PART 1 – THE BIG EASY IS NOT SO EASY: NOLA REALLY WANTS TO KNOW WHAT KIND OF CHANGE WE’RE TALKING ABOUT
Just over the Texas border, into Louisiana and all we can think of is po-boys and gumbo. Catfish and bread pudding with sweet rum sauce. Maybe some red beans and rice. These are the things that shouldn’t change. But at what cost? An extra 7 pounds picked up on the highway. It’s hard to eat “right” on the road.
In Slidell, Louisiana, 30 miles from New Orleans, we arrive at the home of poet Dennis Formento and artist Patricia Hart just in time for white bean soup with sausage and kale (from the garden), plus homemade cornbread and lemon bars.
We met Dennis and Patricia three years ago when Terri, David Meltzer and I were on the road for The Rockpile Tour, a tour which enabled the three of us to travel around the country for two months and read poetry with different musicians in each town and record our experiences.
Dennis had been working with musicians as a poet for years and so he was into the Rockpile concept and came to check us out.
In New Orleans we hooked up with The Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Meltzer was worried. “How do you read poetry to a full-on Louisiana brassband. All that brass! All those horns! That’s too much music to go along with poetry.” David preferred a combo, something more in the beatnik-style, from the 50’s jazz collaboration tradition. But, I was game for anything.
The Dirty Dozen kept the volume low and grooving, they knew how to find the space in the language, all we had to do is find the space in all of that music! I think we found it because it was the first time I ever saw the audience at a poetry reading get up and dance! This collaboration was one of the greatest experiences I’ve had performing poetry. I suggest trying it if you have never done it.
Also, as part of the Rockpile tour we conducted a series of workshops to discuss the role of the artist in society, to explore art and activism. In Los Angeles, Albuquerque, New Orleans, Washington, DC, New York City, Rochester, Buffalo, Toronto, Chicago, St. Louis, and everywhere in between… we learned a lot about local concerns and regional aesthetics and divisions. In some ways, The Rockpile Tour prepared us for 100 Thousand Poets for Change. It inspired Terri and I to try to help break down the walls between artistic communities, help mix it up more, and help tell the real news!
So, we met Dennis and Patricia for the first time in New Orleans at “Dr. Bob’s Compound” , a local artist studio, where we held a poetry and music open jam for Rockpile. We were overwhelmed with the logistics of the tour, etc., so we didn’t really get a chance to get to know Dennis and Patricia that well, that time around.
Our friendship with Dennis and Patricia was cemented later by the shared heartbreak over the BP oil disaster. They sent us handmade armbands to sell at the poetry, art and music Gulf Coast fundraisers we organized in California for The Louisiana Bucket Brigade.
LABB is is a 501(c)(3) environmental health and justice organization working with communities that neighbor the state’s oil refineries and chemical plants.Their mission is to support communities’ use of grassroots action to create informed, sustainable neighborhoods free from industrial pollution.
And then, in 2011, Dennis, a reluctant hero, volunteered to organize 100 Thousand Poets for Change in New Orleans.
And now, here we are in Slidell with Dennis and Patricia and Toblerone?, aka Tobi, their sweet dog. Tobi hit it off right away with Puma and Ziggy, sniffing and wrestling in the yard, free at last! No worries there. Everyone felt at home.
Maybe it was Patricia’s down to earth love of art. She can weave a tapestry, carve a wooden duck, paint and sculpt, and even fix the broken frames of your eyeglasses if you happen to step on them by accident… (like I did, when they got knocked off my head near the cemetery where we walked the dogs after meeting with Gypsy Elise for coffee). Or maybe it was Dennis’ love of dogs. (Dennis has patience). When Ziggy went crazy, barking uncontrollably, Dennis just leaned down and looked the dog right in the eye and calmly said, “Don’t worry, it’s okay.” It worked! There is something rooted and sensible about them both, something focused and engaged…
But, in the end, the big question was not whether we wanted fig jam or fig-strawberry preserves on our toasted banana bread for breakfast, that was easy, I like the fig-strawberry, but rather the big question was…is it really possible to effectively organize 100 Thousand Poets for Change in New Orleans?
