NOLA BOOK AND LITERARY NEWS

from Nathan C. Martin and Friends.
Aside from presenting mostly mediocre stories, Storyville could also use a more original name.
Aside from presenting mostly mediocre stories, Storyville could also use a more original name.

By Taylor Murrow

Storyville, for those who don’t know, was a regulated vice district (brothels, gambling, booze—the whole shebang) at the edge of the French Quarter in the early 20th century. It was shut down in 1917, but was memorialized in photographs by E.J. Bellocq and has made its footprint on the city’s cultural legacy. It’s one of the many eccentricities of New Orleans that are celebrated despite (or because of) their off-color history.

Today, the name Storyville lives on in a variety of local manifestations—an apparel company that prints New Orleans-themed clothes, a film production company housed in a historic manor, a hotel on Esplanade Avenue, an old-timey brass band, a 1992 film starring Galyn Gorg and James Spader, and, most recently, a new program on New Orleans’ NPR affiliate station, WWNO, that features creative nonfiction MFA students from the University of New Orleans reading their stories about the city.

The first Storyville episode aired last fall. Called “The District,” it summarizes the history of that notorious neighborhood and notes its legacy as a place where jazz flourished with the likes of Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong. However, author Robin Baudier also acknowledges that there was an inherent dark side to Storyville. “People were pushed to this periphery of society because of their race, class, or profession, and there are dark stories to be told about their lives,” she writes.

Public radio would have been an ideal venue to share those stories. Unfortunately, we don’t hear them on Storyville.

To date, the show has featured audio essays that run the tired gamut from navel-gazing by a new high school teacher (who seems a bit taken aback to discover that teaching involves selflessness) to a description of a Mardi Gras parade full of “misfits, poets, lunatics, artists and general quirks” (who knew?!) to a woman who moved here so recently she wrote an essay about visiting the city with her father years ago (and eating at Antoine’s and drinking at the Carousel Bar). This last example is not to hate on transplants, but there’s something wrong with providing a person a broad public platform and asking them to share something insightful about a city they know nothing about to an audience that knows a lot about the city—particularly when there are so many voices that have valuable insight that never get the privilege of being broadcast.

New Orleans breeds stories and storytellers. In coffee shops, bars, grocery stores across town, there are storytellers sharing their own personal recollections of New Orleans, past and present. The difference between these stories and the ones on Storyville is, of course, that Storyville is transmitted into cars, homes, and businesses all across the state. The significant platform this medium provides carries a certain amount of responsibility. People tune into WWNO and expect to be informed, or maybe entertained. Local storytelling programming doesn’t have to be hard-hitting journalism, but it should encourage listeners to examine their surroundings with fresh perspectives. WWNO’s listenership crosses eleven parishes and reaches 1.5 million people. When that many people are listening, you need to steer the conversation to more thoughtful terrain.

The view from Storyville contributor Woodlief Thomas’ porch. Thomas’ essay “Hollerin’” is one of the better pieces produced by the show.

But not all the stories are without merit. A few seconds into “Hollerin’,” it seemed like it would be another worn-out ode to New Orleans colloquialisms like “makin’ groceries” or “where y’at.” In this episode, author Woodlief Thomas describes another defining staple of New Orleans culture: residents who make a neighborhood feel like home, who ask you how you’re doing and really want to know the answer. Those of us who live here know that this sense of community is what separates life in New Orleans from bustling metropolitan areas. The warmth and congeniality Thomas ascribes to his former neighbors—some of whom were priced out of their homes, others who have passed away—is palpable. In some ways “Hollerin’” is another ode, but it’s a bit sad, hopeful, and at least urges the listener to consider the very real factors that shift the social dynamics of a region, when the “stoopsitters” and “hollerers” are no longer a part of that cultural space. “Listen, man,” Thomas says. “There’s new folks coming in.”

New Orleans loves to talk about New Orleans, which is just fine. But planting an occasional critical eye on the things that make the city great is a healthy part of that adoration, too. Sure, people want to hear stories, but they should say something new, something memorable, approach a topic from an angle that few may have considered. There are a lot of stories to be heard about this city, and with wide listenership like WWNO’s at your disposal, you’d better make your mark.

