Poet and educator Cassie Pruyn kept herself quite busy last year, publishing and releasing two books: a heavily researched, non-fiction manuscript entitled Bayou St. John: A Brief History and her first collection of poetry, Lena. Earlier this month, WRBH’s David Benedetto sat down with Cassie to talk about the process behind her work, what it means to inhabit a space and time, and just who the hell owns the bayou.
WRBH: To kind of dive into Bayou St. John first, what got you interested in this history and what made you want to write a book about it?
Cassie Pruyn: I’ve always had an interest in history of place and space particularly in New Orleans. It’s part of what drew me to come to the city and to stay here. I’ve also always had a fascination with bodies of water, but I was completely new to formal research. I had a friend who suggested that I try taking on a project like this even though it was a complete departure in many ways from the poetry I was writing and that I’d studied formally. Once he suggested, you should write about the bayou – I don’t think anyone else has really done it in quite this way, I just knew in that moment that this was my particular adventure.
It was very challenging. I had to learn a lot in the moment, but I had a great mentor, a really welcoming city that loves its own history, and lots of amazing experts in town. So that’s how I got started, and then I just kind of followed it as it unfolded which involved lots of learning on the spot.
WRBH: You reached out to individuals to talk about their experience with the bayou, as well as archives and collections— what was that experience like?
CP: That was fun! And it was very challenging for me. I tend to be a bit shy when it comes to making that initial contact— I didn’t want to seem invasive, but again, residents of the neighborhood were so welcoming [and] really interested in their own history. I approached it from multiple angles: some of it was online, through local newspapers, asking for folks to reach out to me if they wanted to tell me stories or show me photographs. I think I probably made more contact by actually setting foot in the neighborhood. At one point I handed out postcards, as many as I could manage to hand write, and I put them in people’s mailboxes and along Moss St., and I had an incredible return. I was really excited. People seemed to be really intrigued by the project precisely because it was personalized. And to some extent, the blogging that I was doing and my web site and social media were helpful too.
WRBH: The bayou itself has changed quite a bit from pre-historic to our modern times. Before we get into that I was wondering if you could read a small segment from the book detailing what this area of land was like before colonization?
CP: Yes, I would love to:
If you could travel back to a time before the arrival of the French explorers and stand on the banks of Bayou St. John, near the spot, say, where present-day Esplanade Avenue meets present day Moss Street, you would find yourself in a lush prehistoric world. All around and above you, massive live oaks, pecan, acacia, wild cherry and sweet gum trees would loom. If you climbed a tree and stuck your head up through the canopy, you would see where, to the west and east of you, these mammoth trees extended along the spine of the ridge, along the center of which the slack-water remnants of the former Metairie-Sauvage tributary would still be flowing. On either side of the ridge, you could watch the land slope almost imperceptibly down, its gradient marked by a change in flora: canebrake and thickets of palmetto blanketing the slope, dissolving into stands of cypress and swamp tupelo trees standing knee-deep in still water. If you were to look to the north of your tree-top perch, you would be able to follow the tributary-fed curves of Bayou St. John— studded with islands and sandbars, chock-full of fish and turtles and alligators— as it meandered toward the blue, midden-lined Lake Pontchartrain positively teeming with marine life. Swarming above your head, immense clouds of migratory birds, perhaps ducks or wild geese, would intermittently block out the sun. Down on the forest floor, rabbits and bears and deer would be hiding in the underbrush. Behind you, along a small ridge, a path worn smooth by the dragging of canoes, strewn on either side with satchels and other baggage, would extend in a roughly southeasterly direction toward the risen banks of the Mississippi. And if your eyes were really keen, you might even be able to spot the white sails of a distant French ship as it wandered among the barrier islands of the Gulf Coast, searching for the Mississippi’s mouth.
WRBH: Earlier you brought up this idea of being fascinated with sense of place and how you are drawn to the contours of this place that none of us will ever know because it’s so far away from the urban center that we are now. It’s hard to even get even little glimpses of what it was then. How was it writing that and trying to picture that for yourself?
CP: Those moments in the book, where at the end of each chapter, I take a look at what it would physically have felt like to stand in that same location after each period of time had elapsed— those are really important for me because they’re how I connect to history myself. It’s one thing to know what intellectually took place— it’s important to know those things— [but], I think if I can’t actually physically imagine it or put myself there and, like you said, kind of see the world as it once was, in this very spot, I can’t fully comprehend or process it.
