New Orleans is a city of writers who drink and drinkers who write. As the French Quarter welcomes the 30th annual Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival this week, both pursuits will be in the forefront. Year-round, however, some local bars are cultivating their own unique literary links with reading, events and classes.
“Writers and bars go hand in hand, more so in New Orleans than other cities,” said Laura Bellucci, the “bar chef” at SoBou in the French Quarter. “Here, bars are the central meeting point or public house. A drink helps people to shed their self-consciousness. And you can watch and learn a lot about people in bars. That’s essential for writing.”
Bellucci has brought together her passions for cocktails and literature with what she calls SoBou’s “no pressure book club.” For each literary roundtable, Bellucci creates an original cocktail inspired by a certain phrase or quality from the assigned story; her signature drinks are priced at a modest $6. For instance, in honor of the upcoming literary festival Bellucci is mixing “A Sidecar Named Desire” — a variation on the classic cocktail made with apricot jam. Bellucci said that addition echoes the “rich and ripe” feeling of Williams’ most famous play, one whose characters are notably fueled by alcohol.
Step Write Up
For those curious to test out their chops, local writer Stephen Rea teaches a fiction workshop at the lounge and gallery Treo on Tulane Avenue, convening an eight-week series twice a year.
Rea is known for his post-Hurricane Katrina memoir, “Finn McCool’s Football Club: The Birth, Death and Resurrection of a Pub Soccer Team in the City of the Dead,” a work that centers on the sense of community that arose after Katrina at the popular Mid-City bar, which was opened by the same people who run Treo.
He says a glass of wine or a pint of beer helps his students take the edge off.
“Writing is a very private discipline,” he said. “A lot of people can be nervous about the critiquing process. Just the fact that we’re in a bar gives the class a certain level of informality. It relaxes them.”
Treo manager Tyler Chauvin agreed.
“We all reach a block of sorts when it comes to writing, and sometimes that whiskey neat or an ice cold pint helps to alleviate the tension,” she said.
Like Bellucci, Rea echoed the social aspect pubs offers, including those interactions that happen outside of the class itself as students gather before the workshop for dinner from the bar menu or wind down afterward with a cocktail.
“And they’re meeting people they wouldn’t otherwise,” Rea noted, citing the wide range of ages and backgrounds of those who enroll in his courses. “The bar offers a cross section of the city.”
Bards and beverages
This sense of casual camaraderie has helped establish the success of Blood Jet reading series at BJ’s Lounge in the Bywater. It’s held each Wednesday night in the bar’s back room, a space that poet and series organizer Megan Burns calls the “poetry living room.”
“Poets are social creatures, not lonely, tortured souls,” Burns said.
Before starting Blood Jet, Burns ran the popular 17 Poets series at the Gold Mine Saloon in the French Quarter. For Burns, bringing poets together to experience each others’ words is key.
“You have to hear poetry out loud,” she said.
Recently Blood Jet has expanded to include fiction readers as well.
BJ’s owner Lee Grue says New Orleans has “as many poets as cockroaches.” As both a writer and a bar owner, Grue aims to offer an inclusive space that connects writers with their audiences. She notes that the bar has been a Bywater fixture for over 50 years. Key to BJ’s enduring character is its inclusiveness. It’s a neighborhood spot where anyone is welcome and drink prices are affordable.
“A little booze helps one to relax, to achieve that in-between dreamy state,” Grue said. “That’s what poetry is as well.”
Still, not all writers drink alcohol. Both Burns and the Blood Jet fiction liaison Tom Andes are decidedly sober.
“In other places, I’d be running this series in a coffee shop,” Burns said. “Here bars are our coffee shops.”
For his part, Andes said alcohol isn’t essential for bars to serve as literary spaces.
“I think it hearkens back to the idea of the bar not necessarily as a watering hole but as a communal space, a part of the public life we share, which is so much a part of culture in New Orleans. My parents are regular attendees, in fact, and they don’t drink. They sit there and knit.”