Katrina poetry reading aims to educate, inspire

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An aerial view of the flooding that occurred on Tulane’s campus after Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005. 

Nate Koch, Contributing Reporter

As Tulane reflects on Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, the English department and Peter Cooley, who Governor Bobby Jindal recently selected to be Louisiana’s next poet laureate, hope that poetry will particularly resonate with students.

A poetry reading will be held in the Woldenberg Arts Center Saturday, featuring readings from Cooley, author and Tulane professor Jesmyn Ward and spoken-word artist Gian Smith, among others. The reading starts at 3 p.m. in Freeman Auditorium. All of the speakers directly experienced Katrina and will share their personal reflections and stories.

Cooley remembers driving to campus all the way from Florida the week before Hurricane Katrina made landfall, only to be relocated from his home to a nearby church. As the levees broke and thousands of local residents became stranded without help for days, Cooley realized that he simply had to write about what he was seeing.

“I think being placed right in the middle of this inherently political situation impelled me to write about it,” Cooley said. “The poems wrote me.”

As Cooley recalls it, the hurricane marked a significant shift in the university’s role in the wider New Orleans community.

“When the students came back, they were very hard-working and enthusiastic,” Cooley said. “Students are much more serious now. The school highly touts its public service requirement, so students tend to come here with an interest in that.”

Associate Dean of Newcomb-Tulane College Molly Travis worked with Cooley and other professors across the liberal arts departments to bring service-learning to the classroom before 2005. After the university reopened in 2006, it became obvious that Tulane should be doing more for New Orleans, and the department’s early efforts became a university standard.

“We realized that the community was so wounded,” Travis said. “We were the number-one employer in the area at that time, and it was clear that we could make an impact.”

Saturday’s reading will give students the opportunity to understand Hurricane Katrina beyond facts and figures. English department chair Michael Kuczynski hopes that the reading will lead students to deeper insights on the reality of the situation for residents during Katrina.

“One of the key functions of literature is to help us express the human spirit,” Kuczynski said. “Students are coming to Tulane now because they’ve been inspired by what they’ve heard about the entire New Orleans community and its resilience in the face of the storm.”

The start of this semester also marks Cooley’s 40th year teaching at Tulane. He plans to use his laureateship and twilight years at the university to make poetry more accessible and interesting to younger generations.

“This is really an opportunity to bring poetry to everyone,” Cooley said. “There’s a whole new world of poetry through the internet, and obviously a whole new world of spoken word.”

Saturday’s reading reflects a motivation to energize the student body through poetry as a call to action. As New Orleans still recovers from Hurricane Katrina’s effects 10 years later, the university is making every effort to inform and mobilize its students.

“Poetry is not just a personal pastime, it’s a social statement,” Kuczynski said. “It’s that social aspect of poetry, which is expressed in public readings, which can help us through these troubling times.”