Associate Editor’s Note: MockingHeart Review recently talked with Patrice Melnick, essayist, memoirist, and poet, about her new book, City of Hey Baby, published with Finishing Line Press. City of Hey Baby speaks to Melnick’s time in New Orleans before and after Katrina, but also her life in Louisiana more generally. Her love for New Orleans comes in all its complexity comes through not only in the poems but also in our discussion.
Denise Rogers, Associate Editor
MockingHeart Review: The book opens with a poem in which the narrator is more or less dancing in the face of death (post-Katrina). Some might say that this is tempting calamity. Do you see the narrator as saying “hey, do your worst–I’m going to dance?”
Patrice Melnick: I had thought of “Dancing at Tip’s” as primarily a poem of escapism, a concept I tend to revisit. I was thinking about the way people cope with tragedy, sometimes facing it, sometimes diverting attention with menial tasks, and sometimes through music and dancing, which is very much a part of New Orleans and Louisiana Culture. For some, it is like church, attending for a sense of community, and retreating into oneself, getting lost in the melodies, together and alone. And I think that kind of immersion, physically and emotionally, helps dissipate stress, which can strengthen a person to keep going. But for me, the poem was intended to indicate daily sorrows, and give the sense of getting lost in the rhythms and inside oneself.
MHR: Are the other dancers numb because of the flood? It seems like the dancing should be healing, but the expression on the other dancers’ faces suggests it isn’t healing entirely.
PM: After Katrina, there were ranges of loss—loss of lives, homes and livelihoods. And even for those whose lives were safe, everyone was touched, surrounded by loss—bodies discovered in attics, suicides, homes destroyed—a devastated community. And that contributes to numbness, a kind of shock, where one may dance, going through the motions for temporary relief, but reality is always in one’s mind. Dance and other activities offer relief, but trauma endures. Healing may be incremental, and maybe never complete.
I thought of the dance as simple escape for a stunned, traumatized population, but had not thought of it as healing, not just yet. It takes time to process experiences, especially when it’s ongoing.
MHR: What was/were the first poem (or poems) you wrote for the book (or did you just say “hey, I have quite a few poems about New Orleans, and I should assemble them into a book”)? I’m interested in how the book came to be.
PM: Honestly, I realized I had accumulated a decent collection of poems, and I read through them seeking patterns or concepts and realized many were about New Orleans—more than anticipated. So I decided to let that grouping lead me to develop City of Hey Baby. I think the only poem I wrote specifically for the book was the title poem, my attempt to capture the complexity and mix of my feelings for this town.
MHR: This book came out during the pandemic. Is that a coincidence, or did the pandemic have a role in pushing the book to publication?
PM: It was total coincidence that it came out during the pandemic. I had entered the Finishing Line Press chapbook contest for women. I didn’t win but was thrilled that the manuscript was accepted for publication! Then I spoke to friends published by the same press, and they told me about their good experiences with the company and said what beautiful books they produce. I learned of the acceptance in September 2019. At the moment I opened the email, I was at the Santa Fe airport, waiting for luggage—I had arrived for my mother’s funeral. It was nice to get this piece of good news during a sad time.
MHR: If there is a relationship between the pandemic and the book, can you talk about that?
PM: In reflecting, I see commonalities between loss and sorrow in the book—loss of friends, depression—and the sadness and disorientation I see now.
MHR: In “Dumaine Street,” what do the “hellos” mean?
PM: To me the “hellos” could mean a warm greeting from a stranger or could be hello because someone wants something from you, wants to know if you are seeking something, drugs or sex. I guess it’s a little like “Hey Baby,” in which context informs if a casual, friendly meeting or someone seeking something. And for women, there’s a desire to be open to the world while standing up for oneself, feeling safe.
MHR: Is Dumaine Street where you lived?
PM: Yes, I lived on Dumaine Street for a few years—it was the last place I lived before I left New Orleans. It was a wonderful location, just a few blocks from Bayou St. John, and not far from great restaurants, coffee houses, and the New Orleans Museum of Art with good neighbors and interesting characters.
MHR: If you could (if your circumstances were different), would you go back to New Orleans to live? Or are you so much “no longer the person you used to be” that you don’t feel you would be able to return there as you say in “Fifty Days…”?
