Writers at Rutgers Reading Series »


by Evie Shockley


Gulf Coast Poets

November 15, 2006

We are just a couple of months past the anniversary of one of the most devastating catastrophes in American history—Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath—and our gathering this evening shows that we have not forgotten so quickly what this nation lost. We are here to remember a region demolished, a city destroyed. We are here to remember that the floods washed away thousands of lives and, what’s more, a way of life. The Gulf Coast may not be in the headlines every day anymore, but we know that’s not because there’s no news. There is a lot of work to be done to recreate New Orleans, to put the people of that city and the Gulf Coast region back on both feet.

But before we do that, we are going to feed our souls and our brains with some of the best writing that the Gulf Coast has to offer—and, given the creatively charged gumbo of African, French, Spanish, and Anglo cultures that has stewed in the bayous and deltas under steamy southern suns for the last couple hundred years, that’s saying a lot! So prepare your minds for literary language—words that are ramped up, shaken up, amplified, inverted, dressed in costume or stripped to the bone, and told to “go play.” Words intended to make you feel something, to make you see something, to make you think something, to re-make you.

I’m going to get things started by reading a few poems from my new book, a half-red sea, so that when our guests—Selah Saterstrom, Kalamu ya Salaam, and Brenda Marie Osbey—come up to the microphone, you’ll be ready to go wherever they take you! Now, don’t be misled—I’m not a Gulf Coast poet, as much as I might wish I’d had the pleasure of living in New Orleans somewhere along the road that brought me here to New Jersey. But I claim kin with the spirit of New Orleans and its people, and I hope my voice won’t sound too out of place among these others.

The poems I’ve selected to read are not all about the Gulf Coast or the hurricane, though one is. Rather, I’ve selected poems that relate thematically to the things I think about when I think about New Orleans and Katrina. The first is a meditation on race and cities:

elocation (or, exit us)

  the city is american, so she
can map it. train tracks, highways slice through, bleed
  only to one side. like a half-red sea
permanently parted, the middle she’d

  pass through, like the rest, in a wheeling rush,
afraid the divide would not hold and all
  would drown—city as almighty ambush—
beneath the crashing waves of human hell.

  the city’s infra(red)structure sweats her,
a land(e)scape she can’t make, though she knows
  the way. she’s got great heart, but that gets her
where? egypt’s always on her right (it goes

  where she goes), canaan’s always just a-head,
and to her left, land of the bloodless dead.

Salah Saterstrom

I was introduced to Selah Saterstrom and her work about a year ago, at the North Carolina Writers conference. I had the pleasure of hearing her read from her book The Pink Institution. In a deceptively quiet voice, she gave us a tale about a young girl, an eraser, and God. I won’t try to explain the relationship between these three—I can’t do it justice and I hope you’ll seek out the story yourself—but what I came away with was a real sense of awe. Saterstrom took a fairly mundane item and a fairly uneventful plot and, by using stunningly precise language to capture this little moment in the world through the eyes of a young girl, somehow produced a powerful meditation on the meaning and location of God that left me reeling. The pressure she puts on language makes diamonds out of coal.

Saterstrom is also the author of The Meat & Spirit Plan. Her work has appeared in Cranbrook Magazine, 14 Hills, Tarpaulin Sky, and The American Book Review. Her education at the undergraduate and master’s level was in theology, which she studied in her native Mississippi and at the University of Glasgow. She went on to earn an MFA from Goddard College (which makes her the perfect person to write a captivating story about an eraser and God). She has been the Case Writer-In-Residence for Western Illinois University and Artist-In-Residence at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She currently lives in Denver where she is an assistant professor in the creative writing program at the University of Denver.

Kalamu ya Salaam

Kalamu ya Salaam is not simply a writer, but an arts institution in himself. A native New Orleanian, he was a key player in the Black Arts Movement’s southern incarnation, along with his mentor, the late Tom Dent. Following Dent’s lead, Salaam has been founding and nurturing arts organizations in the black community for years. He is a co-founder (with Kysha Brown) of Runagate Multimedia publishing company, the founder and director of the Neo-Griot Workshop, a New Orleans-based black writers workshop, and the moderator of e-drum, a listserv of over 1600 black writers and supporters of literature. He and his son Mtume ya Salaam operate Breath of Life, a website devoted to black music. He is co-director of Students at the Center, a writing program in the New Orleans public schools. The list of places he has traveled with his work—from Korea to Ghana, from Guadeloupe to Germany, from Cuba to China—is staggering.