So it’s really important for me as someone who’s engaging with history. And I hoped it would be illuminating and fun for the reader. It’s one thing to know OK there were lots of these types of trees and these types of animals and it was all very undeveloped, but unless you can feel that and picture that, at least for me, it doesn’t have as much resonance. So I was really interested— and I remain interested in my poetry— in this project, in that true kind of physical experience: the body in space and how that space has been altered and manifests the history that’s unfolded on top of it or in terms of human development.
WRBH: Who do you think is the most consequential figure in the history of the bayou?
CP: I would say that— obviously Bienville and Iberville, as the brothers that kind of founded the city in its present day location and that utilized the bayou— with the help of Native American guides (they couldn’t have done it otherwise). They were really important players in terms of how the whole story progressed.
However, I would say that there was also a much more recent figure: Walter Parker. He lived in a very historic home on my street. He was a businessman, and he really took leadership over transforming the bayou in the 1920s and 30s from a kind of post-commercial, ragtag scene. There were multiple reasons why that was happening on the bayou at that moment, but he decided no, we need to clarify what this waterway is used for, what it’s to be used for, how it’s going to best serve us as the city and as the residents of the area, and we’re going to make it look like it fits the part right. He was really crucial in deciding what the beautification of the bayou would look like and in securing funding from the federal government during the WPA-era. [Parker] was just so dogged.
WRBH: And you would say he’s probably the main reason we have the bayou as it appears today?
CP: Yes, thanks for making that connection. The cement that lines the bayou, the way the banks are built up, the boat landings, the bridges, that are no longer drawbridges, but are fixed and in place. All of that is in response to this beautification process that took place in the 30s and much of what we see today is attributable to that movement
WRBH: The Cabrini Bridge— that everyone knows who walks along the bayou in the Mid-City area— that wasn’t originally there and they had to float it to where it was, right?
CP: Yes, I was so excited to find that. I found it in part because the Times-Picayune historic archive became digitized, and [now] it’s a digital database that you can access with a library card through the New Orleans Public Library website, wherever you are. I probably skimmed through close to 10,000 articles where Bayou St. John was mentioned— so it was not easy, but it wouldn’t have been possible without that search term, right— but I stumbled upon multiple articles that described having to replace the Esplanade Bridge in 1908 because of automobile traffic down Esplanade Avenue to City Park, and so they needed a bigger bridge. And it turns out the Cabrini Bridge— or the Magnolia Bridge— was that bridge that was being replaced. It had been there for decades, and they needed to replace the footbridge that was in the general vicinity of where the Magnolia Bridge is now— so they thought OK, well we have this working bridge, let’s just float it on down, we’ll put it up. I was really excited to find that this bridge that everyone knows so well, that’s truly iconic, [and] is about to get a big makeover used to be this all-important Esplanade Bridge. I really loved that fun fact.
WRBH: This is the complicated question: who owns the bayou these days?
CP: (Laughing) Oh my gosh, it is complicated because water law is fairly complicated. When Louisiana became a state in the union in 1812, because [the bayou] was navigable it gained this all-important status as a navigable waterway meaning the state has ultimate ownership, but that is being contested all the time. We have the state’s role, there’s the city’s role, the Sewage & Water Board’s involved — there are all these entities and this layered jurisdiction that has been true of the waterways since the very beginning, and there were lawsuits throughout history. I think there’s one even pending right now that has to do with use and control of the banks, so these things are still constantly unfolding.
WRBH: To kind of a pivot a little bit, I want to talk about your poetry because you are a poet and that was your main focus before taking on this researcher role. How would you describe your work to someone? What are your focuses, and what are you interested in?
CP: In general, I have been interested in writing into history and writing often into different characters or voices. [I’m] much more interested in exploring from different angles [the] history of place and space and all the things that I’m curious about that kind of show up in my work on Bayou St. John. I wasn’t super concerned with my own autobiography or speaking from personal experience, but one wouldn’t necessarily know that if they were to read my first published collection because [it was this] series of poems that turned into a book that was very personal to me. So it was kind of an emotional process to realize that that story needed to be told.
WRBH: Would you mind just giving your listeners a little synopsis of what the book is about?
CP: It’s about my first love— a woman that I was in a relationship with in college and our very intense, and problematic, relationship that was mostly due to the fact that she was in the closet. So it was a very difficult time and really informative— a kind of coming of age story. And then to add to that experience, she got diagnosed with cancer really young and died a few years ago at 26. So it was not a subject that I was actually comfortable writing about, and I felt maybe I didn’t even have the right to write about it.
