son’s homework.

Well, considering his attention-deficit diagnosis, I’m not as much of a slacker as I’d like to be. I’m constantly having to remind him not only to do what he wrote down in his assignment book, but to stay in one place and do it. Bribes such as the eventual watching of MythBusters episodes, Angry Birds and Bad Piggies playing time, and dessert upon the completion of homework also enter the picture…but I’ve rarely been uneasy about the subjects he covers in school.

Rarely, I say…but not never. It has come up a couple of times. And I think we’ve been about due.

First of all, head here and check out pages 107-108. Take your time. Look it over.

Yes, you all read it right. It’s asking kids for a criminal description.

Okay. It doesn’t say what the crime is. It just says you caught someone doing something illegal and you need to write down a description of the perp for the police. In that imaginary vacuum where crime is a rare occurrence, this isn’t a big whoop, you just describe somebody.

However, New Orleans is anything but a vacuum crime-wise; in fact, this assignment could well be viewed as prep for when something happens. Much as I and many other parents I know do our best to protect our kids from it out there – whether it’s locking our house and car doors tight, making sure that no valuables (or anything that may look like it could hold valuables) are within view in either place, not doing too much alone after dark, or just not watching the local news – we still can’t keep our kids from hearing about it. Crime affects us all here in one way or another. Our neighbors have had things stolen out of their yard. I had a bicycle stolen right out of my foyer last year. Hearing gunshots is not an unusual occurrence, sadly. Trust in the police is a laughable concept. And that’s just addressing the likelihood that an assignment like this will become something more.

As to the actual description of a criminal: shouldn’t it be “alleged criminal,” first off, or does that point out how farcical “innocent until proven guilty” can be? Also, there’s a little something known as profiling that happens even with the best of us. My son chose not to do this assignment and got a zero on it (even after repeated reminders from my husband all through Thanksgiving week to do it), but when he did do it the second time around (which his teacher has him do as practice), he used this episode of one of his favorite shows as inspiration. Something makes me wonder if studies have been done on what types of people 9-to-10-year-olds describe as “criminals” and why. I’m sure if we could hold that mirror up to ourselves, we wouldn’t find it funny or charming…not even if the kids wrote beautiful descriptions of the teacher as a giggle.

I asked my son’s teacher about this assignment. Was she concerned about the content the kids would be writing in their criminal descriptions? Was the content discussed at all or were the mechanics of the essays the only focus? No, this wasn’t about my son’s grade – he didn’t do the assignment and suffered the consequences: a big fat zero (if the essay had involved describing airplanes or snakes, I’m sure the little guy would’ve been ON IT.).

Her answers?

No, she wasn’t concerned.

Yes, they did discuss the content some. The teacher felt that as long as a specific crime wasn’t described, the possibility of controversial content wasn’t an issue.

Apparently, I was the first parent out of all the students in all the 4th and 5th grade classes (this assignment was given to more students than just the ones in my son’s class – it’s prep for the state exam) to raise these questions. Which made me wonder if I was just being a busybody.

An opinion from another teacher? This assignment is inappropriate.

My opinion? The fact that I’ve been the only parent to bring this stuff up definitely says something. I just wish I knew what that something was…

…and why it makes me feel sad.

when the path becomes clear

Today it happened – a burst of clarity came to me as I was reading the paper this morning. I don’t want to necessarily call it an epiphany, but instead more of a definite decision has been reached. This lucidity was then worked through as I worked out – while walking several miles this morning at the park, the details began to emerge. I got home and quickly wrote down the “road map” – the place, the time, how to traverse the journey, the contingencies on other events and taking those factors into consideration, how long it will take, and then I tacked it onto the cork board above my desk.

I am a methodical planner – I do give in to spontaneous joys, like catching a band and deciding to go ten minutes before the event, or heading out to dinner on an hour’s notice. But this, the life changing event that will eventually manifest, this takes time. Whether or not it works out remains to be seen, but I am steadfast in the decision.

This path has been a long time coming. I’ve been lost, so to speak over the past several years, accomplishing goals yet losing much, too much in the process. Its been an empty time, being stuck in limbo, not knowing what lies ahead and too emotionally broken to attempt to begin forging a new direction. I cannot tell you how hard its been, like being on a rudderless ship, going around and around in circles with the shoreline lost in the fog. Putting on a brave face to mask the internal struggles has helped getting through the day to day, that until now was like living a lie in public.