The recently aired “A Moveable Race” was a refreshing step in the right direction. Written and read by Lacar Musgrove, it touches on the history of bicycle racing in New Orleans in the late 19th century. By centering on one race between two men, C.B. Guillotte and A.M. Hill, Musgrove paints a lively, burgeoning moment in New Orleans history that doesn’t read like a Wikipedia entry. Her account is well-written and sounds great on the radio and will likely have people who have never given bicycle racing in New Orleans a second thought running searches on Google after hearing her story.

It’s encouraging to have a major media outlet like WWNO support local writers and students—the MFA creative writing program at UNO is the only one in the city. However, with that platform comes an important opportunity for writers to offer something a little challenging to the conversation about New Orleans. There are moments in Storyville that scratch the surface, but New Orleans is a unique, nuanced city that both embodies and defies stereotype. Let Storyville the t-shirt company handle the clichés. Storyville the radio program should attempt to transcend them.

Lazar - immigrant

By Engram Wilkinson

I’m waiting along Esplanade Avenue when Zachary Lazar motors up on his scooter. He unfastens his helmet, deploys a kick-stand, and after killing the engine uses the same key to open a compartment under the seat in which he stores the helmet. I’m told to wait before we talk in earnest because he’ll be right back—he just wants to order a yogurt parfait. After I balk at him, he assures me they are really addictive.

The subjects of his latest novel, I Pity the Poor Immigrant, might compel a reader to imagine Lazar as a novelist who operates a larger or flashier vehicle or as a man who orders much more than a fruit-capped parfait. In trying to conjure in my mind the man or woman I might expect at first sight to deftly write a novel concerned with infamous gangster Meyer Lansky, the mafia, a murdered poet, King David, and forged furniture, I fail. Lazar emerges from the coffee shop, leaning into his steps as he takes them, and we hold a conversation that confirms my new suspicion that I Pity the Poor Immigrant, like its denim-jacketed author, defies straightforward characterization.

Lazar will present his new book at a Happy Hour Salon hosted by Room 220 from 6 – 9 p.m. on Thursday, April 24, at the Press Street HQ (3718 St. Claude Ave.). The evening will also feature a reading by Daniel Castro.

Room 220: How is I Pity the Poor Immigrant interested in interrogating what “a novel” is? Your book moves within itself between “fiction” and “nonfiction” and deals with historical figures. How does it compel us to rethink what a novel could or should look like?

Zachary Lazar: I want all my novels to help us rethink that, because I think novels can be so many different things. Reading novels, I’m bored when I notice the machinery too much, when I feel that the technique is too familiar and stale. I always try to invent that new way—or new something—but to also make sure my work has narrative drive. There’s a long, fake essay in the book, for instance—the kind you might find in a periodical—that wouldn’t usually have a narrative drive, and it was a fun experiment to turn that form into narrative form. I like to play around with form.

Rm220: That’s all great, but let’s pretend I’m a particular kind of literary critic, someone with a particular understanding of what a novel can or should be, and I say to you, “Zach, this novel has pictures in it. More than that, or in relationship to that, it moves all over its own chronology and is composed of fragments.” There’s also this order imposed from the outside onto the book: it’s a sectioned with obvious divisions. How does one reconcile this larger structure with the micro-level seams we, as readers, see bursting? There’s not much effort to conceal them, but they seem to relate to how the book takes shape. Could you talk about all of this? And the pictures, maybe?

ZL: The pictures are a weird foregrounding of how artificial this book is. I highlight that artifice with real photographs I took. I think all of this comes from a long time ago when I was on a Nabakov kick, and how intrigued I was by the way he creates these fictions, these very convincing fictions, and then pokes holes in them, as if to say “Wait, I’m making this up. I’ve seduced you into dreaming this dream, but this dream is a dream.” I like going back and forth between seduction and shaking the reader out of it, then seducing them again. I like the use of fragments, which give it a mosaic quality and a jaggedness.

