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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