But no matter, its all going to be OK. For those of you who have gone through the same struggle, I know you can relate – it is so profoundly crushing that once the direction becomes clear, all else falls away and makes getting to that new destination that much more tolerable. I was able to find comfort in “just being” over the past few years, I knew that the future destination would eventually become evident. I can now be comforted in the fact that the compass is working and the ship is sailing. I now feel calm, daresay happier? And for those of you still stumbling in the fog, I hope it clears for you sooner than later, as it just did for me.

Assignment

“He really acted up today,” was what I’d been told the day before.

I intimated that it might be more than just post-hurricane, out-of-school-for-far-too-long restlessness to the school administrator, contrary to what my husband wanted me to say to any of the school higher-ups this year. The office assistant told me it would stay between the two of us. I hoped so.

This afternoon threatened to make that conversation the least of my and my son’s problems, though. The little guy had recovered from his rusted-out frying pan of bad behavior only to be cast into the flames of the bad behavior of his entire class. Although his day overall had been “better,” his mind latched onto the injustice of removed recess privileges (no one was quiet, no one was listening, so those were the consequences for everyone) and worried over it like a dog with a bone during the car ride from school. Initially, I wasn’t too worried, myself. This had happened a few times before the previous year and was a common complaint that he let go of once he got home.

We unlocked the door, climbed up the stairs, and, once the after-school snacks had been devoured, took a look at what was in the homework folder – “Oh, I see the behavior flow chart you had to fill out,” I said, signing it. There was a note from the school asking for payment for a small instrument for use in the kiddo’s music instruction; okay, will send a check with him to school tomorrow, I noted. “Is there anything else?” I asked.

The little guy’s face fell.

“I have to write an essay about my day,” he said sorrowfully.

I sighed. From the tone of his voice, I knew what was coming. What would normally be forgotten, dropped at the door and allowed to waft away in the early September warmth, was now etched in his brain. Attempts to get him to recall anything other than that missed recess would prove fruitless; in fact, further questions and calm admonitions to get him into a better frame of mind only made things worse. He wandered off to his room in a teary huff, looking for his own brand of calm as far away from a blank page as he could get and still be indoors, while I called my husband.

“Please kill me,” was what I wanted to say.

Instead, I poured out my frustrations to my husband and got a different kind of slow stiletto to my heart.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “I guess you can tell him to just use the pain. Write out what he’s feeling, whether it’s in his notebook or on a scrap piece of paper to get it out and clear his head so that he can write something good about his day.” That advice felt to me what I’m sure my admonitions to my son felt like to him – like boiling water on a fire out of control. Now there were two people in the house that needed calm.

After a bunch of internet games and some reading to take my mind off it all and thrive on the quiet, I gave the subject some thought. I whipped up dinner, called the kiddo to the table, and we ate together, chatting of other things. We cleared the table, and then it was make or break time.

I broached the subject again. The little guy started crying. Again.

I fought the impulse to yell in frustration, instead giving him a hug we both needed. “I know this is hard. I know this is hurting you to remember…but you know what? Sometimes, that’s where writing can help.” He sniffed, looking at me questioningly.

“You want to leave these feelings behind? You’re really sad that this assignment wasn’t more specific than ‘write about your day?’ Guess what? You can use that,” I said, warming up a little more, kicking my own recent writing frustrations into it. “Go ahead and write what you’re feeling, right here and now. Leave it on the page. Just write it all out, kiddo.” There were some more sniffles.

But he turned back to that page. He confronted its blankness, stared its taunt in the face. The pencil began to scratch the surface. The redness disappeared from his cheeks. Even though the teacher’s work was meant to get the kids to do longer pieces of writing, the little guy stood up after two sentences. “I’m done, Mom.”

Some time after the kiddo went to bed, my husband came home from his rehearsal. “How’d he do?” I was asked. I gestured to the still-open notebook on the table. Dan looked it over. “Two sentences?”

“Sometimes, that’s more than enough,” I said.

For today, it was.

where are all the men?

Isaac just blew through southeast Louisiana and southern Mississippi with a vengeance. He was cunning and wily, and decided to sit and stay for awhile, spinning over us for 60+ hours, dumping 20 or so inches of rain, swelling lakes and rivers and causing massive destruction to the electrical grid, trees, and unfortunately massive flooding to homes lying outside the federal levee protection area.

But despite the “mancane” who unleashed his fury, there has been, at least in my sphere, a serious lack of men, the human kind, to help ease the burden of dealing with the aftermath. Men working for utility companies are hindered from working because of the overarching concern for safety issues by their company’s administration. Men are driving around, alone, sightseeing and snapping pictures of the destruction with their “smartphones” instead of parking and helping an elderly man drag a tree limb out to the street. Men are conspicuously absent when the generator needs refueling in pitch black darkness with the winds howling about at 50 mph. Men are nowhere near when an elderly woman is doing her best to rake the yard of storm debris, and who instead pulls over to help her but a female contractor. Where are the men who place a nonchalant phone call to check on someone instead of getting off their butt, driving over and checking on others without having someone beg them to do so. Practically every female I know, and there are many, have no male presence putting aside his personal needs to be with them while the winds howl, and after when the gutters need to be pulled off the house, or the tree limbs need to be chainsawed off the roof.