New Orleans suggests a live-and-let-live attitude, famous for its openness, and it is also seated firmly in the very conservative traditions of the south. This is a very red state overall. But New Orleans does know progressive traditions and radical realities. It has a very interesting publishing history and literary and artistic history, of course…
Here are some words and resources from Dennis.
In Other Words: An introduction to New Orleans “other” Publications – by Dennis Formento
New Orleans has had a long and storied career as a center of newspaper and literary publication.
Since the Times-Picayune has abdicated from daily publication, it might be worth our while to pick up local papers that have stood their ground.
The New Orleans Tribune, proclaims that it takes up where the historical Tribune left off. The historical paper, founded by Paul Trevigne, was the earliest African American-owned newspaper in the U.S. Long before the 14th, 15th and 16th Amendments, The Tribune advocated for the right of black Americans to enlist in the Union army no matter where they were from, to be able to cast votes in the ballot box and to enjoy equal rights with white citizens. Its story is told in the eloquent documentary, Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans, which has been featured on PBS. (http://www.tremedoc.com/)
Tribune writer, Orissa Arend’s, Showdown in Desire: The Black Panthers take a stand in New Orleans, first appeared as a chapbook-length story of a dramatic moment in 1970, when New Orleans police and Black Panthers faced off on Piety Street in the Desire housing project. The book was later expanded into a full-length history of the incident. A review of the book can be found here:http://showdownindesire.blogspot.com/
The Louisiana Weekly was founded in 1925 by the C.C. Dejoie family. With a subscriber base of just over 5800 readers, it may be the best little-known newspaper in the city. With the Times-Picayune’s abdication from daily, hard copy publishing, it would be just if the Weekly’s readership picked up. http://www.louisianaweekly.com/ Its only print interruption occurred during the federal flood disaster known as “Katrina,” in 2005.
LITERARY CULTURE: LES CENELLES
In addition to the newspapers New Orleans has been a center of literary publication. Les Cenelles (the holly or hawthorn berries) was an anthology of poetry edited by Armand Lanusse (1812–1867), It presents poetry by seventeen New Orleans poets all “free people of color” (gens de couleur libres.) This was a class of people distinct from both the white and the enslaved African American people of the city.
THE DOUBLE DEALER and THE DOUBLE DEALER REDUX
Travelling the high road is The Double Dealer Redux, which proclaims itself to be created on the model of a magazine founded in the Roaring 20s by Albert Goldstein, Julius Weiss Friend, John McClure and Basil Thompson. Among the original Double Dealer’s contributors was William Faulkner, and today its parent, Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society sponsors a literary festival and contest. One of its founding “guarantors” was the notorious Samuel Zemurray, whose name is plastered all over Tulane University and built his fortune forging a banana empire with military vehicles and armies borrowed from the USA. Nice work if you can get it, I suppose. I imagine I’ll never win their contest now.
It’s come to be known as a center of literary culture too. Bob Cass’s Climax was featured in Arsenal, published by the Chicago Surrealist group, although it wasn’t so much surrealist as a publication “of the jazz spirit.” Poet, painter, rapscallion, entrepreneur and amateur musician, Bob lived in an ancient crib near McDonough 15 public school in the French Quarter until his time ran out.
I interviewed him for Mesechabe: The Journal of Surregionalism. Bob Cass published Climax: A Creative Review in the Jazz Spirit in 1955 and 1956 from the bar, A Quarterite Place, at 733 Bourbon St. Invoking the loas of traditional jazz and anarchistic bohemianism, Robert Cass published poetry, fiction, and essays by writers such as Lawrence Lipton (The Holy Barbarians)and small press mainstay Judson Crews. He knew Kerouac and Ginsberg and created an imaginary demimonde of writers and artists (known as “The Society of the Marvelously Damned”) that made the scene in afterhours bars of the Vieux Carré. Bob Cass had shipped out unwillingly with the Navy in the Forties. He put himself “in the way” of Count Basie and Louis Armstrong in Kansas City. Later, Cass met a former member of Katherine Dunham’s dance troupe in New Orleans and together they tried their luck at teaching a group of young dancers how to do voodoo dances, leading to a legendary bust by the New Orleans police. His travelling jones made him the archetypal bohemian. His is a story of art and creative malingering in the shadow of “America’s time-clocked façade.”
