Louisiana, in his own words

December 19, 2012 11:00 AM

Mary Ann Travis

Two lines from the sprawling poem “Aftermaths” by Peter Cooley, poet and professor of English at Tulane University, spell out his purpose. The lines, monostiches, he calls them, are: “This is Louisiana Write It Now +++ I’ll sing about the spirit of the place.”

English Professor Peter Cooley

English professor Peter Cooley is writing, a la Walt Whitman, a sprawling, poetic exploration of Louisiana. (Photo by Paula Burch-Celentano)

Cooley recently won the Faulkner Society gold medal for poetry for an 800-word (approximately four-page) excerpt of “Aftermaths,” a massive poem that now stands at 194 pages.

“I wanted to explore and to put it [Louisiana] into my own words,” says Cooley. The poem is “exploring the inside of myself and exploring the outside — the external. The river’s in it. The weather’s in it. A waitress in Cancer Alley is in it. The leper colony in Carville is in it.”

Cooley received an ATLAS (Awards to Louisiana Artists and Scholars) grant from the Louisiana Board of Regents in 2011-12 to research and write the poem about the effects of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill. 

Monostitches, single-line units, all written in iambic pentameter, are the grid on which “Aftermaths” is built. Into that grid, Cooley has spliced more regular poetry — elegies, sonnets, conventional poems — dealing directly with events in Louisiana.

Cooley usually adheres to the self-contained, spare style of Emily Dickinson. But, in “Aftermaths,” “I wanted to be Whitman instead of Dickinson,” he says. Like Walt Whitman of Leaves of Grass fame, “I wanted to let myself go and do whatever.”  

He spent months driving around Louisiana, talking to people and reading books about the “completely fascinating” state.

“Aftermaths” is not yet a completed book. It has to be weeded, says Cooley. And he’s not anxious to finish it. He’s happy continuing to write it. “I see it just spinning outward.”

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 website@tulane.edu