Spring Update

I feel like I'm in a big pile of laundry scattered through a small bedroom: some of it's clean, a lot of it's dirty, most of it's wearable in public, but because of my upbringing I'm not going to try.

I have a bunch of documents I'm rotating working on, mostly creative nonfiction, essays, and prose poems. Sentences are good, paragraphs are good, full pieces...not so much. When I feel the need to get work out in the open I go to the Dogfish Reading Series, a monthly event here in New Orleans loosely connected to the Loyola Writing Institute. If you're in town, you should check it out: there's free homemade food and a variety of booze. Featured guest writers read and chat about their work and are followed by an open mic.

It's a good thing I've got something more straightforward like Southern Glossary to work on. I recently redesigned the site with a new template, and I'm very excited because it's now more like how I always wanted it to be with a visuals-first design but also a straightforward way to move between posts. 

I have artists lined up through September and keep adding more, but right now the real fun is contacting everyone from the past six months to collect images for issue #2 of the print zine. I'm going to go with a standard magazine format this time instead of the half-size digest version, and I'm really blown away in retrospect by how much good work is right at my fingertips. I'm working with some really talented and generous people and I'm hopeful that issue #2 will be a good vessel for their art.

Finally, check out the new Snapshots category on this site where I'll be posting stuff from my photo walks with friends. You can catch me more frequently on Instagram.

The Dala Horse: New Essay Up at Neutrons/Protons

How did a regional toy become a national symbol for Sweden? Neutrons/Protons has posted an essay of mine on the Dala horse. 

The Dala horse is named after the region in Sweden it hails from, but it isn’t bred, it’s carved. You start with a wood blank. You saw the blank according to an outline. You whittle the Dala horse out of what isn’t a Dala horse. You prime it then add the red base layer of paint, visible for miles, visible for decades, recognizable to the old and the young, a tribute to the wood-hauling horses that inspired the toy.

Continue reading at Neutrons/Protons.

The Water Markers

DeDeaux Image Studio

DeDeaux Image Studio

It’s 2015, a hard-edged year, and in the quiet upstairs gallery of an art museum, a water marker sculpture leans against the wall, translucent yet with a thickness and angle that gives it a sense of imposing weight. It doesn’t threaten the other artworks in the room, but it doesn’t let you forget its presence either. It is there.

There are others like it throughout the museum right now, part of a temporary exhibit: clear acrylic planks with photographs of water printed onto them, giving them the illusion of a scientific sample brought in from the field like arctic ice cores. An unclassified body of water trapped inside a clear casing for study or measurement. They vary in height, each one supposedly a reference point to an actual crestline of Katrina floodwaters somewhere in the city.

In a room full of art from other centuries in a city that will no longer exist in the next one, the water marker both belongs and doesn’t belong.


I remember the first time I visited the New Orleans Museum of Art after moving back to the city in 2007. After the more basic duties of moving were taken care of, I felt the need to see many of my favorite places, including NOMA. The process of readjusting to the city would be incomplete until I did. That day, I exited the main gallery on the first floor and instantly became aware of an enormous photograph attached to the wall of the throughway. In it, a law enforcement officer squints through the scope of a long rifle pointed straight towards the camera.

As I remember it, the photograph’s perspective was very close to the gun and the officer’s focused stare. It was at least six feet tall. I had to back up a little to see it in total, and that’s when I realized that the little fortified post captured in the shot was the same front desk in the great entrance hall of the museum I’d checked in at earlier. I want to say the identification marker next to the giant photo told me of the security forces who had been drawn to the museum in the days after the flood, protecting the thousands of pieces of art and the handful of staff who had ridden out the storm in its walls...but I’m not sure if that’s true. Those people did do those things, I just can’t remember if that little bit of text—the verifying physical footnote of the museum world—said anything about them.

Regardless of the title of the image, who shot it, or how a NOMA curator captioned it in a small, reputable serif font, I’ve never forgotten the experience of seeing that image, unlike whatever the featured exhibition at the time was. It was an artwork, in a museum, referencing a very recent event and an ongoing struggle to protect and reestablish the museum and its purpose. But it was also already, just eighteen months after the storm, beginning to look back and acknowledge the separation of time.


