|Patrice Melnick, executive director of Festival of Words Cultural Arts Collective, stands by the chalkboard with the evening's guests. Photo by Dominick Cross|
Poets, authors find a home in a blue house.
By Dominick Cross
Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012
In a word, that is why poets and writers — locally and nationally known — and others with a keen interest in them and their work gather nearly every Thursday evening in Grand Coteau.
It’s called the Casa Azul Series, named after the blue painted wooden building that serves as a gift shop and tourist information center at the only stoplight in this historic town.
The series, now in its fifth year, is under the care of Patrice Melnick, executive director of the Festival of Words Cultural Arts Collective, a published wordsmith in her own right. “Most of it is poetry,” says Melnick. “We really do focus on poetry or literary, but it’s an open thing to anybody.”
In other words, if you’ve got the ahnvee to do something, say, musical, there’s a good chance Melnick will try to schedule you in. “It’s a democratic situation,” she says. “But we do target literary because there’s not as many venues to hear a real poetry reading. There’s lots of places to hear music, so we have a special interest in developing that area.”
Melnick taught creative writing at Xavier University before moving to Grand Coteau, something she’d considered but was compelled to do after Hurricane Katrina.
|Jay Udall opens his poetry reading with a song. Photo by Dominick Cross|
In addition to poetry readings, authors read from their books. Such was the case recently when Ben Sandmel read from Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans. After all of the readings, an open mic immediately follows.
And new just this year and held monthly, there’s the oral history series, “Grand Coteau Voices: The Good, The Bad and The Complicated,” during which residents of the town come forward to talk about growing up in Grand Coteau. Among others, it is partnered with UL’s Center for Louisiana Studies and the Imperial St. Landry Genealogical and Historical Society and is filmed by documentary filmmaker Chere Breaux.
Along with words and occasional music, documentary films, such as Breaux Bridge native Conni Castille’s T-Galop: A Louisiana Horse Story, are sometimes screened.
And to think it all began with an open mic night. “But there weren’t a whole lot of people in the area familiar with open mic,” recalls Melnick. “I might have had five people at the first one.
“In the beginning, I said, ‘I know we might not have anyone show up the first time, but we’re just going to keep doing it and doing it until it grows, because I’m patient and stubborn. And I think we can do this.’”
|Pauline Edmond, holding a photograph of her parents, talks baout life growing up in Grand Coteau during the oral history portion of the evening that is part of the Grand Coteau Voices: The Good, The Bad, The Complicated. Photo by Dominick Cross|
The patience and stubbornness paid off as more often than not, the 40 or so chairs at the back half of Melnick’s shop are taken during a reading.
“Eventually, people who were familiar with open mics, maybe from larger cities, started coming and people who were new to it began to catch on and appreciate it,” Melnick says. “Or they would know a friend who writes and try to get them to come in the door.”
After a year, the next step was getting established poets and authors. “Then we started doing two guests because we found we drew more people if you had two people coming,” says Melnick. “Really, from early on, we would have published, established authors like Darrell Bourque and then we would have somebody giving their first reading in their whole life. They were in the early stages as a writer.”
The Casa Azul Series begin at 7 p.m. Thursdays at Casa Azul Gifts, 232 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, Grand Coteau. Call 662-1032 for more information.
Beginning Aug. 30, the Spoken Innovation Poetry Slam has a new venue downtown at AOC Community Media at the Rosa Parks Transportation Center, 101 Jefferson St., Suite 100. Slam poets used to meet at Frankie’s Burgers on Jefferson Street. Sign up for the slam is from 6-6:45 p.m., and the show starts at 7 p.m.
A poetry slam is the competitive side of poetry. Poets write original poems and recite them before a live audience without props, costumes or music. Judges are randomly selected from the audience and score each poet on a scale of 0 to 10. Poets are evaluated on the creativity and originality of the poem, as well as the performance of the poem.
Community and more found in Thursday night prose
|In one sense, it can be said that the Thursday readings in the Casa Azul Series are sponsored by the Festival of Words Cultural Arts Collective. And it’s true that it brings in poets and authors; published and unpublished; the literary learned and those who just want to write.
But even with all of that, there’s more going on in the blue old building in Grand Coteau than meets the ear or eye.
Perhaps it’s in the group poem segment of the evening that begins before the speakers take the podium. The way it works is an unfinished line printed on a piece of paper is passed around the room and the members of the audience add to it. Near the end of the evening, it is read aloud by someone, anyone, for that matter.
“The reason we do that is so that everybody that comes, even if they don’t participate in the open mic, they give us one line and they hear their one line read out loud among the other lines,” says Patrice Melnick, executive director of the collective. “And so they participate even in that small way and that helps them become more engaged.”
“I guess it’s a way of kind of bringing us together,” Melnick says, adding that the free readings are open and that means all ages, too. And even with that, there’s something else going in. “Part of my goal is audience development,” she says. “To attract people who maybe don’t usually go to readings, for them to be a part of the group who comes.”
Before he came to read last week, Jay Udall, who won the 2009 New Mexico Book Award and was a Poetry Fellow of the Nevada Arts Council, saw the community concept in the Casa Azul Series’ schedule. “Using poetry as a way to build community, I think, is what I saw so clear,” he says. “That someone is just thinking about, ‘How can I use this to connect people’ more than in a superficial way. You know, people telling their stories, expressing themselves, using their imaginations.”
