The Orpheus of New Orleans: Daiquiri Jones Brings Poetry Back to its Rootsby
On St. Claude Avenue, I was waiting to cross over Elysian Fields with a poet friend of mine, when a vision flew past me on a mountain bike two sizes too small, making their figure loom even larger. They rode one-handed, free arm hoisting an angel’s harp over their shoulders, face slathered in glitter, thick locs woven with what looked like silk trailing behind. Were they wearing a philosopher’s tunic, or was it a wedding dress? Was the bloodred lipstick in and around their brambly Trotsky-beard theirs, or had it accumulated throughout the night? I stared, hypnotized—for the past few years, I’ve immersed myself in studying the medieval troubadours, and for a moment I worried I’d hallucinated this romantic figure, who seemed both ancient and entirely new.
“Who was that?” I asked my friend.
“Don’t you know? That’s Daq, the Orpheus of New Orleans.”
After that first indelible experience, Daiquiri Jones seemed omnipresent—one night I ducked into the Allways Lounge, and saw them swing-dancing with two partners at once, grinning gap-toothed and twirling them fluently around the dance floor simultaneously as a reverent cloud of others waited for their turn. Another time I found them alone, quixotically wrestling their bicycle wheel, harp resting on its side in the gutter. At the poetry readings and open mics I frequented, instead of drinking cheap wine and yakking with other poets beforehand, I’d catch a glimpse of Daiquiri sequestered in a corner, scribbling feverishly onto a crumpled scrap of paper.
At the Dogfish Series in St. Roch, I came back inside from smoking to the sound of a harp’s rippling arpeggios, and then Daiquiri’s baritone soared over the rapt crowd—not singing, but not quite speaking or reciting, either—spinning is the word that comes to mind, the story unspooling out over our heads, sometimes in a flood of images, and sometimes long silences filled with nothing but the harp’s thrumming strings, while they gazed at a point just over our heads, as if straining to hear some mystical dictation.
I can’t remember the specific words; neither can Daiquiri. It wasn’t entirely improvised; the paper they were scribbling on earlier in the corner wasn’t a script, but a map they use to navigate the basic arc of the story, a map which is abandoned just before stepping on stage. This is what I remember:
As a young boy, his mother gets dangerously sick and has to be sent to the hospital. Scared, and in order to feel closer to her, he sneaks into her bedroom and starts putting on her shoes, her jewelry, her makeup. Then his father comes home, catches him. The celestial arpeggios cease, and Daiquiri allows this moment to sit with everyone, before striking several dense chords, out of rhythm. This profoundly moving image of a boy transgressing society’s bounds of gender for the first time, has now taken a sinister turn—I have the distinct impression that the entire audience feels as I do, a collective fear that the father is about to punch the wig off his son’s head.
And the father is outraged, but not because his son is wearing makeup: because his son doesn’t know how to apply it correctly. The two of them sit in front of the mirror, and the angelic major-key triplets swell again, before fading out as father and son share this surreal, vulnerable moment together.
Afterwards, I found my thoughts lingering on the power of this scene. How much of it was true? Had the father also been secretly practicing this drag-grief act? Or did Daiquiri conjure everything from the ether?
Poetry on the page is quite literally two-dimensional. Performed on stage, a third axis adds a whole new dimension to the same words: timbre of voice, rhythm and timing, body language and visual style. Daiquiri’s performances go even further, creating a four-dimensional poetic space where text and music combine with experimental theatre and improvisatory storytelling. Every performance is a séance, a lucid dream we are invited into, governed by chance and the whims of the mystical artistic force which Federico García Lorca called duende.
“Not that I take astrology too seriously, but I’m definitely a Sagittarius,” Daq told me, which makes perfect sense: the archer who follows the course of the arrow they loose, not knowing where they’ll end up. The searching is the point.
Recently, I interviewed Daiquiri at my shotgun apartment in midcity, after serving them vegetarian tacos. Daq is a self-described ‘lazy vegetarian’—and non-binary, hence the they/them pronouns.
“I identify as non-binary, but I don’t like identifying. The human experience is so much more complicated than that, and I don’t like being pushy about it; it’s just a more accurate description of my internal space.”
Throughout our hour-long conversation, as Daiquiri ranged from their childhood in New Orleans, to fame, self-mythologizing, masculinity, and Lacan, their phone buzzed and vibrated.
“If it’s something important, we can take a break,” I offered.
“Nothing is important,” they responded, dead serious, yet as cheerfully as if they’d been remarking about the weather.
Daiquiri grew up in different parts of New Orleans, studying at NOCCA and then the University of South Florida, where they lived after Hurricane Katrina. They double-majored in gender studies and anthropology, with a minor in religious studies, and got involved with the slam poetry and music scenes, playing first guitar, and then banjo, and finally harp.
Fate seems to have played a crucial role in Daq’s development as an artist: they claim to be tone-deaf, which naturally led to spoken word instead of singing. Later, they switched instruments after a musician friend couldn’t fit their harp into the tour van and entrusted it to them. The eldest of four, Daiquiri would make up stories to entertain their younger siblings on long car trips, and in the bedroom they all shared together up until high school.
