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Hearing Sappho in New Orleans

The Call of Poetry from Congo Square to the Ninth Ward

Southern Literary Studies

288 pages / 6.00 x 9.00 inches / no illustrations

ebook available

Literary Studies

  Hardcover / 9780807144411 / June 2012

While sifting through trash in her flooded New Orleans home, Ruth Salvaggio discovered an old volume of Sappho’s poetry stained with muck and mold. In her efforts to restore the book, Salvaggio realized that the process reflected how Sappho’s own words were unearthed from the refuse of the ancient world. Undertaking such a task in New Orleans, she sets out to recover the city’s rich poetic heritage while searching through its flooded debris. 

Hearing Sappho in New Orleans is at once a meditation on this poetic city, its many languages and cultures, and a history of its forgotten poetry. Using Sappho’s fragments as a guide, Salvaggio roams the streets and neighborhoods of the city as she explores the migrations of lyric poetry from ancient Greece through the African slave trade to indigenous America and ultimately to New Orleans.
The book also directs us to the lyric call of poetry, the voice always in search of a listener. Writing in a post-Katrina landscape, Salvaggio recovers and ponders the social consequences of the “long song”—lyric chants, especially the voices of women lost in time—as it resonates from New Orleans's “poetic sites” like Congo Square, where Africans and Indians gathered in the early eighteenth century, to the modern-day Maple Leaf Bar, where poets still convene on Sunday afternoons. She recovers, for example, an all-but-forgotten young Creole woman named Lélé and leads us all the way up to celebrated contemporary writers such as former Louisiana poet laureate Brenda Marie Osbey, Sybil Kein, Nicole Cooley, and Katherine Soniat.
Hearing Sappho in New Orleans is a reminder of poetry’s ability to restore and secure fragile and fragmented connections in a vulnerable and imperiled world.
Ruth Salvaggio is professor of English and American Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The author of several books on poetry and feminist studies, she is a native of New Orleans and grew up in the Ninth Ward.

Advance Praise for Hearing Sappho in New Orleans

“A  tour de force of intertextual scholarship that ranges from Sappho and Sidney Bechet to the Bambara and Yeats and Wheatley, this book combines the best of both worlds—an intimate, thoughtful analysis of the disastrous flooding of New Orleans with a perceptive critical account of how the lyric voice reflects and refracts desire. A lovely, lovely book!”—Barbara C. Ewell, co-editor of Southern Local Color: Stories of Region, Race, and Gender 

“A tearing scream of pain, loss, and eternal love, joy and hope for the world’s unique culture treasure New Orleans.”—Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, author of Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century

“Plumbing the ruins of ‘deep time’ in the receding waters of Katrina, Ruth Salvaggio recovers the lyric voice of New Orleans in the fragments—literal and figurative—of Sappho. That voice—haunting, wounded, urgent, and unforgettable—sings in many tongues to make herself heard. Any reader who loves the poetry of loss and reappearance should listen.”—Joseph Roach, author of Cities of the Dead    

“This is a masterpiece, and one to which I will often return.”—Margaret Randall, author of First Laugh and Ruins

“Salvaggio’s extraordinary book documents the perseverance of the lyric, and of the people through it, in New Orleans and beyond.”—Eric Porter, author of What Is This Thing Called Jazz?: African American Musicians as Artists, Critics, and Activists

“A daring, brilliantly written work that will stand as a classic portrait of New Orleans. The book is an unforgettable read that truly touches the heart.”—William Ferris, author of Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues

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