THE OUTSIDER AND LOUJON PRESS
The Outsider and its parent Loujon Press were the brainchildren of Louise “Gypsy Lou” Webb and her husband, crime writer Jon Edgar Webb, Sr. Their story has been told in Jeff Weddle’s biography Bohemian New Orleans: The Story of the Outsider and Loujon Press. http://www.upress.state.ms.us/books/859
I first encountered The Outsider in the library at the University of New Orleans, as an undergradutate. Bound in an ordinary set of covers was an extraordinary set of publications, printed on variegated colored papers, pages cut in steps and in printed in multitudinous typefaces. They sold for a buck or two back in the day, 1961-1969, but a single copy today, on Amazon, might set you back a thousand dollars. Wayne Ewing’s dvd documentary: The Outsiders of New Orleans: Loujon Press, affords you a look at some of the Webb’s most fantastic book artistry, and features interviews with Gypsy Lou. http://www.loujonpress.com/
Lou was also the inspiration (or so it seems) of a little known song of Bob Dylan’s, “Gypsy Lou:”
“If you getcha one girl, better get two
Case you run into Gypsy Lou
She’s a ramblin’ woman with a ramblin’ mind
Always leavin’ somebody behind.
Hey, ’round the bend
Gypsy Lou’s gone again
Gypsy Lou’s gone again.”
Lou says that Dylan approached her one morning with an article about her and the press that the Times Picayune had published. This was in early 1963, and Lou was selling her postcard-sized art at Royal Street and Pirate’s Alley. About six months later, he recorded this little song on a Witmark demo. There used to be a Youtube video of Dylan singing the song, but SONY took it down a couple years ago. The recording is now available on The Bootleg Series, Vol 9: The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 and you can read more at http://www.bobdylan.com/us/songs/gypsy-lou#ixzz2Fp4bEF1X
Poet, playwright, journalist, and cultural activist Tom Dent died on June 6, 1998, of heart failure after his premature release from the hospital. He was sixty-six. Tom co-founded the storied Umbra workshop in New York City with writers David Henderson, Ishmael Reed and Calvin Hearnton. He returned to New Orleans to establish the poetry and theater workshops of the Free Southern Theater. Tom Dent also served as executive director of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival for about a dozen years. At his funeral, honorary pallbearers included Amiri Baraka , former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, South African poet Keorapetse “Willie” Kgositsile, and singer Germaine Bazzle. Tom had just completed a magnificent book on the civil rights struggle,Southern Journey: A Return to the Civil Rights Movement. He was the author of two books of poetry and several plays, co-edited the Free Southern Theater’s autobiography, The Free Southern Theater by the Free Southern Theater, and compiled the Mississippi Civil Rights Oral History Collection, housed in the Amistad Center at Tulane University. His one-act play, Ritual Murder, has been produced yearly since 1976. It is an eerie examination of the kind of senseless violence that plagues New Orleans today—and that tormented Tom as much as he loved the people and music of the city. Southern Journey (Tom’s book of reflections on the civil rights movement.)
His creative partnership with Kalamu ya Salaam and Wendell Narcisse resulted in Echoes from the Gumbo, later called Nkombo, a Bantu word that gave us “gumbo.” It grew from creative writing workshops put on by the Free Southern Theater (known as BLKARTSOUTH.) Nkombo also published Alice Walker, the aformentioned Keorapetse Kgositsile, and Maulana Ron Karenga. You can find a little more about Nkombo here: http://www.amistadresearchcenter.org/archon/?p=creators/creator&id=250
The group printed nine issues between the years 1968 and 1974, which just so happens to exactly parallel the career of the notorious NOLA Express, the city’s premiere underground newspaper. Dedicated to ending the war in Vietnam, NOLA Express came out twice a month on newsprint. It was founded and published by poets Darlene Fife and Robert Head, and employed a small army of longhairs and cultural radicals as writers, illustrators and vendors. NOLA had many run-ins with the law due to its leftist views and alleged obscenity. Its first issue was mimeographed, like many of the literary & political magazines of its time. NOLA EXPRESS published poetry, news, art, and interviews by dozens of local writers as well as by the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Charles Bukowski, and Diane di Prima. In fact, NOLA is credited with being the first publication to pay Bukowski for his stories, one of the reasons he was able to quit working and write full time. The White Panthers’ John Sinclair and Ed Sanders of the Fugs were regular readers. Robert and Darlene sued Richard Nixon for abuse of power and were busted for obscenity by the feds, but beat them in a landmark censorship trial in 1971. NOLA reached its peak of circulation in the same year, going out to over 11,000 readers every two weeks.