As we talk about their influences, Daiquiri tends to dip in and out of French post-structuralist philosophic theory and pop culture, but in an earnest, unpretentious way that’s not about lording knowledge over someone else—more like someone who’s trying to articulate ineffable truths with whatever tools are available. Afterwards, I had to scramble to Wikipedia to catch up—Afro-Pessimism, Lacan, Baudrillard’s theory of simulation, and what Daiquiri refers to as a “bidding war of images” during the actual process of improvising a story.
Daiquiri embodies the artist as seeker, always surging forward and breaking new ground. “I almost never repeat a story, it would get boring,” they said—which amazes me, since they’ve performed hundreds of times. All those stories, existing only for whoever happened to be in the room, a fleeting synthesis of memory and imagination that Daiquiri has zero attachment to—they’ll make up new stories next week. “Sometimes it’s just an act of tortured joy, when the adrenaline hits before a performance, and the ideas start talking to each other. A physiological thing. I have to hypnotize myself into performing. I have to seduce myself, in a way—and that’s when the piece has its own life.”
The second time I saw Daiquiri, I went into the performance expecting to witness something as magisterial as that first story I’d heard. But something was different. Their brow furrowed. They began speaking, but haltingly. They kept gazing into that middle distance above our heads, almost helplessly, as if the voice they hoped to channel was absent or terribly mute. After an instrumental pause, Daiquiri said, “I’m sorry, I can’t. I can’t do it,” and left the stage.
While this might come off as failure, it struck me as one of the most sincere poetic acts I’d witnessed. The show must go on is the artistic credo I and so many others have been conditioned to obey without question, but Daiquiri refused, because they view poetry as something far more sacred than entertainment. I asked them how they felt about the phrase, ‘The Orpheus of New Orleans’, and the response I got was one of the more nuanced mediations on the place of the artist in 2019.
“I mean, I think it’s funny! I like all myths. I did embody that one, for Carnival one year. I love it and it’s valuable, but there’s an element that could become very gimmicky and marketable. On the one hand, sure, I want to enter into ‘professional artist-dom,’ but I don’t want to fall into having a ready-made product or image. It would seem like the personal branding that so much of my work is critical of. On the other hand, there’s a reason it was said—and it’s helpful because people don’t usually have the attention span to remember you for more than one thing. We’re living in a world where archetypes are coming back. With so much information overload, archetypes become a form of self-defense. That’s my personal take on how Trump could become so popular. He’s just a dumb image. And that’s very comforting to some people. So is the heroic image. If playing that role is a service to people, I can understand. At the same time, it’s just late-Capitalism. It’s like when Lacan approached a group of radicals and said, ‘All you’re looking for is a new master, and you’ll get one!’
I get the sense that the storytelling/harp mode Daq has been working in has become too familiar, and they’re now seeking new forms, as a challenge. Daiquiri premiered their first play, ‘Candy Cotton’, at the Infringe Festival this November. The website’s brief but intriguing blurb read: Candy Cotton debuts an afro-surrealist production merging music, puppetry, mime, spoken word, and dance to enhance a kaleidoscopic storytelling experience. Candy Cotton blends theory, history, folklore, and autobiography in service of black life, in honor of black death and for love of black dreamscapes. The term Afro-Surrealism was first used by Amiri Baraka in 1974, to describe the work of Black Arts Movement writer Henry Dumas. D. Scot Miller articulated the term in the Afro-Surrealist Manifesto in 2009, with a global, diasporic scope focused on the Black experience in the present, as opposed to Afro-Futurist works like the film Black Panther, or Octavia Butler’s novel Wild Seed. Daiquiri’s interpretation of the term is their own.
“The inspiration for it was an idea I couldn’t let go of, the image of enslaved people picking cotton candy. Which is absurd, but also absurdly true. Sugar, sugarcane, working yourself to death in order to sweeten someone else’s life, and for profit.”
A couple weeks after our conversation, I realized it had been months since I’d actually seen Daq perform live, so I went to find out what they’ve been up to.
As I locked my bike to a stop sign at Port and Marais streets, Daiquiri was tuning up on the corner stoop of the Mudlark Public Theatre, strings thrumming in the humid dark. They had inserted a microphone pickup into an empty can of soda and attached it to a loop pedal. On stage, Daq plucked the can’s tab like a kalimba thumb-piano, and the sound came back—a percussive echo they used as foundation for building an improvised architecture of sound. In between adding layers—grunts, then mournful whale-calls issued into the can’s mouth, and finally harp—Daq stomped the loop pedal like a roach. The theatre vibrated with an accumulation of dissonant rhythms; the affect was both disorienting and mesmerizing. Then they began to speak. Song as spell, as summoning. During this recent performance, it felt as if those two aesthetics I first witnessed when they biked past me at Elysian Fields—the ancient, mystical, storyteller of caves and hilltops, and the svelte, androgynous, futuristic visionary—had combined into one.
Then the mic taped to his harp slipped off. They scrambled to stick it back on, but the humidity wouldn’t allow it. Unfazed, Daq announced I guarantee you that failure is more interesting than success. You could call it stage-banter, or stalling for time, but for me this encapsulates the mandate of experimental art—the daring of risk, the daring of a consummate artist who refuses to walk the same path twice.
After publishing this article, we learned that Daiquiri was recently arrested in Florida on ten year old charges from participating in the Occupy movement. Their family has arranged a fundraiser to support Daiquiri’s legal fees and other expenses. Please consider offering your support.