Now, here in 2015, we are a long way from those early days where debris and the sounds of construction surrounded us and affected the way we thought about ourselves, from when all art coming out of the city seemed primed to communicate anger and pain and immediacy. The spirit of reclamation ran wild then, and there was no broad critique lowering a lid to contain it all.  But as the years have accumulated, the tendency to compare and contrast has displaced most other modes of analysis when it comes to work of any kind that addresses the storm, and for some reason we look to respected institutions to provide us with comprehensive displays, something more evolved than the “then and now” birdseye view images you can slide a cursor across, draining or re-flooding a fixed point.

We demand that all attempts to ascertain the state made by these institutions—whether museums, anthologies, major magazines, television specials, multimedia projects, or public ceremonies—be not just valid, but meaningful, even transportable: capable of being shown to outsiders for their education. We hope that reflections on this anniversary will be like anchors, catching on something deep and hidden that will finally slow the drift towards incomprehensible complexity.

But each year we progress further into an unsatisfactory recovery. So when outsiders’ commemorations fail us—or, worse, entomb an incorrect, false belief about ourselves that the wider world can access and consume endlessly—we feel irritable and misrepresented, like unconsulted experts in our pain, confusion, and anger.

New Orleans Museum of Art

In the Grand Hall of NOMA, at the broad landing of the marble staircase, one of these wide water markers has displaced the bronze figure usually housed in the focal point of the large, balconied lobby. That sculpture, Rodin’s The Age of Bronze, has doppelgangers around the world, a result of Rodin casting several statues from the same mold. They, too, scattered to new homes over the decades.

To me, the figure is a life-sized expression of both weariness and defiance, a physical expression of being on the edge of acceptance with one’s situation. I’ve stood close to it several times on my way upstairs, and I notice the statue when I see photos of parties posed on the grand staircase. Hundreds of couples have said their vows right in front of the statue; the museum is a popular setting for weddings. I also notice when it is replaced by an object that typifies a large exhibition, but it wasn’t until I saw the brick of water standing in the statue’s stead that I ever thought of it as missing.

I read up on the statue later, and found another example of shifting meanings. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York explains the statue’s original reception:

Critics of the period were also dismayed by the subject, for Rodin not only abandoned all of the elaborate repertory of symbols with which academic sculptors habitually equipped their works, but also had stripped the figure of the spear originally carried in his left hand, relying on the expressiveness of the figure itself to convey its meaning. In addition, he changed the title from The Vanquished (Le Vaincu), possibly an allusion to the suffering and demoralization of his countrymen during the Franco-Prussian War, to the classical, but more ambiguous, The Age of Bronze (L'Âge d'Airain). Later the work acquired still other new titles. The Metropolitan Museum has retained the title by which the bronze was known at the time of its purchase from Rodin.

These calls for symbols, correct representation, and accurate names are familiar to me. Art, spectacle, and the portrayal of trauma elevated to transcendence have their place, but right now they offer very little to exchange with those who have lived through ten years of aggregated dissatisfaction, told again and again that the homes and neighborhoods they lost don’t fit into the new reality of the city. For them, the best thing is accuracy and clear language. We want titles without allusion to other artists or ages. Spare us the warmest, most comfortable type of insult: collective inclusion with all other kinds of sufferers.

We want to be taken on our own terms, and those who muddle the paint and dilute the clay are traitors. Any storyteller from outside who comes to find enough evidence to confirm a pre-written story is the worst kind of tourist to tolerate: a karaoke dipshit, mangling someone else’s song.


I pondered the water markers in person and afterward. I tried to think about a story that I might tell that would set me apart, or maybe dust clean an undisclosed corner of the decade. I don’t have that kind of talent or willpower, honestly. And even if I did, would I be willing to revisit that story next year, the year all the world won’t be looking?

No, next year is the year the more disconnected people will begin to say, “I think we’ve covered all that ground before,” and the attention will recede, leaving behind the residue of this hard-edged year.

The thing about it is, so little of this has runs parallel to time. The recovery and rebuilding have never marched in a straightforward progression away from the moment the floodwaters reached their horrible stasis. Many wounds have healed, but not because there hasn’t been enough time. Because many wounds will never heal, even metaphorically. Each new hurricane season renews the intensity of our wariness about the possibilities of facing it all again.

Even if some of us have gotten to “a better place” or made our peace, there are daily stressors, opportunities to regress, and new types of ignorance to be opposed. There is always another skirmish coming in the never-ending battle to be treated with authenticity by outsiders and those who have the power to shape our lives.

