Rickey Laurentiis was selected by TBR’s Editors as the Spring 2011 Center-Featured Series Poet. Down Atlantis is an honest, spiraling reflection on love in the face of Hurricane Katrina. Read, Down Atlantis, in the Spring 2011 Issue of Tidal Basin Review. Meanwhile, check out TBR’s interview with Rickey Laurentiis below!
INTERVIEW WITH TIDAL BASIN REVIEW SERIES POET, RICKEY LAURENTIIS, AND TIDAL BASIN REVIEW EDITORIAL ASSISTANT, ELIZABETH LARKIN
(Interview conducted via email correspondence)
Elizabeth Larkin: As a native of New Orleans, you use the subject of Hurricane Katrina in juxtaposition to, not only the body, but also to discovery and aesthetic beauty. What makes poetry a fitting medium to process and respond to these nuances?
Rickey Laurentiis: Poetry, for me, was the only possible medium for the expression of these ideas. And that’s, finally, all they are: ideas about storms, love, sexuality, the body and, as you noted, aesthetic beauty. It is only poetry that presented itself to me as a possible vehicle, though that wasn’t always the case. Immediately after Katrina, —this was in 2005, so I was a junior in high school and had been displaced in southern California—I wrote nothing. I want to say I thought nothing. Life was all blur and motion. I didn’t exactly congeal until some time later when my family had returned to New Orleans and until I left that city en route to New York for college. I needed time, space and distance to effectively analyze and mythologize my experiences with the storm. Let me be clear, it wasn’t objectivity I was aiming for, but honesty. Poetry, for me, is about honesty.
Here’s a quote I respect: “Prose is the medium of communication, but Poetry is the mode of communion.” Mary Austin said that, and I remember it serving as the epigraph to the small anthology that a poetry professor had assembled for me at Sarah Lawrence College. I believe in that quote. I’m sure there are many ideas that only prose can handle and transfer, but I am convinced it is through poetry that we commune, where information is not only distributed from one body to the other but is shared, ingested, folded into a body such that it is no longer distinguishable from the body. I didn’t seek to write a long poem “about Katrina.” I sought to write a poem about dilemmas and moral and natural crises we all do or can potentially share.
EL: “Down Atlantis” provides an unusually intimate and apolitical perspective on Hurricane Katrina. Was it difficult to abstain from wallowing in the political aspects of Hurricane Katrina? By avoiding rhetoric and/or the rhetorical, did you find yourself prioritizing the human experience over the federal implications of the disaster, or would you say this is one of the limitations of poetry?
RL: When I was engulfed in the storm and its aftermath, I—and perhaps my family and some other citizens of the Gulf coast—couldn’t be concerned with “the political aspects” of Katrina. What we knew: there was a storm, levee failure, water and impending loss. There was not yet time to consider the role of the National Guard in this disaster. Sure, while it was maddening to see no identifiable help on its way, who could think of Katrina’s implications for Bush’s administration when tired or hungry? But, I’m not sure I would agree that I take an apolitical posture toward the storm in “Down Atlantis,” at least not if I consider the radical decision to love and to make love, despite a hostile environment, a political one. In the poem, I parallel the burgeoning peril of a storm with the burgeoning peril of sexuality, more specifically, homosexuality. I parallel, in my own words, the problem of natural and “unnatural” disasters. I’m not sure I can explain the connections I sense between the dichotomies better than I did in the poem. Nevertheless, I do feel a connection.
EL: Once you chose to embed a personal narrative of discovery and liability within the frame of the disaster in New Orleans, what parallels suggested themselves? How did these two narratives–of private and public upheaval interact?
RL: I did not choose to embed a personal narrative within the narrative of the storm. The two ideas always existed simultaneously to me. I remember having recurring dreams, or daydreams, where I was faced with an image of two men, romantically embraced, on a levee. The sky is dark, violent, as if the storm were there or soon approaching. It’s an image that still haunts me, and I think it has less to do with the destructiveness of the weather as it has to do with the vulnerability these two men are showing. In the image, the men are almost always facing away from me, staring down the stormy sky. I began to consider these men: Who are they? How can they be so bold? Is it boldness or stupidity? How can they love each other in spite of the hostile environment? Do they survive? To me, the idea of two men in love standing on a levee (of all things) as a storm approaches is not unlike the very notion of staying in a city despite a “mandatory evacuation,” despite approaching disaster. In conversation with some people not from the Gulf region, I’ve learned that this is a puzzling idea for one to love so fiercely (whether someone else, whether a city itself) that he will not leave, will go down with the ship, as they say.
EL: The poet Robert Duncan says “this poetry, the ever forming bodies in language in which breath moves, is a field of ensouling. Each line, intensely, a soul thing, a contribution; a locality of the living.” Would you equate Duncan’s assessment to your poem in terms of language and the body?
