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South of 90 October 28, 2012

Posted by The Typist in books, New Orleans, Odd Words, Poetry, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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Martha Serpas holds enough degrees in creative writing to sketch the outline of a novel on and a Master of Divinity from Yale. She has a preface by Harold Bloom in her first book of poems. She explains the title of a new poem “The Diener,” a word with a German root meaning servant and applied to the person who runs the hospital morgue. The title stumped Bloom, the sort of accomplishment you want in your obituary, like the drummer acquaintance I had in DC who visited New Orleans with The Nighthawks for several months in the 1980s and was introduced by Zigaboo Modaliste to his table at Dookie Chase as a “bad motherfuckin’ drummer.” If I ever find my provincial ass trapped in a Manhattan cocktail party, I want to arrive with Martha and Maud Newton. They can dump me at the door, as long as I can nod my head toward them across the room and say, I came with Martha and Maud.

She surveys the small room of poetry readers at the Louisiana Book Festival with a leonine calm, exudes a gentle accessibility and level headedness necessary to someone who volunteers as a hospital trauma chaplain. She was born in Galliano and attended LSU and the University of Houston. She spent enough time at NYU and in New Haven to attract luminaries such as Bloom but also taught at the University of Tampa and now in Houston, and prefers to describe herself as “from the Gulf Coast.” You sense that beneath the sheepskins is a girl from Galliano done good, can easily see her standing at the saw horse table peeling shrimp, a brown long neck at her elbow, someone from the only place on earth you can stand south of ninety.

Her love for her home south of Highway 90 comes bubbling out when talks about a film project A Vein in the Gulf, which resulted from the idea of her friend Elizabeth Coffman than they take a van full of film students and poets to the Louisiana coast to document the impact of wetlands loss. There is also a natural, Catholic-school modesty when she speaks of writing about Lafourche Parish, especially after what she calls “the big event” of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. “I struggled just writing about my home town,” she said of her first book of poems, Côte Blanche, the one with a preface by Bloom. “Who am I to write these poems about these folk and these places?” After the storm, she came to a realization with the help of friends. “If [I] don’t write it, if I don’t take that platform how does that help the people I love and the place I love . . . well, maybe one person will understand the culture, appreciate the culture, can be moved by the culture [then] why would I not want to reach that one person?”

It is in that conversation that she drops the bomb that leaves me flabbergasted, the acknowledgment most folks north of 90 have not yet admitted to. “We have to keep trying to save [the wetlands] even though we know it’s impossible to save it. It’s too late.” I have read the literature of coastal loss since I was a weekly newspaper editor in St. Bernard Parish in the 1980s, insist to everyone I know that they must read Mike Tidwell’s story of the slow holocaust on the coast Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast but few people are willing to speak that truth aloud. “It’s too late.”

At the end of the interview I ask her if she finds some confluence between her work as a trauma chaplain and writing about Lafourche, “The first image that popped into my mind is when I visit a patient that is dying, what we would call the death watch, and people look at the monitors as if that is going to tell us anything in terms of how long that process will take, and we’re all there…the family…most people want to be there. That is what flashed through my head when you say that. It’s death, and its beautiful. Even the destruction of the wetlands is beautiful because something will come out of it, some life will come out of it even though … I can’t see it. I don’t see anything life-giving come out of it even as I know intellectually that something will.”

I know at the end of the interview that Côte Blanche is the first of the stack of books I brought home I will want to read, and that I need to see A Vein in the Gulf. Interviewer Julie Kane, the poet laureate of Louisiana, concluded my question and the author’s answer with a quotation from an author whose name neither I nor my record catch, that “all poetry is elegy.” As I pack up to leave the room, I think that the hurricane coast may have found its elegist. She prefaces her answer to my question with a quote from rabbi I can’t quite make out on the recording: “You are not required to complete the work nor are you free to desist from it.” If not their elegist, the people of Lafourche and the whole coast have certainly found their chaplain.

