An Interview With Susan Larson

I recently had an opportunity to speak with Susan Larson, former book editor for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and host of WWNO’s The Reading Life, a podcast where she interviews celebrated and emerging authors. Larson has served on the boards of the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival and the New Orleans Public Library, and is the founder of the New Orleans chapter of the Women’s National Book Association. She is also the author of The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans.

You were the book editor for the New Orleans Times Picayune for many years. Do you miss doing that work?
I was the book editor from 1988 to 2009, such a grand period in local literary history, with many writers emerging to national recognition and major prizes, and the rise of so many great literary festivals. It was absolutely the best job of my life and I miss it every day! In the current days of the shrinking book review, it now seems to me impossibly lucky that I had two, sometimes three, pages a week for book review coverage, and I miss all those talented reviewers’ voices as well.

Talking to writers is a privilege and a gift: I am forever grateful for life-changing conversations I have had over the years with Dorothy Allison, Stephen E. Ambrose, James Lee Burke, Andre Dubus, Ernest J. Gaines, Derek Walcott, and Christine Wiltz.

Why was it important for you to start a chapter of the Women’s National Book Association in New Orleans?
I asked my longtime friend Mary Grey James, who had recently retired from working with Ingram Book Company and then went on to work at Parnassus Books, an independent bookstore in Nashville, what activity had meant most to her in her new life. She said that she was most proud of her involvement with the WNBA. After she came to talk to a group of women in New Orleans, we were off!

When people think of New Orleans, they often think of our food and culture. What do you wish people knew about New Orleans as a literary city?
One of my cherished dreams is to see New Orleans designated as a UNESCO City of Literature. As we continue to excavate our long history, we are learning more and more about how much we have contributed to American literature—consider the beginnings of African American literature here, for example, that are just beginning to be appreciated properly. And I wish more people realized how diverse the literary contributions have been from novelists, poets, playwrights, political writers, historians, writers of creative nonfiction. One of the things I treasure about living here is how much of our literary landscape survives in physical form—it means so much to me to drive or walk past the homes of writers who have meant so much to the world, imagining the lives they lived here, including Shirley Ann Grau, Walker Percy, Anne Rice, and Tennessee Williams, to name only a few. I often think I see New Orleans through a hazy dream of books I’ve read.

As host of The Reading Life podcast, what are some of your most memorable shows?
We are celebrating our tenth year on the air, after a brief pandemic hiatus. We try to present a range of writers, local and national, authors of fiction and nonfiction and poetry, focusing on writers who live here or are coming here for appearances.

Our show is conversational, rather than scripted because you always have to be ready to follow the author where they want to go. Some of my favorite guests have been Hillary Clinton and Chelsea Clinton talking about their book The Book of Gutsy Women: Favorite Stories of Courage and Resilience (Simon & Schuster, 2019); Alex Beard sharing the African adventures that led to his children’s picture books; Eddie S. Glaude Jr. on Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own (Crown, 2020); Sarah Broom on her debut memoir, The Yellow House (Grove Press, 2019); and Albert Woodfox on Solitary: My Story of Transformation and Hope (Grove Press, 2019).

What are you currently reading?
I’ve just finished Together in a Sudden Strangeness: America’s Poets Respond to the Pandemic (Knopf, 2020) edited by Alice Quinn, which is a book of great wisdom and consolation for these troubled times; there are days when poetry is the only answer. I’m savoring Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi (Bloomsbury, 2020) for my private pleasure after the long wait for this book; her debut novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is one of my favorite novels.

Next on my list are The Rib King by Ladee Hubbard, forthcoming from Amistad in January, and Economy Hall: The Hidden History of a Free Black Brotherhood by Fatima Shaik, forthcoming in March, which illuminates an important chapter in the history of free people of color in New Orleans. I’m also eager to read former president Barack Obama’s memoir A Promised Land (Crown, 2020).

Photo: Susan Larson.
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.

Celebrating the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of NOMMO

If you enjoyed our Hurricane Katrina Anniversary virtual event, join us on Thursday, October 29 as we celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the NOMMO Literary Society of New Orleans with a Facebook Live event.

