WHEREABOUTS is a series of blog posts by VIATOR contributors around the world describing the spaces and places that have inspired their work.
“In memory everything seems to happen to music.”
So says Tom in the opening scene of The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams’ classic coming-of-age drama. Williams, who considered New Orleans his “spiritual home”, may have inadvertently communicated the essence of the city with this line. No matter where I go in New Orleans, I hear music: blues on Frenchmen street, marching bands in the Tremè, a Marigny piano scale like the smell of hot bread wafting from an open window.
Like the Mississippi River, music in New Orleans has a physical presence. Also like the river, it carries its source even as it moves forward, a spinning, shrinking, swelling vehicle of memory and change. Memory and change: this co-existence incites tension, but so do the best songs, compositions entwining ancient structures with fresh beats.
Once, on the other side of the country, I sang Allen Toussaint’s song “Summer Nights” for a friend who had never heard of the New Orleans musician.
He and his dog they walked the old land
Every flower touched his cold hand
As he slowly walked by--
Slurring through what must have been my fifth or six drink that night, I explained (incoherently, unbecomingly, and with off-putting earnestness) my interpretation of this soulful psychedelic folktale as a death-metaphor. Then I threw up on the floor.
Living in New Orleans has blessed me with a humbling knack for acting a fool. When I’m away from the city, I’m made aware that I drink too much, eat too much, laugh too much, love too much. I don’t have a main artistic medium because I create too much. I make stories --poems--paintings--photographs--and I listen.
When I’m in the city, I’m not considered Too Much. This is because there’s always someone doing their version of Too Much next to me. That holy racket, this great resounding din like a holler from next door never fails to exorcise loneliness. Even if it’s just for the length of a song, one more dance in the street.
Why stare into the abyss when you can party in it?
New Orleans is mostly water. It takes some sea legs. Often I feel off balance. My meticulous drawing practice gives me a chance to sit still, collect myself. Like many port cities, New Orleans swarms with strangers and storytellers. Some people say New Orleans is a trumpet, but I think it’s more like an accordion, stretching and shrinking as people come and go. Many zydeco bands have an accordion player, and for me, that kind of music—this sometimes danceable, sometimes depressive emotive French—represents my experience in the city. My camera practice revolves mostly around my experience photographing musicians and performers. I love capturing the most rehearsed people in the world in moments of spontaneity.
“New Orleans, unlike a lot of those places you go back to and that don't have the magic anymore, still has got it.” Wrote Bob Dylan in Chronicles. “Night can swallow you up, yet none of it touches you. Around any corner, there's a promise of something daring and ideal and things are just getting going. There's something obscenely joyful behind every door, either that or somebody crying with their head in their hands…The devil comes here and sighs.”
The Devil doesn’t just sigh, but sleeps, eats, and breathes New Orleans. Sometimes he steals your bike. When he sells it, you’re convinced he will use the money to buy either heart medicine for his mother or seven grams of cocaine for himself. In this sense, there is no action that is not a story. Every consequence is literary. The city is the embodiment of the Comedy & Tragedy masks. One minute you’re in love and making art and the next you’re vomiting blood from the door of a streetcar—or quietly going insane.
New Orleans was--and still can be--a terrible place. Before the Civil War, it was the largest slave market in the United States. 100,000 people were “transacted” in the French Quarter. A third of those people were children under ten. Called “the Necropolis of the South” by Northern newspapers in the 1800s, the port city often suffered breakouts of yellow fever, influenza, even bubonic plague. Hell, just 10 years ago, a catastrophic government failure exasperated a hurricane to a trauma. The memory of displacement hasn’t vanished. Art still reacts to it. I see some artists channeling the iconography of voodoo—a spiritual practice whose North American carnation came from a history of oppression, diaspora, and silencing—powerfully.
Memory works differently below sea level. Here, the dead are not buried but entombed above ground, in plain sight. The past casts long shadows on the present. It’s important to remember, and to keep writing, drawing, making. For some artists, this tempestuous climate is Too Much. But for me, there is no other place like it.
"Cast poems into the river and tell them you remember,” urges Kristiana Rae Colón in her poem “A Remix for Remembrance”.
I will, Kristiana, I will.
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