Podcast: Martha Serpas with Julie Kane – Louisiana Book Festival 2012

Odd Words: The Louisiana Book Festival November 7, 2011

Posted by The Typist in books, literature, New Orleans, Odd Words, Poetry, Toulouse Street.
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This piece will also appear on NolaVie.com
We might as well begin the way noted humorist and author Roy Blount, Jr., started his interview with Louisiana Writer Award winner James Wilcox: “This probably should go really badly.”

Trying to cover all of the Louisiana Book Festival is as hopeless as trying to see every artist, visit every vendor and food booth you would like on a single day at Jazz Fest. There is simply too much to choose from and only so much time. The “cubes” for this year’s one day Festival covered two pages. There were 228 featured authors, 112 literary events, five films, a cooking tent, children’s events and a tent hosting a writing program for school age children as well as a music stage in back. All of this was spread out between the State Capitol Building, the Louisiana State Library and Museum. The grassy mall between those buildings was covered with 86 vendor tables featuring Louisiana publishers, independent authors and a dozen tents. “A comeback year,” is how State Librarian Rebecca Hamilton described this year’s festival, and from all those numbers it returned in a big way.

The only way to successfully enjoy such a packed day is to pick your highlights, and stop in at as many other venues, tents and vendors as luck places along your route. If you are going to choose a ‘Big Event’ to peg the rest of your day to, what better choice could there be than an interview with the festival’s Louisiana Writer Award winner James Wilcox conducted by Roy Blount, Jr.? If vaudeville were ever revived and Blount decided to take his act to the stage, he could not find a better straight man than Hammond, La. born Wilcox, a graduate of Yale and a Guggenheim Fellow who has written nine powerfully comic novels of his own.

“There is something about talking to James Wilcox that is really daunting. This probably should go really badly,” Blount opened his conversation with Wilcox, “because conversations in Jim’s books always go off the tracks. If this were a conversation in one of Jim’s books one of us would have far too little will power and the other far too much, we would both be talking past each other and we would each have a completely erroneous notion of each other which we would be depending on relentlessly, and it would just go way off the tracks, get gloriously incommunicative. And yet somehow Jim or the Great Spirit or somebody would cause this conversation, over the course of the novel, to come to this startling fruition.”

Blount’s prognostication held perfectly true as they ranged over Wilcox’s career. Blount picked aspects of particular books to ask Wilcox comically odd and perfect questions. They touched on his time in New York as an associate editor at Random House and Doubleday, but focused on an anecdote of how the starting junior associate was robbed of a tooth at gun point.

Asked if they thought Southern writers tended toward the very dark (William Faulkner and William Styron) or the comic (Blount, Wilcox, Flannery O’Conner, Rick Bragg), Blount quickly jumped in first: “I think almost all considerable southern writers were funny. Faulkner was funny. And a lot of people refer to Jim as a ‘dark minded Southern writer.’ I argue that Southern writers are all funny. That’s one of the things about southern literature. It mixes darkness and light.”

Wilcox agreed. “Flannery O’Conner… tracing her literary heritage…found herself a literary descendent of Nathaniel Hawthorne, rather than that upbeat [Ralph Waldo] Emerson that [prominent critic Harold] Bloom puts at the center of the American cannon. Everybody else, he has said, is either Emersonian or reacting against Emerson such as Melville or Hawthorne. I think many popular writers and non-Southern writers are Emersonian. They have sensible characters who get in trouble but they’re sensible thinking people. And you don’t find that in [Southern writers].”

As predicted, Blount’s questions and Wilcox answers were as funny as both men’s published work, with Blount insisting at first that Wilcox was a junior (he is not, but shares his father’s first name) and how that experience impacted his characters. They romped through an explanation of why one Wilcox novel is titled Miss Undine’s Living Room when the nominal protagonist is Mrs. Undine, and an exploration of Wilcox’s frequent references to scripture, and how his own upbringing—raised Catholic and once serving as the president of his parish CYO, while playing the organ in his father’s Methodist church—affected his characters.

