On the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we heard from two poets who describe how primary sources from the disaster can and should be used for art. This is Part I. Read Part II: Reflections on found poetry and the creative process.
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When I launched Alive in Truth: The New Orleans Disaster Oral History and Memory Project in the week after Hurricane Katrina hit, my goal was to help restore authorship and narrative control to people who had been assaulted by media images of themselves as criminals. I had a vague idea that one day I might work these testimonies into a book of poetry—I had just graduated from the Michener Center for Writers with an MFA in poetry—but that notion was quickly discarded, in part because none of the narrators liked it. Rightfully, they wanted to be the authors, and they wanted their narratives published in full.
I’m a New Orleans native, social justice activist, and poet, and I recently found Raymond McDaniels’s book Saltwater Empire by chance. Reading through it, I found that I already knew the sentences, stories, and voices in much of this book by heart, yet I’d never heard of McDaniel. Neither had the Katrina survivors whose words he used in his long poem “Convention Centers of the New World.”
McDaniel, winner of the National Poetry Series competition, visited the website of Alive in Truth: The New Orleans Disaster Oral History and Memory Project and had an unfortunate idea.
He decided to use the personal histories of six African American Katrina survivors as “found poetry”—stripped of names and context, and combined with one another—as the centerpiece poem of Saltwater Empire, without contacting the project or the survivors.
He chose the voices of five women and one man, whose oral histories are delivered in the distinctive dialects of New Orleans’s lost black neighborhoods. He changed the order of events, titled it “Convention Centers of the New World,” and published it as a 19-page, six-part poem.
Search any two lines from the “Convention Centers” poems on aliveintruth.org, and the narratives they are lifted from will appear in full. Or visit the pages for Antoinette, Rachid L., Carol Y, Joyce W, Deborah J., and Tami J., and read the stories that McDaniel copied from, in their entirety.
It’s highly unethical to use individual narratives in an anonymous and interchangeable way, especially given this context. To bring it down to concrete reality, when a person loses their loved ones, home, pets, and belongings as well as the city of their birth, control of their story may be all they have left. Ironically, this book has been praised as “a stunning . . . intercession on behalf of all occupants of the ‘Convention Centers of the New World.”
It took me three readings of Saltwater Empire to discover that McDaniel does mention a source beyond his own imagination. At the bottom of his copyright page he thanks Alive in Truth and says that his poem is “drawn from” our texts. It’s no substitute for actually contacting us, obtaining permission to use our texts, or transparently informing readers of his process.
The New Orleanians are not anonymous, but many chose not to offer their last names when we first published their testimonies online because they were afraid of retribution from military authorities. They remembered well when Governor Blanco gave orders to the National Guard to “shoot to kill” New Orleans’s citizenry who violated martial law curfews or were suspected of looting.
I believe these people have a right to their narratives. In order to publish them, I believe that the speakers must be consulted and that they must be given the opportunity to sign off on copyright forms. By neglecting to inquire, much less make certain that his plans were acceptable to the narrators, McDaniel reenacted a familiar racist pattern, and a blind spot in American poetry publishing was revealed.
Hurricane Katrina did not happen in a vacuum, in America’s imagination, to everyone, or in general. It happened in a particular geography, a history, an economy, and a field of race and power built to render certain people powerless. When a white person takes the voices of people of color for his own uses, without permission, in the aftermath of a racially charged national disaster, it is vulture work—worse than ventriloquism.
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Poetry of witness is important. Excellent poets have used oral histories as source material to bring attention to conditions of social inequality. Any reader of Carolyn Forché’s landmark anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness or the work of Anna Deavere Smith knows that making documentary impressions of crisis situations is one way that poetry can, after all, actually “do something.”
Yet poetry of witness requires ethical rigor, careful editing, and ongoing stewardship of the personal stories of living people because it’s quite easy to “do something” destructive, too. The stories aren’t just stories; they are evolving life-or-death truth. People’s memories move, their stance shifts, and the stories they tell are intricately bound up with personal survival. For that reason, the primary storytellers must be involved in shaping the public presentation of the work.