An image from I PITY THE POOR IMMIGRANT: The “battlefield” where, allegedly, David fought Goliath (photo by Zachary Lazar)

Rm220: What do you think are the more seductive parts of this novel, the historical parts that move backwards in time, or the more contemporary parts? Which did you intend to be more seductive to a reader in 2014?

ZL: I learned in writing this novel that my imagination has a sweet spot, which doesn’t extend back past the 1950s. Scenes before that were the hardest to write. I think what accounts for any seductiveness is the deliberate noir quality across the whole book, whether in Israel now or New York City in 1929.

Rm220: One character remarks early in the novel that something is “an effort of imagination.” You’re talking about exerting effort to write scenes before 1950. Was it more difficult to produce certain parts of this book you didn’t feel innately comfortable writing about, or to create a tone in which they might be brought together?

ZL: This is the hardest novel I’ve ever had to write. I write it in pieces, some easier than others, and some were dead in the water. I had to cut away the flabby parts—the parts that were not very lively—see what was left, and go back and make bridges between what survived. I’m always thinking story, story, story, especially with a novel as fragmented as this one, and using romantic relationships, violence, and sex to make connections.

Rm220: You’re probably tired of talking about violence and this novel.

ZL: I’m not usually asked about it because I talk about it voluntarily. Violence has been the subject of my last three novels. It’s not a subject I thought I would write about or specialize in, but you don’t get to choose what you’re good at, and if you’re lucky you’re good at something. I don’t write about violence the way, say, Cormac McCarthy does—with that kind of virtuosic exactitude in his descriptions of it. Instead, I’m into the psychology of violence, rendering it in a way that is visceral. I’m not a violent person, really.

Rm220: Good to know. This talk about violence makes me think of Elizabeth Costello, when Elizabeth realizes some things are so evil they absolutely shouldn’t be written about, that they’re beyond being rendered, and that we have a moral obligation to lock these moments in a cellar door and let them rot. You’re talking about violence, and a novel with photos of a slain gangster shot through the eye. How does this idea about what we are or aren’t obligated—or allowed—to render help us understand the historical players in your novel?

ZL: There’s a certain energy you can capitalize on by romanticizing violence, but I want to de-romanticize it. You can see Bugsy Siegel with a blown-up face, but that doesn’t have much shock value any more. Which, you know—that was a real human face. I think violence is very narrative and dramatic, and as a writer I am deliberately capitalizing on that, which could be morally dubious, but that’s the game: doing it and thinking about it and controlling it somehow and finding something to say.

Rm220: The photographs in this novel might offer an operative logic for thinking about the way acts of violence, romanticized or not, fuel the narrative drive: They either expose the novel as a failed attempt to re-present history or they puncture the narrative to prove they’re worthless without something that can explain or properly frame them. Photographs have frames of their own. With that in mind, how can we think about the relationship between violence and truth, or fiction and non-fiction, in your book?

ZL: The photos, that’s coming out of Sebald. Other people used images before him, but he was king. He would have photographs that were haunting or flat—

Rm220: Like a tennis court in The Emigrants

ZL: Right. Without the text around the tennis court, it would have no resonance at all. Photos as a counterpoint to text can be really interesting, though. Some people in the editorial process to makeI Pity the Poor Immigrantthought the photos were bad, but that makes them especially useful. My writing is unpixelated. It’s supposed to be clear and kind of diamond-edged. I think my photos—

Rm220: The ones of buildings in your novel, of grey buildings …

ZL: I went to great pains and was excited to take them. They’re almost like tombstones, these pictures of Lansky’s apartment building in Tel Aviv. They’re bleak-seeming in the book, but if you saw the building in reality, it’s not bleak at all. The images juxtapose, or create, a sort of portal to the afterlife without human faces.

An image from I PITY THE POOR IMMIGRANT: Meyer Lansky’s apartment building (photo by Zachary Lazar)

Rm220: You describe your writing in the language of optics—as unpixelated, for instance. Hannah, the American journalist in the book, early on talks about magnifying and diminishing something, which is a paradox. You’re describing the paradox that your narrative leaps and photos enact: they’re counter-positioning your subjects into magnification and diminishment. This reminds me of Joyce’s notion of parallax in Ulysses—you take a bunch of narrators and points of view, put them in an atom smasher and see what happens. I guess the results must be untidy.

