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Fifteen years ago today, Hurricane Katrina blew apart the bayou.
While many people suffered in the storm and its aftermath, Black and brown people who lived in the path of that category 5 Atlantic hurricane were disproportionally traumatized.
New Orleans and its surrounding bayous were soon filled with the dead bodies of more than of its 1,200 citizens. Eighty percent of the city was under water and didn’t drain for weeks. Survivors waited on bridges and rooftops for days in the blistering sun. The Superdome shelter became a vision of hell—steaming hot and filled with thirsty, wounded, and moaning hurricane survivors. The government’s lackluster rescue operation, as well as the determination that the Army Corps of Engineers had built faulty levees that failed to protect the city’s residents, are the bitter pills that New Orleans had to swallow.
Poet Patricia Smith, like most of the rest of America, watched horrifying images on television of the storm and its aftermath. But Smith turned the horror into something beautiful, a collection of poems, Blood Dazzler.
In 2013, as part of the Columbia Festival of the Arts, HoCoPoLitSo hosted Smith. She read her suite of poems about the hurricane as the Sage String Quartet played Wynton Marsalis’ “At the Octoroon Balls” for an audience that was struck silent and teary-eyed.
HoCoPoLitSo also produced a television interview that weekend. Poet Joseph Ross interviewed Smith for a conversation that touched on her origin as a writer listening to her father tell stories on their Chicago back porch, and her inspiration for Blood Dazzler. Ross describes the collection as coming from a choir of voices, including that of the hurricane herself. Smith explained that she’s not from New Orleans, she has no tether to the Gulf region.
“The primary role of a storyteller is as a witness,” Smith said. “And Katrina was not just a regional story, it was a national story. You’re seeing what your country is capable of. I watched Katrina unfold the way thousands of other people did. The difference is that in my role as witness, in my role as writer, I felt that I could use my writing to process that story. I’m trying to make the story makes sense–that’s how I approach a lot of stories–this can’t be possible, this can’t be true. Let me enter it through my writing and see if I can find something that I’m not seeing on the surface.”
This Poetry Moment’s poem, “8 a.m. Sunday, August 28, 2005”, is in Katrina’s commanding, menacing voice. Finding Katrina’s voice, Smith said, was easiest for her.“Persona allows me to enter a story in a way that is going to open up a lot of other avenues right away,” Smith said. “It never occurred to me not to give Katrina a voice. That also left me some touchstones – I tried to keep it roughly chronological and follow the development of the storm, but every once in a while, I’d say, “Now Katrina is feeling this. Now she’s angry, now she’s remorseful, now she’s saying ‘Maybe I overdid it.’ ”
Katrina, like one of the Greek goddesses spurred into destruction by humans’ blunders, came down hard on the planet. But she was fed with warm water from the oceans, growing warmer by the minute thanks to humans causing climate change.
This summer has been a hard one for so many. As I write, Hurricane Laura is barreling toward Category 4 status, with the Gulf Coast in its path. Wildfires are blazing in California, destroying homes and animals and redwoods and people’s lives. Death Valley hit 130 degrees, the highest temperature recorded since 1913 on this planet. Climate change isn’t in the distance. It’s here. And there is an intimate link between racial injustice and climate change, with communities of color disproportionately suffering as the world warms.
Poetry can tell stories, and it can bear witness. We’re going to need to witness much more in the coming years, as climate change whips up storms and harsh weather that will batter this country, and the world. Words can change the world, yes, but only if humans listen.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer of The Writing Life
An artist works alone in a garret, her solitary room the site of revelation. Or not.
The five of them collaborated on a performance that brought tears to the eyes of the audience. Smith even wrote extra lines – just a few moments before the performance – to make her poem better fit the musical score.
In four hours, having never met before, the poet and the musicians meshed their work into a tightly woven performance for HoCoPoLitSo and the Columbia Festival of the Arts called “The Sound and Fury of New Orleans.”
Audience member Mike Clark said he emerged from the reading feeling “flayed,” he had been so moved by the show.
First performed in October 2012, the synthesis of music and poetry was the brainchild of Martin Farawell, director of the Geraldine R, Dodge Poetry Festival, and had not been performed since. Board member Tim Singleton saw Smith at Dodge, and decided HoCoPoLitSo just had to host her.
Violinists Arminé Graham and Laura Chang reached deep into the heart of the poems, Maggie Hummel on cello drew out the voice of Katrina during “Blue Lights on the Bayou,” and Sarah Hart and her viola flirted with the ragtime. Each note, whether quavering or raucous, seemed to speak intimately with Smith’s poems about New Orleans as lascivious flirt and nursing home residents left to drown in their beds, about a dog howling at the looming sky, about a woman with three babies and two arms, who drops her littlest one with a tiny splash.
But before it became art, there was the devil in the details. The musicians knew the music, the poet knew the poems, but in one short rehearsal on the afternoon of the performance, they had to make those two types of art speak as one.
The rehearsal started on a good note. Smith walked into the Monteabaro Recital Hall, saw the four musicians warming up onstage and chortled: “Girl party!”
The quartet laughed, the tension broken. Then, in their shorts and sundresses, the five women settled into the rehearsal.
Smith began by explaining each poem, and reading it, as the musicians looked at the score. They talked about the silences that punctuated the piece, the times when the musicians would play “Hellbound Highball” and would have to tone down the frenzy so Smith’s words about running just ahead of Katrina’s winds could be heard.
The cellist, Maggie Hummel, took on the voice of Katrina, as Smith read poems in the hurricane’s hungry voice: “Every woman begins as weather.” Hummel’s fingers plucked insistently at the beginning of every poem in Katrina’s voice, lending an urgency to the hurricane’s approach.
Just at the end, when everyone was tired and the snacks of nuts and cherries had run out, Smith said she needed to say something about the ending.
“I’m hearing something,” she said. “Katrina’s voice.”
So Smith read the last few lines, and Hummel plucked those strings again.
“That’s it,” Smith said.
Throughout the rehearsal, if they weren’t sure how the piece would go, they just tried it.
“Let’s just do it and see what happens,” Smith said more than once. They did, then tried again. And art happened.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Thursday, June 27, 7:30 p.m. Monteabaro Recital Hall, The Horowitz Center
at Howard Community College
A look at Katrina New Orleans through a selection of Smith’s Blood Dazzler poems set to the music of Wynton Marsalis’ Octoroon Balls.
“Reading poems like these, overflowing with life but
contained by art, makes us all feel a little bit helpless.
These poems are blessings that will move like white
light through your veins.” – American Book Review
Straight from its world premiere at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, this powerful blend of poetry and music is “breath-taking” and “not-to-be-missed.” Patricia Smith recites poems from her collection Blood Dazzler in the voices of the people lost in the floods and fury of Hurricane Katrinia accompanied by the rich, spicy music of Wynton Marsalis played by Washington D.C.’s Sage String Quartet. Marsalis’ At the Octoroon Balls is a dramatic gumbo of jazz, blues, Americana and European classical music. This performance was conceived and premiered at the 2012 Dodge Poetry Festival and has never been performed elsewhere.
Tickets available through the Columbia Festival of the Arts website.