Perhaps McDaniel was attempting to establish himself in the lineage of social justice–conscious poets who have successfully used verbatim texts from history as a way to bring attention to conditions of oppression.
Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead” in U.S. 1 (1938) documents the Hawk’s Nest Incident, a catastrophe caused by lax safety measures that killed hundreds of miners in West Virginia. She includes excerpts from letters, interviews, and congressional testimony. Charles Reznikoff used witness statements from court cases involving black Americans, among others, in his massive Testimony (1965, 1968). Anna Deavere Smith interviews a wide range of people to create her performance texts, such as Fires in the Mirror, an examination of the 1991 crisis between Orthodox Jews and African Americans in the Crown Heights neighborhood that resulted in racial riots. Her poetically lineated monologues are titled with the narrator’s name and a potent phrase from the interview. By performing all of the characters in a one-woman show, Smith probes the great diversity of responses to civic upheaval while honoring individual lives.
These cases differ significantly from McDaniel’s Saltwater Empire. Reznikoff spent 40 years researching and refining Testimony. Rukeyser traveled to West Virginia, conducted her own interviews, immersed herself in the mining community, and she names the source of text material in each poem. Smith collects interviews herself, informs each narrator of the ultimate destination of their words, and keeps their words, sounds, and silences intact.
McDaniel’s work seems more akin to flarf or conceptual poetry, the Internet-based poetry movements championed by Kenneth Goldsmith. Far from attempting to redress social injustice and balance history, flarf is an anarchist aesthetic that thumbs its nose at ethics. In a recent interview in Jacket magazine, Goldsmith asserts, “Any notion of history has been leveled by the Internet. Now it’s all fodder for the remix and recreation of works of art: free-floating toolboxes and strategies unmoored from context or historicity.”
But context and historicity cannot be discarded in any thoughtful engagement with the contemporary global world. It rings close to a colonialist fantasy to imagine that the advent of the Internet turns all language and imagery into Western writers’ “fodder.” Don’t we want to be done with blindly consuming the cultures of others?
I’d argue that the digital age demands greater accountability of a writer, because we have instant information about the disparity in lived experiences around the globe (and in our own communities). If anything, this historical moment delivers an awareness of our vital interdependence.
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Some of the commitments we made to the people who participated in Alive in Truth are:
- That we would assist narrators with relief services (such as filling out FEMA applications, searching for missing family members, obtaining transportation to medical appointments, and securing donations of furniture).
- That we would record their stories if they wished, or simply listen if they preferred.
- That we would keep their words on the Internet in a free archive.
- That they could opt out at any time.
- That we’d contact them each time someone requested to reprint or excerpt their oral history, and tell them who it was and how their story would be used. The decision about whether or not to grant permission would belong to the narrator.
- That the stories would not be used for any commercial gain.
- That any profits accrued from distribution would go into Katrina relief and NewOrleans rebuilding funds.
Only after offering these commitments did we feel comfortable showcasing these narratives publicly.
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What McDaniel has done is reminiscent of what has happened over and over again in America because white privilege blinds people to the consequences of their actions. McDaniel may have thought he was helping the cause of Katrina survivors. According to a review by Jordan Soyka published on Bookslut.com and in The Quarterly Conversation, McDaniel says, “I wanted to write about it as a citizen, as a person who saw all those people as neighbors, as familiar faces. Human persons, not merely Victims or Others.”
By presenting the voices of black people as his original poetry, however, McDaniel has made his book not about “all those people” affected by the disaster. It’s specifically about him.
I understand how challenging and difficult these issues are because I’m white. I’ve struggled with the questions of how to be an effective ally to people of color. I’ve struggled with questions of authorship and ownership. I’ve shared power in grassroots work, anti-racist initiatives, and participatory projects for years, and the questions this work has left me with are humbling to say the least.
