Nicole Cooley

in New Orleans, LA

recorded in Washington, D.C.


Nicole Cooley

Hi, I’m Nicole Cooley. I live in New Jersey, outside of new York, but I grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana. I’ve lived all over, but grew up in New Orleans, and my thinking about place is very funny. I thought place was something that didn’t matter at all in my life and in my writing, ever, because I’d moved around so much and I was sort of afraid to touch writing about New Orleans with a ten foot pole, because New Orleans is such an over-determined city, and you immediately go to cliché when you try to write about it. Mint juleps, right? Wrought iron balconies. Tennessee Williams, who I love, kind of ruined it for me. But that’s not the real New Orleans. The real New Orleans is the city that was 80% under water on August 30th 2005. So my experience with place changed dramatically with Hurricane Katrina and I began to write about New Orleans in a completely different way. I felt compelled to write about New Orleans. It felt urgent to write about New Orleans. It felt like something I absolutely had to do. And after Katrina, I began writing something which I thought might be a long poem and I just stuffed everything into it: Coast Guard reports, weather reports, comments from friends, parents, my family’s experience. I just wrote it and wrote it until it was really long, and I thought, I’m not sure what I’ll do with it, but I’m kind of interested in the way it’s very unpoetic. Then I drove through Mississippi and Alabama in 2006—states I hadn’t though about in terms of Katrina or place—drove through them on Highway 90, called Hurricane Alley, and they were wiped out. It was literally, for lack of a better image, as if someone had taken a giant eraser and erased Biloxi, Mississippi, Pass Christian, Mississippi, Waveland, Mississippi, they were just completely gone. Nothing remained of these towns that I’d been to as a child. I came back from that drive, came back into New Orleans, looked at New Orleans and thought, That’s it. I’m going to have to write in a completely different way about place. All I want to do is write about place, and I feel like what’s happened on the Gulf Coast is the great, untold story for the United States. And it’s this terrible national tragedy. I thought there’d be a revolution after Katrina. That’s not happening. But at least I can start writing about it. So. My relationship to writing about New Orleans and my relationship to place completely altered and I began to write constantly and only about place, about New Orleans, and about the Gulf Coast.

The Knox Writers’ House

Do you think that sense of place has carried on to your new writing? Now you’re writing a book about New York?


Yes, because then I went back and looked at this folder of stuff I had. And New York is also impossible to write about, right? I guess they’re two impossible cities, for different reasons, but it’s too overwhelming. I went back and I started writing about New York, and I thought, 9/11. Everybody around me was saying, Oh, I hope people aren’t writing poems about 9/11, my fellow poets would say, and I’d think, Why? And people would say either it’s too soon to write about 9/11—it was years later—or it’s too political or why would poetry write about that or what happened is so bad poetry can’t write about it. All of those seem ridiculous to me, frankly. If we’re going to decide certain things can’t be written about, what’s the point? I also teach and have lived in a part of New York that I feel like isn’t very written about, which is Queens. We think of Manhattan, right? Queens has 129 languages spoken in Queens County. It’s the most diverse county in the nation. The experience of 9/11 in Queens is completely different. It’s everything from undocumented workers to the first responders to my students who lost relatives in the Twin Towers. So, that began to also really reshape my thinking about place. Ultimately, I have to say that my experience of place is bound up by the relationship of place and disaster, and that’s what moves me now to think about place.


How do you think that affects how you know a place? How did the way you knew New Orleans change, and thinking about New York through the lens of 9/11…


Yeah, it’s interesting. It’s what I wrote about in my poem: it’s easy to love the notion of the vanishing and the disappearing when it’s a metaphor, like, “Oh, nostalgia.” But when things are actually gone and there’s a smoking pit in the World Trade Center or a crater in Waveland, Mississippi where a building used to be, it feels so very different. So that’s part of it. How do you think about things disappearing without making them beautiful or suffusing it with this kind of lovely nostalgic loss? And who wants to hear about that, actually, in 2011? That’s part of it. And also, it brought home the fact to me that certain things you need to bear witness to in poetry, and certain ways of life are disappearing.  All those people in Mississippi who lost everything, who’s telling their story? I certainly can’t pretend to be them, I didn’t lose everything, but at least I can go there and talk to people, and try to write about it.

The Road by Muriel Rukeyser


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