View of Academe, From the Foot of Canal Street

A few days before our term started, one of my grandmothers died. I returned to New Orleans for her funeral and arrived back in Austin the evening before classes started. I didn’t even have syllabi ready, and the thought of telling my students why was redolent of cliché and karma. See, for all these years, I’ve been telling students that I don’t believe in dead grandmothers: mine were still alive. Sooner or later, that lousy joke was going to catch up with me. Grandma’s death was neither premature nor unexpected, but that doesn’t diminish the missing her.

So I went into the term much less prepared than I like to be. I quickly put together some mini-syllabi with the most basic information students usually want. At the same time, I had a looming deadline to deliver responses to edits on a book chapter. Got a short dispensation from the editor, only to get sick half way through the first week of term. An inauspicious start to the year.

That’s one way of looking it. I guess that’s the academic way of looking at it. For me, Grandma’s death and my ensuing bouts centered me differently than I’m accustomed to feeling centered in first week. Emotionally, existentially, I was and had to be her grand-daughter, not anybody’s professor or colleague. Oh, I went to work; I did get the syllabi slapped together eventually. I delivered the edits right under the wire. But I wasn’t invested in my usual way in these activities.

All this time, I dwelt in recollection. Sleeping over at Grandma’s when she had her Saturday night card games. Her presence at plays, music recitals, every small and large rite of childhood. Her voice. Her New Orleanian aptitude for digression. (Once, I picked her up and asked her how was lunch. She told me a man’s life story: not from here, fell in love with a New Orleans girl, took her to his home state, came back because he missed the city, lost the wife somehow, stayed for the city . . . He was the chef, at the place where she had lunch. And yeah, I just did it.) Her phrase for me, “the one who went away.” Her genuine fear, those first few years I lived in Chicago, that I would freeze to death. Her delight in being with people, so different from my own wariness. How hard she would hug me when I came home, or when I left again. My own life was the necessary concomitant of recollecting hers – so I have felt myself a small child, a ten-year-old, a brooding bookish teen, a university student in the far north. I tried to see my own life from her point of view, and hers from her own, rather than mine.

One of Grandma’s quirks was calling things by incorrect but lovely names. Pink penguins (flamingos). Blue robins (purple martins). Make a Novena. (A Hail Mary – in football, not the actual prayers.) All of this ran on the usual New Orleanian displacements: “by” meaning “at,” “pass” meaning “stay.” Listening to her always made me want to write. When I published my first poem, she simply said, “I always knew you could write.” Not as well or as much as I need to.

The funeral often floated in consciousness. St. Anthony’s Church. So many relatives, odd conversations. Giving one of the eulogies. Most of all, the burial in St. Patrick’s No. 2: cloudy sky, barely cold, my brother and his sons making up half of the pallbearers. (2009, the cultural vertigo of the SBL meeting here; I stand at the other end of Canal Street telling John Collins, “My Irish ancestors are buried that way,” and pointing toward the foot. He approved of knowing where your people are buried. Where you bury them. Where I stand now.) After the burial, I rode home with my sister, who played to me the John Boutte-Paul Sanchez song, “At the Foot of Canal Street,” as we drove once again past the same. I had never heard it before. Couldn’t catch all the lyrics. Knew I would buy it, because the music seemed to contain everything, and because Grandma spent most of that part of her life I knew in the Mid-City-est part of Lakeview, near the foot of Canal Street. It’s the knot at the heart of the city.

As an accident of timing, Grandma’s death sent me into the semester with my sense of self lodged elsewhere. I was in my little academic niche, but not of it. This is not the first time I have been thus displaced. Most of my experience of academe has been conditioned by an orientation outside of it. But I’ll have to unfold that slowly. In other posts. If I’m up to it. I’ve been teaching long enough that the start of term evokes certain emotional habits: rehearsing my first-day spiels, over-thinking the order of items on course schedules, the anxiety of meeting rooms full of people I don’t know, worry that an advanced course might not make, the need to subordinate all other projects to the first-week rush. I did my job, but I didn’t do it in this way, this time. The part of my attention that holds my self was somewhere else – and rightly so. From that place, my academic life looked different, even a bit absurd; but more than that specific view, I felt the opening of other ways, beyond the habitual or socially sanctioned ones, of attending to work. It must be put in its place, as I must live from mine.

Not Motley in My Brain

On the rare occasions when I have been on flat land with no body of water near, I panic. It feels like a trap, all that uniform land. I’m from New Orleans. The coast, the swamp, the ambiguities of deep interface, lie deep in me. Unlike the water table. That’s very close to the surface.

Academic writing can too easily resemble an expanse of flat land: far from the margins and mixtures that make anything productive possible, it has been buffered, separated, marked out in plots, accessed by paved roads. Or at least, I try to make mine look that way. That’s as it should be, perhaps must be. Flat interiors have their place in the global ecology. But sometimes, for me, it induces panic. Where is the source?

For years, I thought of my literary writing – poetry and other sorts, not nearly enough or as good as I’d like – as a fundamentally different kind of work than academic writing. The processes seemed different in development, execution, and purpose. That much is true. But I overlooked an underlying similarity: the origins. Other than set pieces, every work I do starts with a collision of divers elements, a strong emotional reaction to the collision, and a need to work my response into words – and from there, into some insight that could be offered to others. Literary and academic work differ primarily in the last two phases, but not much in the first two. A collision of life-altering proportions led to my main scholarly project, not that I say so in the articles or book. Books. Working on the plural. Still – I wear not doctoral gowns in my brain. Writing, music, deafness, these all came before the academic role.

This process happens far more often than I do anything about it. That’s not to say that every such moment and its reflections must be put into words. Culling is an underrated art these days. Nevertheless, some of my culling occurs simply because the collision doesn’t fit anywhere. Someone’s story moves me and evokes a bit of Renaissance drama, and I write a poem. A post-modern literary theorist (tautology?) prompts insight into ancient religious texts, and I do a conference paper. As in metathesis reactions, things change places, but within a stable basic structure. Usually one thing precipitates out.

And then there are islands, with their windy sides and marshy sides, where everything is a border. Given the particulars of my life, the flora and fauna and fantasies include a library, strange bodies, cathode-ray visions, music, religions, speculative worlds, animals, and a college or something like one. That is, I’ll write about literature, disability, television and film, music, science fiction, cats and maybe some dogs, and education.  Yes, I left out religion in the second list. I won’t always leave it out. I’m a scholar of religion on the mainland, but I write from the island, the place of un-disciplined fecundity that underlies more socialized projects.

This blog is my island – the coastline, the estuary, the overlapping phases of elements, states, life-forms – or, in temporal terms, my native carnival. I want to write from the hypnagogia of thought, the place of juxtapositions that have no other place.