By: Meah Matherne
The Saturn Bar on this Thursday is particularly busy. People with varying shades of bright hair walk in and out of the dimly lit establishment, milling around the bar and sitting in the leopard print booths against the wall. They pick up chapbooks and flick through the event’s brochure, all while the neon lights and a jazzy beat buzz overhead. The ones with the most eccentric of hair, or the most romantic draw, have faces that match with the pictures flashing on the slideshow above, with the revered title of “poet” next to their smiles. A stage is set up with a mic waiting to be spoken into and a dreamily dark scene lies waiting for lyrics to make it complete. The first poet steps up into the limelight and so it begins.
Tonight is the New Orleans Poetry Festival. Its first event is Locals Night, held at the Saturn Bar to kick off a weekend full of readings, workshops and book fairs that bring in poets from the area and from all around the world. The festival
NOPF was started nine years ago by Megan Burns and Bill Lavender, both poets and publishers in their own right who have an extensive history in the literary scene of the city. Burns is the publisher at Trembling Pillow Press, has hosted several past reading series, and has published nearly five books of her works. Lavender, meanwhile, has eleven volumes to his name in both English and Spanish and is the founder of Lavender Ink, a small press, and Dialogos, an imprint that emphasizes cross-cultural literature. After conversations over the years, the now co-directors discovered a strong need for the famously literary city of New Orleans to have its own event dedicated to poetry.
“We were lamenting the fact that New Orleans didn’t have a poetry festival like say, Brooklyn or Denver, so we said ‘Let’s just start one!’ and so… we did,” said Lavender, as he took sips of his beer and looked gladly at the people beginning to gather in the bar.
From its first year, the New Orleans Poetry Festival has grown, moving into larger venues and gaining more local, national and international notoriety. The festival now spans four days and includes reading series from local and international poets, particularly those from Brazil, with events held around the city. The festival is just as much a trip through the literary world of New Orleans as it is a trip through the many, starkly different parts of the city. Venues like the Saturn and Cafe Istanbul represent the Bywater beat, while the events at Tulane University showcase a more collegial and distinctly Uptown vibe.
The weekend of the festival also has an itinerary ripe with writers workshops, panels, open mics, formal readings and conversations amongst writers and readers alike. The New Orleans Healing Center hosts a small book fair for NOPF on Saturday and Sunday where the poets of New Orleans can share their work and mingle with one another, creating a stronger community amongst the poets of New Orleans.
“I wanted to expose poets from out of town to local poets here, and vice versa” said Lavender when talking about his goal in initially creating the event.
He believes an event like the poetry festival creates “cross-fertilization” between the poets of New Orleans, allowing the small pockets of poets from throughout the city to learn from each other and grow poetically. This has not been a reality in the past, as groups of poets have often been divided by stylistic lines as well as sometimes racial lines. Even now, there is still talk of a division between the white, more traditional scene in Uptown and the black, slam poetry rhythm downtown, but Lavender’s and Burns’ poetry festival hopes to have all reap the benefits from literary interaction.
New Orleans has long been a city ripe with the exchange of ideas between the various groups that call this bayou city home. Early in the city’s history, the French, Spanish, English, and African influences created a rich literary scene that sourced from the unique natural beauty of Louisiana and the quirky social scene of New Orleans.
Many famous poets of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have passed through or called New Orleans home. From Lafcadio Hearn to Tennessee Williams to Walt Whitman, the city has long been a haven of the writer and the creative individual in general. It has also been the subject of many poems, most famously Charles Bukowski’s “Genius of the Crowd”, which describes the frenetic energy of the French Quarter.
The quirky nature of New Orleans society has also allowed for voices in poetry to be heard that often have not had the ability to do so before. Because of the blurred lines in race and gender that have long existed in this crescent city, mixed race and women poets have often dominated significant parts of the literary scene, creating a literary space that addresses the unique feelings that accompany identities other than those of the mainstream. New Orleans poets like Brenda Marie Osbey and Alice Dunbar-Nelson, both black women, often explored the intersection of gender and race in their works, independently garnering national recognition and awards.
Despite the long history of poetry in New Orleans, the importance of poetry has ebbed and flowed. In the 60s and 70s, the black writers of the city fueled literary interactions, sponsoring theaters, reading series, and writers workshops. In 1979, Everette Maddox, along with the sculptor Franz Heldner and the poet Nancy Harris, began the famous reading series at the Maple Leaf cafe. The series still is ongoing and is the oldest reading series in New Orleans and also the oldest series in the South. Every Sunday at 4:20pm the reading begins at the bar on Oak Street and has featured many notable New Orleans poets and has published four anthologies of its readers’ works.