NOMMO began as a workshop for Black writers in 1994 led by Kalamu ya Salaam in New Orleans. The workshop had high profile writing guests including Amiri Baraka, Toi Derricotte, and Terrance Hayes. Many consider it the foundation for similar writers workshops that would come soon after, such as Cave Canem and VONA. NOMMO dismantled formally after Hurricane Katrina but many of the participants continue their writing pursuits with success. Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jericho Brown was one of NOMMO’s early participants.

The upcoming virtual event will include Jericho Brown, Karen Celestan, Jarvis DeBerry, Freddi Williams Evans, Ayo Fayemi-Robinson, Keturah Kendrick, Marian Moore, and Kalamu ya Salaam. The panel will discuss the need for building community as writers, the cultural impact of New Orleans, and the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina and how it is applicable to our current pandemic.

Register for Unique and Unified: Celebrating the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the NOMMO Literary Society here!

To learn more about NOMMO, read my previous post about its history.

Photo: NOMMO Literary Society anniversary event flyer.
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.

 

Poetry Rooted in History: Brenda Marie Osbey

If you have sincere interest in Black New Orleans, the Louisiana Creole language, and how language summons us to grapple with history—Brenda Marie Osbey is my first recommendation. Osbey is the author of books in English and French, most recently, 1967 (William & Mary, 2018), All Souls: Essential Poems (LSU Press, 2015), and History and Other Poems (Time Being Books, 2013). For more than thirty years she has researched and recorded the history of Faubourg Tremé, a community founded by free Blacks in New Orleans. From 2005 to 2007, Osbey served as the first peer-selected poet laureate of Louisiana. I had an opportunity to speak with Osbey about her appointment as poet laureate, her writing process, and her advice for writers.

Photo: Brenda Marie Osbey (Credit: Baquet, New Orleans)
 

You were the second Black woman to be selected for the role of poet laureate of Louisiana. What lessons, if any, did you learn from this public role?
Because my spring 2005 appointment was the first one recommended by a committee of literary peers, I began by considering how I might best serve beyond the expected class visits that dominate most laureateship tenures. Then Katrina hit New Orleans on the 29 of August as a Category 1* hurricane, after which the levees broke, flooding the city of New Orleans and the surrounding area.

During my two-year laureateship, I traveled the United States, advocating for the right to return and rebuild, speaking on disaster panels, giving mini-versions of the Black New Orleans Research Seminar I had been teaching at universities across the country in the years before the storm. For a while, there was a narrative floating about that New Orleans was not worth rebuilding or saving in any way that would be deemed costly. I sought to dispel this notion in various ways. Additionally, every week I gave readings, and met and engaged with southeast Louisianians—mostly New Orleanians—dispersed across the country, bearing with them their narratives of displacement. It was a wrenching and humbling experience. And it taught me countless lessons about the far reach of community.

In a 1986 interview in the Mississippi Quarterly, you were asked if the New Orleans community was supportive of your work and mentioned that although you love the city, you do some of your best work away from here. You also made a distinction between New Orleans being an arts city and a cultural city. Do you still feel the same way today, and how has that impacted your work?
I was attempting to convey how, despite the city’s long history of cultural/creative output, there was no structure or system in place in New Orleans to support the arts—beyond the entertainment model, that is—which would include supporting arts workers. Which is a longer conversation than is possible here.

Rooted as it is in New Orleans—history, culture, language, sensibilities—writing often requires the kind of distance that allows one to see and consider one’s objectives and materials differently away than at home. Seeing the forest for the trees is necessary to thought, insight, and reflection, and is required to produce work.

Out of all your amazing books, which was the most difficult to write and why?
I don’t think in terms of difficulty or ease. My work is primarily research-based, and each book is a deliberately conceived project with its own arc and progression. And since I’m always working on multiple projects at any given time, my attention is either on the work at hand, what’s next in queue, or some combination.

What’s your advice to young poets?
Learn to read one or more languages. Moreover, study your native language as if learning it for the first time. More so than other genres, poetry is rooted in the human tongue.