What we want is the freedom to create our own water marker, and decide for ourselves how high and thick and imposing it should be. And if we find our memories encased in something heavier than we can carry, then we need others do more than just marvel at its weight.

Father John Misty, The Civic Theater

He has the  dance moves most frontmen only think they have, dramatically collapsing one pose and making a fluid transition into another. His performance conformed to a wavelength, as if it was pre-programmed and projected onto the stage. There was that lightweight scarf he had on his shoulders, though, a prop that provided a drag of texture to his movements, following after him whether he was shaking his fist or skating away towards the corner of the stage to lean out and offer the ready crowd a better look at his long neck and how it disappeared down into his half-open shirt.

He spun, he pump faked, he kept the needle between frivolity and sincerity, and his voice never wavered even as he shook his guitar as a sign for a tech to come running and grab it, even as he made exemplary gestures of begging. He played at begging from the crowd, he worked at begging from the subject of his song, and the music fit both shapes.

His heat filled the theater, and couples from the front pit to the dark back corners shared the same spectrum of intensity, singing along to the songs, giving the lyrics to each other, letting his live voice magnify the private meanings they’d assembled from them. He fit that stage and that audience, a man in black preaching modern romance in a white-walled palace, urging on the devotees until the teal strobes took him from their presence.

Outside the theater the crowd pulled apart, revealing the edgy singles who were hidden among the glitter-eyed pairs. They looked determined but edgy, reaching for their phones, about to make a decision about which downtown intersections to head for, which voice to pursue next.

The Gravekeeper, Saint Louis Cemetery No. 2

His partner, Miguel, had already finished sweeping off all sides of the last tomb of the day. He brushed the collected trash pile toward a grate with a push broom while the radio played from the open door of their truck, the music barely loud enough to counteract the waves of traffic noise overflowing the elevated interstate just past the brick walls of the cemetery.

He took up his hose and could feel the pressure of the full blast pushing back off of the marble, across the granite faceplate, the cold water finding the names half-inch deep in the granite and rinsing them out. These were the names of ancestors of the people who paid his contract.

Benoit. Fortier. Villere. LeBlanc.

It was almost full-time work, lifting beer cans off of graves, pint bottles in brown paper shrouds. They cleared the evidence of a shared meal close to one of his graves. Sometimes he battered shit into oblivion with his hose, rolling hardened turds end over end into open grass then blasting them apart. The hose was his tool, the water worked in fine points and broad strokes as needed.

After twisting it off, the nozzle hit the ground with a tiny clink. Mist fell illuminated on his forearms, on the stone urns, on Miguel’s work boots. He hitched his pants up by the belt loops at his sides then made it back around the corner down to collect the hose. He turned the faucet off and felt the last surge of water overrun the fitting and chill his fingers, which he then stroked a ritualistic curve over and behind each ear, bringing coolness to his head.

He gathered the first couple lengths into a hoop, walked forward a few steps, then yanked again, accumulating enough slack to draw two more. There wasn’t an efficiency to this method, but it couldn’t strictly be called dawdling either. If he’d had a supervisor they might grunt but not correct him, but there was no supervisor, and all the tourists were trying to edge him out of the frames of their photos anyway. He wasn’t permanent enough to warrant recordkeeping.

Water trickled into the old, old grates, gathering in drainpipes or soaking into the earth too moist and too soft to sink graves into, the ground said to spit out caskets.

He threw the gathered hose over the side of the truck bed. Rakes and brooms clattered in afterward, white rags balled and tossed into the tool chest, its heavy metal lid clamping down.

He got in the truck and reclined the passenger seat all the way back, crossing his arms over his chest, and as they slowly rolled down a wide lane between two rows of graves toward the gate, the casual visitors peered into the cab at him. He caught their eyes, but his face was expressionless, at rest until further notice: it’s the end of the day, motherfuckers. You wouldn't see him sit up again until Miguel came back out from the convenience store, ripped a cold can off its plastic ring, and laid it in the crook of his arm.


“Ye-ah buddy.”

The Canadians, Decatur Street

We shared a table with a Canadian couple the other night, waiting for the parade to start. The man was already four scotches into the delay, but still seemed sober. His girlfriend was adjusting her scarf, watching out for him, watching out for herself, the surface tension inside her glass sliding down slowly. They were a slightly older couple from Toronto with one of those Train A/Train B origin stories: leaving lives set far apart only to meet and scream one alongside the other due to speed and time and distance. They were enjoying the merits of young divorces. Now they were in New Orleans to reinforce their romance and had freshly arrived at the only table that had two empty chairs, right next to us.

