HAMMOND — The Hammond Regional Arts Center focused its spotlight on 18 South Louisiana authors who have successfully published books in a variety of genres at its third annual Celebrating the Written Word Literary Festival Saturday.
Katherine Marquette, director of the arts center, said an important mission for the center is the promotion and support of writers from throughout Southeast Louisiana.
“While we almost always have visual arts on display for the public, we don’t always have the opportunity to focus on the performing and written arts,” she said. “This is our chance to demonstrate the importance of the written word. Our literary festivals have been well received and we are blessed with some really talented writers in this area.”
Principal presenters were Erica Spindler, of Mandeville, whose novels have made The New York Times Bestseller List, and Louisiana’s Poet Laureate Peter Cooley, of New Orleans.
Spindler delivered her remarks at the opening session of the festival and Cooley was the featured speaker at the day’s concluding presentation.
Cooley, professor of English and creative writing at Tulane University for more than 40 years, has published 10 books of poetry in his long writing career. His poems have been published in The New Yorker magazine, Atlantic, Poetry and other literary periodicals.
The poet opened his remarks describing how his craft developed as he moved from Minnesota to New Orleans. His early works, written “up north,” were cold and hard, he said, reflecting the environment in which he was writing.
“When I arrived in New Orleans, I learned that I couldn’t write poetry anymore,” he said. “The heat, the bugs, but above all the happy, laughing, smiling people were a brand-new experience. Here we were, my wife and I, sunbathing in our backyard in September. What a surprise … in Green Bay where we lived, you couldn’t sunbathe one day out of the year and here in New Orleans it was a tropical paradise.”
Cooley said he decided to start writing about the “bugs and bamboo” he found in his New Orleans backyard and once again found his muse. Among his many published books are, “A Place Made of Starlight,” “The Astonished Hour,” “Devine Markings,” and “Night Season.” Cooley, who said his favorite poet is Emily Dickinson, admitted to a fascination with artist Vincent van Gogh and some of his well-known poems are observations on van Gogh’s paintings.
Cooley said that his life was profoundly altered by Hurricane Katrina, and even though his family’s home was largely spared by the storm, the destruction of his adopted city was an indescribable catastrophe.
“There is no way to adequately describe Katrina’s effect on New Orleans,” he said. “Words simply fail when trying to write about something so terrible. I couldn’t understand what happened and I could only turn to poetry to try to explain this tragedy. How do you describe a great city that, all of a sudden, is silent. There were no birds, no roaches, no rats, no feral cats, no squirrels after Katrina.”
In time, Cooley continued, he began to write about the storm and putting his thoughts into poetry made acceptance of Katrina’s aftermath more palatable. Cooley’s poems on Katrina are included in his book, “Night Bus to the Afterlife,” distributed by University Press of New England. Cooley said he makes himself write “something” every day to keep his creative instincts alive.
Spindler said her love of words began at an early age.
“I was the kid who stayed inside and read books instead of going outside to play … I’d sneak a flashlight under the blanket to keep reading at night,” she said. “I read the ‘Amityville Horror’ in high school and knew that I wanted to be a writer. It was a long journey, but I finally saw my work in print.”
Spindler said that her first novel, which was rejected by a publisher, “was just awful … it’s buried in a drawer, and I’ll never try to publish it. Writing successfully is tough…I didn’t get a book published until my third try,” she said.
Spindler’s professional life began as a graphic artist and she taught in the art department on a part-time basis at Southeastern Louisiana University for several years.
Describing how her writing career started, she said that by sheer chance she was given a free copy of a romance novel — something she had never read before. “I was hooked! I wound up writing 13 romance novels,” she said.
She then began writing suspense novels, a pursuit that continues today. “Things that scare me, inspire me. I grew up a ‘girlie girl’ and now I am writing about violence, blood and grit … so I had to learn about those things to write about them. We think everyone is just like us but it’s not true…everyone has their own moral compass and there are wolves in sheep clothes out there and that’s what I like to write about,” she said.
Her latest books, which are available for sale, are “The First Wife,” set in the horse country of Folsom, and “The Final Seven,” a book in her Lightkeepers Series set in New Orleans.
Deborah Burst, who now lives in Mandeville, discussed her experiences as a nonfiction writer and photographer. She has published more than 1,000 articles and about that many photographs in her career. Her book publications include “Louisiana’s Sacred Places: Churches, Cemeteries and Voodoo,” “Southern Fried Sanctified,” “Hallowed Halls of Greater New Orleans” and “Tales From the Back Deck.” She said that she recently learned that a copy of her book on New Orleans churches had been presented to a pope and is now in the great Vatican Library.
Burst, whose presentation was laced with humor, told of her adventures photographing churches and cemeteries in New Orleans, throughout south Louisiana and in numerous Southern states. Burst said she began her professional career in the corporate world but “grew tired of that world.” She said she began writing about churches and cemeteries because of a “love for beautiful places and spaces.”
“Writing a book leads the author to a knowledge about the history and culture of a city,” she said. “When you begin to dig up information about the subject of your writing, you grow in knowledge about the people and places that you are writing about. There is a great deal of joy in coming to know all about your community and the people who make it special.”
Other writers making presentations were Kurt Amaker, Pamela Cali Bankston, Barry Bradford, Mary Katherine Callaway, Lyn Gibson, Barry Hebert, Eric W. Johnson, Howard Nichols, Matthew Sigur, Randolph Thomas, Cathy H. Tijerino, Kim Vaz-Deville, Katie Wainwright, Kent Wascom and Wendy Duhe Woods.