PM: The short answer is yes, I would gladly go back. But I have a complicated relationship with New Orleans. Generally, I adore the food, the music and the way, in this big city strangers, to one another. Coming to New Orleans I felt more at home than any place I have ever lived and always say hello when passing. I am obsessed with live music, and in New Orleans, that’s normal. Much of my life, I have felt like an oddball, a misfit. But in New Orleans, there is so much individualism and self-expression, there is no pressure to conform, or put on airs. If I had the means and right circumstances, I would return. My selective memory has optimistic leanings. I am a little dreamy as I gaze at beautiful houses, tall shotguns and colorful cottages and imagine what it is like to live in each one. Sometimes I forget why I wanted to leave and have to think hard to recall the negative experiences: all the copper plumbing stolen from under my house when I was gone for the weekend, or my newly planted trees chopped down to the ground. But when you live there, you adjust, as people do in different regions, hurricanes, earthquakes, forest fires.
MHR: Are you still writing New Orleans poems? If so, why is that? If not, why is that?
PM: I still write poems about New Orleans. I still have friends there, important memories, and I still visit a few times a year, drinking in the culture—walks down a French Quarter street, dinner in an Uptown diner, take in concerts; I love every moment I am there. New Orleans has stayed inside of me—I’m still connected to that life.
MHR: You might think it odd, but “Refrigerator Lesson” in some ways reminds me of Hughes’ poems on “a dream deferred.” It’s as if those refrigerators in some ways ARE New Orleans–filled with what once was nutritious and now is just rotten. Was this a poem written at a particular moment when you were feeling that way? Since you say “I still dream every night of mountains / of closed claims baking in the south / Louisiana sun,” do you still feel this way? Or is this something you have come to feel over time?
PM: After I wrote the poem, then I noticed some similarity to “Dream Deferred,” and hoped it wasn’t too close. The town did seem to be bursting with frustration, tension, brewing emotions. I was troubled by the thought of all those refrigerators—contamination of that metal and freon, and of course the rot inside. I wanted to save my refrigerator but knew it would be impossible. Generally, in the spring, I try to keep my refrigerator and freezer almost empty, in case we lost power during a storm. But in 2005, I was away for the summer, and someone who subleased from me did the “favor,” of leaving fresh fish in the freezer. I no longer think about those mountains of refrigerators, but I still become anxious in April, try to keep mine almost empty, so that if we need to leave, we can empty it with ease.
MHR: How did you come to your decisions on how to organize the book? Was the book always going to be called City of Hey Baby (which is a wonderful title, by the way)?
PM: The title came at the end. In “City of Hey Baby,” I was trying to write a free-flowing poem that expressed the flow of emotions. And after I wrote it, thought it could work as a title. I began “Dancing at Tipitina’s after the Storm,” to focus on a moment in time. I concluded with “City of Hey Baby” in hopes of giving a sweeping view of New Orleans, allowing a range of scenes to wash over a reader. I sought logical ways to lead from one poem to the next, moving between urban and rural. I tried to pair poems that might have a relationship, like two that mention Dumaine Street, two that are upbeat, like “Rock n Bowl” and “How I came to Understand Boudin.” If the order is a journey, I tried to create one that zig-zags, emotionally and in subject matter, so that a reader would find direction as moments, reflections and images accumulate.
MHR: Every now and then the present creeps in with a poem about Cajun country (like “How I came to Understand Boudin”) or a love poem about Olan (“Walking through the Palmetto Swamps”) or about the Lafayette shooting tragedy (about Jillian). Why do those poems fit in this book about New Orleans? (I think they do, but I want to know your thinking on it.)
PM: So much connected in music, culture and in my being. The whole state is saturated by the culturally rich areas of New Orleans and the Lafayette/Opelousas region. In terms of including poems outside of New Orleans, it just made sense to me. Zydeco, boudin, jazz, swamps and awful incidents like the theater shooting—these reach beyond city limits and parish lines. There is so much cross-pollination, it seemed natural to me to integrate poems that reach outside of New Orleans.
MHR: At the end of “Tattoos and Birthmarks,” I get a sense of “if not for the grace of God, there go I.” I wonder about that in relation to this book. There were a lot of losses with and after Katrina, and some people were resilient enough to withstand them, but some people weren’t. Can you talk about that and how the book deals with it?
PM: I think the complexity of New Orleans is part of the reason it is so interesting. There is a fine line, to me, between freedom, spontaneity and lack of control. For me, “Tattoos and Birthmarks,” was about not being able to control someone else’s situation, not being able to control one’s one situation. Lack of control is the beauty, danger and loss I tried to express in multiple poems such as “Matthew,” and “Lemon Sestina.” Brutal beauty. To me life is a tangle of emotions, memories and that is intriguing.
