Writers, Interrupted

Katheryn Krotzer Laborde

New Orleans poet Gina Ferrara is another fortunate soul who felt the effects of the evacuation on her writing process. Leaving for Jackson, Mississippi, on a Sunday morning, she packed for a three-day stay, making sure to take along a CD that contained all her poetry. When the storm veered east at the last minute, Ferrara felt sure that she would be returning home soon enough. But “then the levee broke,” Ferrara says, “and I saw my city slipping away.”

The house where Ferrara and her husband, Jonathan Kline, stayed did not have a computer, and she did not own a notebook computer—a situation that has since changed, after weeks of being away from home—so she did as she used to do before all of this technology: She went to the store and bought a notebook, of the spiral-bound variety. “I bought a red notebook and some mechanical lead pencils, and I began writing poems by hand,” she says. “I found that this was a totally different process [from] using the computer. Writing poems by hand is slower and it seems to be more of a permanent process. The page looks like graffiti, with arrows pointing in up and down directions, scratch-outs, and edits done in different colored inks.”

Ferrara dealt with this slight adjustment to her writing process easily enough, and got used to waiting for her turn on the computers at the public library. It wasn’t until she tried to access her work on the disc that she realized she had grabbed the wrong CD. “My poems were in New Orleans and I didn't have a clue about [the condition of] my house,” she says.

It would be weeks later that Ferrara would learn that her poems were safe. The water filled her street, but did not enter her house. In the many days that passed before she was allowed the single, simple mercy of being able to enter her own home, she saw televised images of nearby houses that were ruined by water. It was at that point in the evacuation that Ferrara wrote in an e-mail: “I can only hope that my poems are alright. Somewhere in the sludge surrounding my house is a disc with all of my work, and, in the interim, I have my red notebook.”

Patrice Melnick was all set to celebrate the milestone that all writers look forward to—the publication of her first book—when Katrina hit. While Turning Up the Volume (Xavier Review Press) was indeed published, there was no time to celebrate, no days of wine and readings, and, for the moment, no way to access the books. They are stored in a building that was flooded, on the fenced-off campus of Xavier University. The books “are safe in the library, [which is] well above the flood stage,” says Robert Skinner, the managing editor of Xavier Review Press. Noting that it is already listed on Amazon.com, he wryly adds that the book is “officially out there now—we just can’t send any copies out.”

Melnick, who splits her time between New Orleans, where she is the associate editor of Xavier Review Press, and Grand Coteau, Louisiana, admits that she hasn’t given much thought to the book since evacuating the area for Katrina and then waiting out Hurricane Rita. “I don’t want to do any readings or press until I am more settled, and have access to the books,” she says. “I don't see any point in a book party until things are closer to normal and books are easier to get to. I am trying to get back to writing, too, but I'm frustrated by interruptions and computer problems.”