“I write about chairs, put me in the chair section”: New Orleans Poetry Festival Day 1

-Reviewed by Claire Trévien

Book fair at the New Orleans Poetry Festival

There are some advantages to attending a poetry festival in a foreign country: no or little pressure to be diplomatic in your reviewing, a pair of eyes and ears that are unaware of the complex web of relationships and intrigue that link participants. It’s also somewhat disconcerting – were this any festival in the UK, I would recognize, if not be on familiar terms with at least a handful of people. Here, at the New Orleans Poetry Festival, I feel very much like, if not the only non-USA attendee, then at least the only one not currently residing in the USA (I might be wrong of course) – couple that with my accent which most people here seem to struggle to understand and the experience quickly feels alien.

Which is to say, I feel part of, yet very distanced from this Festival. This is a feeling that will no doubt evolve, which is why it’s important I record it as it is now, so I don’t later brush it under the carpet in my recollections. It’s not an unfriendly festival, but it’s also not especially open. I think, were I less shy and socially awkward it would probably be a different experience altogether, but frankly it’s a poetry festival so we’re all a bit of those things when we’re not knocking back the tequilas.

The venue itself is gorgeous and jealousy-inducing (as in, I wish Oxford had somewhere quite like it). The New Orleans Healing Centre is a hive of small businesses, with a very hippy feeling. All the events take place here which is incredibly practical, and they have the advantage of several meeting rooms, as well as the Istanbul Café – a funky old theatre-style bar where everyone can fit in easily for larger readings and events.

On panels and missing death by powerpoint

The heart of this festival so far has been back to back panels or reading sessions, with a lunchtime poetry reading to separate them out.  Then a featured poets reading in the evening.

I am going to mostly avoid talking about the first two panels I attended this morning, except in general terms. Both favoured an approach where:

  • Each panelist reads from their sheaths of paper or laptop or phone, separately.
  • No discussion, each essay is read out with varying amounts of passion or monotony.
  • The moderator’s role seems to be purely to read (lengthy) biographies out from their phone at the start, and then disperse everyone at the end, rather than tease out links between the panelists.

The second panel did a little better on that front, mostly thanks to the efforts of moderator Maggie Woodward who was an engaging speaker, and actually used the projector to give the audience something to look at during the reading of her poems, but as a whole it still felt very siloed. You can watch that section back here on Periscope.

My issues with this approach are:

  • It’s an unengaging format: where is the debate? Is the audience necessary to the experience?
  • The language of their essays is not adapted to long-form reading. I would much prefer to read them in my own time separately to the panel.
  • It favours those who digest information aurally rather than visually. Apart from said projections, there was very little in the way of visual interest

However, I understand the majority of panelists at both the events I attended are still students – so a) that makes me inclined to give them a break and b) perhaps this is simply a result of the over-academisation of poetry in the USA? They would have certainly fitted in well at some of the academic conferences I’ve attended in the past – but for a poetry festival, I think a more casual tone open to improvisation would work better.

Highlights of Day 1

The third panel “Beyond Genre: Obliterating the Literary” was incisive and engaging, and was a blueprint for how to make panels work. It was ably chaired by Tom Andes with Yuri Herrera, Moira Crone, Adrian Van Young, and Addie E. Citchens on the panel.

What made this panel work particularly well was:

  • That the speakers spoke freely on the topic without notes, and centred their answers around the questions Andes and audience members asked.
  • The discussion in itself was interesting – Yuri Herrera and Addie E. Citchens stood out in particular, but actually all the speakers did very well at teasing out the different ways in which labels can be useful or reductive, and the intersections of literary fiction and genre fiction. It’s also bumped Octavia Butler to the top of my ‘must read her asap’ list, along with a ton of other books (they promised to share a reading list).
  • “If you are not experimenting in everything you write, you are just repeating someone else’s idea of good literature” – Yuri Herrera
  • Genre as a “caste system to keep people in their places” -Addie E. Citchens

Another highlight was the Sacred Grove Reading Series showcase – there were all sorts of readings competing for attention in the same time slot, but I thought it’d be a great way to get a sense of the Tuscaloosa spoken word night scene. They specialize in Southern and traveling poets, and all five of the readers were consummate performers.

Rushelle Frazier

The variety here was fantastic, from Tim Jones Yelvington’s bitchy delivery in his poetry’s first supermodel piece, to Jenn Marie Nunes outsourcing from the audience for a reading in the round of different versions of her translation of a Chinese poet. Kwoya Fagin Maples held us all in her hand with her Blueberry Poem in which the tension between her teachers upholding William Carlos Williams’ poem up and her own need to write about Terence Crutcher’s death (‘leaking blue’) are teased out beautifully and tragically. I enjoyed the quirkiness of Lauren Hunter’s Human Achievement poems, which she terms as ‘giving little gold stars to failure’, while Rushelle Frazier rounded up the showcase with visceral poems of police brutality.

Finally, another highlight was a reading at the evening event by A Scribe Called Quess. His poems navigate with dexterity the clogged arteries of a traffic jam, to the confederate monuments that still feature in New Orleans. I found footage online of his reading of ‘Gentrification in 5 parts: a play on the senses’, which he also performed on the night.

Sadly, I didn’t stay for the other featured acts that evening as I’m still functioning on British time and struggled to stay awake (it’s 5am here as I add this final section).

Stray observations

  • Not sure if the all-day open mic happened at all -as everyone went from panel to panel. Might skip a panel tomorrow to see how that section is performing.
  • Interesting trend in some sessions for clicking and barking instead of applauding – that hasn’t really made it across the pond yet I don’t think? Do let me know in the comments if you know differently.
  • Book fair looked great and there’s a funky mega exquisite corpse going on too that I can’t wait to see in its entirety.

Let’s see what tomorrow brings – I hope to be able to focus more on sharing the content of the events I attend now that the groundwork has been laid. I will continue tweeting about it, including various quotations, over at @ctrevien and @sabotagereviews if you’d like to follow there.