TATTOOS AND BIRTHMARKS
Joe showed me his heart with the dagger, a cross, a swastika, all bleeding like algae on his thick freckled boy arms. Don’t mean nothin’, he shrugged, bowled the ball down the lane crashing the pins as his pregnant wife drank sprite. No more pitchers, she said as she kept score in the little squares. Take it, Toeper, Joe handed him the ball.
Toeper held the ball in his right, beer in the left, and an etched eagle drew taut and dark across one shoulder. Toeper launched the ball and sloshed Coors over the lane. Last pitcher, the manager scowled as he mopped at the slick.
A scarlet birthmark stained half of Toeper’s face. I never heart the name before. Black hair hung straight into his ink eyes, as he told me he swigged his first whiskey at two. His country grandparents laughed, called him Toeper, drunk in Choctaw, the only word he still knows, and the grandparents are gone.
At 3:30 a.m. the manager threw us out and Joe’s wife cried in the parking lot to keep the keys. I drove Toeper to his house where he pulled his loaded father out of the ditch and stumbled him inside. Toeper led his father to sleep on the kitchen floor, the bed was Toeper’s. Driving home, I climbed the bridge, staring into blackness. Coasting down, cars passed me, and I felt like I was in one of those dreams where I can’t stop—no brakes, none of us has brakes.
MHR: In the poem “A Reporter who Parties,” are you the reporter? Or is this a book to caution those folks who came to Louisiana to report on it? Can anyone who isn’t from a place really fit into it? Is it worth it to try?
PM: This poem was written as part of a Festival of Words fundraiser for my friend Cheryl Devall, an area reporter at one time. Although I guess I am the reporter too, fascinated by nuance. Maybe it’s like in dreams, where, in theory, you are every character. Regarding “fitting in,” I think visitors and transplants shouldn’t be concerned. None of us should expect to be accepted—it’s our responsibility to be genuine and acceptance may or may not occur. To me, “Reporter,” is about patiently observing every messy nuance. It’s about not only embracing sweetness but also recognizing racism and ugliness, however subtle.
As far as fitting in, New Orleans was a place where I fit in more than anywhere I have ever lived. I grew up in Dallas, Texas, a city of money, style, class and pressure to conform. I never got the hang of it, rebelled against dressing like others, yet resented the resulting alienation. In NOLA, there was no need to fit in because everyone does their own thing and, in this environment, I felt very much at ease. And I felt in sync, always waiting for the next great concert, or parade or festival, and most of the people around me were also focused in this way. I moved to New Orleans with no job or contacts, simply to follow the music—which brings me quality of life. After I arrived, I looked for work. In many areas this seems reckless (I don’t deny that) but in New Orleans, this is a familiar story. Did I just go on a tangent?
MHR: I love the connection you make between you, your father, the watermelon, and New Orleans–that memories can bubble up no matter where you are. But it’s as if he is with you for a moment in New Orleans and that New Orleans is with you when you visit him in his new home. For a moment at the end of the poem, even though you are talking about following him through the hushed hills, I can see him carrying the watermelon through the New Orleans marketplace. Am I just adding that in, or is that a connection you mean for the reader to make, too?
PM: For me, the locations and experiences are connected, so yes, I wanted to suggest a presence of my father in the New Orleans market. This poem was written in response to food and nostalgia. The way memories may haunt and linger in the present can create a sense of collapsed time, and I was hoping to get some of that feeling, that the past lives in the present, as though markets and vendors and watermelons are all one place, one motion.
MHR: Finally, the last poem, “The City of Hey Baby”–I think about a woman living alone in such a city, especially when I read the last stanza about how the protection of that “bubble of maleness…let me cut through the streets like a shark.” It reminded me of all the “hey, baby’s” I’ve heard all my life and the fear I feel when certain men call out to me with it. And yet, it sounds as if it should be sweet, or funny, or warm and sexy. So the danger of New Orleans is there along with its beauty and its tackiness (with the gift shops). Why have such nostalgia for it when it doesn’t seem particularly safe for women? Can you talk about the feelings you have for New Orleans and how they relate to the poem (and maybe the book in its entirety)? Seems like the book is more than a paean to New Orleans. You don’t just say “ah, New Orleans was wonderful” in this poem.
