The Book, published by North Atlantic Books northatlanticbooks.com
The CD, from Paris Records parisrecords.net
About Poems for New Orleans
My friend Michael Minzer called me out of the blue on a spring day with a project in mind. He offered to fly me and my wife Miriam anywhere we wanted to go in the world, and I would write poetry for a CD based on our experiences, which Minzer’s Paris Records would release. What an offer! Miriam and I began immediately to discuss where we might go. One of my first ideas was to travel to the Green Zone of Iraq and write poems about the war, but Miriam was, shall we say, very unenthusiastic. We talked about going to Egypt and writing poetry inside the Pyramids and in the Valley of the Kings. We also discussed going to the butterfly areas of Costa Rica, and the endangered reefs of Australia.
Other ideas included tracing Katharine Lee Bate’s route in 1893, from Niagara falls to Chicago to Pike’s Peak, after which she composed “America the Beautiful.”
During one of our telephone conversations Minzer mentioned the Natchez Trace. This made me immediately think about going down the Mississippi in a boat to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. I began researching this possibility. Mardi Gras ’07 was in mid-February, so we decided not to voyage down the Mississippi during ice and snow, and began to focus strictly on New Orleans. Michael Minzer and I decided to start recording the poems in New Orleans during Mardi Gras ’07.
I began work. I had visited the great Crescent City a number of times over the years to give poetry readings, and the disaster of Hurricane Katrina was still throbbing in the mind of the nation. For six straight months I researched the history of New Orleans. I read everything I could find, book after book, article upon article, especially the scandals after Katrina such as the Road Home program, but also New Orleans history going back to its founding in 1718.
I decided to create a sequence of works steeped in the history and traditions of the City, past and present. The poems seemed to pour out, many more than could fit on a 70-minute CD, so a book came to life!
I knew that Walt Whitman had gone to New Orleans in 1848 and had been upset by a slave auction in Congo Square. That inspired a poem. I learned that Mark Twain had traveled to New Orleans just before the beginning of the Civil War so I created a poem wherein Twain met the famous healer and voodoo-iste Marie Laveau on a wrought iron balcony during Mardi Gras.
But what if William Blake had managed to pay a visit to the Crescent? I pictured him arriving not long after the Battle of New Orleans, bearing the canvas for his huge painting of the Final Judgement, and checking into a room above the Lost Mule saloon in the Quarter. And I also pictured one of his entities, Oothoon, entity of thwarted desire, also meeting her Blakean lover, Theotormon, in New Orleans and consummating their long-thwarted love while Blake was in the city. I created a poem set in the time of Governor Huey Long, in the 1930s, and a number of others, some written in fictional voices and personae, to try to come to the truth of what they call the Crescent City.
I wrote a fairly long poem tracing the founding of New Orleans in 1718 through its first century, and another set during the time of the Battle Of New Orleans in 1815. It was in writing “The Battle of New Orleans” that an important story line for the book began to form. It involved the history of the Lebage family, whose patriarch, Lemoine Lebage, had been a Haitian revolutionary who had taken part in a revolution in Haiti inspired by the uprisings in France before the advent of Napoleon. Lebage had arrived in New Orleans just before the Battle of New Orleans, fought with Andrew Jackson’s forces, and then stayed on, building a house near the French Quarter in which, by the time of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, seven generations of his family had dwelled. One theme in Poems for New Orleans is the story of the youngest member of the Lebage family, a singer and poet named Grace Lebage, whose ancestral house was almost totally destroyed by Katrina. Her tribulations and struggles against heartless officials, and her determination to rebuild her house, form an important sequence in the book.
While I was engrossed in the facts and figures of history, I was also studying the current plight of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. As a long-time social activist, I developed an anger at what the United States, plus state and local governments, were doing, and more importantly not doing, in New Orleans and the Gulf.
The more research I did, and the more poems I wrote, it became ever more certain that what happened to New Orleans after Katrina was not only a heartless act of wild nature, it was a also calamity of vote fraud and deliberate neglect. It was a brazen attempt to turn New Orleans into a suffering laboratory of neocon, laissez-faire, dog-eat-dog economics. It was as if the New Deal, the Great Society, and I Have a Dream had never occurred. What went down in New Orleans— the indifference to suffering and what one writer calls the “lethal ineptitude” of the federal and local governments which masked itself as “concern” and “help,” and the lack of fiscal outreach to those hundreds of thousands dispersed into the Red State Beyond, seemed violative of the Fair Play spirit of America.
As a result, my anger wound up suffusing some of the poems. I couldn’t help it! During our visits to New Orleans, we toured the areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina, and I even went inside flood damaged houses. I could feel the anger and anxiety in friends who were waiting for months and years for checks, properly applied for, from U.S. funds voted by Congress— billions of dollars!
