Having just published When the Water Came: Evacuees of Hurricane Katrina, a book of interview-poems that I made from interviews with evacuees and photographs by my co-author, Rebecca Ross, I was alert to the implications articulated in “The Voices of Hurricane Katrina, Parts I and II,” now archived on the Poetry Foundation’s website. Ross’ and my book is published by Bill Lavender of UNO Press, who has also published the University of New Orleans’ own oral histories project, Voices Rising I & II, edited by Rebeca Antoine. I knew this work, but not Abe Louise Young’s Alive in Truth: The New Orleans Disaster Oral History and Memory Project or Raymond McDaniel’s Saltwater Empire. The exchange between these two poets is timely for all of us who have responded to Katrina.
For the project I undertook, twelve interview-poems, the ethical issues Young discusses were those with which I’d wrestled for the three years it took to finish the book. I’d asked other questions, too, having to do with genre: Can a prose interview be turned successfully into poetry? Alive in Truth is an archive, not a poem, and McDaniel’s Saltwater Empire, which takes portions of the interviews collected in Alive in Truth, and shapes them into an assemblage of poetic voices, is a poem. Since my interview-poems fall somewhere between these two works, I want to share some of my own process here.
When the Water Came approaches its material (the experience of evacuees of the storm) with awareness of the ethical terrain. Its methodology, making a poem from the study of a voice, seems straightforward, even simple, but I knew that I was striking a delicate balance in this act of witnessing. I needed to pay attention. I’d schooled myself in the field, reading works like Carolyn Forché’s Against Forgetting and Shoshona Felman’s and Dori Laub’s Testimony, essays analyzing “the vicissitudes of listening” in relation to “bearing witness” (in their case, the Video Archive for Holocaust Testimony at Yale University). Over the years, I developed courses in the “poetics of witness” in order to broaden my knowledge and integrate this profound field intellectually and poetically through the pedagogical endeavor.
When I read Young’s and McDaniel’s pieces, it seemed to me that they were on parallel tracks. She addresses the issues his book raises for her, and he tries to explain what he did in the book, a bit inscrutably, “I don’t know what I did; I only know what I tried to do, what I wanted to do.” He was negotiating postmodernist poetry in a time of disaster, resisting “autobiographical writing,” writing of a shared experience (by those quoted, not by himself) by drawing on “found” personal narratives. It’s hard to miss the irony that in doing so, resisting his own personal details, he has adopted those of others, erasing the specificity of their experience. That McDaniel is defensive—if eloquent—is illustrated by the fact that he quotes the Alive in Truth site partially to explain that he was simply taking them at their word: “’Please explore our new digital archive of oral histories. We encourage you to read, reflect, and respond to these stories,’ reads the home page of the site; I did,” McDaniel notes. But astonishingly, he overlooks the copyright statement below: “Copyright © 2006 Alive in Truth. All rights reserved. All interviews, archival material, and photos are protected by copyright and require written permission from Alive in Truth for excerpts or reproduction in any form” (emphasis added). To ignore this statement, to insist that the material was “public” because posted on the internet, and to claim that the copyright law is “an irreconcilable muddle”—whether it is or no—may all be valid legally, but sweeps aside the ethical concerns that Young expresses both carefully and earnestly. McDaniel performs what amounts to a linguistic sleight of hands.
To be sure, after Katrina, it was hard to know what to do as an artist moved to respond in some way. Personally, I felt that I had no right to give voice to my emotions, because I was neither a native nor a resident. But like McDaniel, I noted some of the egregious stereotypes in the news and wanted to counter them. I honor the moral integrity of Young’s work with evacuees, her compassionate listening to them as individuals with voices of their own. I aspired to that as well. At the same time, I respect McDaniel’s concerned, if misguided, poetic investigation of embodied experience from a place of detachment, not compassionate detachment so much as analytical distance. McDaniel should have abided by Alive in Truth’s stipulation that permission was required to quote, as a courtesy to those who survived the storm and those who did the work of interviewing the evacuees. In citing the source, he followed the letter of the law. His question, “Does it matter that I wanted to draw attention to a dangerously simplistic representation by making a more complex one if my methods cause offense?” seems to me at once pointed and disingenuous. He isn’t answering Young’s objections, but that is a different issue than whether his art has integrity.
In dealing with a similar terrain, in working with a very experienced public artist, Rebecca Ross, in being aware that evacuees were participating in the project because they wanted their story heard in their own words and not framed by my thoughts, I took pains to ensure that each person I interviewed had access to the work in progress, was kept in the loop as it developed, was consulted for the accuracy of the material, and asked whether they were comfortable being a part of the project or wished to withdraw. I wasn’t posting the interviews but making interview-poems, using only the words of the individual evacuees. All interview-poems appear in the book only with the formal permission of each evacuee. I wanted to individualize inhabitants who did not have a voice—not to “give” them voice, but to offer a forum in which their voices might be audible, particularized, and dignified by the poetic measure I heard in their words.
When we had the book launch in New Orleans on August 31, 2010, Ross and I were on a panel with evacuees who had contributed interviews to Voices Rising II, among them the Nigerian Poet Laureate, Niyi Osundare, and the volume’s editor, Rebeca Antoine. Osundare criticized the tendency of journalists to want to impose falsely optimistic resolutions on his harrowing story of almost drowning with his wife in their attic. Neither McDaniel nor Young do that, and nor do Ross and I. We counter such tendencies with truth. I see our work as part of a Katrina “quilt,” offered as what E.L.Doctorow in a recent Nation calls “the aroused witness, the manifold reportage . . . [to] awaken our stunned senses to the public interest[.]” In response to one despairing comment from the audience that “no one elsewhere in America cares about New Orleans now,” I said that we do care, that we artists from elsewhere are among the “seeds” Katrina planted around the country, and we’re being called forth to speak now of New Orleans, and all that it represents about our country. Ross and I listened so intently that evening in order to remember, so as to be accurate. We listened so hard because the voices speaking were so soft that they seemed in danger again of being drowned out.
Cynthia Hogue has published seven collections of poetry, most recently The Incognito Body (2006), Or Consequence (2010), and the co-authored When the Water Came: Evacuees of Hurricane Katrina (interview-poems with photographs by Rebecca Ross), also published in 2010. Among her honors are a Fulbright Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in poetry, the H.D. Fellowship at the Beinecke Library at Yale University, an Arizona Commission on the Arts Project Grant, and the Witter Bynner Translation Residency Fellowship at the Santa Fe Art Institute. Also known for her criticism, Hogue has published essays on poetry, ranging from that of Emily Dickinson to Kathleen Fraser and Harryette Mullen. Her critical work includes the co-edited editions We Who Love To Be Astonished: Experimental Feminist Poetics and Performance Art (U of Alabama P, 2001); Innovative Women Poets: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry and Interviews (U of Iowa P, 2006); and the first edition of H.D.’s The Sword Went Out to Sea (Synthesis of a Dream), by Delia Alton (UP of Florida, 2007). Hogue taught in the MFA program at the University of New Orleans before moving to Pennsylvania, where she directed the Stadler Center for Poetry at Bucknell University for eight years. While in Pennsylvania, she trained in conflict resolution with the Mennonites and became a trained mediator specializing in diversity issues in education. In 2003, she joined the Department of English at ASU as the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry. Currently, she is working on a collection of essays entitled Wayward Thinking: Notes on Poetry and Poetics and a book-length translation from the French of Virginie Lalucq and Jean-Luc Nancy entitled Fortino Samáno (The Overflowing of the Poem), with her husband, the economist Sylvain Gallais.