New Orleans Poet Sets Character Of HBO's 'Treme'

Gian Smith's poem, "O Beautiful Storm" leads the trailer the second season of Treme, the HBO series set in post-Katrina New Orleans. Host Liane Hansen talks to Smith, a New Orleans spoken word artist who was discovered by the producers of the HBO series and will appear in an episode.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Gian Smith, would you read the first stanza of your poem "O Beautiful Storm," please?

Mr. GIAN SMITH (Spoken Word Artist): (Reading) I've got the rain in my veins. The floodwater in my blood makes my heart beat harder. Ive got the scent of the death and decay in the wind, sinking into my nose and under my skin. Shes the music in my ears and the mold in my soul. Move with her like bellies to Congo drums. Write a sonnet to her, serenade her, recite her a poem. Bump her like sissy bounce or mellow into her like Marsalis. Let her weave through your brain like a song thats moved you when you can stop the flow. But dont let her go.

HANSEN: If that poem rings a bell, it's likely that you've seen the trailer for the second season of "Treme," the HBO series set in post-Katrina New Orleans. Gian Smith wrote it, he read it on the trailer and he'll show up in episode five of "Treme" later this season.

Gian Smith joins us from member station WWNO in, where else, New Orleans.

Thanks a lot for being with us.

Mr. SMITH: Thank you for having me.

HANSEN: In "O Beautiful Storm" you give Hurricane Katrina a personality. I mean even a soul. Was writing it a cathartic experience for you?

Mr. SMITH: It was actually. Most of the poem kind of came to me in one wave when I was cleaning my mom's house and I was put on floor duty. So that meant scrubbing Katrina residue from the floor in the living room. And I was moved just by the experience of it in a way that I didn't want to lose it.

But I also wanted to recognize all of the factors that contributed to it, as well, which, you know, it goes beyond just an act of nature. There's elements of government corruption, you know, there's neglect, there's our own arrogance. We probably thought we were bigger than the hurricane.

HANSEN: You were discovered by Treme's producer. Was "O Beautiful Storm" the poem that attracted their attention?

Mr. SMITH: There was a symposium done at a university in New Orleans and I was asked to speak as a representative of the artist community. A friend of mine, he was the one who asked that I be on the panel, and he also came to me and asked that I write a performance piece about the neighborhood of Treme - not the TV show. When I performed that piece, I think it caught the eye of a lot of people, so...

HANSEN: What was that piece?

Mr. SMITH: The piece is called - a poem for Treme - called "You Better Ask Somebody."

HANSEN: Can you recite just a little of it?

Mr. SMITH: I can do that, yeah, I can do that. Let's see:

(Reading) I believe Jesus died for my salvation, and for recognizing that, I get a day off from work and another cause for celebration. Fat Tuesday coming, y'all can't eat no more meat, but Good Friday mean a fish fry and an extra day vacation. See y'all in St. Augustine Church Easter and Christmas only, 'cause when we get ready to fast we pull out that brass and we drink 'til Ash Wednesday and then go to mass.

HANSEN: Nice, nice. What happened to you and your family after Katrina? I mean, you're a native New Orleanian.

Mr. SMITH: Right. Well, actually, my family, we got out of the city relatively early. The day that we left was the Saturday before Katrina hit. I think Katrina hit on a Monday. I ended up going to Silver Spring, Maryland, because my girlfriend at the time was in Howard Dental School.

And, you know, my Katrina experience is not as visually painful as those who might have been here suffering through it. But emotionally it was as taxing as anybody else who, you know, really didn't suffer any physical damage or any human loss. You know, when I was in New Orleans before Katrina, I would walk from one end of downtown to the other with just no regard. You know, it was like taking a stroll in the park for me. No matter what time of night it was, it just felt free and, you know, alive in my city.

And I never really appreciated it, or I didn't appreciate that it was New Orleans that allowed that kind of freedom for me. You know, I thought it was me. Until I got to Silver Spring, Maryland and I was alone. You know, I would walk on the streets of New Orleans by myself but I never felt alone.

HANSEN: So, because it's Easter is it appropriate for me to ask is "O Beautiful Storm" about resurrection?

Mr. SMITH: It is. My goal for "O Beautiful Storm" was that I wanted to, as much as possible, encapsulate the whole of the storm - the before, the during and the after. And I feel like the after is going to be much better. You know, maybe I'm an optimist or maybe I'm a hopeless romantic and, you know, New Orleans is my love, but I feel like there are a lot of beautiful things that we might have taken for granted that we'll know better than to take for granted now.

Obviously, there's, you know, still people who were displaced who would like to get back. But, you know, for the most part, I feel like we're back and I feel like we're better. And so in that way I think it's definitely about resurrection.

HANSEN: Poet Gian Smith wrote "O Beautiful Storm," which was heard in the trailer for the second season of "Treme," the HBO series set in post-Katrina New Orleans. The second season of "Treme" premieres tonight on HBO. Gian Smith appears in episode five. Gian, thank you very much.

Mr. SMITH: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song)

BAND: (Singing) The rebirth is in my (unintelligible), sing it...

HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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