A poet can always draw inspiration from the city in which she lives, even if only for a brief while.
A place often follows a poet wherever she goes afterward, stalking the imagination, lingering in the heart's perimeter and waiting for a chance to be channeled creatively—its people, culture and soul.
In the last few years, Arizona State University professor and poet Cynthia Hogue has felt the evocative pull of New Orleans—and she rendered the city and its voices in two major works published last year.
It all began in 1991, when Hogue moved to New Orleans, a city to which she was a complete foreigner. She had moved to Louisiana to teach at the University of New Orleans, and within a month, her house in the Ninth Ward was robbed. She endured Hurricane Andrew her second year, and with most native New Orleanians refusing to evacuate, she stayed.
Back then, there was no real evacuation plan in place. When Hogue asked her neighbors what would've happened if Andrew had been a direct hit as predicted (it veered at the last minute), they let her know that 15 feet of roiling water from Lake Pontchartrain would've come pouring down on them.
"That part, they hadn't told me when they talked about never evacuating," she says during a recent phone interview from her current home in Phoenix.
By the time she left New Orleans in '95, she'd seen firsthand a real, if imperfect, effort to make a great city truly multicultural. She loves New Orleans and never forgot its human warmth and musical richness. It is in memory of that lost city that she often writes.
It was a city of disparity between races and classes, too. Hogue's neighbors knocked on her door every month for water, because theirs had been shut off. Her students in remedial English, many of them native New Orleanians, couldn't write in complete sentences, let alone assemble a simple paragraph.
"The experience really opened my eyes to this country's underside," she says.
It wasn't all struggle in New Orleans. Hogue, the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and a Fulbright fellowship, enjoyed teaching graduate writing workshops at night, later going Uptown to Tipitina's (a Big Easy music landmark) to catch, say, Los Lobos. The city inspired her to write, and she began working on a series of narrative poems, completing them in time for her book The Never Wife (Mammoth Press, 1999). She named the series "Three Streets From Desire," because her house was located down the block from Desire, a street and housing project (torn down after Katrina).
Her latest collection, Or Consequence (Red Hen Press, 2010), contains "New Orleans Suite: Ars Cora/Under Erasure," about a slave woman who won her freedom in a Louisiana courtroom. Drawn from law documents and legal language, the suite seeks to approximate the erasure under which a former slave, Cora Arsene—after spending time in France, where slavery was illegal—lived and fought for personal emancipation back home. In terms of typography, it's Hogue's fiercest work, her line and stanza breaks representing the way Arsene's struggle was expunged from history's records, save for a single line in the court docs.
"I've been very aware that a lot that is accomplished by individuals is simply done 'under erasure,'" she explains. "Nothing marks the passage of the person, or the actions they took, which at the time made all the difference to them and to others."
It was New Orleans' more recent crucible that pushed Hogue to create what is arguably her career-defining work. Four years ago, the University of New Orleans Press asked if she was writing anything on Katrina. The press was engaged in creating the Katrina Papers, a series of interviews with survivors and evacuees. Hogue had herself started an interview project with evacuees to Arizona, and was making interview-poems from them. She loved the idea of publishing them as a book with UNO Press, and teamed up with Arizona photographer Rebecca Ross to complete When the Water Came: Evacuees of Hurricane Katrina.
Hogue reworked stories told by evacuees, many now living in Arizona, into verse, with nothing added. These poems rock the reader's consciousness and conscience. Take, for example, retired Winn-Dixie employee Deborah Green. Her harrowing tale of escaping the flood is matched by an earlier story in her life, when she survived being repeatedly shot by an ex-husband.
"It was heartrending to hear these testimonies," admits Hogue. "I was so full of empathy, and yet I felt so helpless, really. But after they'd read the poem, they seemed, in some way, uplifted that it meant something to someone to hear what they'd gone through. You can hear them thinking through how they found the courage. It was very touching to do this work and work with them so closely."
In one sense, Hogue—born and raised in the Northeast—has always been a foreigner wherever she's lived, whether in Iceland, Tucson, Pennsylvania or, now, Phoenix. In another sense, every place has left a trace of its essence on her psyche.
"I had not been in touch with many people from New Orleans until it came roaring back into my life five years ago, at which point I realized that the connections I'd made there, the friends I'd had, were real and abiding, that the love was still there," she says. "That realization was very precious to me."