Darlene and Robert split for the hills of West Virginia in 1974 and are now proprietors of The Bookshop in Lewisburg, WV.
I’m afraid I’m running out of space! Other publications from the New Orleans area, including the ambitiously bilingual (Arabic/English) journal Meena, the New Laurel Review, and my own late Mesechabe: The Journal of Surregionalism (founded by John Clark and Stephen Duplantier) may be found here: http://www.poets.org/state.php/varState/LA
So, New Orleans is a community of traditions, progressive and conservative. New Orleans is rooted in contrasts.
There’s a current that runs through New Orleans that resists change, and organization, but this is also a town that has witnessed tremendous “change”, the change brought on by a natural disaster and government neglect that has turned the population upside down.
A town of festive celebration, New Orleans is also referred to as “The City That Care Forgot”. We will not soon forget Katrina!
They say: “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know”.
But what do I know, New Orleans is one of those magic cities, a city like Barcelona or Venice that seem to exist external to reality, in a vibe of cosmic reverberations.
This further supports my earliest thoughts, that while the guidelines for 100TPC are “peace and sustainability” and that the kind of “change” we are talking about falls within sustainability principles, ultimately the specifics are local. Outsiders don’t need to come here and preach about how New Orleans folks should run their city. Who knows better than the local community how change should manifest!
Dennis has organized 100TPC events now for two years. The first event was held at Alcee Fortier Park (“Mystery Street Park”) at Esplanade and Grande Route St. John. The second event was held in The Café Istanbul (Focus: The crisis in public education and the American obsession with violence).
Questions: What are the local concerns? How do local communities organize? What are local NOLA dynamics? I am eager to see how Dennis and our friends in New Orleans answer these questions and work this all out….
Dennis looks at 100TPC with a long view. Start small and manageable and let’s see how it goes. He proceeds with focus… Sometimes it is the small, honest event that evolves over many years, eventually creates an impact, and becomes a lifelong tradition.
For Tom Dent
by Dennis Formento
“In the marrow of the desert palm”
something, looks like a bitter pill,
dropped from the dream balcony
with the power of art to knock out
history with a love-kick. Roberts,
the bus-driver, prays, “let me zoom past the sun
& tell the stars
ride on, mamas”
certain secret messages are no secret—
revealed to someone who wrapped himself
in a lake of fog, & lay down
in explicit dreams. He thought no one
was listening, but, you know it—
he was talking non-stop
& we got a bunch of it on tape. When an old man dies
it’s like losing entire libraries. All or nothing,
it’s still everything to the voice of desire
pleading don’t, stop, when the crowds of his lovers
from every stratum of his past return
& whisper to him again all the secrets
of his poems that have the density of dreams.
Stripped of my own death metal I might begin to listen.
Death is getting harder and poetry more expensive
every day, dripping like fire from the nightly kitchens
on the moon from which, Mingus tells us, certain people
shouldn’t come back
while we’re searching for a nickel
on the bottom of the pool.
PART 2 – NEW ORLEANS SINGS THE BLUES WITH GYPSY ELISE & THE ROYAL BLUES: 25 Bands, 80 Musicians
Poets organize differently than musicians. Maybe…
And since we have added 100 Thousand Musicians for Change to the mix and New Orleans is a music town we should to talk more to musicians for insights and directions on this…
This is where Gypsy Elise comes into the picture. She organized a 100 Thousand Musicians for Change event for 2012. Terri, Dennis and I scheduled to meet with her at the Village Café in uptown New Orleans at 2pm.
