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An Interview with Poet Cynthia Hogue on Identity, Illness, and Her Interview Project with Hurricane Katrina Survivors

By Jennifer Bal

Cynthia Hogue interviewed 12 Hurricane Katrina survivors and collaborated with photographer Rebecca Ross. Her poem 'Freddie’s Story', featured in this issue, is based on one of those interviews.

JB:  Cynthia, you were one of 17 Arizona Artists awarded a grant by the Arizona Arts Commission for your project, Voice Prints: A Katrina Elegy. Congratulations.

CH:  Thank you.

JB: First, tell me about your connection to New Orleans, you spent some time there.

CH: New Orleans was the place where I got my first teaching job.  After I finished my PhD, I moved to New Orleans, which was a completely foreign culture to me; I had never lived in the south or on the Gulf coast. [New Orleans was a] very integrated, multicultural, and Caribbean city.  That was my introduction to the south.  Teaching in New Orleans the first couple of years was kind of a trial by fire, a different kind of teaching environment.  I was a professor at the University of New Orleans, not Tulane University, so there were very different demographics in the student body, and I  learned a lot from those students in my four years in New Orleans--things that I wouldn’t have learned any other way. You grow up in the north and you don’t think about the country as being segregated, but when you live in a truly integrated city, given the racial issues and the heritage in this country, there’s no way to prepare yourself for a truly integrated, or as I finally started calling it, a micro-segregated city that would be segregated by block or segregated by several, several blocks. And so, among the first things I learned was that most people growing up in this country grow up socialized into some form of internalized racism, even if they’re progressive. So, that was the first lesson.

The first area I lived in was Bywater, which is the Ninth Ward area. It’s one of the areas that was flooded by Katrina, though my street actually survived.  The area around where I was living was flooded, all those neighborhoods, so I knew the area. I knew a lot of the people who had lost their houses, so that’s my connection. It started with those four years, and then that time in New Orleans came to affect my teaching, my relationship to the politics of the classroom, to ethical pedagogy, to a poetics of witness, a poetics of voice crossing all sorts of taboos, a poetics where you’re crossing racial or gender lines. [T]hat just became a kind of a before New Orleans/after New Orleans marker in my life.  There were other markers, but that was a big one.

When Katrina hit, I looked for ways to help, to record, to contribute to a memorialization for some portion of what was lost. There are many artists doing this, so it becomes many voices beginning to fill in the picture of individual experience.

JB: That was another question I was going to ask you about.  A lot of people are studying this from various fields, such as psychologists, and other artists you said are doing it.  What do you think writers can offer or provide for understanding the realities and voices of these survivors, or the trials and trauma?

CH: Right, the first thing that happens with trauma is you lose your voice for awhile. You lose your language, you’ve lost the life you knew, the city that you knew. And even for people who have left, they probably have the most radical experience of losing a city and yet it’s different.  It’s different on the spectrum of loss. Psychologists can do interviews and analyze states of mind and give us insight into the psychology of trauma and recovery; sociologists can give us insights into the demographics of the most affected and the least affected populations, insight into the politics of rebuilding, the sociology of rebuilding; historians, of course, will dig deeply in time into the record of that catastrophe all along the Gulf; but what artists do differently, my work for example, is not like that work in other fields.  Artists fill in the record of the embodied experience.  Poets who were in New Orleans at the time, or evacuated, who lost a lot, are writing poems that are so spare they are haunting. What I did—because I didn’t feel that I could speak for anybody because I am not a native New Orleanian, was to begin to bear witness. In other words, to hear individuals via these interview poems, people who would not otherwise be heard. Certainly, they’re talking to their families, certainly, they’re talking in their communities, certainly, they’re talking if a reporter comes, but they’re not filling in a lot of details. Reporters want sound bites, and catastrophe; they aren’t working with the longterm effect at all. My poems are more narrative, they’re telling more of the story, they’re allowing the person a framework within which simply to tell his or her story. 

And what I’m discovering is, yes, everybody has been more or less traumatized, depending on whether they left, whether they lost their houses, whether they stayed, depending on whether they had resources after the flood. Everybody is more or less traumatized, but they’re also making sense of what happened to them, depending on their social positioning.  There’s a lot of analysis in these narratives that gets, I would say, compromised if you come from certain perspectives.  Let’s say, you come from an academic perspective and are doing a study of a group of people who’ve lost their homes or who evacuated. The individual voice and experience gets lost, made into a statistic.  The interview poems I have been doing retain the individual voice and honor the details of individual experience. Everybody was impacted who lived along the Gulf during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, but they weren’t all impacted in the same ways. They didn’t all make the same kind of sense of what happened to them, and what I’ve been realizing is that of course there are so many forced migrations at this moment in the world, that Hurricane Katrina caused such a migration in our country.

