Critical Mass

Thinking About New Orleans: Lee Meitzen Grue

By Jane Ciabattari

It's hard to say how many writers were dislodged, disrupted, disoriented by Hurricane Katrina and aftermath. I've been keeping track of a number of them through the “Thinking About New Orleans” series. Next Monday night, December 3, New Orleans writers will read by and for New Orleans writers at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, with old-fashioned bread pudding from Mara's Homemade offered in exchange for donations to a New Orleans writers' fund (details here). The readers include Lee Meitzen Grue, who was born in Plaquemine, La., and lived in New Orleans since age 14. (She ran the New Orleans Poetry Forum for many years in her backyard in the Bywater district of New Orleans, with jazz musicians and poets performing. Lee's books include poetry (“Trains and Other Intrusions: Poems;” “French Quarter Poems;” “In The Sweet Balance of The Flesh”)and a collection of New Orleans stories, “Goodbye, Silver, Silver Cloud.” A spoken word CD with jazz accompaniment, “Live! On Frenchmen Street” was released in 2000. Since the hurricanes, she has served as a cultural ambassador for New Orleans.

Q. Where were you when Katrina was headed toward New Orleans?
A. I was at home ignoring the TV until my daughter Celeste called to ask if I’d paid any attention to the storm. I’ve never left before, but for several reasons had decided I would evacuate next time we had a severe threat. One of the reasons I left is because my son Ian tortured his poor wife and child once by insisting that they stay because I stayed. The other reason was I’d been reading all the warnings about the wetlands. When they said 30 foot storm surge, I looked up at my ceiling which is 11 feet high We had always intended to go to the attic. Not a good idea. I had also read John Barry’s book “Rising Tide.” We left on Saturday. for Eunice.

Q.What were the initial effects of the storms?
A.Two days later in Eunice as we danced to Zydeco music, content that the city had been spared a bad hit, we suddenly heard that the levees had broken down in the Lower Ninth Ward, and at the 17th Street Canal. East New Orleans, Lakeview, Mid City, and our Ward, the Ninth, were flooded. Most of New Orleans was under water!

We now had the cable turned on. CNN traumatized us. There was no communication between people in New Orleans , and little to the outside world. We heard nothing from my son Teal, who had stayed behind at his house in the Ninth Ward. Only one person we knew could get through to call us. He lived on the West Bank of the river and knew no more than we did. The West Bank had been spared heavy flooding. Our cell phones didn’t work. Internet was spotty. All we had was the TV, which reported people without food or water, ten thousand dead, murder in the Super Dome, and wholesale looting — the complete loss of our city, family, friends, our houses under water. I would have given ten houses to hear from my son.

We were not allowed back into New Orleans. As far as we knew my son was lost, we had no homes, no jobs, and no clothes but the few pieces with us.

We were numb. Forced to live where we were. There was a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans. No one was allowed to return. I spent sleepless nights worrying over Teal. He hadn’t come out, and I assumed our houses were gone. By day we applied for food stamps; living expenses from Allstate; and FEMA aid. My daughter, a social worker, knew what to do and did it. She had worked with Native American victims of a previous hurricane that hit Grand Bayou. We would have been destitute without her good sense and ability to fill out forms. I reported my house as lost to the insurance company for money to live on. I thought it was lost.

We kept trying to get news of my son on the internet. After two weeks we heard that Teal was in our Bywater neighborhood, the news came in the form of an e-mail my friend Franny received on Long Island. She called me on the land line to tell me, “Teal’s alive!” She had run her own internet search, which turned up one of the patrons of BJ’s, our neighborhood bar. The men from the neighborhood who drank beer at BJ’s had formed an ad hoc cooperative to help elderly neighbors who had stayed; these men, my son included, shared food, and ran boats to help people get out of their houses.

The Lower Ninth Ward is just across the Industrial Canal from us. A matter of three blocks and an old bridge across the canal from our houses. The levee had breached on the other side and an eighteen foot wall of water had passed through leaving neighbors dead or stranded on rooftops. These were the people we were seeing on TV.

Everybody in the Eunice house was exhausted. It was hard being away from New Orleans and seeing the crisis on a screen. I had gone through hurricane Betsy in 1965with a new baby. Few people in New Orleans left for hurricanes. They came too often.

During Betsy my house was on N. Rampart Street, not too many blocks from where I live now. Windows blew out and heavy blocks of ornamental plaster fell on my baby’s bed, where I had tied a mosquito netting to the four legs of the crib. In this case the netting fell near the bottom of the crib, but the net cushioned the hunk of plaster and saved baby Celeste from a direct hit. There was no high water on our street. In Betsy there was flooding in the Lower Ninth Ward, but the heroic rescues were by ordinary people in boats.

In 2005 we watched TV around the clock, but we weren’t there. We constantly checked the internet for news. It was hard to grasp what had happened. This is the richest country in the world. How could the levees we relied on break? And where was FEMA? People were begging for help. We were in shock.

