Poems for New Orleans
—book and CD
I went with Miriam to New Orleans for 10 days during February to celebrate Mardi Gras, and to record a book of poetry for Paris Records, Poems for New Orleans, at the Piety Street Studios, featuring music provided by local musicians which was produced and composed by Mark Bingham. Bingham is one of the owners of Piety Street, and a noted musician and composer.
History of Project
Last year Paris Records, of Dallas, Texas, commissioned me to write poems for a CD to be recorded in New Orleans. I began creating verse on the history of New Orleans, going all the way back to its founding in 1718, but also about recent events there, such as the disaster of hurricane Katrina, and the struggles of a great city to rebuild, revivify, repopulate and survive. The result is a book of 58 poems, over 100 pages in length, to accompany the CD.
Some of Poems for New Orleans trace events in its early history, such as the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, and the visit of Walt Whitman in 1848, but much of its focus is on the impact of hurricane Katrina in the late summer of 2005, and its tragic aftermath, when government at all levels failed to alleviate the suffering of victims, through ineptitude, malice and greed.
Other poems celebrate the the creativity and good times of the Crescent City, on the joys of Mardi Gras, and the multicultural beauty of a great American region. There are even a few humorous poems, because laughter and satire are one of the keys to New Orleans.
Mark Bingham assembled some fine local musicians for the music which accompanies the recited poems, including cellist Helen Gillet, Cajun guitarist and singer Carol Berzas, drummer Kevin O’Day, and Bingham himself on bass.
Some of the poems on the CD were written in voices, and so several actresses took part in the recording. Troi Bechet was the voice of Grace Lebage (a key character in Poems for New Orleans), Monique Moss took the role of the voodoo healer Marie Laveau; Shawn Hall was Athena, and Chris Lane was the voice of Poseidon, the personification of hurricanes. (One poem in Poems for New Orleans consists of a reworking of the beginning of Euripides’ Trojan Women, resetting the dialogue between Athena and Poseidon from the fall of Troy to the era of Hurricane Katrina.)
The Poems for New Orleans CD will be released by Paris Records.
The Halliburtonization of N.O. Reconstruction
While Miriam and I were in New Orleans we were able to tour the areas of devastation, make some digital films, and ask a lot of questions. Noted writer John Clark, a professor of philosophy at Loyola University, and very active in Food Not Bombs and the Common Ground Collective, took us on one tour of the afflicted areas. Poet and cultural impresario Dave Brinks, whose own house suffered terrible damage, took us on another tour, as did Mark Bingham. The devastation we witnessed was worse than we could have imagined. It’s as if a neutron bomb were dropped on about 50 square miles of a great city.
What happened in New Orleans and the Gulf after Katrina is fairly widely known— the ineptitude of FEMA, the callousness of Bush, Karl Rove and the White House, the privatization of much of the recovery— which resulted in massive excess pain for the victims, and profits aplenty for the sharks that grabbed control of, or siphoned off cash from, the recovery.
The Bushies and their ilk fervently believe in turning over as much of our government as they can get away with to the so-called “private sector.” Thus, the running of the war in Iraq was considerably “privatized,” or halliburtonized, with U.S.-paid mercenaries and companies in key positions in the prosecution of the war. The neocons, in the same mode, tried to privatize as many government functions as possible in the post-Katrina recovery in New Orleans and the Gulf.
In New Orleans in particular, the halliburtonized recovery has been a post-disaster disaster. It’s a complicated story, but it’s essence is that the “Privatizing” of post-Katrina reconstruction and assistance has led to enormous bottlenecks, anger, despair and frustration.
Thank God the people fought back.
Enormous Stress on the Citizens of New Orleans
Sometimes, the equivalent of the post-battle stress felt by soldiers returning, say, from Iraq or Afghanistan, has been suffered by post-Katrina residents. The mental impact of first Katrina, then the halliburtonization, has not been fully measured.