Listen to Osbey read “Everything Happens to (Monk and) Me”:

 
*“Reported in 2005 as having struck New Orleans as a Category 1, online information has recently changed the impact of Hurricane Katrina to a Category 3—levees purportedly having been built to withstand hurricanes at the higher level,” Osbey says. “Those of us who were here in New Orleans, however, experienced and witnessed Katrina as a Category 1 hurricane, and recognize the levee breaches and loss of lives as a man-made disaster.”
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.

Katrina Fifteenth Anniversary Virtual Reading

On August 26, I curated a virtual reading highlighting New Orleans writers to remember, as I said at the event, all the people, all the cultural places, all the businesses, all the family artifacts, all the schools, all the neighborhoods, and the ways of being that were lost physically and dismantled systematically by Hurricane Katrina. It is hard to believe, but August 29 marked the day the levees broke in New Orleans fifteen years ago.

To commemorate the occasion, Dr. Mona Lisa Saloy, Tom Piazza, Alison Pelegrin, José Torres Tama, Lolis Elie, and Asia Rainey read from their work and shared their experiences. Fourteen-year-old New Orleans saxophonist Akeel Salah Muhammad Haroon treated us with a performance to close the evening.

Readings & Workshops program coordinator Ricardo Hernandez, who helped with tech support, said of the event: “The featured readers were all incredible. I was especially moved to hear Lolis Elie read from “The Whys” and I looked up the piece so I could quote it accurately: ‘Some of us came back because we didn’t believe that the insurance company that we’d dutifully paid for decades would cheat us in our hour of gravest need. (If Dante Alighieri had endured the inferno of our flood, he would have kindled a special fire for insurance companies!)’”

Curating this event was fun but challenging, especially with the added pressure of doing this virtually and praying for no tech hiccups. Luckily it all worked out and our virtual audience was pleased. My goal was to highlight all the ways Hurricane Katrina impacted the city’s writers. It was hard to curate because so much is at stake with a reading that represents the loss and trauma of an entire city. I was happy that each writer brought a different voice and perspective to the reading.

Thank you to all of those who joined us on Facebook for the live event. If you missed the reading, you can watch it here. There is also a wonderful piece written by Joshua Barajas for PBS NewsHour about our event.

Writing about Katrina can be painful, but mostly it is a celebration of what makes New Orleans so special. As Saloy says in the PBS NewsHour piece, “We’re not just authors. We are the carriers of our culture.”

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.

We Remember Hurricane Katrina: A Virtual Reading

August 29 marks the day the levees broke in New Orleans fifteen years ago. To commemorate the occasion, I am curating a multi-genre reading to remember the lives that were lost and changed by Hurricane Katrina, and the city that was abandoned and continues to thrive. The writers invited for this reading represent the vast stories and experiences of the storm.

The featured readers for our virtual event include:

Lolis Eric Elie, New Orleans native and Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker, who most recently joined the writing staff of the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle and has written for the OWN series Greenleaf and HBO series Treme.

Alison Pelegrin, author of Waterlines (Louisiana State University Press, 2016) and professor in the English department at Southeastern Louisiana University.

Tom Piazza, author of the post-Katrina manifesto Why New Orleans Matters (Harper Perennial, 2008) and a principal writer for the HBO drama series Treme, which explores the aftereffects of Katrina in New Orleans.

Asia Rainey, New Orleans native and veteran artist with a resumé spanning twenty years in spoken word poetry, music, theater, television, visual arts, and film.

Dr. Mona Lisa Saloy, professor of English at Dillard University and author of Second Line Home (Truman State University Press, 2004) and Red Beans & Ricely Yours, which won the 2006 PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Prize and the 2005 T. S. Eliot Prize in poetry.

José Torres Tama, writer and poet exploring anti-immigrant hysteria in his written work and solo theater show Aliens, Immigrants & Other Evildoers.

We will also have music performed by fourteen-year-old New Orleans saxophonist Akeel Salah Muhammad Haroon.

The reading will be livestreamed on the Poets & Writers Facebook page on Wednesday, August 26 at 6:00 PM CDT. Hope to see you there!

Photo: Flyer for the Fifteenth Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina virtual reading.
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.