Our relationship was pretty fraught, but she was also this incredibly important person to me for reasons that are specific, I think, to the situation we were in as members of a same-sex relationship. So this story had a lot of personal meaning for me, but it felt like it also had a kind of story to tell that was beyond just our specific stories. The book is not chronological, but it explores this relationship and the speaker’s processing of her grief and what it was like to have a relationship that was erased or had to be erased from everyone around it. And how that relates to what ended up happening ultimately.
WRBH: From a writing and editing perspective— like line-by-line— what were your goals for the book as far as your poetics?
CP: It’s a great question. I’m very interested in the music inherent in poetry. I think that’s what draws me to it. I also really wanted to bring the landscape alive with this book. The landscape of where this relationship took place to me was a critical because we had to hide. We had to exist in space in a really interesting way. So a lot of our relationship unfolded in weird places that it wouldn’t [have] otherwise—like driving. We were in rural, upstate New York, so driving along backroads, or in the woods, or in the fire tower— spaces that otherwise we might not have occupied in the same way were brought to life because there was a fear of being seen. It was really very serious for her, so it was therefore serious for me. And I think the landscape, to me, is like a third character in this book and I really wanted to bring that alive with the language and with the images that the language conveys.
WRBH: I can see that— it’s like the poetics of Einstein almost, bringing this place, or space and time, into collaboration. What did it feel like having this book out? Was it a cathartic experience for you? Did it come to change your perception of events [or] your work?
CP: Yeah, writing and actually revising them was extremely cathartic because I had some really close readers who were helping me, and often I would start writing about a kind of conscious memory— I think when we have relationships with people, we tend to have a sort of greatest hits of our memories with that person like that time we did this thing, you sort of have these touchstones. So I would often start to write into those and realize, with the help of other readers, that maybe this other memory needed to come out. And doing that was actually extremely therapeutic in the way that I got to relive some of it or be in communication, active dialogue, with what had happened.
The fact that this person no longer is here and no longer can share these memories with me— that we are the only two that had them to begin with— that was devastating for me. So having the poems give me a way back in and to re-explore it was extremely cathartic. Releasing it into the world was terrifying because it was so vulnerable and I felt so vulnerable in the poems. It wasn’t, like I said, my conscious intention, but also I knew it needed to be in the world. So there was a kind of comfort in that the poems told me that, I think, so I had to trust them. That was a really fulfilling experience, and I’ve had wonderful conversations with a lot of young readers who identify as gay or who are exploring that aspect of their identity especially in the south. I was shocked by how important it was for some of these readers to have read these poems so that was extremely rewarding for me and humbling for me. I think if that those conversations had been the only ones I had in relation to the book being in the world, it would have been enough.
DB: What are you reading right now and what do you have planned for 2018? Any projects upcoming?
CP: I am just starting to work again on a creative project that might have prose and poetry that has to do, again, with space and place, but I’d like to write about the Mississippi River. I’d like to write about where I grew up in rural Maine, specifically the house I grew up in and I might even go crazy and read some ghost stories to get in the mood. I’m curious about the concept of haunting or the way that we think of history as being still alive. So I’m doing lots of fun research like that, and I would love to start reading some primary documents and go to Maine and do some archival research on that front. I’m also reading a book called The Ethics of Memory that’s a philosophical text that talks about collective memory. I’m curious about memory, so I’m kind of casting a wide net and always reading novels as well— I just read a Jeanette Winterson novel. I’m interested in writers who identify as queer too. I’m interested in what they do not just with that as an identity, but as a kind of literary strategy. So these are the things I’m exploring. It may sound kind of broad because that’s the place I’m in.
This interview was transcribed from an episode of The Writer’s Forum, a weekly program on WRBH Reading Radio for the Blind and Print Impaired focused on showcasing local and national authors, poets, historians, journalists and historians. You can find the full archive of programs here: www.soundcloud.com/wrbhreadingradio/sets/the-writers-forum
WRBH Reading Radio is a New Orleans station whose mission is to turn the printed word into the spoken word so that the blind and print handicapped can receive the same ease of access to current information as their sighted peers. You can listen to your favorite books, magazines, and interviews locally at 88.3 FM or stream on WRBH’s website www.wrbh.org.
This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity. The segment of Bayou St. John: A History was reprinted here with permission from Cassie Pruyn.