Udall teaches English and Creative Writing at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux. He says poetry “is here before we were, will be here after we leave and it’s like this connection to the past, too,” he says. “It’s bigger than us.”
The poet considers poetry, and the series itself, as a unifying force. “Unity, not in the sense that people shave off part of themselves to fit in, but unity out of a sense of who you really are,” he says. “That’s what I saw just looking at what these guys are doing.”
Melnick has noticed that the group poem has inspired more than a few people to go dig up a poem they’d written and stashed to come and read it during the open mic. “They’ll watch for a while and then when they’re comfortable – they had some poems tucked away that they didn’t tell anyone about – then they have the nerve to read,” she says.
Poetry, Melnick says, is about creativity and personal expression. “The written word shared, I think, is important,” she says. “It’s appreciating language. Poetry, for me, it slows me down and causes me to appreciate things that I might not appreciate otherwise, that I might take for granted.”
Poetry brings attention to the ordinary, everyday things and “elevates it and helps you see it in a new way,” says Melnick. “Kind of bringing into focus the different aspects of our lives and a certain way of looking at things and sort of taking your time and looking at things in more detail, or with a different perspective, or maybe juxtaposed against something else.”
In an effort to document what life was like in the town just north of Lafayette, Melnick initiated Grand Coteau Voices: The Good, The Bad, The Complicated began in January. It is filmed by documentarian Chere Breaux
“It’s a way of honoring the people and the history of the people in Grand Coteau. And it’s a way of preserving the stories that are here,” says Melnick. “It’s also a way of bringing in more people, so I guess it is about community. It brings in an audience that hasn’t come before.”
‘Voices,’ set for once a month, opens the series and the speaker and their family and friends will usually hang around for the poetry an open mic. “It’s working beautifully with the poetry. What I’ve learned is that people come in and they’re staying for the poetry. They’re staying the whole night. They love the poetry. It’s just that it’s not part of their pattern, it’s not part of their habits,” says Melnick. “And the people who come for the poetry, love hearing stories because writers love stories.”
Pauline Edmond, a life-long resident, was the speaker last week. She graduated from St. Peter Claver High School and studied elementary education at what’s now known as the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
“It’s nice to come in and hear people saying some of the same things about some of the experiences that you had growing up here,” says Edmond. “It’s good to keep stories like that alive. You never know, maybe I’ll have a grandchild that’ll come back some day and see this. So maybe somebody can learn something from it.”
Edmond taught school for 30 years, mostly at Grand Coteau Elementary. After retiring, she began baking cakes and selling them out of her home before opening P & D Cakes, which has been in business for 10 years.
In a way, Edmond says, ‘Voices’ goes back to the old way of history telling. “It’s not in print anywhere. It used to be word of mouth,” she says. “That’s how my parents told us about some of the things that happened, word of mouth.”
Edmond says the town is fortunate that Melnick “should find herself in Grand Coteau,” she says. “Grand Coteau sure gets the benefit of her experience. It’s wonderful.”
And it has been quite an experience for the former resident of New Orleans, who’d scoped out Grand Coteau during a sabbatical from Xavier University, but moved there after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Her memoir, Po-Boy Contraband, was published just last week. “A lot of it takes place in Louisiana,” she says. “And it involves a lot of music, too,” In it, you’ll learn that she was in the Peace Corps in the Central African Republic for two years and went to Alaska for college.
“I was writing very, very long letters home and that’s when I decided to write literary non-fiction,” says Melnick. “I’d written more poetry before and then I decided I wanted to write non-fiction prose.”
So Melnick decided she would attend the first university that took her and that happened to be the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. “I didn’t know anything about the program, but it turned out to be excellent,” she says. “After that, I had to decide what I was going to do.”
And the decision was made to move to New Orleans “because I liked the music,” she says. “I decided that would be the quality of life I wanted.” She worked at Pelican Publishing for a couple of years and then taught at Xavier University for 13 years.
Another thing you’ll learn in Melnick’s memoir is “about living with HIV/AIDS,” she says, which she’s carried since 1987. “It sort of like being invisible.”
“So the book is kind of about coming into that kind of crisis and sort of deciding what my values are, what matters to me,” Melnick says. “That’s what gave me the nerve to be a writer. I really wanted to do it, but it didn’t seem logical.”
Melnick hopes her memoir will get “people to think about their values and what matters in their lives,” she says. “It shouldn’t have taken me to get this condition to decide that I wanted to write, but it did. I went through a series of negatives: What if I’m not good. What if I’m not a good writer and I’m terrible about this.
“Actually, the decision I came to is that it didn’t matter. I had to do it,” Melnick says. “There were points where I decided I wasn’t going to write, and I couldn’t do it. I could not write and so I decided it wasn’t actually about whether I was good or not, of course that’s subjective and you get better if you do more of it, but I thought very hard about it.”
So Melnick went to school to just simply write. “All I did was write. I wanted to indulge myself in that and be around people who felt the same way,” she says.
“Because a lot of times as a writer, I found myself defending what I do – sort of explaining why it’s a value in that sense – always having to explain it away.
“If I were a doctor, people wouldn’t say, ‘Well, why do you do that?’” she says. “There wouldn’t be that question.”
And in a way, that’s why there’s the Festival of Words Cultural Arts Collective in Grand Coteau. Word? — DC
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