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Poetry Combine {format} {format} 7:37 Andrei Codrescu & Larry Massett

Poetry students meet the street poets of New Orleans.

Broadcast: Aug 9 2004 on NPR All Things Considered Subjects: Cultural, Literature

Profile: Poetry combine in New Orleans' French Quarter

August 9, 2004 from All Things Considered

MICHELE NORRIS, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

When he's not writing essays for this program or novels, commentator Andrei Codrescu serves as a professor of English at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. This year he created a poetry combine comprised of three of his students. He took them to the French Quarter of New Orleans. Their assignment: to write poems about some characters there. The journey began with a Jackson Square hotdog vendor, the Lucky Dog man.


There are lots of Lucky Dog men in New Orleans selling this fast food from carts shaped like humungous hot dogs. It turns out this particular dog man is named Woody Lashipa(ph).

Mr. WOODY LASHIPA (Hotdog Vendor): I'm the kind of a person that likes being out in the world and dealing with people all day long, so it's kind of a fun job for me.

CODRESCU: I'll bet you've seen some wild stuff in the square.

Mr. LASHIPA: Yeah, more than I really want to see sometimes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CODRESCU: This is your chance to ask the Lucky Dog man here a question.

Unidentified Woman #1: Why did you come to New Orleans in the first place?

Mr. LASHIPA: Change of pace. I've lived most of my life in San Francisco, parts of California, and this is very similar to San Francisco.

CODRESCU: It's all going smoothly, until someone mentions poetry. What do you know, Woody writes songs and poems. He just happens to have one stashed in the Lucky Dog cart under the condiments shelf.

Mr. LASHIPA: Called "Cooking." (Reading) `We had beans on the back stove. Mama grew some rice. Now she cleaned and cooked it. Be tastin' very nice. Biscuits in the oven, crawfish in the pan. Mama knows how to feed a workin' man. Big spoon on the table...'

(Soundbite of music)

CODRESCU: Let's face it, everyone in New Orleans is a poet. There may be something in the thick-enough-to-drink air or the story-saturated Mississippi waters or maybe the lucky dogs. But the epicenter of poetic activity in this city is quite specific. It's a bar in the French Quarter called the Gold Mine. The owner, Dave Brinks, is a poet born and raised in the Quarter. The bar, which has been in his family for generations, is really a school for poetry known as the New Orleans School for the Imagination. The Gold Mine is where you come to hear poems, read poems, meet other poets and learn from Dave.

Mr. DAVE BRINKS (Gold Mine): Before the Gold Mine, it was called Whiskey River, and then before that it was called Shaky Jake's, and then before that it was called Frenchman's Creek.

Unidentified Woman #2: Whiskey River, Shaky Jake's...

Mr. BRINKS: Frenchman's Creek...

Unidentified Woman #2: Frenchman's Creek.

Mr. BRINKS: Jeremiah's, the Hidden Door. I always had the fortune of growing up around a lot of nefarious characters in the Quarter. And just being a kid, I guess I was always hopeful that most people were like that. And then the bikers and the terrific ladies of the night--there was a woman named Delphine Caffrey(ph). Actually, her phone was where the popcorn machine is now, and that's where she used to take her calls.

CODRESCU: Dave tells the students they should trust their dreams. Dreams are the source of poetry. To prove it he tells us one of his dreams.

Mr. BRINKS: He goes, `Now let's go sit in this tree.' And this tree was a tree that I always sat in when I was a kid when I didn't feel like being around other people. And so we went and sat up in this tree. And he says, `Now I'm going to give you this formula which is the year in which you'll live and the year in which you'll die.' And he gave me this formula, and it was something like equinox divided by cucumber equals the number, and I did it immediately. I did it on him. And it came out to be the year that he had died. And he said, `No, no, no, no, no, no. You wouldn't want to do that on yourself 'cause that's too scary.' He says, `But you would want to do it on the people that you love and you want to make sure that you spend time with while they're still around.'

(Soundbite of music)

CODRESCU: The poetry combine is feeling a bit overwhelmed after the seance at the Gold Mine. But there is still more to come. We have scheduled an interview with GiO, the queen of New Orleans burlesque.

GiO: Satire is making fun of people who are smarter than me. Irony is making fun of people who are richer than me. Burlesque is making fun of people who are smarter and richer than me while taking my clothes off.

CODRESCU: GiO is, of course, a poet. And she has a bachelor's degree in industrial design, a master's degree in counseling, and she's president of her neighborhood citizens association. In other words, she is a model citizen of New Orleans who happens to have invented an aggressively postmodern style of strip tease.

GiO: This burlesque revival or neo-burlesque movement is mostly about the delicate sensibilities of the tease(ph), a skin I can slip back into when I choose. But I would so much rather be in your face, sometimes on your face, so you can guess my weight, of course.

CODRESCU: At one point GiO calmly disrobes in order to display a flame-colored tattoo decorating an anatomical region that these poetry students had never seen before, at least not in public. They are totally speechless. But GiO is not a bit speechless.

GiO: Every woman's body is a dark secret place where you and I came from. Paglia says this is the meaning of strip tease, a sacred dance of pagan origin, a hazardous sphere of primitive power. I don't procreate. I create and I recreate. I sublimate. And I've been unabashedly spoiled by receiving validation in this manner.

(Soundbite of applause)

CODRESCU: The next morning we get together at a French Quarter cafe to unveil our work, the poems we have somehow managed to write overnight about the people we met yesterday. Here is Megan's take on Woody, the Lucky Dog man.

Ms. MEGAN VOLPERT: (Reading) In the pouring rain, in 100 copyrighted song lyrics, in 17 self-published books, in the Lucky Hot Dog man, in the cheapest of covers, in the priceless book, in the humble, a lesson.

CODRESCU: And Colleen.

Ms. COLLEEN FAVA: (Reading) Woody is a Lucky Dog man in Jackson Square; 17 books of poetry, 100 copyrighted songs, a previous incarnation in a metal punk rock band and time on the streets. Now he stands in downpours giving the public what they need: mystery meat on a bun and lyrics beneath the ketchup.

CODRESCU: Well, we became more communal than I even thought. There is a giant prejudice about poetry, and there's been that for a long time; that poets are lone creatures who, you know, suffer privately with their typewriters and their pens, you know, and this is a way to actually erase that terrible idea and do something new. As Ezra Pound said, `Make it new.' And I think this is definitely a way to make it new.

(Soundbite of street music)

BLOCK: Louisiana State University Professor Andrei Codrescu and his poetry combine: students Colleen Fava, Megan Volpert and Robert Bloom.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.