His most recent publications include the anthologies From a Bend in the River: 100 New Orleans Poets and 360: A Revolution of Black Poets, and the spoken word CD My Story, My Song. I had a chance to hear him read his poetry at the Furious Flower Poetry Festival a couple of years ago, and was deeply invigorated not only by the power of his voice, but also by the quality of thinking that his language displays. In his Katrina Reports, essays that he sends out on e-drum to chronicle life in post-Katrina New Orleans, he consistently probes at the most sensitive issues. He has written about how we define love across religious difference, about not taking our nearest and dearest people for granted when the world has turned upside down, and about the need to nurture ourselves in times of crisis so that we can maintain the energy to do for others all that we want to do.

Brenda Marie Osbey

Brenda Marie Osbey is the Poet Laureate of Louisiana and the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Academy of American Poets Loring-Williams Prize, and the Associated Writing Programs Poetry Award. Most recently, she held a fellowship from the Camargo Foundation, which enabled her to spend the spring of 2004 in Cassis, France working on what will be the first Afro-francophone book by a New Orleanian since 1845. She has taught literature and creative writing at Tulane University and UCLA, and was on the faculty of Dillard University at the time of the flood. She has since taught at Louisiana State University. Her books include In These Houses, Desperate Circumstance, Dangerous Woman, and All Saints: New and Selected Poems, winner of the 1998 American Book Award.

Osbey has an incredibly resonant and musical voice; she can create a mental picture, a mood, a scene so vivid that you’d imagine you could touch it; she is a historian of New Orleans culture. But Osbey’s poems walk the line of danger. They recall dangerous people; they wield dangerous words. Her work will speak to you of the familiar in ways that make it strange; it will speak to you of the unfamiliar in terms that you know you’ve heard before. She inhabits the figures in her poems, and makes the phenomenally distant Nina Simone as knowable as the supposedly ordinary women who inhabited the streets of the Faubourg Trémé. Take nothing for granted, her poems teach us, and mind your rituals. Reading Osbey’s work, we learn how to mourn New Orleans properly and how to keep it alive.

January 3, 2007

I find it difficult, now, to recap what our guests presented, in part because I generally don’t believe in treating poetry as if it can be paraphrased, and in part because the event was so powerful that it was, in a sense, ineffable. But if I were to gesture toward what stood out for me about each of their readings, in a word, I would say of Selah Saterstrom: repetition—the repetition of words and phrases in her text reminding us of the painful redundancy of water in the Gulf Coast, historically and during the crisis, and the repetition of empty promises made by the government to the people who survived Katrina; of Kalamu ya Salaam: body—his highly embodied performance style insisting that we think not only of the loss of property and opportunity caused by Katrina, but also of the very psychosomatic trauma of living through the hurricane and its aftermath; and of Brenda Marie Osbey: memory—her words sounding an incantation designed to etch into our minds the scenes, people, and rituals of the New Orleans that dissolved in Katrina’s floodwaters, because we cannot afford to let them also sink into the mud of forgetfulness.

I’m deeply grateful to the English department—especially Carolyn Williams, who coordinates the Writers at Rutgers Reading Series with great vision; Rick H. Lee, who makes it all actually happen; and our acting chair, Kate Flint, who supported this event enthusiastically. The support of the Committee to Advance Our Common Purposes (represented by Cheryl Clarke) and the Rutgers College Office of Student Development and College Affairs (represented by Lori Smith) helped to bring this very important event to fruition. Not only did we raise hundreds of dollars for the Twenty-First Century Foundation, which will distribute our donations along with those of many others to grassroots organizations working to rebuild the Gulf Coast and the lives of its people, but we also raised awareness on campus of the continuing importance of this situation. It is far from resolved and we still have not learned the lessons it has to offer us.


Editor’s Note: This benefit reading took place on November 15, 2006. Held in the Rutgers Student Center, the reading drew a crowd of 100 people and raised close to $800 for the Twenty-First Century Foundation’s Hurricane Katrina relief fund. Evie Shockley delivered a version of these introductory remarks at the reading and appended some reflections earlier this year.

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