“His [Everette Maddox’s] ghost has haunted the New Orleans poetry scene for a very long time. For some people, I think it still does,” said Tulane Creative Writing professor, Brad Richard, a participant in the modern day NOLA poetry world.
Post Hurricane Katrina, the poetry scene shifted away from being highly tied to local universities, like the University of New Orleans, Loyola University, and Xavier, to focus more on cafe reading series and independent poetry groups. This shift also allowed for growth of a slam poetry scene as well as more room for poets of color, of different gender identities and of varying sexualities.
“The literary scene was no longer stuff just going on at the universities, that only the people at the universities knew what was going on. The Bywater started to take off. People were opening galleries in their living rooms that were getting write ups in national arts journals,” said Richard about the changes in the literary sphere following Katrina.
While in-person events took a hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, the poetry scene has bounced back in the city following the shift away from Zoom readings and socially distanced workshops. Today, poetry is in all parts of New Orleans. In bars like the Saturn, reading series like the Maple Leaf Bar and Rubber Flower Poetry Hour, and festivals celebrating poetry like the New Orleans Poetry festival, poetry has experienced a renaissance throughout the city as people have invested themselves more in the arts following the pandemic.
Against the din of traffic on St. Claude Avenue, Cameron Lovejoy, founder of the Rubber Flower Poetry Hour and one of the festival’s participant poets in Locals Night, greeted each of the passersby outside the Saturn with a firm handshake and their name.
“Things have been blooming a lot here in New Orleans. Something that’s different about New Orleans is that it’s a very welcoming community,” said Lovejoy. Richard agrees, saying that the poetry community in the city have depended on one another and supported each other over the years.
The poets of New Orleans have had to rely on each other. Despite a literary tradition that has been around longer than the United States has been a country, New Orleans is notorious for lacking in giving funding to the visual, written and performance arts of the city, causing poets to often have to leave the city or be attracted to more stable scenes in different parts of the country.
“This is one of my pet peeves about my home. As much as we have had a strong literary tradition, it’s not a town that really supports writers,” said Richard. “The city asks, ‘What could you possibly need ?’ Uh… money!”
The City of New Orleans has long underfunded the arts and cultural affairs in the city. Despite tourism of the city’s rich arts and cultural scene generating ten billion dollars of the New Orleans economy, only 1.1 percent of the city’s budget in 2017 went to cultural and arts sectors. In other cities of similar cultural richness, like Los Angeles and New York, funding towards these same sectors usually consumes 2 to 3 percent of the city’s budget. Such a gap in funding means that there is a lack of resources for budding and existing writers to tap into and less incentive for artists to devote themselves to their pursuits or choose to make New Orleans their home.
New Orleans has also never had a city poet laureate. Baton Rouge, however, started a city poet laureate program in 2019 despite having a considerably less strong literary scene. Such a program would help to fund a poet in New Orleans for a year and bring greater recognition to the literary undercurrents of the city. A city poet laureate program would call poets to the city, imbuing the scene with fresh voices and further snowballing artistic tourism to the city as well as efforts to greater funds the existing artists in the city.
If poetry is to continue in its strength in New Orleans, there needs to be more funding from both the city and state to make it viable for poets to focus solely on their craft. Creation of organizations like the Arts Council of New Orleans, which helps to meet the financial needs of various artistic groups, are a step in the right direction but the poetic geniuses of the Mississippi’s last outpost need grants, fellowships and sponsorships that encourage individual artists to pursue their work. Private funding from the Arts Council, the New Orleans Art Alliance, and universities may keep the starving artist fed for now, but as inflation rates rise, more public funding is definitely needed to keep the poetry scene alive in its most passionate and unique center.
“Even the state arts fellowships, which are now beyond being in a coma, I think they’re officially dead. Even when that program was at its most robust, you could get a five thousand dollar fellowship but you could only get it every ten years. In other places, you can get a five, ten, fifteen thousand dollar fellowship every year.” said Richard.
There is room for growth and much desire for further investing in the literary arts world of New Orleans. With so much emphasis on the visual and audio arts of the city, people often forget that there are typewriter poets sitting quietly on the main tourist streets alongside the irresistible bucket drummer and enchanting jazz band. The writer is who has helped to create the romantic fantasy of hauntingly beautiful New Orleans and who has chronicled the history of this place, so we do not forget that Creole French, Spanish and many Native American languages were spoken here before English ever became the langue du jour. They deserve similar recognition and financial interest as more mainstream art forms and events like the New Orleans Poetry Festival deserve as much participation as other popular city festivals.
“I would love to see as many people come out for the Poetry Festival as the French Quarter Festival,” finished Lavender. New Orleans poets deserve as much.