There are many instances of bravery however. Here is an example of a group of Plaquemines Parish men, Jesse Shaffer Sr. and Jr., Lanny Lafrance, Drew Lafrance, Mitch Meyers, Roy Ially and Jimmy Kamm, all heroes, who cast aside their personal safety and braved the height of the storm to rescue 120 people flooded out with 10-12 feet of water in their homes down in Braithwaite. There are countless heroes from down in Lafitte, Barataria & Crown Point who battled the floods to save their homes and their unique way of life. Despite this, I still have noticed a void of males, a void that when the chips are down, some women are doing all the dirty work and the men skirting the fringes of these women’s lives are nowhere to be found.

In part I blame feminism. Sure feminism liberated women a generation ago, but there has been a backlash – men witnessed women becoming more independent and figure, what’s the use? I’ve never been a die-hard feminist – I recognize my physical limitations, am comfortable in the traditional female roles of cooking and cleaning, however I am very well educated and prefer a partnership in which a male partner is an equal and will stand alongside me instead of commanding me to bid his demands and looking for constant competition. Perhaps men still are stuck in the “I-need-to-save-the-damsel-in-distress” mode. It certainly seems like all or nothing to many of them.

I am exhausted from Isaac, and unfortunately this post is a reflection over the grueling events of the past 10 days. I mean no disrespect to the men out there who pulled their weight, pitched in, stood beside their women and families during the storm, and then worked alongside their women in the aftermath, you know who you are. But I suspect those who post in argument to what I write may ultimately be looking in the mirror and decide they really don’t like what they see and then lash out at this post to deflect their guilt. Bring it on…

A Tribute to a Pioneer of the NOLA Blogosphere: Ashley Morris

Photo by LisaPal

Back in the days before social media, blogging was pretty much the way people communicated, ranted, raved and commiserated in the months following The Federal Flood of 2005, also known as Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans had a vigorous and active group of bloggers and Ashley Morris was undeniably the loudest voice in the New Orleans blogosphere and one of the founding members of the Rising Tide Conference. Today is the fourth anniversary of his untimely death and Mark’s post today got me thinking of Ashley and what I wrote on my now defunct blog, Casa de Charlotte Della Luna,  when I found out about his death.

Here is an exerpt of that post with links to some of Ashley’s famous rants. A bit of NOLA blogging history. RIP, Ashley.

Thursday I opened the laptop to check my email which is where I learned of Ashley’s death.

I wish I could write good enough to make you see how much we’ve lost in his death. There just aren’t enough words and I cannot come close to writing them, still in the weak,baby lamb state that I’m in.

In the last couple of days and nights since I learned of it, I’ve dreamed of Ashley off and on in my feverish cocoon. I’ve dreamed of his wife and three small children…of how he will never see them grow up and how he will never grow old with H.

Ashley had such passion and commitment, with a rowdy, bawdy spot-on commentary that set him apart from all the rest.
I never knew anyone who had more of a fierce, burning father-love for New Orleans. Never. He commuted weekly to his job in Chicago so he could live in New Orleans. He was a loyal and outspoken fan of The New Orleans Saints and I daresay never missed a home game. He was an advocate for displaced musicians after The Flood. He raised his voice and beat his drum in the people’s march against violence back in January ’07. I was honored to be in that march with him and all the other Nola bloggers. And he kicked Ray-Ray’s butt up down and all around until the day he died. Huzzah!
Ashley was a fighter, a doer, a warrior, a ranter extraordinaire and an inspiration to us all.

Varg said about Ash: “He detested all things snooty or uppity.”
That observation is so very true and one of the things Ash and I had in common. I have, at times, earned myself the reputation of being, shall we say, too blunt. My bluntness is especially pronounced when I perceive “snooty or uppity” behaviour. On several occasions Ash emailed me and encouraged me to speak my mind, reminding me that I had the same right as anyone else to do so. Yes, we had our conversations and they are a big part of why I love Ash. He wasn’t a kinda-sorta “when I have time” friend. He was the real deal. Even if it was mainly an online friendship, as ours was.

Ashley has left a proud and colorful legacy to his three children. They will know their father was a true patriot of New Orleans, a well-loved and respected man.