ZL: One the threads in this is the story of King David in the Bible, which moves back and forth between mythologizing and diminishing. There are these moments when King David is very mythic and then scenes where he taking a piss in the cave. I think with this book I was using figures that are magnified and diminished and, accordingly, real at the same time.

Rm220: I mentioned Ulysses, but this novel also makes me think about Odysseus. Your characters are taking literal and spiritual journeys throughout the novel, with each realizing in some way that home might not always be where he or she thought it was. Could you talk about ways this novel makes new the idea of a journey?

ZL: At the root of all of this is what to do with Meyer Lansky as a character. I read all I could find about him, and it wasn’t very interesting. What interested me was that he wanted to go back to Israel after Israel kicked him out—he didn’t have a practical reason to go back, but he still wanted to go for something other than practical concerns. He was an immigrant originally from the Russian Empire, what’s now Belarus—a perennially homeless fellow. I feel that way myself. I guess that’s what it means to be alive.

Rm220: Is feeling homeless a prerequisite for being alive, or a condition—a symptom—of having lived?

ZL: What I said is not true, probably, or is just true of people in modern cultures, for whom the old foundations are no longer tenable. For some people they are, I guess, but we all grow up with cultural foundations that aren’t much use later in life, which makes you feel a sense of lack. That’s what’s going on with every major character in my book.

Rm220: The title strikes me as redundant: pitying someone who is already poor who is an immigrant—that comes at you all at once. It made me think of this William Stafford line: “Why tell what hurts?” This is a novel about all kinds of people who do or don’t share circumstances and who have revealed to them all sorts of pitiable, painful things. What resolution could your novel offer Stafford? One character thinks “Kid Bethlehem,” the aforementioned non-fiction essay with narrative drive, is not so much an answer but a space in which a question can be posed. All this question-asking, confiding, undermining in your book—how does that relate to hurt?

ZL: Got your pen out? I just pulled up this Zbigniew Herbert poem that has the line: “Ignorance of the disappeared undermines the reality of the world.” That’s very profound, and suggests, to me, that writing about what hurts means you’re writing to try and resuscitate the urgency of people’s lives who are no longer with us. By doing that, you give value to everyone’s life.

Rm220: You might say narrative drive can have an inherently ethical dimension in that way.

ZL: I think that’s an idealistic thing to say, but I believe it. To make something valuable, though, you have to interrogate the shit out of it. It’s too easy to hold up beautiful language and pat yourself on the back for doing this noble thing. You have to interrogate a story every step of the way. If you do that, there’s a chance you’re doing it right.

 

Byrd - Crescent City

Local author Taymika G. Byrd will present and sign copies of her new book, Crescent City Connection, during an event from 4 – 8 p.m. on Saturday, April 19, at the Community Book Center (2523 Bayou Road).

Crescent City Connection follows a young protagonist through the milieu of Mardi Gras and the traumatic and terrifying spiral she’s sent down after being sexually assaulted during the festival. The closeness with which the narrative cleaves to the psychological nightmare Byrd’s protagonist experiences—as well as the day-to-day nightmare that continues with the persistent advances of her attacker afterward—makes the book a harrowing meditation on sexual violence and its effects. Crescent City Connection is meant to be both a literary work and a means of spreading awareness about sexual violence in New Orleans. Byrd, who recently appeared on WYLD Radio’s Sunday Journal to discuss the book and sexual violence (the audio isn’t up yet; be patient), will donate proceeds from sales of Crescent City Connection to Crescent House, an organization that provides safe space, counseling, and legal assistance for women survivors of abuse and their children.

Sarah Vowell at Tulane April 16

posted Apr 14, 2014

Vowell makes “air quotes” on the Late Show with David Letterman

Best-selling author and media personality Sarah Vowell will give a presentation of her work at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, April 16, in the Freeman Auditorium in the Woldenburg Art Center on Tulane University’s campus.

