Saints and Sinners Newsletter Interview

I recently did a short interview with the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival for their e-newsletter, as one of their featured speakers for 2018. Below is a transcript of the interview. Thank you SAS, and can’t wait to participate next year!

by Drew Jordan

Meet Cassie Pruyn

SAS Fest program assistant Drew Jordan caught up with Cassie Pruyn, who attended her first Saints and Sinners in 2017, and she’ll be back for our 15th anniversary March 23-25, 2018.

DJ.: This past year was your first year at SAS. What was your experience at the Festival like?

Cassie: I loved every minute I got to spend at the Festival this past year, even though a major looming deadline (see below!) meant that I couldn’t stay and soak up the entire experience as I otherwise would have. My favorite part of the weekend was the Closing Reception and Hall of Fame Ceremony: the room was filled, almost palpably so, with positivity and a sense of togetherness, as well as with incredible talent and dedication to literature. It made me feel truly proud to consider myself a part of the New Orleans LGBTQ+ literary community. I can’t wait until next year!

DJ: Your first poetry collection, Lena, which came out this past May, deals with the love and subsequent loss of your first love. Would you talk a little bit about the process of how this collection came to be?

Cassie: In short, Lena is a book that simply demanded to be written. When I was at the Bennington Writing Seminars getting my MFA, I was trying really hard to write about anything else. I was writing persona poems and just generally writing away from my personal experience–in part because the main drama of my personal life was, I thought, too painful to delve into (or else too private). Despite my best efforts, however, most of those poems just weren’t working. One of my professors said they were like beautiful landscape paintings in which nothing was happening in the foreground. Alas, this thing, this major loss, had to be written about. Once I started, I couldn’t stop writing about the memories I had with this person—my first love—and the grief I felt over her having died, tragically, at 26.

DJ:  How do you think distance, both physically and temporally, factor into this collection?

Cassie: Distance–or proximity–is almost like a third character in this collection, I think. When we were together (when we were 19 and 20 years old), our relationship was hidden from her family. The stakes felt really high for her, and it was nothing short of terrifying. Therefore, right away, our physical intimacy was something dangerous; it had to be carefully orchestrated, and was often cut short in a way that felt violent (at least psychically violent). Or else we were pressed together in tiny rooms, or inside cars, or other strange and claustrophobic spaces. After we broke up, the dance of distance continued: we could never quite figure out how to be harmonious; someone always wanted more closeness, or more distance. The dance continued, with even more intensity, after she was diagnosed with cancer, and, obviously, continues to this day–with death being the ultimate distance, the ultimate void.

The poems in the collection seek to perform these distances, or to speak into them. There are also geographic distances–New Orleans vs. the Northeast–and the proximity to her own memories the speaker is constantly trying to navigate.

DJ: You are also working on a history of New Orleans’s Bayou St. John. Would you talk a little about this project, too?

Cassie: Yes! A bit lighter, this book. I just finished a narrative history of Bayou St. John, to be published at the end of 2017. It spans the bayou’s history from prehistory to the present day, and seeks to ask deeper questions about the city’s relationship to this important waterbody: its role in the founding of New Orleans, and its shifting identity as commercial corridor, houseboat colony, recreational hotspot, etc., as well as its essential status as a navigable waterway. It was a doozy of a project, especially because I was new to research and to the genre, but I loved every minute of it. Aside from the narrative itself, I’ve also been blogging about the bayou’s history over the past couple years–giving voice to the odd little anecdotes the manuscript couldn’t accommodate. You know you must be in New Orleans when you come across drunken bears, lady duels, stolen airplanes, and embezzling mistresses, not to mention the hundreds of mysterious drownings attributed to the bayou over the year.

DJ: We have included your poem “Aubade” here in the newsletter. Would you care to introduce it?

Cassie: An aubade, traditionally, is a morning love song (think: the morning version of a serenade), or a poem or a song that signals the separation of two lovers at dawn. This aubade certainly speaks to the various distances explored in Lena.

Cassie Pruyn is a New Orleans-based poet born and raised in Portland, Maine. Her poems have appeared in AGNI Online, The Normal School, The Los Angeles Review, The Adroit Journal, Poet Lore, Salt Hill Journal, and others. She is the author of a forthcoming narrative history of New Orleans’ Bayou St. John, and of Lena (Texas Tech University Press), winner of the 2017 Walt McDonald First-Book Prize in Poetry.


Dear Readers,

In exactly one week, I will be turning over my manuscript on the history of Bayou St. John to the publisher. You might be able to imagine the brain-fry that’s happening over here in order to make this deadline. The marathon stints of revising and citing and formatting have left me a little….blank. As in, I’m dreaming about the bayou—about writing about the bayou, in particular—but when it comes to crafting a short, interesting piece on some bayou anecdote: I’m coming up a little dry (no pun intended!).

Then I remembered a post I’d started and abandoned a few months ago. It quoted a Times-Picayune article featuring some of the most flowery language I’d ever heard in my life (appropriate to the 1890s). But I had forgotten to cite which article this was, and instead of digging through my copious notes, I decided to run a search by homing in on particular words in the article and searching for it in the database. It wasn’t hard to find unique words: hmmm…how about “bayou st john” and “sluggish,” or “bayou st john” and “flat-chested.” I finally found it, after coming across ads to fix a “sluggish” liver, and ads (beginning in the 1920s) for various breast augmentation solutions.

