Prose from Poetry Magazine

Struggling to Stay Above Water

A portfolio of visual work responding to Hurricane Katrina by artist and poet Tony Fitzpatrick.
By The Editors

“Every stilled thing is the ghost of another.”

Words and letters turn up one way or another in many works by visual artists. Tony Fitzpatrick doesn’t use poetry in his work, he makes poetry out of it. In a piece by Fitzpatrick, words aren’t stenciled in, as they are in Larry Rivers’s paintings; they’re not metaphysical slogans, as you find in Jenny Holzer’s projections; nor are they presented as objects in their own right, as on Ed Ruscha’s canvases. Some of the words in Fitzpatrick’s work are handwritten and have the ferocity and jab of raw notebook writing. But most are Exacto-bladed out of old matchbook covers and labels that he collects by the thousands. The phrases in these pieces outslogan the old ad copy they’re made from. Embedded in constellations of old-timey illustrations, enclosed in staves of musical notes, and surrounded by a gallimaufry of silhouetted birds and dangerously indescribable female collage-creatures, these are texts born from humid, febrile dreams.

It’s from his passion for poetry that Fitzpatrick gets his instinct for what form can accomplish, and like every poet he has a not-so-secret desire to break somebody’s heart. In an interview for the Times-Picayune he said: “We love in poetry but, unfortunately, we live in prose. Sometimes the two are not congruent. What we remember of love is usually a fiction. What we aspire to is haiku: short, sweet, perfect.” Yet his true medium is elegy. He often mentions Andrei Codrescu’s essay, “Human Remedies Against the Devil,” which notes that one of the rewards of living in an old city is that the dead far outnumber the living. As Fitzpatrick puts it himself, the dead “still speak to us through wars and floods and hurricanes. The past, and history itself, hold up a mirror because in this place every stilled thing is the ghost of another.” When it comes to an unfathomable disaster like Katrina, normal modes of representation won’t work. Fitzpatrick says, “I’ve thought long and hard about how to make art about this holy place. I didn’t want to draw pictures of people trapped on rooftops, or struggling to stay above the water. The images from cable news seemed pornographic in their quest to wrap tragedy around the commercial breaks. So, for now, I’ve decided on words. . . . I’ve decided to draw poems.”—DS

Originally Published: January 30th, 2009
Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In
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  1. February 2, 2009
     Kevin Simmonds

    I'm a New Orleans native and it seems

    clear that I'll have to go to a bookstore

    and look at the printed work. If I were

    to judge the work based on its web

    presentation, I'd judge harshly. Us New

    Orleans natives get tired of people

    amplifying (via the loudspeakers of

    artwork and journalism) the "holy"

    dead of the city. It's the living who

    make New Orleans what it is and, it

    seems to me, these images resemble

    imperialist, fetishist nostalgia on the

    covers of old sheet music. Spend some

    time with those living musicians and

    artisans of every color and you'll

    probably have more color than the

    black of the notes on the margins. Still

    on the margins.

  2. February 3, 2009
     Tony Fitzpatrick

    Kevin -- I spend about half of my time in New Orleans . I believe it is the most necessary city in America. I also believe that your most valuable resource are the people of New Orleans -- the pieces represented here are a small segment of the work of my New Orleans book.

  3. February 7, 2009
     Diana Manister

    This work is among the most fresh and imaginative I've seen on the web. Thanks for making it available!

  4. March 4, 2009
     Michael Martin

    My family is from New Orleans; partially grew up there. Come from a family of artists also. The reason I say this is to mention I am not approaching the work with somewhat 'blind eyes'. The very mention of Katrina and New Orleans stirs my heart. So I am very invested in the work even before I see it.

    Tony your work inspired me to draw again after 10 years away from the pen and pencil. It is gorgeous work. Hallucinatory, seen through a haze of humidity. Notes playing.