Vowell, whose books often present U.S. histories infused with her irreverent comedy, is the author most recently of Unfamiliar Fishes, which the New York Times called “a whiplash study of the Americanization of Hawaii and the events leading to its annexation. Its scintillating cast includes dour missionaries, genital-worshiping heathens, Teddy Roosevelt, incestuous royalty, a nutty Mormon, a much-too-­merry monarch, President Obama, sugar barons, an imprisoned queen and Vowell herself, in a kind of 50th-state variety show.” She is also the author of, among other books, The Wordy Shipmates and Assassination Vacation, she was a contributing editor to This American Life, and she was one of the original contributors to McSweeney’s.

While many have leveled criticisms at Vowell’s writing, few deny that she’s an entertaining and engaging live performer, her voice fine-tuned over many years on the radio (she also voice-acted in The Incredibles).

The event is free and open to the public.

Room 220 Presents: A Happy Hour Salon with Zachary Lazar and Daniel Castro

EVENT: Thursday April 24, 6:00pm - 9:00pm
@ Press Street HQ (3718 St. Claude Ave.)
Lazar and Castro
Lazar and Castro

Join Room 220 for a Happy Hour Salon with local authors Zachary Lazar and Daniel Castro from 6 – 9 p.m. on Thursday, April 24, at the Press Street HQ (3718 St. Claude Ave.). The event will celebrate the release of Lazar’s new novel, I Pity the Poor Immigrant.

I Pity the Poor Immigrant is Lazar’s third novel. It uses notorious gangster Meyer Lansky as a pivot point around which mobsters, journalists, and a seedy cast of characters run circles, darting back and forth between past and present, Israel and the United States, fiction and “reality.” Room 220 will feature an interview with Lazar soon about the book, conducted by Engram Wilkinson, but until then you can read profiles in the Times-Picayune and the Los Angeles Times. Publishers Weekly called I Pity the Poor Immigrant “an interesting and challenging novel,” while Kirkus Review said the intricate connections Lazar makes in the book are “complex and artful, though at times bewildering even to discerning readers.” So, bring your thinking caps.

Lazar’s previous novel, Sway, received significant critical acclaim. It’s a mishmash of pop culture (emphasis on cult) and fiction that re-imagines in a disturbing narrative weave the mesh of pivotal 1960s bad boys such as Kenneth Anger, the Rolling Stones, and Charles Manson. (Read an interview with Lazar in BOMB magazine about the book.)

Joining Lazar will be Daniel Castro, who was born and raised in New Orleans. Castro is a graduate of NOCCA and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and his work has appeared in the Miami Herald and the Tampa Review. He is the winner of the 2012 Novella Prize from the Faulkner Society, and the 2013 CINTAS fellowship in literature.

As always, this Room 220 event is free and open to the public.

NSP grant

The Neighborhood Story Project, a collaborative community publishing endeavor that uses oral histories, photography, and storytelling to create books that document facets of New Orleans’ civic and cultural tapestry, was recently awarded a $240,000 grant from the Surdna Foundation to continue its wonderful projects.

The grant will be awarded over a period of three years to the University of New Orleans Center for the Book, of which the NSP has been a part since 2008, for use on NSP projects. As UNO has grown increasingly strapped for cash in recent years, the future of its publishing operation has become increasingly uncertain. This grant is a game-changing, life-saving development for the NSP.

Upcoming NSP projects that will benefit from the grant include books about the “backside” of the Fair Grounds Race Course, the process of passing brass band traditions down through generations, and the Spirit of Fi Yi Yi and the Mandingo Warriors Mardi Gras Indians.

The Neighborhood Story Project’s first books, by students at John McDonogh High School, were released in 2005 to great acclaim and local enthusiasm. After Katrina, the project took on a different tenor, and functioned for those involved a means by which to repair and remember the city’s social fabric that had been torn apart by the disaster.

Room 220 editor Nathan C. Martin recently wrote a brief history of the Neighborhood Story Project for Next City:

In a city where many residents have generations-deep roots in their neighborhoods, and those roots form a large part of many people’s identities, it made sense to launch a neighborhood-centric publishing project. But after the storm, with tens of thousands of people unable to return, and with many of those who could forced to live in unfamiliar parts of the city, the project’s objective transformed from documenting the city’s rich social tapestry into trying to reconstruct it and save what could be lost.

