Literary Boroughs #49: New Orleans, LA

The Literary Boroughs series will explore little-known and well-known literary communities across the country and world and show that while literary culture can exist online without regard to geographic location, it also continues to thrive locally. Posts are by no means exhaustive and we encourage our readers to contribute in the comment section. The series will run on our blog from May 2012 until AWP13 in Boston. Please enjoy the forty-ninth post on New Orleans, Louisiana, by Michael Zell. —Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

photo by Kristin Fouquet (kristin.fouquet.cc)New Orleans is no less than a cultural outpost. The literary arts are particularly on the rise in the Crescent City, characterized by an influx of writers and an exponential increase in readings and events over the past couple years.  Though William Faulkner, frankly more of a Mississippi writer, is often publicized as having New Orleans connections, many notables have sought creative succor and received inspiration from New Orleans, including Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein, Zora Neale Hurston, Charles Bukowski, and Colum McCann—and that trend continues today.  Susan Larson’s weekly WWNO radio show The Reading Life is the source for interviews and features.  Room 220’s literary blog ably fills in the gaps, particularly with an otherwise sorely missing critical element.  The Times-Picayune’s coverage has been hurt by a shift in focus from print to digital (Nola.com), but Chris Waddington remains one of the key writers on literature in the city.  New Orleans may have rested on its laurels in the past, but new ones are being braided as we speak.

What the city is known for/what makes it unique:

photo by Kristin Fouquet (kristin.fouquet.cc)New Orleans is a city of the world and also a mindset. Mardi Gras, jazz, street parades, good food and drink, and historic architecture are its most obvious features, but the distinctness of the seventeen wards and individual neighborhoods means they also provide an interesting and rewarding entry into the deeper variety of the city.

Resident writers:

To barely scratch the surface:  Kataalyst Alcindor, Jason Berry, John Biguenet, Rich Campanella, Dave Brinks, Megan Burns, Tom Carson, Peter Cooley, Moira Crone, Nik De Dominic, Lolis Eric Elie, Gina Ferrera, Mark Folse, Patty Friedmann, Anne Giselson, Lee Meitzen Grue, Kelly Harris, Carolyn Hembree, Yuri Herrera, Raymond “Moose” Jackson, Rodger Kamenetz, Ben Kopel, Bill Lavender, Zachary Lazar, Michael Lee, David Lummis, Louis Maistros, Nathan C. Martin, Valerie Martin, Benjamin Morris, Ingrid Norton, Brenda Marie Osbey, Niyi Osundare, Chuck Perkins, Tom Piazza, Lawrence Powell, Nathaniel Rich, Maurice Carlos Ruffin, Uriel Quesada, Brad Richard, Kalamu Ya Salaam, Andrew Vaught, Jerry Ward, Christine Wiltz, Dalt Wonk, Geoff Wyss, Mark Yakich, Andy Young.

Literary references:

New Orleans’ location as a port city perched almost at the end of the Mississippi River has suited it well as a literary destination, both in Mark Twain’s Life On The Mississippi and Jack Kerouac’s On The Road.  The city’s underbelly was further explored by Herbert Asbury in The French Quarter and Nelson Algren in A Walk On The Wild Side.  Work ahead of its time, like The Awakening by Kate Chopin, and ahead the publishing industry, like John Kennedy Toole’s instant classic Confederacy of Dunces, is quintessentially NOLA.  A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams remains the identifiable play of the city.

Where to learn:

Several Crescent City writers fill the faculty of the city’s esteemed high schools and universities.  NOCCA has been a gem for 40 years, thriving as one of the few arts-training centers of its type for high school students in the U.S.  Lusher Charter School’s creative writing program is also highly regarded.  Tulane University and Loyola University, adjacent Uptown, offer high-caliber writing courses, augmented by Tulane’s Stone Center for Latin American Studies and Loyola’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.  UNO has been hit hard by budget cuts and internal incongruence, but it still boasts a strong faculty and turns out some of the best writers in the city. Dillard University fills out the secondary education writing programs.  The New Orleans Institute for the Imagination, led by poet Dave Brinks and musician Cyril Neville, is on the verge of opening and may well prove to be transformative.