PM: Just like a person, a region is complex, interesting. Neither good nor bad. A jewel. Music. Life. Complexity. Truly, when I visit, I am overwhelmed with nostalgia because what dominates in my memory are breezes, food, friends, laughter, music, openness. The frustration of unwanted approaches from men happens everywhere. I feel like women must carry a lot of weight, that we are expected to be friendly “why don’t you smile?” and yet when we don’t correctly read a threatening situation, we are blamed, “you shouldn’t have made eye contact.” I was trying to use the phrase, “Hey Baby,” as a vehicle for expressing the confusion of wanting to feel safe, yet open to the world. If one is always afraid and closed, we miss a lot of life, must refrain from self-expression, must hide, lock doors, feel afraid. Yet if one is too open, trusting, at ease, one can be threatened. I think all women must walk this line from day to day. If someone has a frightening experience, she may live cautiously, for the day or a lifetime. And I think as women, we take these challenges for granted, living day to day without giving much thought to these issues, but making choices without even knowing it. In New Orleans, I rode my bike all over town. But when I rode peacefully with a group of men, it made me realize how much I anticipate comments that may be harmless or not. In public, many women anticipate and tolerate these intrusions, whether consciously or subconsciously.
As for appreciating New Orleans, the joy of the city, an unexpected second line parade coming around the corner, people laughing on a porch, does not negate the dangerous side of the city. And the danger does not negate the joy. It’s complex.
But my quality of life is affected by how much high-quality music and art is in my life, and I had never lived anywhere before where this pleasure was present almost constantly. And many times, standing in a crowd at a great concert or parade, immersed in the experience, I would say to myself, “this is why I came.”
I hope City of Hey Baby illuminates New Orleans’ beauty and scars.
CITY OF HEY BABY
New Orleans is a city of couch
surfing, slipping in and out
of a friend’s house, turning
the key that I have kept in the cup
holder of my car for ten years,
the city where I no longer live
since the storms.
New Orleans is a city of waking
To tense morning traffic over
potholed streets and fragrant corner
coffee shops beckon, please come.
New Orleans is a city of midnight
Port of Call burgers in the joint
where Janis Joplin wails from
the juke box and dropping fishing
nets that never touched seawater
hang from ridged ceilings and
my burger is larger than is good
for me but this hunger calls and calls.
New Orleans is a city of strolling
streets, seeking gifts in cluttered
shops, glancing back and forth
to see who walks behind
or in front of me, watching
for the kind of guy who might
cut my purse strings and run.
New Orleans is a city of flaming
confetti and wide window laughter
that spills onto the sidewalks and years
ago, my dog barked a warning
at 3 a.m., until I awoke, moved
to the living room, found window
pried wide open, a stranger’s sneakers
on the couch from feet that
fled low dog bark, feet that
would not fear me.
New Orleans is a City of grease
dripping on the grill at 24-hour
Coops or Clover Grill, city of one
long embrace of a former lover
on a bicycle in the middle of a daiquiri
shop-lined street on an unpredictable day.
New Orleans is the city of “Hey Baby,”
from the coffee shop waitress, the delivery
man, the telephone operator, and “Hey
Baby,” from men who follow and men
who don’t and “Hey Baby,” flies
from balconies and slowing cars because
Hey Baby means nothing and
Hey Baby means too much.
New Orleans is the city where I once
cruised with bicycle boys through
chaotic neighborhoods, over bridges,
narrow sidewalks, cars flying past
and I was the only “girl” in the pack
riding with adult boys who jumped
curbs and made eye contact speaking
to every single person we passed, carefree
as they deterred the hey baby men who
swallowed their words; I rolled forward
in a bubble of maleness that let me cut
through the streets like a shark with no
Hey Babys to be decoded, no need to
consider which is a hey baby push
and which a hey baby kiss.
Patrice Melnick holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Her memoir is entitled Po-Boy Contraband: from Diagnosis Back to Life. The City of Hey Baby is her first poetry publication. She lives in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, and is the founder of the Festival of Words, a poetry and writing collective that hosts readings featuring poets, musicians, and storytellers as well as a yearly “poetry crawl” and writing conference in Grand Coteau in St. Mary Parish and in Lafayette Parish, Louisiana. You can order your copy of City of Hey Baby at Finishing Line Press: www.finishinglinepress.com.