The other link in my day’s chain of hurrying around the Capitol grounds was to stop into the presentation by photographer and author Lori Waselchuck on her award-winning photo-documentary Grace Before Dying, which chronicles the prisoner-run hospice program at Angola State Penitentiary. Cycling through projections on screens in the room of photographs from the book, she recounted her multiyear journey to chronicle the volunteers who, after doing their 40-hour-a-week prison jobs, make time to care for their dying fellow inmates.

There were gut wrenching photos of the prisoner patients, including one named “Hal” who had spent years in lock down, 23 hours a day alone in a room. Waselchuck captured a smiling Hal and his laughing child interacting through the tiny feeding slot in his cell door, and one photograph captured late in Hal’s life when a security guard relented and allowed his daughters in, so Waselchuck could take one quick family photo of the only physical contact he had with his children in decades.

“Touch in prison is completely frightening because of the lack between trust of people,” Waselchuck explained, and was especially difficult for prisoners who had spent extended time in lockdown without having touched or been touched by another human being for decades. Hospice care requires that the volunteers assist their wards with the simplest tasks such as going to the bathroom and bathing them.

Waselchuck recounted the tale of one prisoner named Charles who had spent over two decades in solitary confinement. “He would not let them touch him. He couldn’t stand on his own and his volunteers tried to take him to the bathroom and they had to let him fall and when they tried to pick him up he would fight them. He was a survivor of confinement and couldn’t stand it. Charles has one of my favorite quotes in the book: ‘Love is a monster. Love is a big old monster’.”

Her photographs included quilts the hospice workers made to fund their program, selling or raffling them at the annual Angola rodeo, which grew out of quilts and pillows they made for their patients. One depicted an elegant, fit-for-royalty horse-drawn carriage hearse, a marvel of polished black wood and gleaming metal trim, built in the Angola carpentry shop. Another showed the special shroud the prisoners made of burgundy velvet, decorated with glitter and lined with lace and satin, that they used to cover the body bag as their patients made their last trip through the corridors of the prison.

Outside of a few key sessions, I spent much of my day visiting with authors in the hallways as they hurried to their own events or those they hoped to catch, snapping photos for the Odd Words collection in Facebook, and by visiting as many of the publishers’ tables as possible. Swearing to buy no more books than would fit in my small shoulder bag, I succeeded only because the book I most wanted— Waselchuck‘s Grace Before Dying—would not fit (and because I am not terribly fond of mass-market bookstores, and it was only available in the Barnes and Noble tent).

Following my personal taste, I began the day with readings by Louisiana poets selected by the state’s new Poet Laureate Julie Kane and ended it with a tribute to New Orleans poet, editor and publisher Maxine Cassin, who passed away in Baton Rouge in March, 2010, a refugee of Katrina. Given the sad state of American poetry, a genre with an audience consisting largely of other poets, these were not the biggest events of the day but were among the most moving. The readers selected by Kane showed an amazing range of powerful voices and against the backdrop of such a large festival demonstrated the strength of this garde arrière of the Louisiana literary scene. The tribute to Cassin, attended by Kane and past Poet Laureate Darrell Bourque included readings by her colleagues, portions of a recorded interview and ended touchingly with her son Dan Cassin—a cellist with the Baton Rouge Symphony—playing a melancholy passage of Beethoven. Listening and looking out over the green Capitol grounds toward the river, it was a good way to end the day.

Mark Folse is a contributer to NolaVie, an author, editor or contributor to several anthologies of essays, as well as a poet. He publishes the weekly Odd Words listing of literary and book events in New Orleans, which just reached its 100th entry in two years, every Thursday on his blog ToulouseStreet.net. He can be reached at odd.words.nola@gmail.com.

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