Read the rest of that article here.

Some authors in the anthology (clockwise, from top left): George Washington Cable, Leona Queyrouze, Sherwood Anderson, Richard Ford, Hamilton Basso, Fatima Shaik, Tom Dent
Some authors in the anthology (clockwise, from top left): George Washington Cable, Leona Queyrouze, Sherwood Anderson, Richard Ford, Hamilton Basso, Fatima Shaik, Tom Dent

By C.W. Cannon

An ambitious new volume, N.O. Lit: 200 Years of New Orleans Literature, collects short fiction and plays that reflect the city’s literary history, from Paul Louis LeBlanc de Villeneufve’s 18th-century play The Festival of the Young Corn, or The Heroism of Poucha-Houmma to Fatima Shaik’s 1987 short story “Climbing Monkey Hill,” with contributions from suspects both usual and unusual filling in the 560-page tome. Editor Nancy Dixon provided informative introductions to each author’s section, placing the works and their creators within the contexts of the city’s history and the history of its literature, making the anthology both an enjoyable artful artifact and an important academic resource.

Dixon is a professor of English at Dillard University and author of Fortune and Misery: Sallie Rhett Roman of New Orleans, which won the Humanities Book of the Year Award in 2000 from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. Here, she responds via email to questions by C.W. Cannon, a professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans and author of the novel Soul Resin.  

Room 220: Can you say something about your criteria for inclusion and exclusion of works in the anthology? I notice, for example, that some big names, like John Kennedy Toole and Walker Percy (not to mention Baron Ludwig von Reizenstein!) aren’t included—why not?

Nancy Dixon: I had big plans. I was going to include everyone who’d ever written in this city—every novelist, poet, essayist, journalist, memoirist—you name it. But then I came to my senses, and I was partly pushed there by an editor at LSU Press, who was interested in publishing the book. She insisted, “No excerpts!” I had initially planned to include all of those that you mention and more, like Zora Neale Hurston, Nancy Lehman, Sheila Bosworth, Amanda Boyden. But the more I thought about what the editor said, the more it began to make sense. How on earth could I ever make a readable book that included every writer, including novelists? So I decided to include only short fiction.

But having said all that, I hate excerpts, so that’s probably the more honest reason. I just needed someone to remind me of that. If someone wants to read a novel by the great writers you mention and more, they should read that novel, not some teaser. And I couldn’t figure out a way to discuss an excerpt without a spoiler. So I shortened my scope, and shortened the title to reflect that it was a collection of short New Orleans literature. “N.O. Lit” is also what many of us in the University of New Orleans English department called the course that we taught, and I was there when I began compiling the book.

As far as the works that I did include, that required much more work. I knew that I wanted to cover literature in the city since the Louisiana Purchase, so there went Julien Poydras and a few others. I was excited to find Le Blanc’s play, The Heroism of Poucha Houmma, as I had never heard of it, but I had heard of Thomas Wharton Collens’ Martyr Patriots, both early on in the city’s history, so I began there. Some living authors excluded themselves and simply weren’t interested in being a part of this work, which is too bad, but it’s long enough as it is. And as hard as my publisher, Bill Lavender, and I tried, we never could secure the rights to Lillian Hellman’s Toys in the Attic. Others, like Henry Castellanos, simply ended up on the cutting room floor when the book passed the 500 page mark.

http://www.lavenderink.org/nolit/cover300dpi.jpg

Rm220: A quick perusal of the contents makes clear that many of the works are by people who were not raised in New Orleans and some are by people who didn’t really live here very long at all (like O.Henry). Other pieces, however, are by natives, like George Washington Cable or Hamilton Basso. Do you think there’s a difference in how the natives and transplants and/or visitors depict the city?

ND: Yes, and I think Walt Whitman is a fine example of that. He was in his twenties when he arrived with his brother, and his short vignettes for the Daily Crescent range from wide-eyed recent arrival to man-about-town. Decades later, Faulkner’s New Orleans Sketches remind me so much of Whitman’s New Orleans writing. Others who moved here for a longer time seemed to become New Orleanians, like Mollie Moore Davis, who held salons and lived and wrote in the French Quarter, while her husband, Thomas Davis, edited the New Orleans Picayune. One of my favorite pieces on the French Quarter, however, was Hamilton Basso’s “A New Orleans Childhood, the House on Decatur Street,” especially when he laments what happened to Bourbon Street, where his dentist practices—I wish he could see it now!

