An English professor and folklorist at a historically Black private university in New Orleans will become Louisiana’s poet laureate on Saturday
“It is such an honor to represent my home state. It is something I never thought would happen,” Dillard University professor Mona Lisa Saloy said in an interview Tuesday, after Gov. John Bel Edwards and the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities announced her appointment. She succeeds John Warner Smith, who was on the endowment’s nominating panel.
“Dr. Mona Lisa Saloy beautifully captures the culture and essence of Louisiana in her mesmerizing poetry,” Edwards said in a news release. “She understands the importance of using art to preserve our stories and pass them down for generations.”
Saloy has taught at Dillard since 1991, working in the city where she grew up.
Her students have included Jericho Brown, who won last year’s Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
“He would laugh. He would pen me what he thought was trash but I could see the gems. I hope I encouraged him to believe in his creativity,” Saloy said. “And he took off. He was going to be a lawyer. I asked him, ‘What are you going to do with this gift?’ It was unmistakable and moving.”
Saloy also has brought in major grants for and expanded Dillard’s English and creative writing programs, according to the news release.
Saloy had to demolish the house where she was born after Hurricane Katrina drowned it in 2005. Floodwaters destroyed thousands of books as well as unpublished manuscripts and research.
She wrote about some of what she found after the hurricane in the opening of the poem “New Orleans, a Neighborhood Nation:”
“Possums sleep, middle of the road sometimes,
Invade soggy walls after hurricanes dump heavy rains,
Hide in clothes closets and eat through my canvas book bags
Must taste like peanut butter and strawberry jam, the
Pages of wisdom spread like confetti on the floor.”
It was published in “Second Line Home,” the second of her two poetry collections. Like the first, “Red Beans and Ricely Yours,” it was published by Truman State University Press, which announced in 2017 that it would close and did so this spring.
That announcement felt at first like another Katrina, Saloy said. “But they are taking care of us,” she added. “Our books will be available as reprints.”
But she needs to find a new publisher for her recently completed third collection and for a book of essays.
She will travel the state for two years as Louisiana’s literary ambassador.
“I’ll be encouraging people to tell their stories in verse. Especially our unique cultures. We have so many,” she said. “I want our state to revere our ancestors and reveal those nuances.
”Hopefully I’ll engage people with loving poetry — Louisiana culture’s loving words.”