Hayden's Ferry Review


Stormy Weather: Thoughts About Poetry on the Anniversary of Katrina

The Phoenix area was hit with quite a storm last night, by our standards. Buckets of rain, hail, constant bolts of lightning like a strobe light. It seemed a miracle at first, how the air cooled to almost 80 degrees, how the pine trees in front of my house wouldn't need water from the hose for a change. Until this morning. ASU's campus, a national arboretum, was strewn with the limbs of dead and dying trees. The hard shells of palm trees across the sidewalk looked like road kill. Soggy magazines were everywhere, usually safe in their outdoor wire baskets. A lot of the plants that desperately needed the rain were simply wiped out by it. All across campus, students stand taking pictures of the fallen trees, a car crushed underneath a gigantic palm.

On the third anniversary of Katrina
, even the weather in sunny Arizona serves as a reminder, a call for empathy and action, as New Orleans awaits the arrival of Gustav.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune's book blog today had this question for its residents: "Are you still reading Katrina books?" One thing's for sure: people all over the country are still writing them. The blog also features this list of new books on the subject (fiction, nonfiction, poetry and children's books), and earlier in the week, the paper featured a full-length article called "After the Deluge, Poetry," exploring the many poems still being written.

For writers who don't live in New Orleans, but once did or feel deeply about the what is happening there, the question of how to write about the devastation can be a difficult one. Former HFR poetry editor Katie Cappello, who lived in New Orleans for a time, wrote in an article for the fall 2007 issue of Marginalia, "Time to Turn: Poetry of Witness and What it Can Do," the following:

Here’s the problem I have been struggling with as I consider sending out [her poetry book about New Orleans] for publication: I am not from New Orleans. I only lived there a year. I worked at a bakery and in an office, babysat for the family across the street, made a few friends, and moved back to Phoenix. So why do I feel the need—no, the compulsion—to write about a city that is not mine, a tragedy that I only experienced through the television and hasty emails from friends? Do I have any authority as an outsider? And what can these poems, any poem really, do to alleviate the suffering of that city, any suffering?
Katie's book, Perpetual Care, recently received the Elixir Press Eighth Annual Poetry Award, and will be published in 2009.

ASU MFA faculty member Cynthia Hogue recently received a grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts for a book collaboration with photographer Rebecca Ross, to explore the journey of twelve Katrina evacuees from New Orleans to Phoenix. Cynthia wrote,

I lived in New Orleans for four years in the early 1990s, so I knew the city that flooded after Katrina, and mourned its loss deeply. I didn't feel that I had a right to write about it, however, because I wasn’t from the region, had moved a decade earlier, and wasn’t affected personally by the devastation. Somewhere between that restraint and my feelings, I happened upon the shape of this project, that I could interview evacuees here in Arizona.
These struggles aren't unique to poets; the questions are relevant for all artists. To what extent can we speak for others? Is it fair to appropriate stories that aren't our own? What is the value of empathy? How and to what extent does art affect this kind of suffering? At the end of her article, Katie answers: "Poetry of witness not only reveals ourselves and others, but it also reveals ourselves in others. It is poetry of permeation and connection... So, we write and witness in order to live. In so doing, we find we are not alone and build the strength needed to turn and act."
Beth StaplesPoetry