I suppose it is much like the current argument about transplanted hipsters who write about the city, or really about anyone who writes about an area without having spent a lot of time there. I don’t believe that one has to be native to a place to capture it. In fact, I’ve lived here decades longer than some of the younger natives who seem to be so adamant about the recent influx of new residents. But you can’t argue with non-natives like Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, Kate Chopin, and scores more. In the end, it’s more about the writing than the place that inspires it.

Rm220: Would you venture to say that there is a set of themes or patterns that emerge from these works, viewed collectively, that distinguishes this body of work from, say, “American” literature or even “Southern” literature? In other words, is “New Orleans literature” definable in any way besides geographical setting?

ND: This is one of the questions I get asked the most. I see recurring themes that tie the works together from the earliest up to the present: violence, alcohol abuse, racism, sex, extreme weather (heat, hurricanes), and finally, a sort of liberalism that the city is still known for, and which is also perhaps the main reason I remain here when there are so many things I dislike about the politics of the city and state, particularly—but not only—concerning race and education.

The early racial mix—Native Americans, white Europeans, slaves, free people of color—had much to do with that liberalism, but also with writing. Just look at Les Cenelles and the first anthology of African-American literature. No other city can boast that.  And many of the themes that they touched on—racism, sex, the allure of the city, the treatment of women—folks are still writing about today, and unfortunately, many of the problems of the last two centuries still remain.

Nancy Dixon compiled an anthol-ogy surveying two centuries of works about New Orleans.

Nancy Dixon

Rm220: The oldest pieces in this collection are by authors born in the 18th Century and were originally composed in French. It continues up into the 1990s. That’s a big chunk of history that covers lots of huge social and political change. How would you periodize New Orleans literature?

ND: The earliest works in French were written about the French settlers’ experience, first with Native Americans, then with regime change. The French settlers always thought of New Orleans as French, even after the Louisiana Purchase, as is depicted so well in Cable’s The Grandissimes. After becoming an American state and up to the Civil War, race becomes more of an issue as racism connected with slavery grows. French is still the language for many leading up to the Civil War, including Les Cenelles, Mercier, and Rouquette, but after the war, many more women writers take center stage, much like women entered the work place after World War II.  I see post-Reconstruction literature in New Orleans as the golden age, a real renaissance, the first time that writers elsewhere really looked to the city for some of the nation’s best works, and I think that tradition continues. Anderson, Faulkner, Basso, some of the most popular writers of the time moved here to write, and that tradition, too, continues. The mid-to-late 20th century was also a heyday for New Orleans literature, with Percy, Toole, Bosworth, Grau, Dent, and more. I think Katrina changed the writing in the city, but it’s too early to tell if that change is permanent. I do know that there is very little being written about the flood now, but we’ll see what happens next year, the 10th anniversary.

Rm220: Of all the stuff to read, why would you recommend that anyone read this? Is there a target audience?

ND: The impetus behind this book was the lack of one and having to cobble together texts for my New Orleans literature course semester after semester, at UNO and now Dillard. So originally, I thought it would be for me, my colleagues, students, and anyone else who wanted a comprehensive look at New Orleans literature. Over the course of the project, the focus changed somewhat. I found myself looking at works that would, as you say, periodize the city’s literature, but also works that folks would want to read. I also have a huge interest in the city’s history, and I know that shows in my introductions to the authors and their works, but I see the city’s history and its literature inextricably linked. I’m very proud of my intros, and as tedious as they seemed to write sometimes, what is so surprising to me now is that I can barely remember writing some of them. What I’m trying to say is that many of them seemed to write themselves. Perhaps that is because this was truly a labor of love for a city that took me in, almost killed me, but instead prompted me to teach others about the city’s rich literary history—a city and literature that I truly love.