Q. What have been the effects of Katrina and aftermath on your life ? On your work?
A.We had no U.S. mail for over a year. Later we had to pick it up at the Super Dome. Some of my mail still goes to Eunice, La. I had no home telephone or Internet for over a year. We did have Internet cafes, but I was too busy getting my house together to go there. My job as a psychic for big conventions was gone. It was a great job:. Get dressed up; go to a fine hotel; read cards for three hours , and get paid as if I’d worked all day as a professional whatever.

My daughter, who has been a social worker for most of her career, was the big loser in our family. She and her husband had been buying and renovating property. They had their own house across the river and a rental across the street. They had an apartment house in our neighborhood, and I a two story rental in the Lower Ninth ward. The major loss was the house in the Lower Nine. all the others had some damage, much of it major. She stayed in Lafayette and took a job as a Supervisor of thirteen social workers. Her husband commuted back and forth to New Orleans to get the property going again. they had many mortgages and no tenants for some time. He has had a number of heart attacks. She has multiple sclerosis, and had been been high performing with few symptoms until the stress of Katrina. She has stayed in Lafayette for their son who is seven. She wanted to put him in a French Immersion School It took her over a year of living in someone else’s house while they paid mortgages on houses she couldn’t prove she had, to get her life together enough to buy a house in the country. Now the country house is too much for her and they have bought a house in Lafayette. She has managed to save much of their property and sell some of it at a loss. She has just had another baby and did well while pregnant, but now she’s had an exacerbation of her disease and may be confined to a wheelchair. Tony had open heart surgery this year and is now helping her He is repairing the new house which has three bedrooms, but they waited so long for the small business loan from the SBA that the termites, which were few have multiplied.
She’s a fighter.

Q. How have you been able to keep writing? Has your work changed?
A. Writers in New Orleans are great friends. When I came back I would go to the Goldmine Saloon, which is run by poet Dave Brinks. He drove me all over town when I first came back as an orientation. At the Thursday reading series, I would read old poetry. I kept saying “My muse is catatonic in an attic somewhere,” but after awhile I began to write poetry I’ve written narrative poems about the storm and another poem that I think is one of the best things I’ve done. It’s taken from “The Song of Songs.” My work is still about New Orleans but reaches out to the universal I’ve written nothing of my personal sorrows. As a Reader, I have had dozens of free clients pour out their troubles to me. I’m like a country doctor; they pay me in kindness. I get food, service, and friends.

Q. Tell me about the writing you have done since Katrina.
A. I haven’t had time to write short stories. My days are too full. I would love to have some time to do stories again. My story “Pie,” about how the storm affected animals, was part of an art show called “Katrina Blues,” in Pacific Grove, California. The essay was an installation on the wall with two pictures of Pie, my dog. One a negative. The reason I focused on the animals was because of the inability of many people to feel what happened to the people here. At the art show I found that it was the hook. Everyone talked to me about animals.That's where the sentiment lies.

Q. How is your life going now? How have you been able to manage? Where are you living now, where are you working now, what are you working on?
A. My life goes well. It was difficultt to live in New Or;leans for a long time. It gets better. The city has great spirit. We always have music. there have been many second lines right down my street since the storm. There’s a resurgence of visual art and theater. Everything is more expensive; Utilities, food etc. for the people who live here. We can still show tourists one of the best times they’ll ever have anywhere.

As for work, my old job is coming back slowly. I’ve rented my whole house to various friends to want or need to come back. My rents are not high. I had a shotgun house that had little damage and no mortgage. I repaired and borrowed on it and bought the neighborhood bar with my son Teal, who runs it. He’s a great host. He helped lots of people after the storm. They love him. It’s called BJ’s, your Ninth Ward living room So far so good. It’s supporting us: God willing and the water don’t rise.

Q. When you sit down to work at your writing, what do you see now? Is that different from before Katrina?
A. The trick is finding time and energy to write. I don’t know if my voice has changed It always takes me a long time to digest the material. It has to become part of me. I keep saying. “I’m a poet. I don’t know what’s happened yet. When I do I’ll write about it.”

Q. What gives you hope?
A. I’m a hopeless optimist. I think my daughter is going to get well. I love my city. I've always liked change. We're always changing now. You have to be flexible to live here. I still think I have a wonderful life.

Q. How has the community of writers connected with New Orleans helped you and others? What is most needed now to bring back the literary community?
A. We have a great community of writers, many from the Poetry Forum , which I directed for eighteen years. I’m still publishing New Laurel Review. Our last anthology, which came out post Katrina, was bilingual. It was an issue on Cuban writes and Cuban-American writers in the same issue. We’re working on an memorial issue about Robert Borsodi, who had a famous coffee house here. Ah Mos zu bolton is also remembered in this issue. We make about half our money from library subscriptions and the rest from a big party where we sell dinners.

By the way, the poet Martha McFerren and her husband Dennis Wall stayed with me for six months. Their house in Gentilly had three feet of water in it. They are back home now and she’s writing again.

I have many friends who are young writers. One of the groups I work with has asked me to join them in a planning session when I come back from New York. We’ve been having readings, some publications, and before the storm, a school: The School for the Imagination will start up again soon and we’ll be publishing books as well, through Trembling Pillow Press.