Gypsy Elise is full of energy, highs and lows, she is engaged in life, no passive onlooker, ready for something to happen every second. Gypsy’s on a mission! Watch out! But there is something in Gypy’s voice that cuts and grooves in soothing directions, never shrill, her voice is low and calming, soul deep, her voice clearly sets you in another direction, braces you for the storm, calmly braces you for what’s coming next.
Gypsy sings the blues And you can’t help but listen.
What a treat it was to be with her talking around, between and through the notes, the rhythms and tonal nuances of the NOLA scene. This is how one musician organizes for change.
Some musicians are leaders, and some are not. Just like poets. Like anyone in the world, regardless of their art and/or craft, leadership and organizational abilities are individual and specific to each personality. But somehow wires got crossed, and many of us, me included, figured that most musicians would want to lead the charge for a better world.
If not now, some day.
Musicians have carried the brand as social and political leaders, leaders of the “revolution” ever since they were characterized as such by the popular media in the 1960’s. One sometimes wonders if the musicians were the revolutionary leaders or just supplied the soundtrack.
Some musicians were the Pied Piper, some were “only” numbers in a marching band. I hear the Saints!
Historic accounts suggests musicians played a mix bag in culture, in primitive society, and the alliance between the role of poet and musician was once upon a time very similar, or closer, (see Bowra’s Primitive Song). Sometimes the poet and musician were the same being. But somewhere along the way the one job got turned into two jobs and alienated.
I don’t think we can blame this on the industrial revolution. But maybe…
We have been broken apart it seems, musicians in one corner and poets in the other, in the same way that most professionals have been alienated by commerce, capital, divisions of trade and profitability.
Musicians Union. Poetry Unions. Never the twain shall meet… but then again…
We have become specialists, industrialized, and removed from our true organic nature, (my observations are more of a speculation than conclusion).
The poet/singer, the troubadour, the bard, has been boxed in professional alliances where products are manufactured, removed from the milieu of civilization and culture, commercialized, removed from the breeding ground and stew of passion and vision, …buried in the free enterprise advertising tool kit.
I recently heard The Beatles’ “Revolution” selling sweatshop Nike sneakers.
I am not an ethnomusicologist, or a scientist, so I go with my heart on this… my bias.
So, in the midst of outrageous commerce, Gypsy RoyalBlue Elise tried to herd the musical cats in NOLA for 100 TMC and it sounds like she did a pretty good job of it!
Gypsy truly understands the need to mix things up and do things grassroots. She is co-founder of the Homegrown Harvest Fest created in 2012 to help preserve Louisiana culture by bringing musicians and artists together, and which focused on raising funds for the local Musicians’ Clinic, which helps aging musicians get health care.
Bands and bandleaders, poets, singers and musicians gathered in the name of peace and sustainability on September 29, 2012 and beyond!
But was it everything Gypsy wanted?
Did the musicians and poets re-discover their roots in unity?
Was the event big enough?
Did enough folks turn out?
Musicians have to make a living too, you know!
Most musicians load in from the back, entertain the audience from the stage, then leave out the back again without ever crossing over into the teeming mass and crowd, without becoming part of the movement...
Did the musicians get the big picture that it was 100 Thousand Musicians for Change, a global reality, and not the usual local gig for dollars or a popular mainstream orchestrated cause? Did the musicians really know what they were there for?
I think Gypsy has a big heart and giant ideas and I admire her for it. I feel allied to her for her hopes and dreams, I appreciate her openness and her desire for real change, and I also share her disappointments, like when her ideals suffer because of economic realities and years of conditioned isolation.
Some musicians get it. Just like some poets get it. We’re in this together.
What’s up for next year in NOLA? Are we ready for New Orleans? Is New Orleans ready for us? Anything goes. The dynamics of contrast and celebration in New Orleans promises a monumental and stunning set of possibilities.
We’re looking into that and planning together for the future, Gypsy, Terri and me, and Dennis (the poet) and Pat (the artist), too!
Poets and Musicians and Artists Unite in NOLA (and everywhere else!).
We are in this together.