 

Parameters & Diversions

EVENT: Saturday April 12, 6:00pm - 10:00pm
@ Press Street's Antenna Gallery, 3718 Saint Claude Ave, New Orleans
43, by Robin Price, Courtesy of the artist
43, by Robin Price, Courtesy of the artist

Parameters

On View: April 12 – May 4, 2014
Opening Reception: April 12, 6-9pm
Happy Hour Artist Salon with Gerald Cannon: May 1, 6pm

Parameters features work from national and local artists who use chance experiments, media or process restrictions, and conceptual rules as boundaries or guidelines to form their work. The exhibition includes artist books, sculpture and prints from Gerald Cannon (New Orleans, LA), Jessica Hoffman (Seattle, WA), Heidi Neilson (Brooklyn, NY), and Robin Price (Middletown, CT).

On Thursday, May 1, 6pm, Antenna Gallery will host a Happy Hour Artist Salon with Gerald Cannon. Cannon is a professor at Loyola University where he teaches Digital Arts. He will discuss and present his current work.

A catalog with a new essay by David Robinson accompanies the exhibition.

Parameters is presented in partnership between SIFT and Press Street’s Antenna Gallery.

 

Natural Order: A Game of Pairs, by Anne Covell, Courtesy of the artist

Diversions

On View: April 12 – May 4, 2014
Opening Reception: April 12, 6-9pm
Juror Walkthrough with Friedrich Kerksieck & Luba Zygarewicz: Thursday, April 24, 6pm

Diversions, presents a juried selection of artist books and book-related works in Press Street’s new Reading Room 220. Selected by local artists Friedrich Kerksieck and Luba Zygarewicz, these works explore the use of rules and play as a way for making work and/or creating interaction with the viewer. The artist books in Diversions can be handled and read during the Reading Room 220’s open hours (Tuesday-Sunday, 12-5pm).

Diversions include artwork from: Sarah Bryant, Karen Carcia, Anne Covell, Sue Carrie Drummond, Jenna Fincher, Frank Hamrick, Moon Jung Jang, Jill Kambs, Ellen Knudson, Kimberly Maher, Laura Mongiovi, Pamela Olson, and Emily Tipps.

The Reading Room 220 will also host a juror’s walkthrough of Diversions on Thursday, April 24 at 6pm. Friedrich Kerksieck and Luba Zygarewicz will each talk about a few of the pieces in the exhibition.

Diversions is presented in partnership between SIFT and Press Street’s Reading Room 220.

 

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LSU’s graduate creative writing program and its cohorts will try very hard to make our normally dull state capital appealing (to book nerds) for at least one weekend this year by hosting the Delta Mouth Literary Festival April 3 – 6 at venues throughout Baton Rouge.

Interests vary among featured presenters, such as Wayne Koestenbaum, who was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award for The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire, and Shelly Taylor, poet and co-editor of Hick Poetics, a forthcoming anthology of contemporary American rural poetry.

Scheduled to read Saturday, among others, is Ben Marcus, who seems to have distilled the best characteristics of his past work and expelled the worst in his latest short story collection, Leaving the Sea. You may not like his stories. You may find them emotionally distant. But his desire to “travel deep down into the coalface of the ontological conundrum that some call the human condition” might make for just about as interesting an evening as you’re going to have in Baton Rouge.

Clockwise, from top left: Rodger Kamenetz, Marla Chirdon, Melinda Palacio, Kelly Harris, Brad Richard, and Nik Richard
Clockwise, from top left: Rodger Kamenetz, Marla Chirdon, Melinda Palacio, Kelly Harris, Brad Richard, and Nik Richard

Fleur de Lit and the Pearl Wine Company will usher in National Poetry Month with the next installment of its series Reading Between the Wines at 6:30 p.m. on April 2 at Pearl Wine Co. (in the American Can Company, 3700 Orleans Ave.).

Local poets Rodger Kamenetz, Brad Richard, Melinda Palacio, Nik Richard, Marla Chirdon, and Kelly Harris will read and discuss their work.  Words will be free and open to the public; wine from Pearl, eats from Indochow, and books from Maple Street Book Shop will be available for purchase.