Tuscaloosa, AL & New Orleans, LA / Gillian Conoley

Poetry Bus rolled into New Orleans at 6 pm. On the bus: Travis Nichols, Joshua Beckman, Matthew Zapruder, Michael Zapruder, Tonya Foster, Carrie Comer, Liz Hughey, Sierra Nelson, Valzhyna Mort, Brent Hendricks, Linas Phillips, Bill Wesley, Gillian Conoley stretched out in all forms of sleeping bags, under pink streaks of sky. Cypress trees ravaged and still piercing bits of clothing. Slowly poets tumbled out into gray French Quarter morning. Haunted, half the population of the city beginning to stir. Mournful atmospheric condition.

Thanks to painter Jan Gilbert and filmmaker Kevin McCaffrey, we had a three hour tour of Katrina devastation. Emotionally wracking. Miles and miles of destroyed homes, cars, trees. With no recovery in sight. Reading at Contemporary Art Center in one hour. More details tomorrow, during the six hour trek to Houston.

Exhausted travellers, with poetry in our hearts, for the city that time forgot, the city Bush denied. Reading tonight will be one of sorrow I imagine, though rich, given this group . . .

more to follow—sorry to be brief—will make it up to blog readers tomorrow!


Reading in New Orleans was great. Bus readers: Tonya Foster, Carrie Comer, Valzhyna Mort, Matthew Zapruder, Joshua Beckman, Carrie Comer, myself.

But let’s go back to Tuscaloosa for a moment, if only in our minds. Reading was at Bama Theatre, a movie theatre downtown. Large crowd of maybe 60-70 people, extremely attentive, kind, warm, happy to see the Poetry Bus. Robin Behn and Kate Bernheimer extraordinarily generous with their time, hospitality, good will. Reading occurred in the lobby, wafts of concession stand popcorn, bright lights, Art Deco patterned carpets, rows and rows of seats. Audience appeared to be mostly students, though there were some people who peered through the plate glass windows and came in—the advantage of having a reading visible from the street.

Travis Nichols just leaned over across his laptop and said, “Hey, Gillian—did you call Tuscaloosa a hellhole?” “Yes, I did.” But this is ok with Travis. One gets the sense that most things are ok with Travis. I like hellholes. I was raised in a hellhole. If a college town is going to be a college town, the only thing that is going to save it is to be a bit of a hellhole. Tuscaloosa succeeds in this—at least the downtown does. Strong waft of barbecue carbonated with exhaust fumes down the main street. A few abandoned stores lining the streets, providing relief from the occasional fancy restaurant. Who could ask for anything more? Tuscaloosa is a nice relief from the typical American overdone commodity town. Ok, I’m not apologizing for the hellhole comment. Love it or leave it.

New Orleans is difficult to write about. People should go there. The devastation is far more than can be imagined. Thousands and thousands of homes spray painted with the coded symbols the National Guard developed: first the date, say 9/13, then the code for the particular National Guard unit (NE for New England, CA for California, GA for Georgia, then a numeral for number of bodies found, NA for no animals found, A preceded with number for animals, TFW for toxic flood water. Outside exterior of many homes have a black, charred line, strangely, remarkably straight—this is the flood line, how high the water came up. Thanks to our guides painter Jan Gilbert and filmmaker and producer Kevin McCaffrey, we drove through the most devastated neighborhoods-- the 9th ward, the poorest, African-American neighborhood in the city; East New Orleans, a middle class, largely African-American neighborhood; Lakeview, middle-class, largely white neighborhood; Mid-city, middle to upper middle class mixed neighborhood; Bayou St. John; Gentilly; Upper ninth ward; and on. FEMA trailers parked in some driveways. In the most devastated of the devastated: ninth ward, Lakeview, upper ninth ward, very few trailers, mostly just wracked house after house after house. Some houses crashed into trees. Some houses crashed into other houses. A lot of stoops, no houses. Clothes still caught in cypresses. The cypresses bent and pointed like in a Hawthorne novel. The oaks though were the strangest—strong, intact, gorgeous. Magnolias completely gone. And don’t even try to think about the crepe myrtles or oleanders.

In the French Quarter, however, the oleanders are in full bloom, a few balconies here and there are ornately floridly planted. Many storefronts still closed. Many decorated to look as though they are open, but then there’s a sign that says, “We’re Coming Back!” Or “We’re Opening November 1 . . . October . . . soon . . . soon.” A mournful, guarded optimism.

I take it back about everything being ok with Travis. Travis just called someone whose name I didn’t hear “a bourgeoisie, incestuous, self-indulgent, incorrigible fake, yet he is there.”

Linas Phillips the filmmaker on board loves Herzog, Cassavettes, and Les Blank. If you live in the Bay Area you can see his film on Sunday at 7:15 at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Also somewhere in Northampton soon . . . Web site: linasfilms.com. His film is about walking from Seattle to Los Angeles to meet Werner Herzog. Does he meet him? You’ll have to see the film to find out.

Originally Published: October 11th, 2006