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Treme turns to local poet to capture post-Katrina New Orleans

By Harriet Staff

The Times-Picayune talks with Gian Smith who is featured reciting his poem “O Beautiful Storm” in a new promo for the HBO show Treme. Smith now hosts an open mic at The McKenna Museum of African American Art, but it was Katrina that first made him turn to poetry. In both the poem and his interview, he describes scraping the residue off the floor of his parents’ house that was once flooded with five feet of water. Though a symbol of Katrina’s lingering devastation, that residue also connected him permanently to a moment that is “something central to my life, and therefore it has value.”

Smith had been invited to perform his poems at an October Tulane symposium on Treme that was filmed for HBO’s website. His conflicting feelings about Katrina and what it meant to him, his family, and New Orleans residents resonated with the HBO team and spread to the show’s producers. They hadn’t necessarily been looking for a poem to capture the complicated emotions of Katrina’s survivors, but they couldn’t pass it up when they found it.

The third or fourth piece he wrote after his return, “O Beautiful Storm” was intended to express an “inner conflict” Smith holds about the storm and its aftermath.

“It’s something you really want to hate, but you just have an attraction to it,” he said. “That was kind of the purpose of the poem.

“To me, Katrina isn’t just about an act of nature that sweeps through and does a little damage. It’s so much more than that, because it took years and years of neglect, people putting off for tomorrow what we could’ve done as far as getting levees up to speed and that kind of thing. (It’s about) a whole culture of looking the other way and not dealing with problems.

“Regardless of who says what about New Orleans, we live in this culture because we have value for it. When something like (Katrina) happens, it becomes a part of us and we end of up celebrating it.”

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Posted in Poetry News on Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011 by Harriet Staff.