Dispersals as Vote Fraud
After the hurricane, instead of sending the refugees to nearby places —say inside a hundred mile ring, there was a fly-out, bus-out, force-out of hundreds of thousands of its victims to over 44 states. It had some of the taste of the dispersals of slavery, with children being separated from their parents, and no way for a long time to find out where the split-up families had been bused, flown or trained. “It looked like the hull of a slave ship experience,” noted Jesse Jackson
Many remain suspicious that the dispersal was deliberate, that it was in effect vote fraud— a deliberate attempt at forcibly removing Democrats from a historically Democratic city. And that they are to this day trying to prevent large numbers of dispersed victims from returning.
In its way it was vote fraud, just as Miami-Dade was in 2000, St. Louis has been in recent elections, and Ohio was in 2004.
Historian Doug Brinkley called it “Lethal Ineptitude” the way Bush, Homeland Security honcho Chertoff, FEMA political hack Brown, Louisiana Governor Blanco, conservative republicrat New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, and others, dripped malice & do-not on New Orleans and the Gulf.
Mayor Ray Nagin, in particular, seems to be a disciple of the kind of privatization-batty neocons who helped ruin the Chilean pension system after the overthrow of Salvador Allende. He is the halliburtonizers best friend. Governor Blanco of Louisiana is not much better, especially in her caving into the forces of unregulated rip-offs by the insurance companies.
Insurance companies are running rough-shod over the United States like 19th century robber barons. In New Orleans and the Gulf, article after article after article has been written about the indecent, scandalous behavior of insurance companies and their often successful attempts to scam their way out of paying for the damages suffered by policy-holders.
A couple of poems in Poems for New Orleans focus on the scams of insurance companies.
The Road Home Program
The U.S. Congress voted $7.25 billion dollars to help the victims of Katrina to restore and rebuild their damaged homes. The State of Louisiana then set up something called Road Home to allocate this $7.25 billion to the victims.
The State of Louisiana, through its governor Kathleen Blanco, set up a privatized system of contractors to dole out the money. The result has been a great scandal of slowness slowness slowness— lethal slowness, so that after over a year after people applied for their just shares of the $7.25 billion, with over 100,000 families applying for help, only a trickle of help has come in.
There lies the scam. The privatized companies have stalled, while raking in plenty of cash for themselves, and giving out almost nothing, to date. It’s a great American scandal, and hopefully one that will bring indictments, calumny, and jail terms for its perps.
As I write this, in March of ’07, it has just been widely reported that the Army Corps of engineers installed $44 million dollars worth of scam, non-working pumps to keep Lake Pontchartrain waters at bay, absolutely vital for the pumping out of potential flood water from all of New Orleans. These pumps were sold to the Corps by a former business partner of Jeb Bush.
How to Help
As I said, thank God the people fought back.
I was heartened by the networks of organizations that rose up against the forces that clearly wanted to bring condomania, and ugly overdevelopment for the well-to-do to the Crescent City, to be built on the lands formerly owned and occupied by the less well-to-do. Since Katrina, many thousands of volunteers have come to New Orleans to help in the rebuilding, and also vehemently to stand up against the neocon sleaze that would have enacted full-scale, racist, classist “reconstruction” based on the principles of greed, housing for the rich, and to hell with regular working people.
Groups rose up, neighborhood by neighborhood, to defend a great city from the land-grabbers, privatizers, and promulgators of what amounts to a giant vote fraud.
There were a number of groups that formed after Katrina in New Orleans to help overcome the neocon greed-batty neglect. Thanks to groups like the Common Ground Collective, and ACORN, plus community groups like those that saved the Broadmoor area of New Orleans from planned total bulldozing, there is considerable optimism about the future.
If you’d like to donate money, or to join the thousands who have gone to the Crescent City to volunteer, here are some good groups:
1. Common Ground Collective. John Clark took Miriam and me to a Common Ground center in the Upper 9th Ward where volunteers from all over are housed while they do rehab work on flood-afflicted houses.
Common Ground was established in the days immediately following Katrina; it established a medical clinic in the Algiers section of N.O., and gave immediate assistance (food, water, supplies) to the thousands of low-income residents unable to evacuate. It has evolved into a very important group helping to coordinate the efforts of volunteers from all over the United States to assist a great city springing back to full multicultural life.
You could make a donation, for instance, to the Common Ground Health Clinic, cghc.org.