So, these individuals become individual voices for one particular disaster in a complex, a global complex of multiple disasters—you name the catastrophe: war, civil war, desertification, some sort of natural disaster, invasion.  Art becomes that kind of testament to what the human spirit is capable of under duress.  You know, what my poems don’t address is evil, right?  They don’t address the fact that the government, that the federal government, did not come through in time for the people of New Orleans or the Gulf Coast.  They don’t address that the city government and the state government were not ready for a disaster that everybody knew would come at some time.  There’s some really acute political analysis going on in these poems taken together. Taken together, they’re a dialogue.  A number of African American interviewees speak about hearing an explosion along the industrial canal and a number of the white interviewees say, no that was ... a barge hitting and breaking through, that it sounded like an explosion.  I’m not worrying so much about the truth, because these poems are a testament to individual experiences, what was true for each individual.  The poetic cycle allows for various stories to be in dialogue and proximity.

JB:   One of the panel members from the Arizona Commission mentioned that Katrina survivors were in jeopardy of becoming invisible.  Could you expand on that?

CH: Well, I didn’t know that.  I didn’t see the panelists’ reports, but what happens is that because of the nature of catastrophe, its lurid pictures fill our TV screens and newspapers for a time, and then there’s a new catastrophe that takes the attention away. We were not there.  We didn’t lose anything.  It’s so easy just to forget.  If these voices are silenced, it doesn’t mean that the problems have been addressed, or  that they’ve been paid for their losses or gotten help. Freddie, the interview poem you’re publishing, speaks most poignantly to that.  He speaks to the distress of people who were renters who did not have recourse to property insurance except for burglary.  And if they only had renter’s insurance for burglary, they weren’t covered by the flood. Those voices become invisible if we let them, if we forget, and that is the kind of thing that art actually can address.  The historians address it, but very differently.  Historians work carefully to reconstruct a point of view, a voice which has become inaudible, to not impose their perspective but to analyze, but they cannot preserve—or house—the voice’s immediacy as witness in any sense.   The poem can do that, among other things.

I think what the panelist meant was that this is a population which is now scattered across the country.  Katrina evacuees are not only invisible, but they’re separated.  They’re isolated, and it’s tremendously hard.  I have culled that insight from these interviews, but I’ve only interviewed 12 people.   That number is multiplied by thousands.

JB: How did you come to work with these interviewees?

CH: Freddie I found through Lutheran Social Services. For almost the first year, first year-and- a-half, I didn’t think I was going to do anything beyond helping some former students and colleagues from New Orleans.  I wasn’t thinking of writing anything. Then I thought, maybe I’ll do an interview project, but I didn’t know how to find people. I knew a couple former colleagues who moved here, who evacuated here, and so I thought, well, I’ll try to interview one of them.   And then I interviewed a second one, and I’m thinking, a lot of interesting things are coming out of these interviews.  I shaped them and I gave them (Interviewees) the poems and said, what do you think? They said, you can use them. Then I called the Katrina Project, but it was closing, and they said, Lutheran Social Services has a Katrina project that is still going.  It’s going to go for a while longer, so I worked with Robert Sanders and located probably over half of the interviewees through him.

JB: I guess you did touch on this a little bit, but in Freddie’s Story, we find out that he’s a survivor—first of a car crash that has left him paralyzed.

CH:  Right.

JB: And making it through Katrina, and the waiting, the bureaucracy, and he talks about staying focused, and at the end of the poem, he talks about his zest for life. The poem gave me all these different feelings from anger, sadness and then hope at the end. Since you’ve been up close with these different interviewees, what are your thoughts on identity and trauma?

CH: Identity as in, do they have a sense of identity?

JB:  They’ve been moved from where they’ve lived, they’ve lost all their belongings, now they’re considered a “survivor” of Katrina, then they’ve moved to a different location.  How do you define identity, and how do you see that it relates?

CH:  You can see in Freddie’s interview the coping strategies, which he had developed after his accident in the eighties, that he brought to bear after Katrina to reinvent himself. You really can see that he’s outraged at being treated dismissively.  Who wouldn’t be, right?  His identity was stolen by FEMA workers along with thousands of other people whose identities were stolen by corrupt bureaucrats or, more likely,  probably subcontractors, I don’t know who they were, but what he says is, the money that was due us was stolen by FEMA workers and the government knows what happened and has never done anything about it.  Now that’s pretty shocking. He  comes here [Phoenix], where he’s told he’s too independent and so will not get all the social services the others will get.  Then he finds his way to mechanics schooling . So, he goes through a trajectory that is something like that of grief, starting with shock, disbelief, then outrage, and he’s now at the stage of creative recovery. 