When poet Dave Brinks drove Miriam and me around the wounded city one morning, he pointed out how during the flood they roped the dead to trees or tethered them one to one like dinghies of death. “They set up these tie-bodies-together areas,” he said. It still makes him angry. He also mentioned how some on the roofs in the Lower 9th wouldn’t get aboard the helicopters hovering overhead because they were afraid they couldn’t afford the fare.
But we were heartened by the thousands of volunteers, many of them young, who came to New Orleans from all over America to help, some donning dust masks to work on flood-damaged shotgun houses in order to save them from the heartless policy of bulldoze and forget. Our friend John Clark, for instance, took us to the Common Ground Collective in the 9th Ward, which has done brilliant work trying to restore multi-income vitality to a great city.
Thus was born Poems for New Orleans. Michael Minzer commissioned noted composer Mark Bingham to compose and produce music the CD project, which features 15 poems from the larger manuscript. Mark brought together the musicians and performers, 40 in all, and produced the sessions, which were recorded at Bingham’s Piety Street Studio in New Orleans during a four-month period early in 2007.
My agent Jim Fitzgerald located a publisher, Richard Grossinger, of North Atlantic Books, to publish the book version. The book was published in 2008, designed by Susan Quasha, and with a fine cover by Shawn Hall.
I love New Orleans. I think about it all the time, worry about it, hope for it, and let my anger lift aloft to right the wrongs done to it! The city possesses what John Keats called the “Penetralium of Mystery.” It has a spirituality that seems to envelop even an unbeliever. You can feel the search for Grace and Eternity in its balconies and bayous, in its bustle and hustle, and even in its sadness and blues. What a mix!
It’s Spanish, it’s French, it’s English, it’s Creole, it’s Black, it’s White, it’s Cajun, it’s Jazz, it’s Fender, it’s Dixieland, it’s Christian, it’s Jewish, it’s Haitian, it’s Voodoo, it’s American, it’s Freedom, it’s the River, it’s Energy, it’s Excess, it’s Goof and Goofitude, it’s Penance, it’s Survival, it’s Flooding, it’s Drying Out, it’s Damaged, it’s Beauty, it’s Decay, it’s Danger, it’s Metalwork, it’s Masks & Floats, it’s Mystery & Prayer, it’s Hooting & Tooting. It’s all of these things and it’s what I have tried to bring to life in Poems for New Orleans.
Some Statements & Endorsements
“Ed Sanders—poet, Pentagon levitator, classics scholar, founding member of the Fugs—is a political force in Woodstock, New York.”
—Hendrik Hertzberg, The New Yorker
“No poet today writes history better than Ed Sanders. From the Duke of Orleans’ fragile grouping of houses in 1718, to wealth and heights with Mardi Gras and fun without guilt, to the storm of Katrina, the bard of our continent gives us the truth with these poems and songs.”
—Joanne Kyger, author of About Now: Collected Poems
“Sanders the poet-maestro of American history excels his own lyrical genius with the truth beams he sends flashing in Poems for New Orleans.”
—Michael McClure, author of Scratching the Beat Surface
“The bad handling of Hurricane Katrina is a central point of this book, but more importantly, Sanders also sheds light on the after-effects and the suffering it imposed on those who were displaced. This type of ‘investigative poetics’ is not new territory for Sanders… [H]e has put his best foot forward to cover one of America’s greatest tragedies. The book is interspersed with sharp, quick-witted shorter works that glue the larger poems into a taught fabric; the shorter poems represent an alternate poetic frequency and outlook that allows the larger, more musical poems to mesh exceptionally well.… Poems for New Orleans provides a much-deserved helping of poetic justice.”
—Darrin Daniel, Rain Taxi
“Ed Sanders, in his Poems for New Orleans, leads us at one point to imagine the goddess Athena reappearing to intercede for yet another place where ‘something has shamed justice.’ The work is, as he says, ‘a prayer for the victims’ of this injustice. But it is also a Prophetic Book, an eloquent cry of righteous indignation. And it is an Apologia for the Polis, a celebration of the Queen City, the Fertile Crescent, with its richness of culture, history and humanity. In producing this extraordinary work, Sanders has combined the patient labors of the engaged historian with the creative inspiration of the poet. The Poems enlighten the reader about the thick particularities of real, lived history, especially through the narrative ribbon of the deeply moving Lebage family history that runs through the work. At the same time, they enchant the reader with the magic of the place, so that one can well imagine the visionary Blake crossing paths with the Voodoo Priestess Marie Laveau. Sanders brings to the scene of the crime and the dramatic landscape diverse skills, ranging from those of an Investigative Poet to those of a Rhapsodic Historian. The Poems reveal that he has gained a deep and empathetic knowledge of the city’s history, its people, and its complex personality, that he has intently ‘listened to the whispering of its secret mind.’ ”
—John P. Clark, Gregory F. Curtin Distinguished Professor in Humane Letters and the Professions at Loyola University New Orleans