Where to find reading material:

Interestingly, New Orleans has the same number of bookshops per capita as Manhattan.  The French Quarter is the heart of the used book trade, from the wide selection of local/regional titles at Arcadian Books to the general sprawl of long-time Beckham’s Book Store; from top-notch art and history titles at Crescent City Books (the only ABAA bookshop in state) to snug and stuffed Dauphine Street Books; and from the attractive modern firsts at Faulkner House Books to Kitchen Witch’s vast cookbook collection.  Just outside the Vieux Carre, Faubourg Marigny Books is one of the oldest GLBT bookshops in the country, and Community Book Center on Bayou Road is the sole African-American shop of its type in town.  Venerable Maple Street Bookshop, now with a blend of new and used books, has four shops spanning the city. Uptown’s Octavia Books hosts perhaps the most active reading series for authors with newly-published books.  Garden District Book Shop,McKeown’s Books, and Blue Cypress Books complete the list of recommended haunts for readers.

Where to get published:

New Orleans has a particularly booming poetry scene, and its abundant history, sitting in city archives waiting to be unearthed, is routinely reflected in titles published.  The city’s literary publishers include Aqueous Books, Black Widow Press, Chin Music Press (Seattle-based), Language Foundry, Lavender Ink, Luna Press, Portals Press, Press Street, and Trembling Pillow Press.  Pelican Publishing has covered local and regional non-fiction for over 85 years, though outside presses (including Margaret Media, based upstate) publish the lion’s share of this type.  Journals are represented by Bayou Magazine, Entrepot, New Laurel Review, New Orleans Review, Prick of the Spindle, and The Tulane Review.

Where to write:

One can easily spend over half of the year privately writing outside in a courtyard or on a balcony; cafes abound for those who prefer public isolation. To name a few in the French Quarter: Café Envie, CC’s, and Royal Blend are standard spots for writers.  Also, Café Treme (Treme), Fair Grinds Coffee House (Mid City), Satsuma (Bywater and now Uptown), The JuJu Bag Café (Gentilly), and Neutral Ground Coffeehouse (Uptown) are choice locations. Sitting alongside the river is a sublime option.

Festivals/Events:

Mark Folse’s blog Odd Words remains the most comprehensive source for literary listings.

New Orleans is served by Words & Music Fest (Nov.), Tennessee Williams Fest (Mar.), Saints & Sinners Literary Festival (May), NOLA Book Fair (Nov.), and New Orleans Children’s Book Festival (Oct.).  Though constancy can be the issue with ongoing reading events, these are the durable ones:  17 Poets! Reading Series, 1718 Reading Series, Antenna Gallery Readings, The Black Widow Salon, Cold Cuts Reading Series, Diane Tapes Reading Series, Dinky Tao Reading Series, Faulkner Society’s Readings, Maple Leaf Reading Series, New Orleans Spoken Word, Neutral Ground Quarterly Reading Series, Poetry Buffet, Poetry Circle, Speak Easy Sundays, and Writer’s Block.  The YLC’s annual One Book One New Orleans is active, particularly with adult literacy programs.

Michael Allen Zell has been published in Cerise Press, Entrepot, Exquisite Corpse, and Sleepingfish.  Errata, his first novel, was published in 2012 by Lavender Ink and named a top 10 book of the year by The Times-Picayune/Nola.com.  He was a finalist for the 2011 Calvino Prize, finalist for the 2010 Faulkner-Wisdom Competition, and was nominated for the 2012 Best American Short Stories.  His first play, What Do You Say To A Shadow?, will be staged in 2013.  Zell has worked as a bookseller for over a decade and hosts The Black Widow Salon. He has lived in New Orleans since 2003. Find him on Facebook at: http://www.facebook.com/MichaelAllenZell

All photos: Kristin Fouquet (kristin.fouquet.cc)

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