FPP spoke with poet and prose writer Nicole Cooley about the searing imagery of post-Katrina New Orleans, the glory of dollhouses, and the joy of being a poet’s daughter. Nicole Cooley reads with us at the First Person Plural Reading Series season finale on March 9 at Silvana in Harlem.
In your book of poems, Breach, we move through terrains physical and emotional as we imagine your New Orleans before and after Hurricane Katrina. What did you feel most drawn to thinking and writing about in those days? Which images stick with you still?
I wanted to write the poems because of the images–what I saw when I went to New Orleans three months after the hurricane and what I saw when I went to Mississippi a year after the storm. The front steps that lead to no house. The houses that looked fine until you saw–or my mother pointed out–the thin black waterline on the outside that meant the water rose inside the house and it was ruined. The empty lots with “No Trespassing” signs stuck in the dirt but nothing to trespass. I looked out the car window and started writing everything down.
What was it like to write about your hometown in those days of crisis and recovery?
Difficult–I wanted to make clear right away in my writing about New Orleans that I was not there during the storm. My experience was that of an outsider. But my parents were there and remained in the city during the hurricane despite the mandatory evacuation order and that was a huge part of my experience. My worrying for their safety, not being able to contact them for days, not being able to help them once the hurricane was over and they were trapped in the city, living in the aftermath.
If all of New Orleans could gather to hear you read one of your poems, which one would it be?
What a great question. I think “Write a Love Note to Camellia Grill,” about the iconic New Orleans restaurant that closed post-Katrina, the restaurant the citizens of the city covered in post-it notes which were love letters to not only the restaurant but to the city of New Orleans. I copied down everything written on those post it notes, and put some of them into the poem.
You are working on a nonfiction collection called “My Dollhouse, Myself: Miniature Histories.” Please tell us about this project.
This is a project very much informed by my daughters who love dollhouses as I do. As my own mother does. It’s a personal history, a historical investigation, and a close look at how dollhouses define and describe relationships between women–grandmothers, mothers and daughters. I’ve interviewed mini-bloggers, dollhouse builders, children who play with dollhouses and women who run dollhouse stores.
New Orleans vs New York City.
Both diverse, original, beautiful cities. So unlike so much else of the country.
Where do you experience or witness strong community? When have you felt unity?
The MFA program we co-founded in 2007 at Queens College-City University of New York with my beloved colleagues and wonderful students. We’ve built an amazing writing community in our program, and it has been really life-changing for all of us. It is the first and only MFA program in the borough of Queens.
Tell us about your first Harlem experience.
Not my first but my most memorable experience–three years ago at a church (I wish I could remember the name of the church!) I read several poems from my book Breach at an event about Katrina. It was a wonderful evening, full of readings and live music. The sense of community in the room was amazing.
What was it like to grow up as a poet’s daughter, and then become a poet yourself? Do you ever give each other advice?
A gift, really, to be my father Peter Cooley’s daughter. Not only did I never have to defend poetry as a valid career path or a way of life but also my dad and I have always shared our work. He is a merciless critic!
What is it like now to be the poet mother?
That is interesting too–my daughters love writing and reading (though not poetry). They have enriched and invigorated my work and changed my entire relationship to time. I have much less time to do my own work, with my children and my full-time job, but I think that’s actually made me a better writer.
Write a Love Note to Camellia Grill
By Nicole Cooley
Hundreds of post-it notes stuck on the windows—
Dear Camellia Grill, I can’t bear the thought of you not being here. Dear
Streetcar, gone, that shuddered down the Avenue. Dear Neutral Ground, effaced.
Last Meal at Camellia 18 days pre-K: potato, onion and cheese omelette,
pecan waffle, chocolate freeze. Dear dead bleached grass. Dear leaf-
choked gutters. Dear Drainage Pumps. Late night here drunk and LOVED it.
Dear Levee. Dear Rusted Barge. Dear Rope Swing.Your milkshakes bring all the boys.
So many of us grew up eating here. We need you to open to feel more normal.
Dear Empty Grill. Dear Freeze Machine. Dear Jar of Marmalade. Dear Phone Book
split and open on a table. My parents dated here and I dated here.
Dear Chrome and Glass. Dear Counter, sparkled Linoleum. Dear Girl
I once was, smoking at that counter, writing boys names on a napkin.
New Orleans has lost Schwegmanns, K+B, McKenzies. It can’t take another
New Orleans establishment to be gone forever. Dear Wind that Distills
the empty city. I will come every day with 100 people. Dear Damage.
I had my first date here. We got married. Come home! Dear Forgotten.
I’m going to stay hungry 4-ever. Dear Girl I once was. Dear Lost City.
Dear Girl Now Standing at the Window, reading: I’m pregnant! Come back!