Hurricane Katrina Gives Birth to Poetry

April 10, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: One night a week, on one small corner of the French Quarter, local poets tell of Katrina.

WOMAN: Storm blew down through history and whisked my life away. Flood crashed the levee and washed my life away out here, 1,000 miles from my home in the Treme.

JEFFREY BROWN: Keisha Brown (ph) fled New Orleans for Chicago.

WOMAN: Ain’t no second line on this Sunday afternoon, no second-line parade on this Sunday afternoon. Ain’t no brass band coming, no buck-jump no time soon. Somebody, sing a dirge for me, a slow, respectful stroll. Somebody, sing a dirge for this dove-on-shoulder stroll out here, 900 miles, in the harsh Chicago cold.

JEFFREY BROWN: Since starting up again last October, these readings at the Gold Mine Saloon have provided a sanctuary for old friends, many still living outside the city, a place to share words written in response to a personal and civic disaster.

WOMAN: And what is the value on life in a city where the river cuts dirt continuously and we all live six feet below levels of respect of what is good, of what is intended? And what is the value on life in a city full of soul ghosts?

DAVE BRINKS, Owner, Gold Mine Saloon: People used to live upstairs.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dave Brinks, the owner of the Gold Mine Saloon, and his wife, Megan (ph), started these Thursday night events two-and-a-half years ago. A poet himself, as well as editor of a journal called “YAWP,” Brinks says that, after Katrina, poetry like everything else, is cast in a new light.

DAVE BRINKS: We’re trying to give shape and measure to something that’s nearly incomprehensible. And — but the magic of poetry allows one to make that leap. Its the poets’ task here in New Orleans at this point in time to document its people. It’s — it’s — that’s what — that’s the poets’ job.

JEFFREY BROWN: Typically, 17 poets are chosen to read at the Gold Mine, and everyone is allotted five minutes. Brinks sees his fellow writers, some published veterans, others new to the scene here, as this unique city’s unique storytellers.

DAVE BRINKS: These people are teachers. They’re social workers. They’re musicians. I think that these people represent the soul of the city.

JEFFREY BROWN: Katrina, Brinks says, changed him and his poetry.

DAVE BRINKS: Just the idea of — of riding a boat to my house to save my daughter’s tricycle, maybe a few pictures, some baby movies, I mean, that’s definitely not something that ever crossed my mind that I would be writing about. Before the water fell, nothing kept us from a good time. It was as simple as digging up worms in the backyard, trains going by near the playground, or big jaw-droppers. The ice cream truck adored us. The after-dinner moonlight wagon ride was our most recent ritual. Hopgrassers, smushrooms, and puppy dog shoes were newly-minted vocabularies then. Now, the water keeps falling. It never stops.

JEFFREY BROWN: During our visit, a range of post-Katrina emotion was on display. There was some anger toward Mother Nature and politicians. MAN: And if you really want to get to the bottom of the problem, all you got to do is follow the money, honey. That’s right.

WOMAN: We are the reluctant immigrants, living where we can until we can get back home.

JEFFREY BROWN: And there were many questions.

WOMAN: Where do we bathe our feet? Where do we anoint our heads? Where do we quench our thirst, wash our crud-filled fingernails? How can we ever trust water again, our former good friend?

DAVE BRINKS: We have to have our smells and our sounds, our words, our architecture, our laissez-faire. Poets will continue to wrap their hearts and heads around this, so that the story is completely written.

JEFFREY BROWN: Niyi Osundare grew up in Nigeria, but, like so many others, chose to make this unusual city his home. And, now, like so many others, he sings for its survival. NIYI OSUNDARE, Poet: The birds, long gone, will return to roost as the aroma of gumbo grills sweetens the laughter of the streets. This city will rise again, this big on easy, this neglected treasure. Thank you.