By Anne Gisleson
July marks the five-year anniversary of the first book published by Press Street, Intersection | New Orleans, a massive collaboration between local writers and artists, the production of which was split by Hurricane Katrina. Over the next few days we will post excerpts from that book. As an introduction, Press Street’s co-founder and Board President Anne Gisleson recalls the project’s inception, and where it fits in the historical context of what is now the thriving St. Claude Arts District.
As the St. Claude Arts District gears up for the coming of the international biennial Prospect 2, I remembered that it had been five years since Press Street put out its first book, Intersection|New Orleans, whose release spawned the first indoor art show on St. Claude Avenue. In 2006, there was no St. Claude Arts District—only the wrecked avenue, where Jeffery Holmes and Andrea Garland made art installations on the neutral ground with Upper 9th Ward Katrina debris shortly after the storm passed. Jeffery and Andrea were in the process of building out a gallery, l’art noir, on St. Claude near Mazant Street, and agreed to host the one-night art show and literary reading in their mostly gutted space.
There were no walls—only studs studded with hundreds of nails—but there was a litter of kittens, a coffin, pieces of garden statuary, and other transitional detritus of a place that got torn up just as it was being built up, only to be torn up some more and built back up again. It reflected the overall schizophrenic endeavors of the city at the time.
We pulled the nails from the studs, worked the shopvac to exhaustion, made temporary walls out of brown contractor paper (which conveniently matched the book’s cover), hung the art as respectfully as we could, and had a party.
It was July and there was no air-conditioning. Hundreds of people showed up, some of whom had never been to that part of town. The readers—among them Lolis Eric Elie, Ken Foster, Carolyn Hembree, Dean Paschal, and Martin Pousson—were shiny, damp, and game. They read under rigged clamp lights in the storefront window. We sweated, we sold lots of books, and we even sold some art. An Americorps crew showed up fresh from gutting houses and drained the keg.
The Intersection|New Orleans project had started in the early summer of 2005 with “planning meetings” at Markey’s Bar—a blind collaboration between 25 artists and 25 writers. The writers picked a street intersection, which the editors then assigned randomly to artists without the artists having access to the texts. Some pieces began coming in, but then Katrina happened, shuffling lives and fates and the direction of the project.
All 50 participants remained committed, and we began reeling in poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and hybrid pieces to pair with the arriving artwork. Some work came in before the storm and some after. In addition to the original intent—exploring the intersections between streets, the visual and the literary, public and private—we now had the new collision of pre- and post-Katrina. My husband, artist Brad Benischek, and I coordinated the project. We had a city map in our hallway with pins designating which intersections had been claimed. Eminent graphic designer Tom Varisco designed the book for free, and proceeds helped fund middle school creative writing workshops at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.
St. Claude by Mazant, where the Intersection|New Orleans reading was held, is now the epicenter of the St. Claude Arts District, which has crossed over into a sort of penniless legitimacy held together by the sweat equity of collectives, youthful ambition, and older perspective. Brooklyn and the West Coast keep unloading their creative youth into the city, which is fun, energizing, and relieves some of the fatigue some of us are feeling almost six years out from Katrina.
Most of the Intersection writers are still around town: Chris Chambers, Peter Cooley, Moira Crone, Lolis Eric Elie, Randy Fertel, Ken Foster, Patty Friedmann, Emilie Griffin Henry Griffin, Carolyn Hembree, Dean Paschal, Brad Richard, Christine Wiltz, and Andy Young. And some have gone on to do good elsewhere: Josh Emmons, Katie Ford, Wells Tower, Jill Marquis, Martin Pousson, David Lee Simmons, Ed Skoog, Elizabeth Urschel, and Amanda Eyre Ward. Some aren’t publishing as much as I wish they would. Some are having very successful writing careers. Most of us just trying to reconcile busy lives and writing and eek work out the best we can.