Lessons From New Orleans

How are you doing? This is an essential question for all of us. In New Orleans, asking such a question could still mean how are post-Katrina? Recovery. Resilience. These are words attached to the city’s brand. However the reality for many people, in particular writers and artists, is still arduous.

The world can learn from New Orleans during the coronavirus pandemic without deeming it a “Katrina moment.” Our moment was our moment but the lessons about government failure, natural disasters, and depending on strangers for survival are applicable. We know how education systems can change overnight.

For many in New Orleans and the surrounding affected areas, the pandemic adds more weight to an already heavy living. But New Orleans has the writers, researchers, artists, stories, food, land, and music that tell stories of humanity and point a way to the light.

August 29 marks fifteen years since the levees broke in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. I am excited to be curating some virtual events with Poets & Writers, including a reading dedicated to remembering the impact the storm has had on the people and culture of this city.

Follow my Twitter feed, @NOLApworg, for more details and updates for this event and more from New Orleans. I’ll also share about upcoming events in our other United States of Writing cities: Detroit and Houston.

Photo: Flyer for the Hurricane Katrina anniversary reading.
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.

The Virtual Writing Community

I’ve lost track of the days and how many Zoom meetings and events I have attended since the start of this pandemic. All the days are a blur of keyboards and news feeds.

The toll of uncertainty on the body, mind, and spirit is real. I encourage you to unplug some days and find small joys. This pandemic will not be a sprint but a marathon. Pace yourself with quality time, loved ones, and perhaps your favorite ice cream.

One of the things I have enjoyed during quarantine is being able to attend events virtually. I would not have been able to afford or travel the distance to see many of the kind of events I’ve “attended” online. There are some great virtual events that are really giving unprecedented access to talks, writers, workshops, and more. Many are listed in the P&W Literary Events Calendar. Take advantage of them. Allow your mind to think less local and more global. Even if we ever return to a maskless society, technology will be our bedfellow.

I’m happy to say I’ve made some virtual new friends and discovered new writers that I enjoy.

Have you been attending virtual events? Have there been some pleasant surprises? Let me know how literary virtual events are impacting you for the good on Twitter, @NOLApworg.

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.

Writer’s Notes From COVID NOLA: Benjamin Morris

Benjamin Morris is the author of Coronary (Fitzgerald Letterpress, 2011), Hattiesburg, Mississippi: A History of the Hub City (History Press, 2014), and Ecotone (Antenna/Press Street Press, 2017), and the editor or coeditor of four volumes of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. His work has received academic and creative fellowships from Tulane University and a residency from A Studio in the Woods in New Orleans. You’ll always find him somewhere in New Orleans supporting the literary community.

How has this pandemic impacted you personally and professionally?
In a word: multiply. During lockdown I’ve been grateful to stay healthy, but even having avoided the virus thus far, it’s hard to avoid that gnawing feeling of anxiety over so many everyday activities: It seems like everything we do now is laced with tension. That’s the strangest thing; because the virus could be anywhere, it’s everywhere. Every public move you make is a risk calculation. That said, like many folks here and across the country, I’ve taken a punch to the fiscal gut. Early on in the outbreak my hours at my day job were cut in half, and every gig, reading, and appearance I had planned since February has been canceled. Last month, I was supposed to give a lecture on trends in contemporary Mississippi poetry to the Mississippi Poetry Society, which has now been rescheduled for 2023. It’s not been easy.

What books are you reading while quarantined?
I’ve just finished The Everlasting by Katy Simpson Smith, which came out in March (so go buy it!). The novel is set in Rome, Italy, over four different time periods, following a structure not unlike David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Not only is it a gorgeous book in its own right, but mentally traveling through time and space has been an ideal antidote for the malaise of quarantine. Next up is poetry—I’ve got a stack of books from past presenters at the New Orleans Poetry Festival, such as Henk Rossouw’s Xamissa and Lee Ann Brown’s Polyverse. And just before Mardi Gras, a friend gave me a first edition of C. D. Wright’s Rooms Rented by a Single Woman published by Lost Roads Press—what a gift!

If you knew five months ago what you know now, how would you have prepared for this moment?
More exercise equipment! I’ve long held that the gym is like church for the body, and outside of church it remains the single best place to boost mental health. I was underprepared with gear when the outbreak broke out (apologies for the chiasmus), and have had to cobble together different implements since. Believe it or not, you can do more cardio with a rake than you think.

