Good morning from the Rue De La Course coffee shop on Oak and South Carrolton in the greatest city, New Orleans, Louisiana. We wrapped the Most Southern Place on Earth workshop on Saturday. And I still have so much I need to talk about, and I will. For now, though, so that I don’t fall behind, I’m going to keep up with recording my experiences as I have them.
I drove through the Mississippi Delta- down Highway 61, the highway that Bob Dylan revisited- to get to New Orleans. It’s a worthwhile drive, if only to understand how physically divided the Delta is from the rest of Mississippi. The area between the Mississippi River and the Yazoo River is noticeably flat and dominated by cotton. When you get past Vicksburg, though, or if you go east of the Yazoo River, you will see tons of hills. There’s a huge division between the Delta and the Hills. Historically, the Hills were poorer and dominated by yeoman farmers. This was a working class area. The Delta, meanwhile, was dominated by the Planter class, and, while everyone is religious on the surface, the area was known for its decadence and loose morals. Racial politics were also a little more complicated. While the planter class that had an iron grip on the area and believed strongly in their own supremacy, they also often worked to limit the influence of the KKK. Not because they had any great sympathy for blacks, but because they didn’t want to scare away their work force or allow power to fall in the hands of poor whites. These days that rivalry has faded a little bit, if only because most of the state is now equally poor. However, I talked to one member of the Mississippi ACLU, who warned that the old racial divisions are still there, just under the surface, and they have prevented progress on the class divisions that impact both races in the state.
Slam Poetry in the Bywater
So that was my drive down, punctuated by some very heavy and intermittent rainfall. By the time I got to New Orleans, the sun was out, and my friend invited me to a slam poetry event in the Bywater part of the city. Now I respect poetry, but I’m not that deeply involved with it. So I didn’t quite know what to expect. Still, I enjoyed it. Some things that struck me:
1.) The themes were largely social in nature. Poet after poet rapped on religion, violence, gov’t corruption, and what still dominates the feel of the city, Hurricane Katrina.
2.) Some poets talked sex and relationships, which I’ve got nothing against. Though I was most impressed by the poets who talked about those topics in a way that hoped to uplift the listener, to give them something to wonder about. Above all, when relationships did come up, the poets wanted to talk about the role of truth in relationships. What does telling the truth entail and how can we best express those truths? A number of poets talked about sex and self-esteem and the link between the two. When do we enforce each other and when do they negate each other? Our host for the evening did a freestyle on the movie, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and talked about that exact issue with young women.
3.) Many of these poets see themselves as educators. And that makes sense. These were poets with messages about the societies in which they live, and statements to make about human interactions. You spread the word on that, and that’s educational. Many of these poets also worked with children in their day jobs, often with poetry. Education came up as a theme as well. One poet talked about it explicitly. Another was a teacher from Houston, who wrote a message on what he hoped his students would do in their own time. Another read a poem that he wrote in 8th grade to his former English teacher, who was in the audience. As a teacher, it was inspiring to see so many artistic people value education and their experiences in education. It leads me to believe that we’re doing something right. And that everyone can and should be able to empathize with the act of teaching. It saddens me then that pockets of the world don’t value that act.
So that was slam poetry. Many of the poets were fine, and I admire anyone who will stand in front of people and keep a beat in front of a crowd, but there was one that really stood out for me. I’m posting a video below from a poet named Kataalyst Alcindor. Kataalyst struck me for two reasons. The first was his performance skills. Many of the poets had particularly dramatic on-stage personas, while Kataalyst was notably reserved and introspective. That quality drew me in. Beyond that, I respected his imagery, which was rich and varied, and effectively reinforced a variety of messages that came across in his work. I bought his album, and I’ll have some thoughts on that later. For now, here’s a small sample of his work that I found on YouTube: an excellent piece of work on the experiences of a soldier.
Lastly, I want to give mad credit to my host in the city, Miss Kaycee Filson. Kaycee is currently working with the Bard Early College Program, and in her spare time, is developing a one-woman show simply called Body. The show is being written based on extensive interviews with people about how they perceive their own bodies. She’s already interviewed a wide variety of people, and will continue to develop this project. Any support you give will go towards the budget of the show (which will hopefully go up at the New Orleans Fringe Festival this fall), and getting this project on the road. Body politics have come up in all sorts of forms recently, both in terms of how we use our bodies (the birth control debate that came up earlier this year) to how we present ourselves to the public. (The fat shaming that has occurred recently, because we don’t know how to address the systemic problems that have led to American obesity.) Whatever Miss Filson and her collaborator, Kacey Skye Musick choose to focus on, I trust they will have something compelling to say. Anyway, throw some money down for their project here.
And that’s all I got for now. I’ll be touristing around New Orleans today, and promise to post pictures. Tomorrow I will be exploring the state of Louisiana, and learning about the bayou’s rich tradition of Cajun folk and zydeco music.
UPDATE 7/16 6:40 P.M.: Just corrected my spelling of Kataalyst’s performance name. Will have to hear from him sometime why he chose that particular spelling.
And hey, since talented people deserve attention, I’m linking to his tumblir. Also, click the video below for a more extensive live set that a friend just passed my way.