An Interview with Opal Palmer Adisa
OPA: You attended Graduate school in the San Francisco Bay are, and then you returned to New Orleans, why?
MLS: The San Francisco Bay Area was great for my growth, grad school at S.F. State, where I met YOU! Then attending workshops & readings at later working at the S.F. African American Historical & Cultural Society originally in the Filmore, was a writer’s dream; it was there I met Bob Kaufman, who heard us young poets read; it was great time. Top that with the events listed in The Poetry Flash, many of which I attended. I was a performing poet. A reading was a literary and social event. I sold Broadsides of my work, so I was encouraged to keep doing that, but my work was not deepening. Typical of performers, I was beginning to cater to audience preferences for “popular” pieces instead of digging deeper. Then, the Afro-American Museums’ Association sent us to the World’s Fair in New Orleans. There, the great Danny Barker, musician, and Mrs. Sybil Morial (wife of a Black NOLA Mayor and mother to another) reported their disappointment that too many New Orleans youth left for higher education and did not return. Their pleas hit me in the gut. Couple that with missing my family with our wonderful culture, cuisine, and music. Within a year, I returned home to New Orleans. Not only did I deepen my work, but reconnected with my family roots, grew emotionally, and have two books to show, two additional degrees, and a career as a Folklorist in addition.
OPA: How and when did you come to poetry? Does poetry matter in today’s society/world?
MLS: After marrying too young, and suffering through a terrible car accident six months into the marriage, I was left with a broken pelvis, a hole in my lung and no memory. I wrote to remember and met poets who told me I sounded like a writer (had no clue what they meant); they introduced me to their teach, Colleen McElroy, who became my mentor and nurtured my new-found love of literature, especially literature by people of color. It was on from there, and I never looked elsewhere.
Yes, poetry is the world’s lyric, the tale of today, the comment on our times, the quandaries considered, blasted, blessed, praised, and condemned. Poetry will always be essential.
OPA: What keeps you writing?
MLS: Something inside that makes me speak for those to can’t or won’t, to tell our tales, hail our uniqueness, so much of which is the sweetness of life. Then, someone has to speak up for injustice; otherwise, it will continue to exist.
OPA: Who have been some of the important voices that have shaped your poetics?
MLS: Black Writers, Asian, Latino, Native Americans and Whites. This is just a partial list.
Carolyn M. Rodgers, Frank Chinn, Federico Garcia Lorca, Joy Hargo, Emily Dickerson, Jessica Hagedorn, Nicolas Guillen, Roberta Hill, e.e. Cummings, Sonia Sanchez, Li-Young Lee, Pablo Neruda, Simon Ortiz, Leslie Marmon Silko, Rilke, Ishmael Reed, African writers such as Okot B’Tek, Wole Soyinka and Derek Walcott from the Caribbean. There are many more, but these came up first!
OPA: As a writer/folklorist committed to documenting your family and cultural history, how do you decide what story to tell?
MLS: As a writer, I’m compelled to tell the story that erupts strongest from my sensibility, of which sometimes, I have no control; it comes up and must get out. Other times, I aim to tell something that needs telling about my people as a whole, or connections. In the world, Black people are united by culture and separated by sea, but we are so much more alike than different. I’m often moved by the similarities and enjoy the differences, the many delights of this life.
OPA: You were living and teaching in New Orleans when Katrina happened and the poems in Second Line Home documents your journey, and the personal cost since that event. What has been the worst aspect of that atrocity in America’s history?
MLS: The worst is that this was not a natural disaster but a Federal Flood as we now call it. We, our parents-grandparents-and us, paid for substantial levees sturdy enough to hold back the sea, as the Dutch hold back the North Sea with our design; at some point, politicians and the Army Core of Engineers scaled back to a cheaper model that did not work. To add insult to injury, we cannot sue the Federal Government. 80% of the city of New Orleans flooded due to levee failure after hurricane Katrina was gone. There was no place to live, no grocery stores—food deserts. We were exiled to all points across the country. Returning to tend our land was expensive. Before the Federal Flood, the lower 9th Ward (Arondissment in Paris) can boast as the largest Black neighborhood of homeowners in the nation, a statistic one never heard over the sensationalism of the “Black Poor” there. Over ten years since the Federal Flood, and I and others are still not in our homes. Many cannot afford to return. Too many of us lost everything.