By 'waiting for the parade start,' I mean waiting for it to meet up with us. The parade had started an hour an a half ago, breaking open with a cheer as the condensed floats and marchers took their first steps forward, adding to the separation between each unit. A parade succeeds when its tensed spectacle can stretch into phrases.

But it must have been slow going for them down Royal Street, bottlenecked by their own spectators. A New Orleans parade moves in a straight line down a predetermined path, but it can still be subject to friction. Flame-eared devils slow down to pass trinkets to open hands. Bearded ladies pause to pose for pictures. Wider floats wait for the eager, rubberneck crowd to realign. It all takes time, and those of us at the far end of the route: the Canadians, us, and the fifty shiny strangers twirling cocktail straws and counting out their remaining dollar bills, we all chat and turn at every flash of light through the window and think of it as waiting for the parade to start.

The Canadians, though, have their own way of looking at things. They have been walking close together in unordained paths, speculating about their own spectacle. Walking as if they were powering the landscape with their footsteps, as if they were causing the whole city to move around the fixed point of their own awe. When they stop the city stops. When they push off with the balls of their feet, feel the strain in their calves, the storefronts grudge then budge then start to slide easy again. The city itself is a parade with sparkling streamers hiding whatever mechanism is underneath responsible for hauling it forward.  

“The music always seems to be above our heads,” the visitors say to us.  They mean as if it's coming from the balconies. They mean like slow afternoon radio on speakers hung up in shop ceiling nooks like fly paper. They mean like in a parade when you are standing in a gutter and the brass band is marching along the apex of the humped street.

The parade arrives, heralded by the cop lights, and the bar crowd swells the company along the sidewalk, slings arms around the old balcony posts and stacks plastic drinks on newspaper vending boxes. 

We study the the backs of their bobbing heads and upthrust hands blocking any view of the marching brass bands, only allowing sightlines to their instruments: the big bell of a tuba oscillating like a summer fan, the dancing edge of a trombone, the top end of a bass drum jumping up above the surface when the big man holding it tosses it up to readjust the weight across his chest.

The sounds scatter and bleat but somehow are united, and the Canadians gather them up to carry home. 

The Fiddler, Hi-Ho Lounge

When she arrives to the open jam, the case is already unclasped save for one bronze fastener, and as she joins the circle of players, she flicks it off like the safety on a gun with the back of her knuckle. The fiddle comes out and spins her left hand while the fingers in her right strafe the strings to check the tuning. Perfect.

The song is halfway done, but she drops right in, pushing the tip of her bow up over her shoulder, vertical, pitching the melody like lofted hay then taking a solo right off of someone else's fretboard. There is another fiddler here, much younger, confident in nothing but his posture, but she takes no time to teach or coach all night because this is her thing, her two hours to fetch notes from inspired corners of her heart. It's her chance to exalt in a strength, to let the tires find a track and almost move along full speed without a need to adjust left and right

It's only Monday night, so this loud jam must hold her through all hours, commutes, strains, and burdens. Tomorrow starts the first day in another week of counting down, maybe a little solo playing here and there with the stereo, but nothing like this, sitting as the proudest out of a dozen string players sharing inherited songs. 

The Bassist, d.b.a.

The upright bassist doubles down on the pianists’ pattern, stringing out lines that alternate by measure with exaggerated physicality, as if somewhere inside his instrument there is a resisting force hampering his full-run freedom. He slaps and plucks at the lines, gathers them between his fingers. In the few spare breaths he has in the song, he flicks his hands out away from his fingerboard, palm down but digits upward, wing-like, freeing himself to carry on.

If you were one of the people casually watching from the central bar, you might see this as a showman’s move or poke-fun dance, but if you stood up close to the stage and watched him and him only, you'd see he needs it, really. He needs resetting within the song itself, needs personal resetting always.  In between songs he pokes his index finger right into the corner of his eye and draws the lid down as if releasing trapped vapors.  In between sets he is the first to reach the couch, and has to be pressed, exhorted, threatened to rise and duck back through the stage door.

All night long he plays those hard, blue notes.