Critical Mass

Thinking About New Orleans: Checking in via Ken Foster

By Jane Ciabattari

This is sixth in our series about New Orleans writers. It's hard to judge how many writers have been displaced, dislocated and disoriented by Katrina and aftermath. NBCC member Ken Foster is still holding on, struggling, writing, blogging, fighting despair. Foster lives in New Orleans with his three dogs, Brando, Zephyr and Sula. His work has appeared in The Believer, McSweeney's, Bomb, The New York Times Book Review, Time Out New York, The Village Voice and other publications. His short story collection, “The Kind I'm Likely to Get,” was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. He has edited two anthologies–“The KGB Bar Reader” and “Dog Culture”–as well as a special issue of the Mississippi Review. His latest book, “The Dogs Who Found Me:What I've Learned from Pets Who Were Left Behind,” was published in March 2006. We checked with him this weekend before Mardi Gras.


Q. What is the status of the New Orleans literary community at the moment? mid February 2007?

A. I think the New Orleans literary community is incredibly strong–probably stronger now than before the storm. Just after the storm, some friends and I founded a literary and visual arts collective called Press Street. We opened up Preservation Hall in December 2005 for an event to celebrate Tom Piazza's book “Why New Orleans Matters” and to raise money money for the Musicians Fund and we've followed that with a number of other non-traditional events that have raised money for different organizations around town: a 24-hour Drawathon that produced over 1000 drawings; a reading/pot luck fundraiser for Rebuilding Together at Saturn Bar with contributors to “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans”; etc. We're also publishing books, the first being “Intersection New Orleans” which has twenty-five blind collaborations between New Orleans writers and visual artists at intersections all over town. Our next will be Brad Benischek's graphic novella “Re-evacuation”, which tells the story of the New Orleans diaspora with non-human characters. Also rising out of post-Katrina New Orleans: Meena, a collaborative, bilingual magazine based in New Orleans and Alexandria, Egypt; the 1718 reading series run by Tulane and Loyola students at the Columns Hotel; and, which finds the dark humor in our crumbling existance.



Q.How many are involved in the Silence Is Violence movement? What is happening with that?

A.This started with three of us deciding to march to city hall on January 11th to demand action regarding the “uptick” in violent crime (and other related crime). We really had no idea what we were doing, but we felt we had to do something and suspected that others were feeling the same way. At the time, we had just lost two members of the arts community: Dinerral Shavers and Helen Hill. We had a planning meeting that we advertised with a few fliers and two days notice; three hundred people showed up. Five thousand marched. We had communicated with the Mayor's office and the police ahead of time, and there was no interest on their part in joining us, but the morning of the March suddenly, through some miscommunication, it was announced by the mayor's office that he would be speaking. We felt it was important at that point that only the citizens get to speak, and we had collected the opinions and concerns of hundreds of people, not to mention the signs people were carrying and the representation from all areas of the city. Many people told me that it was the most diverse crowd they had ever seen in New Orleans; many said that it convinced them to stay. Of course, some of the media, including The New York Times, only saw white people–which is an ongoing problem. Since the march, we have been organizing school visits with the Hot 8 Brass Band, and we'll be expanding that into programs in other schools, focusing on music, writing and visual arts as a way for students to express their feelings and concerns about how the violence is affecting them. We have met with the District Attorney's office regarding tracking some recent cases to see where the investigations and attempts at convictions have gone wrong. We also sat down with Mayor Nagin and police cheif Riley on Thursday. The discussion with Riley seemed genuine and possibly productive, but Nagin seemed distant and skeptical. It is as if he really doesn't think anyone cares. Yet later that day, when another two teenagers were killed, he came to the scene and made a statement to the press–something he's never done before. If people are interested in contacting us or would like to receive weekly updates, they can email



Q. How bad is the damage from this latest set of tornados?

A. It has become a bit surreal. The damage uptown, on Carollton, was extraordinary and horrible. One house had the entire front torn off, so it looks like a doll house now. But we're used to seeing that kind of damage from the hurricane–in many areas the damaged houses are still standing from August 2005.