Worse than that is the tremendous interruption of our culture. In New Orleans, even with very little, Black people have a tradition of living gloriously, of giving thanks for each day with style and swag. Our cuisine is beloved as is our music and style. We made a way out of no way when we had to during Jim Crow and lived gloriously making cultural all along the way. Now, our neighborhoods are toothless; our families interrupted. Some of our names return 300 years; there’s a different sense of place in that respect, and some may never return.
OPA: Has New Orleans healed from katrina? Is there still support that is need? How and where can folks help?
MLS: Certainly, New Orleans is in healing mode still; there is so much more that needs to be done. To begin, help those who need it instead of sitting on it. We’re the only place post-Katrina, who did not get replacement value, and the insurance companies were allowed to stiff us after paying premiums for decades. Now, many cannot afford coverage. This is a travesty of what America purports to be. New Jersey shore is rebuilt. No one is NYC is crying. New Orleans is one of the jewels of this nation, but we need help.
Help out: write your Representatives & Congressmen. There should be a national outcry that too many cannot rebuild or do not have funds to complete rebuilding. President Obama,
OPA: What are you working on now, and what support do you need as a poet?
MLS: Currently, stealing time to complete 1. My manuscript on contemporary Black Creole culture; 2. My manuscript on Kids Games: Sidewalk Songs, Jump-Rope Rhymes, and Clap-Hand Games; and 3. Re-writing my manuscript on Bob Kaufman. In the interim, I’m designing future works focused on my communities, which will be group efforts.
Dr. Mona Lisa Saloy is the Conrad N. Hilton Endowed Professor, Coordinator of English in the School of Humanities at Dillard University
For more information about Mona Lisa Saloy and her work, visit the websites listed below. Here is one of her poems:
On not being able to write a post-Katrina poem about New Orleans
It wasn’t Katrina you see
It was the levees
One levee crumbled under Pontchartrain water surges
One levee broke by barge, the one not supposed to park near ninth-ward streets
One levee overflowed under Pontchartrain water pressure
We paid for a 17-foot levee but
We got 10-foot levees, so
Who got all that money—the hundreds of thousands
Earmarked for the people’s protection?
No metaphors capture this battle for New Orleans
Now defeated and scorned by the bitter mistress of Bush-era non-government
New Orleans is broken by the bullet of ignorance
Our streets are baptized by brutal neglect
Our homes, now empty of brown and white faces, segregated by
Our broken promises of help where only hurt remains
Our hearts like our voices hollow now in the aftermath
Our eyes are scattered among T.V. images of
Our poor who without cars cling to interstate ramps like buoys
Our young mothers starving stealing diapers and bottles of baby food
Our families spread as ashes to the wind after cremation
Our brothers our sisters our aunts our uncles our mothers our fathers lost
Stranded like slaves in the Middle Passages
Pressed like sardines, in the Super Dome, like in slave ships
Where there was no escape from feces or
Some died on sidewalks waiting for help
Some raped in the Dome waiting for water and food
Some kids kidnapped like candy bars on unwatched shelves
Some beaten by shock and anger
Some homeless made helpless and hopeless by it all
Where is Benjamin Franklin when we need him?
Did we not work hard, pay our taxes, vote our leaders into office?
What happened to life, liberty, and the pursuit of the good?
Oh say, can you see us America?
Is our bright burning disappointment visible years later?
Is all we get the baked-on sludge of putrid water, your empty promises?
Where are you America?
– See more at: http://www.pen.org/blog/federal-flood#sthash.tA31hmCO.dpuf