A New Orleans poet abroad: Paul Killebrew reports from the Delta Mouth Literary Festival

The Delta Mouth Literary Festival took place in Baton Rouge last month, and among its docket of readers that spanned the three-day extravaganza was New Orleans’ own Paul Killebrew, poet extraordinaire and attorney for the Innocence Project. Paul agreed to chronicle his journey and experience for Room 220, and although his descriptions seem to insist that he was the lone uncomfortable poet among a sea of literate revelers, his impressions sound so familiar I can’t help but think he was just less drunk than everyone else. Regardless, there’s clearly a successful festival establishing itself in Baton Rouge, and we look forward to what they do next year.

I’m So Vain: A Report on the 2012 Delta Mouth Literary Festival
Baton Rouge, LA, March 15-17, 2012

By Paul Killebrew

I’m not exactly gung ho about poetry festivals. In 2002, I got myself roped into what was supposed to be the first of many annual St. George Poetry Festivals on Staten Island. As it turned out, there was only the one, but what a one it was: 30 or so readers over 12 hours in a condemned movie palace. The admission was $15 (which seemed outrageous to me at the time), the cavernous theater was like an indoor landfill upholstered in stained velvet, and my job was to make and sell t-shirts of the keepsake, rock-concert variety.

I made individual poet t-shirts. I cut stencils and screen-printed them with my dad. There was one with a donkey with James Tate’s name under it, an outline of the tops of a group of people’s heads over the name Mónica de la Torre, a goofy arrow-hat thing for Dara Wier, and about eight or nine others. I’d only met a few of the people I made shirts for, and it was actually not a terrible way to meet poets. About a third of the way into the poetry festival, a disheveled guy walked up to look at the shirts, stopped at one bearing a picture of Geraldine Ferraro, and said, “Hey, I’m that.” He was looking at the Anselm Berrigan shirt, and there he was, Anselm Berrigan.

That moment of introduction is about the best I’ve ever gotten out of a poetry festival. Yes, there were 30 readers at St. George, including many poets I love, but I remember none of their readings. It’s just too much poetry at once, and that turns out to be what I remember about most of the other poetry festivals I’ve been to: nothing.

Throw in the fact that poets tend to be terrible with logistics and light conversation, and each festival begins to feel like a mockumentary in the making.

So, I’m not gung ho for poetry festivals. But I got invited to read at the Delta Mouth Festival in Baton Rouge, and who was I to say no? It was a three-day festival, but, because my wife and I had a baby a couple of months ago, I had a nice, family-friendly reason for only showing up for the night of my reading, the last night of the festival.

I drove up to Baton Rouge baby- and wifeless, after a day of texting all of my BR friends about whether the venue for the reading, the Red Star, was baby friendly. It is not. It’s one of those infamy-positive, smoking-encouraged places many of us spent the critical last stages of our cognitive development. Sitcoms have taught us that a married man holds such times as driving alone on the highway on the tongue of his existence, like wine in that movie Sideways, but this is yet another area in which television tells a funny story because the true one is a little pathetic.

The Red Star on a non-poetry night

I made my way into the Red Star, which was not particularly smoky or populated yet, walked to the bar, and ordered a stiff glass of water. Earlier that day I had Google-imaged all of my fellow readers while repeating their names seven times in my head so that I wouldn’t come off as a complete ass when I met them. I figured out that the guy a few humans down the bar was Chris Shipman, author of Human-Carrying Flight Technology, a delightful book. I walked over and told him I was looking forward to hearing him read, I’m Paul Killebrew, oh thanks, hey we should trade books . . . and that about exhausted my repertoire. Chris had been in the middle of a conversation with a friend of his, a fellow professor at Baton Rouge Community College, and sensing the end of the rope I’d come to, Chris charitably introduced me to him. The man, whose name I’ve forgotten, was telling me about an interesting abroad program he’s setting up when a tall, thin, and stylish guy tapped me on the shoulder and introduced himself as Adam Atkinson, who, with Kim Vodicka, coordinated this year’s Delta Mouth. Both are getting MFAs at LSU and had done an impressive job getting the word out about the festival. Adam told me that attendance the previous two nights had been insane, more than a hundred people each night. At poetry readings. In Baton Rouge. There had even been a big spread in the local alt-newsweekly, with color photos and everything.

Kim Vodicka and Adam Atkinson, Delta Mouth organizers, know that adorable gets press

Around that time Ben Kopel (someone I know!) walked into the Red Star. I rushed over and gave him a hug that was a little more meaningful than I intended it to be. Ben lives in New Orleans and used to live in Baton Rouge before he left to toil in the poetry mines at U-Mass Amherst and Iowa City. His first book, Victory, recently came out from H_NGM_N Books. Ben told me he’d been staying with his folks in Baton Rouge so that he could go to the whole festival. Doug Kearney (author of The Black Automaton) had torn everyone a new spirit hole the night before, and the night before that had been an evening of Klingon folk songs with Christian Bök (author of Eunoia and Crystallography). I’ve seen Christian read a few times, and it’s always a spectacular show (“uvular” or “glottal” are adjectives that spring to mind), but I’ve never actually talked to him. Ben did after Christian’s reading and had this to report: “It’s like talking to Lil Wayne.”

Like minds Lil Wayne and Christian Bok

Then, the readings began. By this time the Red Star was packed, easily 75 people, probably more. People spilling out onto the street. Poetry reading. Baton Rouge.

Chris Shipman read first, easing us into the experience with poems that had a highly functional sense of humor, and he was followed by Lillian-Yvonne Bertram (author of But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise), who read her politico-scientific poems with precise musicality. It was all just so enjoyable. As Lillian-Yvonne read, a thought nudged its head out of the groundcover in my mind: as soon as she’s done, this crowd is going to get really bored. I’d brought along just one poem to read, a longish poem that takes about 17 minutes to get through. I took more gulps of water and tried to pay attention to the rest of Lillian-Yvonne’s reading, but the future was, as it always is, inescapable: Here was a room of heads nodding, mouths open in laughter, and they were about to hear 17 minutes of unfunny nonsense read by the only totally sober person in the bar. Awesome.

Thankfully no one actually fell asleep during my reading—not that I saw, anyway—and even if they did the nap didn’t last long because after me was Jennifer Tamayo (author of Red Mistakes Read Missed Aches Read Mistakes Red Missed Aches), who read through a gold megaphone. And was incredible.

I’m sure after all it was all said and done I probably seemed like the poet positioned most precariously on the autism spectrum, but, given the strength of the other readers, I’m happy to paraphrase Carly Simon and say that song wasn’t about me. After Jennifer was done and the poetry reading began morphing into an afterparty, I made a circle of thank yous, texted my wife that I was leaving, and slipped out the door, a single crosscurrent in the flow of bodies going the other direction. There was an amazing poetry festival happening in Baton Rouge, and everyone seemed to know it. I stopped once on the way home, at the Taco Bell in Gonzales, where I tried my first Cheesy Gordita Crunch. It was awful.