Finding Poetry in the Stream of Life

Nicole Cooley grew up in Jefferson Parish, New Orleans, two blocks from the Mississippi River. When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, she watched the news in horror from her house in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, as her beloved city was flooded, trapping thousands of people, including her parents.

“My parents thought they could leave after the storm, but the city was locked down,” says Cooley, founding director of the MFA program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College where she’s been a professor of English since 1999. “It was very hard to deal with their decision” to delay leaving, “so I started ripping out articles from newspapers and scribbling my notes and it was a way of coping with and thinking about the experience. I was collecting information, but I wasn’t sure why.”

Cooley used her notes as well as what she learned on her trips back to the city to write her third book, Breach, a collection of 30 poems inspired by the events of Katrina and published in April 2010. In the poem “Evacuation,” she writes about her parents, Peter and Jacki Cooley and their refusal to leave the city before the hurricane, and how it took her three days to finally reach them.

“I felt that it was my responsibility, as a person who grew up in New Orleans, to write this book,” says Cooley, whose first book, Resurrection, won the 1995 Walt Whitman Award, and second book, The Afflicted Girls, was named one of the best poetry books of 2004 by Library Journal.

“Katrina is fading from the collective imagination in scary ways,” says Cooley. “I found that people involved in Katrina want to talk and that many people in the Gulf Coast feel forgotten.”