In "marginality as site of resistance," bell hooks writes,
I am waiting for them to stop talking about “the other,” to stop even describing how important it is to be able to speak about difference. It is not just important what we speak about but how and why we speak. Often this speech about the “other” is also a mask, an oppressive talk hiding gaps, absences, that space where our words would be if we were speaking, if there was silence, if we were there. . . . No need to hear your voice when I can talk about you better than you can speak about yourself. No need to hear your voice. Only tell me about your pain. I want to know your story. And then I will tell it back to you in a new way. Tell it back to you in such a way that it has become mine, my own. Re-writing you as I write myself anew.
I take this to mean that a critical first step in becoming an anti-racist ally is to have beginner’s mind. It is vital to proceed without assuming we have the answers about others. One has to be willing to abandon one’s position of authority.
Outside of questions of race, when a person with economic power handles the stories of impoverished people, I believe there are some ground rules.
First, we have to obtain permissions and establish an honest relationship. Beyond that, it is useful to have an ongoing examination of who is benefiting from the project. Enlisting friends tasked with accountability assists here, as does ensuring that financial profits return to the communities that are the source of the material—in this case, Katrina relief and New Orleans rebuilding efforts.
Many people assume that simply “telling their story” benefits trauma survivors and oppressed people. And it may. Yet while storytelling may carry healing qualities, it’s a mistake to view a teller as the recipient of compassion or largesse from the dominant culture. Rather, the storytellers are the gift-givers, extending truth, trust, intimacy, and contact with their lived experience. They are our teachers. Context is everything.
Like poetry, oral history is about specificity. It’s slow and careful work wherein people define and describe their history, community, and lives in the terms, language, pacing, syntax, and frameworks they choose. Alive in Truth had volunteer therapists and social workers present during each interview session to ensure the emotional safety of the narrator should recounting become retraumatizing. At least 10 volunteers contributed to each history: narrator, interviewer, myself, photographer, transcriber, social worker, editor, proofreader, digital librarian, and programmer. Of these, the narrator is the core, the singular star. He or she dares to defy invisibility.
The resulting archive isn’t raw historical data or ambient human noise, but meaning brought across a bridge, over deep waters of difference. This work is motivated by a shared hope of justice and a prayer of thanks.
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“Antoinette” is one face of Katrina who rocked the world. You might remember seeing her on television, or on the front page of many newspapers, including the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Antoinette is pictured praying for mercy, screaming, “Help us, please!” Her gold dreadlocks, bare feet, pretty pink flowered pants, and sobbing face were broadcast from Alaska to South Africa. She made her pain so naked, and so large. By putting her body out in front of the masses at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, shoving her way in front of the news cameras, and falling on her knees to beg, she made us see her total desperation and her exquisite humanity. She crystallized the reality of the disaster in an individual life.
I see her broadcast image as the axis, the turning point when the world kicked into reaction, out of the dumb media shock of just staring.
That photograph of Antoinette helped win Times-Picayune the Pulitzer Prize in Public Service. It has been reproduced thousands of times over.
Yet Antoinette is still struggling to find her ground and to be recognized. She didn’t get a prize. Since Katrina she’s worked a number of jobs, including cashier, parking lot attendant, and cook, while supporting her children and grandchildren. She’s lived in Austin, San Antonio, and Baton Rouge, where she was shot in the leg while walking across the street. She’s had a massive heart attack. Her son was shot to death. Her rented house burned down, taking with it her newspapers and collection of photos of her moment on the world stage. Now Antoinette sees her face on the cover of coffee-table books she can’t afford to buy.
I got in touch with Antoinette to let her know about Saltwater Empire. And, true to character, she looked through the problem to a higher ground. After hearing the poems in which her voice is featured, combining the details of her childhood and her life in the C.J. Pete Projects with other people’s biographies, she said,
He used my life without giving me no credit! That hurts my heart, that’s cold-blooded! What do that little boy know about me? He never met me. But trust God, He make everything happen for a reason in the right time. People is gonna learn something from this.
She’s right. I’ve learned a lot. McDaniel will be learning. Let’s use it to spark a national conversation around race and representation, about poetry and ethics, and appropriate uses of the stories of others.