Have you attended or participated in any virtual readings? Is it here to stay or do you prefer to return to in person readings?
When we voted to cancel the 2020 New Orleans Poetry Festival, it was one of the most difficult decisions our board had ever faced. A small salve for the wound was our attempt over the original festival weekend to curate a virtual fest, soliciting videos of readings, panels, tributes, and odes to the kitchen sink—my own submission features a guest appearance from my cat. They’re all up on the festival’s website and I couldn’t be more grateful to everyone who made it happen. But no, to my mind, virtual readings versus in-person events are like how Wynton Marsalis once compared listening to a CD versus going to a live performance: like looking at a picture of a steak.

What’s your hope for New Orleans during and after this pandemic?
One thing that has moved me these last few months is the outpouring of simple kindness from our citizenship. Like many have said—most recently Maurice Ruffin in the New York Times—in some ways this is like Katrina all over again. I well remember from those years the shared recognition that just about everyone you encounter on a given day—friend, family, stranger—is suffering from untold depths of stress, and a little extra patience, tolerance, and consideration can be the difference between a day they survive and a day they don’t. It’s like that all over again. My hope for the city is that we recognize the fragility of all our relationships, even transitory ones, and allow such gentleness and tenderness to reenter civic life for good.

Benjamin Morris. (Credit: David G. Spielman)
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.

Writer’s Notes From COVID NOLA: Tracy Cunningham

Tracy Cunningham is the managing director of the Tennessee Williams & New Orleans Literary Festival and co-director of the New Orleans Writing Marathon. A fiction writer, her writing has appeared in Louisiana Literature and in various anthologies.

How has this pandemic impacted you personally and professionally?
Personally, I’ve been truly lucky, in that no one in my family or my immediate close circle of friends has been ill from the virus. I’ve been able to continue working with ease, as I already have a dedicated writing studio at home, so I’ve just made room for my festival work in my creative space. Professionally, this has been quite a challenge. Our year of preparing for the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival and Saints+Sinners LGBTQ literary festival was all for naught, as we had to cancel just twelve days before our opening event. Since then, we’ve scrambled to adapt to the online world, and we’ve done a few online events with more planned for the coming months. A festival is inherently a social activity, and to move portions of that to an online format is daunting, but we’re eager to connect with our writers and patrons.

What books are you reading while quarantined?
I’m finally finding time to read some of the books by authors who were part of our 2020 festival programming. I’ve recently enjoyed Jac Jem’s False Bingo, Saeed Jones’s How We Fight for Our Lives and Jamie Attenberg’s All This Could Be Yours. Now I’m diving into Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s We Cast a Shadow, and I can already see why it’s getting so much praise. Katy Simpson Smith’s newest book, The Everlasting, is next in my pile.

If you knew five months ago what you know now, how would you have prepared for this moment?
Professionally, knowing that far in advance that our festivals would be canceled would have made that process so much easier. Cancelling just twelve days before kickoff was extremely stressful, especially since we were among the earlier events that had to shut down, so there was no real model to follow.

Luckily, our small team works well together and we were able to get the word out to our people and handle refunds quickly. Personally, I would have enjoyed the city more, had more cocktails and dinners with friends, and appreciated everything NOLA has to offer just a bit more.

Have you attended or participated in any virtual readings? Are they here to stay or do you prefer in-person readings?
I have attended some and I like it just fine, although it’s a bit awkward with everyone smiling and nodding silently. I like how unexpected fun can erupt, though, like at the end of Leigh Camacho Rourks’s reading and interview for her book Moon Trees and Other Orphans. We were all fawning over her two cats, and suddenly all of us grabbed our pets to show them off onscreen. It was a hilariously sweet moment.

In-person readings are ultimately better though for connecting readers and writers, getting books signed, and feeling more in tune to the literary community. But for now, this is what we have and I’m happy to see how many opportunities we have to connect. Our independent bookstores, like Garden District Book Shop, have hosted some great online events, and we partnered with them and Beauregard-Keyes House to host an upcoming Sunday Salon Series. And we partnered with Tubby & Coo’s Mid-City Book Shop to feature some of our Saints+Sinners Festival speakers.