2. Neighborhoods Partnership Network, www.npnnola.com.
Our friend Dave Brinks wrote: “NPN is doing lots of good work and always either can use $, volunteers or is good at finding a number of neighborhooods that really need help.”
The NPN helps organize the various flood-afflicted neighborhoods to work together, and learn from one another’s experiences. It help put together techniques of economic survival and self-determinacy for neighborhoods faced with the neocon onslaught.
3. People’s Hurricane Relief Fund www.peopleshurricane.org
This is a group that has been working against the excessive rent-gouging after the hurricane, and has been in the forefront in the struggle to create rent controls in New Orleans, so that regular working people can afford them. As the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund has noted, “Apartments that rented for $500 before Katrina now ask $1200. This is another means of preventing working class and poor Black people from returning home.”
Peoples Hurricane Relief Fund - Fighting for the Right of Return
Peoples Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Coalition. 1418 N. Claiborne, Suite 2 New Orleans, LA 70116 phone: (504) 301-0215 fax: (504) 301-0306
In New Orleans there has been a strong effort to privatize public education. Rethink is a project that brings the voices of the students themselves into creating the future of New Orleans’ schools.
Right after Katrina, right wing groups such as the Heritage Foundation, the D.C.-based neocon think-tank for war, class divisions and empire, began pushing for “market solutions” to the wrecked school system of the Crescent City.
It’s a complicated story, but the goal of the right is to privatize publicly-funded schools. And there are liberals and progressives who believe in the power of charter schools to improve the quality and, say, the gentleness of education.
You can access the work of Rethink by googling them; there’s an article also in the August 24, 2006 Christian Science Monitor about Rethink.
5. DNIA (Downtown Neighborhoods Improvement Association)
Poet Dave Brinks also recommends DNIA, which is described as follows: “The Downtown Neighborhoods Improvement Association in cooperation with all of our citizens and organizations, exists to improve public health, education, the environment and safety; foster social interaction; create economic opportunity; respect and enhance our cultural and architectural heritage. We represent the neighborhoods bounded by N. Rampart, Orleans Avenue/Basin Street, N. Broad Street and Gentilly Boulevard to St. Bernard Avenue.”
“I love it Downtown!” is their watch cry. DNIA does good work in trying to reclaim and improve the New Orleans public school system.
6. St. John #5 Baptist Church
This church has been in the forefront of the struggle to preserve and restore New Orleans. Dave Brinks reports: “St John #5 Camp A.C.E. This is a service church located behind St. Bernard housing development in New Orleans. Incredible story, incredible people, Reverend Bruce Davenport, (504) 228 - 3479. Aids testing, literacy, computer skills, distribution center, food, housing, everything for the poor, elderly and families back there where no one else is helping. Incredible people.”
St. John # 5 Baptist Church, 635 Hamburg St New Orleans, LA 70122
7. Greater New Orleans Foundation www.gnof.org
The Greater New Orleans Foundation is a 501(c)(3) public charity, serving Southeast Louisiana. In response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, The Greater New Orleans Foundation has established the Rebuild New Orleans Fund designated for the relief, recovery and betterment of N.O.
8. ACORN, http://acorn.org
ACORN has been active in helping the N.O. recovery, helping prevent the tearing down of viable houses, for instance.
There are other groups, of course, worthy of your help. Religious groups like the Mennonites are active in the rebuilding, and Habitat for Humanity.
The Triumph and Survival of a Great American City
The more research I did, and the more poems I wrote, it became ever more certain that what happened to New Orleans was not only a heartless act of wild nature, it seemed also a brazen attempt to turn New Orleans into a suffering laboratory of neocon, laissez-faire, dog-eat-dog economics. It’s as if the New Deal, the Great Society, and I Have a Dream had never occurred. Of course, many thousands of selfless volunteers were determined not to let that happen, and have struggled mightily to this day to make sure that a structure of economic justice is set up and maintained in a great American City. It’s a huge, huge story— one which a poet can barely begin to trace.
In spite of it all, New Orleans and its great creativity, its humor, its religions and its hunger for fun and family and transcendence, vividly survives. That is the Polis which Poems for New Orleans seeks to cherish, celebrate, and delineate.