But when I sent him the first draft of the poem, the letter that he wrote back had all the information that I include towards the end. It was more specific about how he’s still struggling here. He is very upbeat, that is how he self-identifies.  But the information that he gave about how he dealt with his paralysis was very, very significant: that if you don’t have the psychological wherewithal, you do not survive. And some of the stories that he tells illustrate how some die, right? The loss of the will to live. People in New Orleans who were New Orleans natives who came from generations of New Orleanians self-identify as New Orleanians wherever they are. Although Freddie doesn’t speak of it, some of the others speak of going home at some point, that we’ll go home because home is where we belong, home is New Orleans. That becomes this kind of beacon for them that at some point, they are going to have enough means where the city will be rebuilt for them to go back. If they were able to move with more of their family, they do better. Freddie actually in a part I didn’t include in the poem spoke of his brother really struggling and getting into drug addiction and Freddie had to stop helping him.  It’s in the full length interview.  He said, “You know I had to show a kind of tough love because I had to survive, too,” and that’s a part of “zest” that we don’t think about.

The less loss, the less traumatized people were. If they didn’t lose their home, if they evacuated and didn’t lose their home and had a profession that would allow them to move, they had the easiest time reinventing themselves. Then you just have that spectrum of the most vulnerable. You’d think Freddie was the most vulnerable. Psychologically, he wasn’t. Psychologically, he’s already come through a very hard school, so he began almost immediately to reinvent himself.

JB: In an interview I once heard you talking about your book the Incognito Body, and you said there was a time in your life you felt like your mind and your body were kind of betraying you, and because you’ve lived with illness. I was wondering if you could share with us your ideas on identity and illness and how writing is a part of your identity.

CH: You know, it depends on the illness that you get.  The illness that I got happened to impact my cognitive thinking skills for quite some time, and so it actually took my identity as a teacher and a writer away from me, although I continued to work. Sometimes I look back and I go, God, I don’t know how I made it through because I had to pretend that I could understand anything, really.

Then after that started to clear up with treatment, my body was impacted. As you start to get ill, you actually have the psychology of somebody who has been well so that your mind is not caught up with the fact that you are seriously ill. That’s actually the adjustment that Freddie is talking about, and why I recognized it, because I had gone through something like what happened to him.  It wasn’t an accident, but I had gone through something very similar. You have to—he called it focus, I would call it adjustment. You have to adapt, and so you have a mind that actually imagines that you are still well, but you have a body that is not allowing you to even button your blouse. It takes an hour to dress, whereas today, I was running late and got ready in ten minutes. Right, that was not a luxury I had at the beginning of this illness. By the time my mind began to adapt imaginatively to the fact that I was seriously ill, that I was going to have to figure out how I was going to adapt to illness, the medication I was on actually started to work.  So, I had this moment that I was beginning to adapt and I was also beginning to get my body back, but that whole process was three years at the beginning of the onset of illness. So, the mind is incredibly flexible. The brain is very flexible and adaptive.

What I discovered is that there are portions of your brain that you would never use unless you need them. The act of writing, or any artistic engagement, actually helps to repattern your brain, and it can help you to repattern your relationship to your body and the world that has changed for you.  You have a sense of going through something that’s traumatic, but to begin with you’re numb. You don’t believe it, you’re fighting it, you’re in a psychological stage that allows you the space to adjust, so we would call it shock, right? Then comes the reckoning, but that’s in months or years, and so by the time you come to that reckoning stage, you’ve actually been unconsciously adjusting. The reckoning stage is where you figure out whether you’re going to kill yourself, whether you want to continue to live whatever the damage, whatever the loss, whether it’s an impaired body, whether it’s that you’ve lost everything you’ve worked for, that kind of question. Are you going to figure out how to rebuild your life and are you going to create a new identity for yourself? So, because I had thought about all these issues, because I had been forced to think about all these issues, I was, in a sense, identifying with these people. And I don’t go around identifying with all people going through some manner of catastrophe. It was because I had a geographical memory of living in a beautiful and a great city that had been destroyed, so I could share their grief.

I think there are layers of memory that get buried with work and busyness …the time in New Orleans was…last time I was there was when I started to get sick, and so I have a kind of geographical memory of the hardship that many people who lived in New Orleans went through even before Katrina hit.  So what is hovering at the edge of these poems is a kind of empathy. So, I’m not there in the city, except I hear the voices of those who were.

To read Cynthia's poem Freddies Story click here


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