Q. How active is the reading scene these days? Are many authors coming through on book tours?

A.I've always been surprised that New Orleans isn't as much of a book tour town as it should be, and I'm not entirely sure why that's been the case. There are so many terrific bookstores that do a lot of handselling: Faulkner House, Octavia Books, Garden District Bookshop, Maple Street, etc. Pre-K, a group of us were talking about finding ways to invigorate the literary scene, and it now seems to be happening. Recently, on one night, Sara Gran was reading at Octavia Books at 6 pm, Poppy Z. Brite at the Columns at 6:30, and Dave Eggers at NOCCA/Riverfront at 8:30. I was only able to make it to Sara's and then to Dave's, where there were about 300 people in attendance. At one point he suggested we get together to talk when he was done signing books. I looked at the line and said, “I'll be asleep.” Tulane recently received a $1.5 million grant for visiting writers, so Toni Morrison will be in town in April. Also, the New Orleans Public Library has been sponsoring literary lunches at the Monteleone Hotel in the French Quarter, and NOCCA–the creative arts high school–has continued bringing in great visitors to work with their students: Eric Bogosian, Sarah Vowell, Spike Jonze, Plantu. As much as these vistors contribute while they are here, I also think it is incredibly valuable for them to communicate what they've seen to people outside of the city.



Q. How is your own work going? What are you working on?

A. To be honest, it is hard to focus on creative work with so much real world tragedy interupting. When “The Dogs Who Found Me” came out last March, I was still unemployed and getting desperate. I actually applied to work at Barnes and Noble as a bookseller, but they never called me back. So then I just threw myself into touring for the book and working with pit bulls and pit bull rescue groups around the country. Eventually, I was offered a visiting assistant professor gig at Tulane for this academic year, but I'm not sure what I'll be doing when that contract is up. I have a collections worth of stories done, but I'm terrible about sending them out on submission. One will be appearing in the new issue of Fence. And I'm hoping to do a social history of the American Pit Bull, because the history of the dog really says a lot about our country and intolerance at so many levels. Just looking at the image of the pit bull, and how it has been used, and the meanings that have been assigned to it, says a lot. And, of course, I've been reviewing, mostly for Time Out New York.



Q. How is your dog life going? Tell us about the value of dogs at times like these?

A. Don't get me started–I'll never stop! Of course, if it weren't for my dogs, I probably wouldn't be here, or anywhere else, today. And they love New Orleans. Yesterday there was an art market set up down the street, which they love to go to and get attention. My pit bull Sula has started taking a toy with her whenever she leaves the house, because people immediately see her differently that way. Everyone wants to say hello to her when she's carrying a monkey in her mouth. Zephyr, the rottie mix, is happy to see some of the birds finally returning to the city (we lost 250,000 trees). And Brando, the oldest and tallest, is being treated for arthritis, which was alarming at first, but the injections he's been getting have been so miraculous, it gives me hope, since I'm not so far behind in age. The community of dog owners here is pretty tight. As tight as the arts community, perhaps. The great thing about dogs in the aftermath of disaster is that they still need you to pick up their poop and tickle their tummy. They are a great, natural tranquilizer. But my vet says that he's been seeing a lot of strange minor bugs and illnesses in the dogs in town. Again, it may be from the decaying acres that surround us, and from the reduction in foliage to purify the air.



Q. What do you expect to be the Mardi Gras scene this year? How have the preliminary parades gone? Which have been your own favorites?

A. It's been so cold that I haven't made it to any parades! But I'm hoping to get out at some point this weekend. To be honest, a part of me hasn't been in quite the mood for revelry. Last year there was a real sense of celebration and community–this year many of us feel exhausted and burnt out. I really wanted to get to the Muses parade this year–it is an all female Krewe and generally one of the best all around. But I'd spent the morning meeting with police chief Riley and Mayor Nagin, then had some calls from radio shows all afternoon, and by the time the sun started going down and the temperature dipped below freezing, I was ready to crawl into bed. On Tuesday morning the St. Anne walking parade starts on Clouet, two blocks from my house. That will be hard to miss–you get to see everyone opening their doors to run out in their costumes as the group passes.



Q. What is the status of reconstruction, reconstitution of a viable artistic bohemian city?

A. Unfortunately, for most of the people in charge, reconstruction means shoehorning large, expensive condos into what were once quiet arts communities. There is very little interest on their part in restoring, for example, the many beautiful, historic theaters that have been vacant since the storm. What's really appalling is the arguments the developers make in support of their work–they are really doing it for the community, they say, as if they have no interest in making money. And at the same time, many longtime residents can't get their homes fixed and can't get insurance to cover their residence. I think there is a real danger of the arts, including music, leaving the city, and the primary industry becoming retirement time-shares and housing for cruise ship devotees.



Q.What gives you hope? What gives you pause? What could writers outside of New Orleans do to help?

A. I think all of my hopes and pauses are included in my previous answers. But, what can writers from the outside do? They can come visit. Spend money here. Visit the schools. Remind people that we are still here.