RL: I think Duncan’s quote fits. Writing “Down Atlantis” was an organic, painful, beautiful, sloppy and enriching process. It moved through many stages and many forms. It couldn’t be written for many years and, actually, its first words were penned while I was outside of the country. From the beginning, I knew the poem had to be sectioned, had to be—in that way—fragmented and clipped. So the sections grew out of each other, taking up where the other had trailed off, had been eroded, and twisting it and giving it momentary flight. It became a song, in a way, recalling earlier moments and echoing them. A pull and tease. A flirtation. In the end, it is a love story between the experienced and the inexperienced, which seems (at least at this age) a fitting metaphor for life.
EL: “Down Atlantis” is an extremely personal poem with elevated language, dealing with a man’s dual identity as son and lover. To what extent does your personal experience inform your writing process? Also, how important to you is identity within the landscape of the poem?
RL: Carl Phillips has said something to the effect that identity should be, or at least can be, crucial and yet incidental, and that it should be the identity of the poem itself, not the poet, that ultimately matters. This former idea may be where I was, subconsciously, moving toward at the very ending of “Down Atlantis.” I’ve had conversations with other poets I admire who complicate this latter notion, however, arguing while this may be true during the poem’s initial creation, any subsequent edits will involve, to some degree, the poet’s identity and the opinions he maintains. But where do I fit in this? Where did I fit while writing “Down Atlantis?” I know my experiences dually as a son and lover (and a son, certainly, is a kind of lover, no?) greatly influenced the poem. To the extent where I wanted those identities to be clear, I attempted to make them clear in the poem. Ultimately, however, “Down Atlantis” is a poem about a storm-in-coming, about an identity-in-process, and fluidity. Those aspects are more important to me in the poem and perhaps in poetry in general. I’m not very interested in the static. Give me queer.
EL: Although confessional poetry has been around for decades, members of this generation specifically have a much more disclosive attitude towards their personal lives, perhaps due to the prevalence and universality of social networking platforms. You yourself have a Facebook, a Twitter and a blog. Do you think this generational perspective, this unabashedness, this willingness to divulge, has influenced your work? If so, how?
RL: Sure. I live in a world with, probably, more opportunities to divulge information about one’s self than has ever been the case. You already name Facebook, twitter and blogging as evidence. But, it seems to me, I also live in a world that is keenly aware of this disclosive attitude, one that is constantly making great pains to maintain what little privacy is left. So therein is the paradox: more personal information, yet more attempts at keeping it closeted or, at least, masked. As it relates to poetry, this paradox doesn’t seem particular to this generation or time in history. I think of Emily Dickinson, who wrote well before confessional poetry was “discovered” and coined, but confessed to an incredible degree in her poetry; whose emotional vulnerability and unforgiving honesty at times makes me, literally, tremble; and who told us to tell the truth but tell it slant—that is, not exactly un-masked, not exactly directly-at-the-thing. To make it strange: this is how I approach poetry.
EL: With regards to craft, your line breaks seem to create their own musicality within the breadth of the poem. There seems to be great care taken in what comes before and after a line as well as what follows and precedes a period or comma. I would like for you to talk about this process and to discuss one or two of your literary influences when it comes to this aesthetic sensibility.
RL: H.D. was a strong influence when it came to the aesthetics I assumed while writing “Down Atlantis” and, more broadly, my aesthetic sensibility as a poet. The reason this poem went through so many drafts and so many radical forms—at one time, the poem was long-lined, a la Whitman—is because I was (am?) so meticulous. I needed to find the form for it and, smaller, I needed to find the line for every idea I had. It was a kind of surgery made up of careful excision and extraction. The desired effect was to create a particular music that is, at once, bleak or stripped, yet is building up, crescendoing, to a “somewhere.” Mystery factored largely into the writing of this poem. I’ve had some trouble with other poems or collections of poems I’ve read that treat Katrina because of the fact that, too often, they seem convinced that they “got it.” They understand, definitively, what Katrina was, is or means. They know the answers; I don’t know the answers. I especially didn’t while writing “Down Atlantis.” I still don’t know if those men on the levee survive, or if they want to. I don’t know what love is, but only know that I want and need it. I don’t know what it means, really, to say, Yes, I was there. I saw it. And I’ve gone back.
EL: You return to the theme of accountability and guilt again and again within “Down Atlantis,” implying that one bears the responsibility for the disaster by “[waiting] too long,” by inciting God to punishment, by engaging in a love that is not accepted in the bible totin’ south. This is an unusual way to parse a natural disaster, albeit reflective of certain accusations the homosexual population faced in the wake of the disaster. What led you to introduce and explore this theme within the poem?
