Louisiana's Poet Laureate: What Was Lost

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On this national day of prayer and remembrance for hurricane victims, Louisiana's Poet Laureate Brenda Marie Osbey reflects on what was lost — and what will become of her hometown, New Orleans.

ED GORDON, host:

President Bush has asked Americans to use today as a national day of prayer and remembrance for Hurricane Katrina's victims. We asked a special New Orleans native to help us reflect on the once great city and its people.

Ms. BRENDA MARIE OSBEY: My name is Brenda Marie Osbey. I am the poet laureate of the state of Louisiana. I was born and reared in New Orleans and my family goes back to slavery and freedom there, and I'm going home.

GORDON: We caught up with Osbey in Baton Rouge where she's taken refuge in a friend's home. She told us what she misses most about her hometown.

Ms. OSBEY: Americans tend to know New Orleans as a tourist destination. And yet the portion of New Orleans that tourists know is a small--infinitesimally small portion of the city that we know to be our city. We're primarily known now as the Big Easy for obvious reasons.

When I was a child, we talked about New Orleans more as the Crescent City, the Silver City and mostly the City that Care Forgot. And the reason that we were the City that Care Forgot was that you come to New Orleans and you could bring everything with you or you can leave everything behind. It really doesn't matter, because once you enter into the Port of New Orleans, you become part of that human goo, that human gumbo that sort of rises up from the swamps, that rises up from the soil that is mixed into the humid, almost liquid air of the city. It's one of the places that you can go to in this country where nobody really cares what you do or what you did. People tend to accept you as you are and perhaps as you say you are. It's what I like to think of as a city that is open-hearted but also open-handed. And it's for that reason that we've been able to host the entire world, everyone comes through New Orleans.

When I was a child, old people used to say it didn't make any sense to travel. It didn't make any sense to go anywhere because eventually, everybody would come to the city. So if you're alive long enough to see it, everyone will come. And so far, that's been the case. So far, that's been true. And now we find ourselves in a position where we, who have played host to the world, are being hosted by the region. And what I always find myself thinking is that when we do rebuild the city, and we're in the process now of rebuilding our city, we will--that will be another thing that we will give to the world, that will be another lesson that we will teach. We've taught people how to eat well. We've taught people how to relax well. We've taught people how to have a peaceful day, a lazy day. We've taught people what jazz is. We've taught people what excellent cuisine is. We've taught people what it means to be from the Big Easy or the City that Care Forgot. And what we will now teach people is how not merely to survive and endure a devastating cataclysmic event like this, but how to rebuild and how once again, to welcome the world back to us.

GORDON: Louisiana's poet laureate Brenda Marie Osbey. Here's an excerpt from a poem she calls "Madhouse."

Ms. OSBEY: `My name is Felicity. I live inside the city. I am telling only as much as you can bear. The bahalia women are coming from around St. James carrying the bamba-root in their hands. Believe on those hands, and they will see you through seasons of drought and flood. Believe on these hands, and you will cross the grandee water. Journey with me and see what I see. First, you hear the leaves, past silence, hitting the ground, moving along the streets with an undercurrent of rhythm, moving to your blood beat and to the sounds of your hands reaching, reaching up.'

GORDON: Louisiana's poet laureate Brenda Marie Osbey.

(Credits)

GORDON: To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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