What’s your hope for New Orleans during and after this pandemic?
My husband works at Galatoire’s, so we’re eager to see the numbers drop low enough for restaurants to re-open (with careful measures to keep patrons safe, of course). I hope we’re able to gather again and enjoy the beauty and history and culture that is so uniquely New Orleans.

Tracy Cunningham. (Credit: Tracy Cunningham)
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.

Writer’s Notes From COVID NOLA: Tad Bartlett

Tad Bartlett is a fiction writer, essayist, and recovering poet. He was born in Ankara, Turkey; raised in Selma, Alabama; and married into New Orleans, Louisiana. Bartlett received his BA in theater and creative writing from Spring Hill College and a law degree from Tulane University. He earned his MFA in fiction from the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans, where he was a reader for Bayou Magazine. Bartlett lives in New Orleans, where he practices law and works on various writing projects, including a collaborative novel with fellow Peauxdunquian J.Ed. Marston, a new novel project, and various short stories and essays. He also serves as the managing editor of Peauxdunque Review.

How has this pandemic impacted you personally and professionally?
Personally, the pandemic has been, of course, anxiety inducing. It has had potentially devastating financial effect on me and, more guttingly and assuredly, the communities around me here in New Orleans. Friends and colleagues have experienced sickness and death in their families. I have lost a good friend, not directly to the pandemic, but to depression and substance abuse issues that were undoubtedly exacerbated by the pandemic. I am helpless as to so much of that. My family is scattered from Montgomery to Austin, but even my close friends here in New Orleans I have only been able to see through the magic of technology. I want nothing more than to give them long hugs, to share a drink with them, and I know I’m far from alone in that.

Professionally, as a writer and member of writing communities, the pandemic has been oddly galvanizing. We “meet” (through that technological magic) far more often than we did in pre-pandemic times, and with far more deliberativeness. I have more time to write, which still isn’t as much time as I would want, but my writing feels more clearheaded and focused, and in certain ways, more driven and less obligatory. And the journal for which I’m managing editor, Peauxdunque Review, has provided a great opportunity to engage more with other writers and hopefully bring some positivity to them.

What books are you reading while quarantined?
The Lost Book of Adana Moreau by Michael Zapata, A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash, The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah, Pride of Eden by Taylor Brown, Exile Music by Jennifer Steil, and How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon.

If you knew five months ago what you know now, how would you have prepared for this moment?
I don’t know what I would have done differently to better prepare myself for this moment. For example, if I knew even two and a half months ago what I know now, I probably would not have gone to the AWP conference in San Antonio at the beginning of March. As it is, for both personal and professional reasons, I am so glad that I did go, that I had those days of very carefully navigated closeness with old friends and new friends to talk about words and writing and community, even knowing in the back of our heads that this might end up being the last time in a long time for that to happen. There was a sad deliciousness to it that I am glad I experienced.

Have you attended or participated in any virtual readings? Is it here to stay or do you prefer to return to in-person readings?
I have participated in a few virtual readings. They have been invaluable in keeping the various writing communities, of which I am part, together and vital. Though, nothing beats the in-person reading. In my deepest wishes (fantasies?), we can all return to those evenings in a bar or a bookstore or a generous reading space, where we hug and dap and laugh over a cheap cheese plate and crackers and cheaper wine, and then all quiet down in joyful anticipation for the evening’s readers.

I do not fool myself, though. The world will be different coming out of this. I think we will have in-person readings again. But we may be masked. We will certainly be less physically intimate in our greetings and interactions. We will feel sadness in greater portions along with the joy.

What’s your hope for New Orleans during and after this pandemic?
My greatest hope for New Orleans during the pandemic has already been realized—that it will be New Orleans’s writers and artists who will do the good work of expressing our experience with the pandemic to the world. My greatest hope is that our writing and artistic communities will move forward with full respect for how we’ve changed, for how we are still a unique place in America and in the world, and for how we are all tied together.

Tad Bartlett. (Credit: Tad Bartlett)
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.

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