Without further ado, here is a bit of poetry to brighten your day. It will brighten your day because it’s absolutely ridiculous, typifying the romantic language (not to mention values) that defined the period. At the moment this article was written, City Park was experiencing a renaissance after decades of ad hoc development punctuated by years of neglect. Within thirty years, it would largely resemble the City Park we know and love.

Lying between Canal street and Esplanade avenue, with the city cemeteries pressing close on one hand, with the sweet, sunlit spaces and gabled roofs of the old soldiers’ home on the other, with the cypress swamps of the lakeshore trooping up to the line fence like a horde of curious aborigines, with the bayou St. John [sic] and its sleepy sloops protecting it like a moat of old, with here and there a quaint Creole home close to its limits, the city park lies like a fallow field that will readily become a place of great beauty.

It is situated on a ridge as if here the flat-chested earth was swelled into a gentle mound. Across its width creeps the sluggish brown bayou Solage [sic], all choked with sedges and set like an illuminated missal with purple flag flowers and the delicate Holy Ghost lilies that flutter on their pale stalks like the ghosts of dead white butterflies chained to earth for their sins.

The greening grass wears here and there a delicate broidery of daisies, and the rough, seamed roots of thorn and oak are festooned with the pale grace of the southern wild violet, more lovely than any other in color. In the far corners heaps of blackberry vines shine like free skies set with white stars. [1]

Did you catch the horde of curious aborigines part? Or the dead butterflies chained to earth for their sins? This thing reads like a bad creative writing exercise. But thank you, Catharine Cole, for loaning us some words—perhaps more than we needed—since I’m fresh out!

1. “New Orleans City Park. A Bit of History as to What it Was in Olden.” Times-Picayune, 13 Mar. 1892,p.20. NewsBank, Orleans City Park. A Bit of History as to What it Was in Olden?p=AMNEWS. Accessed 30 May 2017.


This week, in light of the intense controversy the slated removal of the city’s Confederate monuments has invoked, I thought I would excerpt a previous post that seems relevant to the discussion, as well as include a few compelling images from past and present.

As anyone who has been paying attention is well aware, the statue of Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, perched between the bayou and the entrance to City Park, is one of the monuments that will be removed in the near future. Given the high emotions surrounding this decision, I couldn’t help but think of the history of this particular intersection—both its political and geological history.

From my previous post about the roiling energy of this particular intersection, with some current commentary woven through:

“Around where the Bayou St. John meets Esplanade Avenue, near the entrance to City Park: this place is its own ‘energetic system’….The phenomena, geological and historical, that have unfolded at this location over the last few thousand years have charged it up so much that next time you’re there—crossing over the bridge to go to the NOMA, for example—you might be able to feel it. [Oh boy, that’s truer today than ever!] Let me give you the briefest of brief histories about this particular spot.

Before the Mississippi River swung toward its current path 700 years ago, a main arm of the river flowed west to east from present-day Kenner, through the heart of New Orleans, out to present-day New Orleans East.

They call this, among other similar names, the Metairie-Sauvage distributary. This former limb of the Mississippi River is crucial to our tale. For one thing, it built up the relatively high, well-drained Metairie-Gentilly ridge system…. It also spawned (gasp!) the bayou itself! Near where modern-day Esplanade Avenue nears City Park, this former distributary meandered…sharply. No one quite knows why it did, but we do know that in the process of meandering it sent yet another distributary southward (a body of water simply called the Unknown Bayou, that would eventually form Esplanade Ridge) and another, smaller distributary northward, toward the lake (the Bayou St. John!). For some inexplicable reason, the Metairie-Sauvage distributary split into three, irregular fingers at this location—and thank goodness it did!  [1]

Here’s another theory about the bayou’s birth, since what I’ve explained above is not 100% certain: it’s possible that after the Mississippi chose its current path 700 years ago and the Metairie-Sauvage course was abandoned—becoming a sluggish bayou in the process—the Bayou St. John formed as a drainage conduit for this larger bayou. At a weak point in the natural levee (around where present-day Esplanade nears City Park!) the Metairie-Sauvage flood waters crevassed and flowed toward the lake, a process that would repeat itself until the bayou was gouged permanently into the landscape. It’s possible, indeed probable, that the formation of the bayou is a combination of these theories—a drainage conduit throughout the millennia, if you will.

Either way you slice it, this spot—near where City Park Avenue meets Carrollton at Moss, near the roundabout with P.G.T. Beauregard at its center, near where the bridge spans the bayou and oak-lined Esplanade begins—has seen a lot of prehistoric action. Water trickling, gushing, overflowing, bifurcating—to the north, to the southeast, to the east. Water heaping up and creeping through. It’s seen a lot of historic action as well.…”

Yes, yes it has. And it is watching history unfold as we speak!

postcard courtesy of Bayou St. John resident Bill Abbott


photo by Simi Kang, 2017.


photo by Simi Kang, 2017.


1. Richard Campanella, Bienville’s Dilemma: A Historical Geography of New Orleans (Lafayette: Center for Louisiana Studies, 2008) 77-78.