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The City and the Writer: In New Orleans with Sheryl St. Germain

By Nathalie Handal

Special Series/Nature Writers 2015

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

                  —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


 

Can you describe the mood of New Orleans as you feel/see it?

It would be hard to limit New Orleans to one mood. It’s true that the city is always ready for a party, even in situations where others would be grieving—deaths and hurricanes, for example. But it’s also true that it’s a city filled with many moods, and while a celebratory mood may be one of its layers, it is also a city that seems to me to always exist in a state of desire: to live life to its fullest, to taste, to drink, to experience everything there is to offer, even when the offering is deadly. It’s a city that almost never says no. Instead, its mood is more like bring it on.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city? 

There are so many: my father, my aunt, and both my brothers died young and tragically in this city with deaths related to substance abuse. Alcohol and drugs have long been part of the psyche of New Orleans, the darker side of a people who find it difficult to say no.

Returning to the city a few weeks after Katrina was also heartbreaking. One of my brothers had died right before Katrina, and his house was destroyed by the storm. Visiting his house in September of that year—the roof ripped off, all the furniture covered with fungus and mildew—and remembering the past May I’d visited for a family crawfish boil he had organized was perhaps one of my most heartbreaking moments.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Most tourists never leave the French Quarter, and stay only in deeply urban areas, but there is nature everywhere in the city, even in the French Quarter if you just open your eyes to it. I would suggest a day walking through the Quarter, ignoring, as much as possible, strip joints and juke joints, the tourist shops, just opening your eyes to the natural landscape—not just planted trees and shrubbery, flowers, but that life that offer itself up in the cracks of the streets, on the borders of the levee.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

John Biguenet, Alison Pelegrin, Chris Rose, John Kennedy Toole, Anne Rice, and Kate Chopin.

Is there a place here you return to often?

I love to walk the levee along the Mississippi on the edge of the French Quarter and look out at the river. The bend of the Mississippi at this exact point occupies the historical place where the first houses that would become the city were built, and is incredibly storied and potent. The waters carry powerful juju, and if you are still, and listen to the River, you may find yourself seduced by its beauty and wisdom. Someone may need to tap you on the shoulders and say, Wake up, it’s time to go.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Two places: A Studio in the Woods, an artist’s retreat in Algiers, just across the river from New Orleans, which also is a preserve for Mississippi bottomland hardwood forest; and Faulkner House Books in the French Quarter near St. Louis Cathedral.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

There are many: the French Quarter is a city unto itself, as is the Lakefront area, and some might call the city that we become during Mardi Gras a somewhat other city. But these are not hidden. What is hidden is the interior of iconic St. Louis Cathedral, which has a personal relevance for me because many of my Catholic ancestors from the last two hundred years were married here or received some sacrament here. It’s a gorgeous respite from the parts of the Quarter that have become commercialized: quiet, grave, and inspiringly spiritual, even for those of us who have lost our faith. My son died a few months ago, and one of the first things I thought to do after his death was go to St. Louis Cathedral and light some candles for him—the more the better—to invoke whatever help the ancestors might offer him in his passing to another world.

Where does passion live here?

Of course, passion lives in the music: the jazz, the rhythm and blues, the parade second-lining and jazz funerals. Passion lives in the food as well: the gumbos, the jambalayas, the boiled crabs and shrimp and crawfish, the oyster po’boys, the king cakes, and even the incredibly decadent snowballs, all of which natives of the city love. But passion also lives in the weather: the heat, damp, and relentlessness that enter you like a lover, make you wet, and bring out your most intimate desires. It’s in hurricanes and the lead-up to them, in the eye of the storm as well as its edges, in the sweet rains of spring that last and last and make everything green for the explosion of festivals that start during Mardi Gras season and continue into the summer.  

What is the title of one of your works about New Orleans and what inspired it exactly?

Navigating Disaster: Sixteen Essays of Love and a Poem of Despair is a collection of lyric essays (and one poem) published by Louisiana Literature Press a few years ago. It was inspired by both public and more personal disasters that have affected the city and my family. Some of the essays are meditations on Hurricane Katrina, others on the Gulf Oil spill that occurred not long afterward. Some were inspired by heroic landscapes that survived Katrina, such as the bottomland forest at A Studio in the Woods, where I spent some time as a resident. Some pieces address more personal disasters such as my brother’s death in the city, and my own struggles trying to mother a son who was suffering from the same addictive tendencies of my father and brother.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside New Orleans, does an outside exist?” 

I have not lived in New Orleans for quite a while now, though I return often to visit family and still think of it as home. And yet, if home is the place where you feel comfortable, where you can kick off your shoes and be yourself, then writing is also my home, no matter where I am physically in the world. When I pick up the pen, I experience the most profound feeling of acceptance and familiarity I know. But that familiarity has a lot to do with the deep sense I have of myself as a writer whose spirit has been deeply shaped—infected if you will—by having been raised in New Orleans, at the mouth of the Mississippi, a place where one grows up comfortable with ambiguity, with land that is sometimes land and sometimes water, comfortable with the constant threat of destruction over which one has almost no control, and comfortable with seeing one’s—sometimes scary—reflection in dark, slow-moving waters. New Orleans is city of passion and violence, and it exists as a sort of singing duende that I always, always feel inside of me when I sit down to write, no matter where I am.

Where does the nature exist within the city?

New Orleans is cut through by the Mississippi, and bordered, to the north, by Lake Pontchartrain, which is actually not a lake at all, but a brackish estuary comprised of some of the largest wetlands along the Gulf Coast. These two bodies of water are the most visible and powerful natural areas. But the city also has two gorgeous parks, Audubon and City Park, dotted with ancient live oaks and hanging Spanish moss, as well as many green areas (and an urban park) in the French Quarter. Backyards and gardens are also wonderfully colorful refuges for nature in this subtropical climate.

Is writing from a city somehow different than writing from natural landscapes? If so, how?

There’s a reason why most writing retreats are in areas outside of cities where nature is the primary attraction. One is less distracted by the hum and frenetic pace of the city, and one feels invited to linger, reflect, engage in the kind of meditation that can lead to a poem or essay or story. I’m always impressed by the intelligence of the natural world. Crawfish burrows and birds’ nests, cypress trees and the still surface of swamps, for example, have the capacity to move me more than the greatest examples of human architecture. Writing in a natural landscape brings me back to the elemental things in life, and reminds me of why I first picked up a pen to begin with: to praise beauty and tragedy, and to craft my own response—be it gratitude or fist—to mystery.

 

Sheryl St. Germain was born and raised in New Orleans, where her family has Cajun and Creole roots that go back over two hundred years. Her poetry books include The Mask of Medusa, Going Home, Making Bread at Midnight, How Heavy the Breath of God, The Journals of Scheherazade, and Let it Be a Dark Roux: New and Selected Poems. She has written two memoirs, Swamp Songs: the Making of an Unruly Woman, and Navigating Disaster: Sixteen Essays of Love and a Poem of Despair. She co-edited, with Margaret Whitford, Between Song and Story: Essays for the Twenty-First Century, and with Sarah Shotland Words Without Walls: Writers on Violence, Addiction and Incarceration. Her work has received several awards, including two NEA Fellowships, an NEH Fellowship, the Dobie-Paisano Fellowship, the Ki Davis Award from the Aspen Writers Foundation, and the William Faulkner Award for the personal essay.  She currently directs the MFA program in Creative Writing at Chatham University where she teaches creative nonfiction and poetry.


Published Jun 16, 2015   Copyright 2015 Nathalie Handal

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