RL: This is what I’m trying to get at in my answer to the last question. To these huge things we, as humans, are faced with (disaster, love, death, etc.), it seems to me that there will be contradiction as we think about them. Katrina was no more all evil as she was all good, as is love, sex, or anything. So, I think at those moments in the poem where the speaker seems to consider his own possible role with the impending disaster—I think these are moments of another kind of honesty, an un-sureness, a mystery. One has to wonder at some point: Do I deserve this? Wasn’t I told to evacuate? Is this the price I pay? Should I love this way, when so many preach against it? Why preach against it? Should I love at all, which is to say should I trust again? I recognized while writing “Down Atlantis” that this would probably be a strange way to contemplate the disaster. I recognize, too, that there are things I can and will always be able to say or write just based on the fact that, yes, I was there, whereas you—you weren’t. But that, to me, seems to give me a kind of permission to say these things that others may shy away from or, rather, just can’t consider. I don’t know the experience of having watched Katrina unfold on the screens of televisions across the nation and the world. I suppose this perspective could only see the disaster as horrifying, and that all its victims are just that: victims. I suppose, by that perspective, one would feel encouraged to write what they saw, and to write it immediately. There is a privilege though, to write about a disaster before even its survivors have survived. But I am still waiting for the poem about the experience of being that voyeur in, say, Kansas or Chicago, who has seen this disaster (or any, for that matter, be it in Haiti or Japan) on the news, and is horrified, whose own sense of security is threatened and whose psychology is changed. Or isn’t changed.
EL: “Down Atlantis” can be read as a metamorphosis from naiveté to accountability. As a young poet, your own voice may yet be subject to a metamorphosis. How has your perspective on and approach to writing changed in the last five years?
RL: Well, in the last five years I have graduated from high school and completed most of my undergraduate career. That process meant, as I have said, moving from New Orleans to New York, which as I think about it was a kind of major culture shock. New Orleans, to me, seems like no place inside this nation, both before and especially after Katrina. It may share more similarities with places outside the country such as the Caribbean and parts of Europe. Though New York City has a similar global aesthetic, it’s more corporate, more modern. Sometimes, I feel like by having left New Orleans, I really left the battered old country for “America.” In effect, once in New York, I began to think more intensely about the place I had just departed. I began writing about Katrina, finally, at this time. My writing, in general, changed and matured, which I am sure is due to contact with more writers who were both my peers and professors. But to say exactly “how” my perspective and approach to writing has shifted—this is a question I’m still pondering. I’m still growing.
EL: The presentation of alternate and concurrent realities within “Down Atlantis” introduced by the phrase “Meanwhile, in a future” evokes the uncertainty and endless possibility of youth. The youth are also ascribed resilience, fearlessness and reactivity. Do any of these qualities pertain to your experience as a young poet? What challenges are unique to that experience?
RL: I often wonder what defines a “young poet.” Is it she who writes a poem, consistently, but who also happens to be what is understood as “young?” Or is a young poet simply one who has just come to poetry? A sixty-year-old man who, only a year ago, began jotting down some rhymed couplets in his notebook—is he, then, a young poet? I will say that, regardless, the experience of being a young poet is often confusing and dizzying, especially as a young poet who is slowly gaining accolades, publications, and interviews such as this one. It’s a strange moment of transition, I guess; or, more aptly, a strange country that one must, carefully, navigate. I may be resilient and reactive, but the idea of being fearless is foreign to me. I certainly have my number of anxieties and worries. I wonder, often, can I do that, or write that? Am I allowed? If not, when will I be allowed? In the end, perhaps age is but another identity marker that should remain both crucial yet incidental to the poem and the process of writing it.
EL: What are you working on now? Also, what would you say you learn in the process of writing “Down Atlantis?”
RL: “Down Atlantis” is one of the few long poems I have written that compile a manuscript that—in much the same approach that “Down Atlantis” takes—explores these ideas of natural and “unnatural” disasters, love and coupling, burgeoning identities and, especially, water itself. Perhaps because of this, I’m now writing much shorter, stranger yet still lyrical poems, and I’m excited to see how long this impulse will last. I believe it will last, for if anything writing “Down Atlantis” taught me patience and diligence. It taught me honesty.
Rickey Laurentiis was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. His manuscript, One Country, received an honorable mention for the 2010 Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award, judged by Claudia Rankine, while his other honors include a 2010 Pushcart Prize Nomination, and first- and third-runner up in the 2009 International Reginald Shepherd Memorial Poetry Prize, selected by Carl Phillips. The recipient of fellowships from the Cave Canem Foundation and the Atlantic Center for the Arts, his poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in several literary journals, including Indiana Review, jubilat, Knockout Literary Magazine and Vinyl.
Elizabeth Larkin graduated from Choate Rosemary Hall, where she received the Berger Prize for Poetry and the John Dos Passos Creative Writing Award. She tutors English at Central High School in Bridgeport, CT. She is an editorial assistant at Aquarius Press and has published poems in numerous academic literary journals. Elizabeth currently attends the University of New Haven.