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American Routes Shortcuts: Mona Lisa Saloy

Mona Lisa Saloy
Mona Lisa Saloy

Mona Lisa Saloy is a folklorist, poet, professor, and in 2021 was named Louisiana Poet Laureate. Her poems document and celebrate Creole culture in New Orleans, food, language, music, and more. She's written about sidewalk songs, jump-rope rhymes, hand-clap games, and the Black oral tradition of toasting. Mona Lisa's poetry grew from her youth in New Orleans' Seventh Ward, where music was a major part of life.

Mona Lisa Saloy: Down the street lived Joe Jones, you talk too much Joe Jones, and Allen Toussaint of course lived the rest of his life in the Seventh Ward, and the Rouzan Sisters and so there was always live music. And then, of course, our neighborhood warriors, the Black Indians, who parade always had Cha-Wa's or annual parades, and so they came down the streets singing "Two Way Pocky Way.” And then a lot of gospel, a lot of Negro spirituals, and certainly as a young writer, coming up, this was the flowering of the Black Arts Movement, and so poetry was everywhere. We hang out on the front porch on the steps, on the sidewalk, and so outside was a free amphitheater, and a lot of culture happened outside.

Nick Spitzer: How should we understand the relationship between poetry and music?

MLS: Well, they're all related. Number one: poetry’s meant to be sung. It was oral; it was passed on by word of mouth, face to face, generation to generation, which is how we get the definition of folklore. And so, if you're singing, poems become lyrics to songs become a way of communicating that, and eventually literary. And to me, the poetry, the music, the rhymes... all of that is one.


NS: Let's turn to your own poetry. I know you've built heavily on your cultural experience here in the Seventh Ward across New Orleans. The music that you love; the food you love, the neighborhood, but would you mind reading one of your poems?

MLS: Alright, so, every year we suffer through the onslaught of storms, but Black people in the neighborhood, they appreciate every day and when the storm season comes, they make a joke: "See you in the gumbo!” So, as though if it floods, we're all in the gumbo, we're all together. So I had to put that in a poem in my post-Katrina collection, called "Second Line Home.” So, I'll just read it. Soon as the humidity rears its head in mid-May, we smell the rainy season coming. Gotta get out the grill, stoke some coals, braise some shrimp, soak red beans, steam that rice, enjoy galleries, yards, back porches. Party with a DJ spinning Johnny Adams. [singing] "Tell it like it is." [end singing] Dance, like nobody's there. Dance, like nobody's there. Spring spreads aphids on roses, something about the morning mist. A kiss to every blade of grass and iris bud. Graduations grow like mushrooms in Spring. By Memorial Day, backyard barbecues rise like the sun beaming everywhere. Folks don't make no never mind about June 1st hurricane hype from TV weather watchers. Just count flashlights, candles and jars, canned tuna, peanut butter, water, water bottle jugs stacked in cases. Party with family crooners. Dance like nobody's there; dance like nobody's there. Atlantic and Gulf waters stir for swirls. Daily news broadcasts brace for tropical storms turning into hurricanes. Hurry now, stock up on supplies. Storm warnings rise like cream in cafe au lait. Folks don't make no never mind about hurricane season starts. We joke about Hurricane Betsy, whose waters flowed down streets like a parade with floating bodies of dogs, cats, people, shrimp, swollen, stinky. We party. Shake off the coat of fear with a DJ spinning Joe Jones. [singing] "You talk too much, you worry me to death. You talk too much, you even worry my pet, you just talk, talk. You talk too much." [end singing] Dance, like nobody's there; dance, like nobody's there. Gas up the car, pack emergency lights, shout, "See you in the gumbo! See you in the gumbo!” Dance, like nobody's there. See you in the gumbo!

To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.