Lee Meitzen Grue lives in downtown New Orleans. Her most recent book of poetry, Downtown, is published by Trembling Pillow Press and is made up of new and selected poems chosen for their reference to the old neighborhoods of New Orleans, including Treme, The French Quarter, Marigny, Bywater, and the Lower Nine. The book is dedicated to her friends and neighbors in the Ninth Ward, who suffered from Katrina. Grue is also former director of the New Orleans Poetry Forum and editor of the New Laurel Review. She teaches writing at the Alvar Library.
I live in the Bywater, which is part of the Ninth Ward. When we moved to the neighborhood after Hurricane Betsy, many residents were moving out. We were able to buy an Edwardian house over one hundred years old. With some renovation, we built a small West Indies–styled building and began The First Backyard Poetry Theatre. For nineteen years, I directed the New Orleans Poetry Forum Workshop, and we held readings in the theatre until 1991. Since Katrina, we’ve hosted two art shows and continued to host readings with local and internationally known poets and musicians.
I have an MFA in writing but don’t consider myself an academic. I enjoy the world of small presses and teaching in the community. A few years ago, I discovered Poets & Writers was offering grants for readings and workshops in New Orleans. Since the Alvar Library was my neighborhood library in the Ninth Ward, I approached librarian Mary Ann Marx about applying for a grant to host some workshops. Happily she did.
Although the library was flooded after Katrina, and many of its books were ruined, the people of Bywater rallied, remodeled, and revived the library. It now features artwork by neighborhood artists, new books and programs, and a beautiful garden.
The students who attend my workshops range in age from eighteen to eighty-eight, all hues. I teach fiction and poetry classes. For fiction, I get the class writing in the first workshop and ask each writer to talk about their writing.
In poetry classes, I suggest the students read a list of books, which have included The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics, Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems, and Louis Untermeyer’s The Golden Treasury of Poetry, a book that my aunt drove fifty-five miles to Beaumont, Texas, to buy when I started writing poetry at the age of nine. It was the 1940s, but that book included women poets!
We’ve also asked the library to get us books, including Kalamu ya Salaam’s In The Bend of the River and books by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and Yusef Komunyakaa, who is from Bogalusa, Louisiana. And, I recommend they read Poets & Writers Magazine, to which the library subscribes.
We’ve collected stories for an anthology we hope to publish. Most remarkable have been the number of older students who have written books: Maggie Colllins has published a number of short stories and her novel Celestial Skies was a finalist for the William Faulkner Writing Contest. Edmunc Mazeika published Peace Is Possible online. Sean David Hobbs wrote a memoir about living in Turkey, called Sex and Homeland.
Thanks to Poets & Writers, we’re now the Alvar Writers. And, thanks to Henri, the librarian at the Alvar Library, we're always stocked with a few healthy snacks and some delicious chocolate!
Photo: Lee Meitzen Grue. Photo credit: Henri Fourroux.