Writer finds solitude, community in NOLA
"Hooked is not the right word, and neither is trapped … but rather I’m yanked against some invisible line which keeps me tethered to this very special, very troubled place, no matter how many times I have tried to leave, or been forced to, as with Katrina. It is a confusing and cyclical masochism I invite, deny, and heal. The pleasures here are so sweet and unique, matched by pains dark, deep, and frustrating. A most unsettling place to settle."
- Julia Carey, January’s Curator for Nola Studiola, on her relationship to her adopted city
In June of 2012, Alison Barker left her teaching job at LSU. She knew she needed a change … but that’s about it.
“I honestly didn’t know what I was going to do,” said Barker. “I couldn’t find a job, I didn’t want to go back to the full-time teaching thing, and I just really wanted to finish the first draft of a novel I’d been working on for about five years.”
When a friend offered up her New Orleans apartment for the summer, Barker at least felt like she had a destination.
Until then, the native of the Washington D.C. area had only "flitted and hovered" around New Orleans, hesitant to fully dive into a city that had exerted an emotional pull on Barker since childhood.
“My late dad was a jazz drummer, and he took every opportunity to come down here,” said Barker. “My first love, my first heartbreak was also a man from New Orleans.”
So she moved all of her belongings into a storage unit and hunkered down by herself in New Orleans to get to work.
“I was kind of trying to do this really fine line of finding that solitude that we hear romanticized all the time about cranking out writing,” she said, “but on the other hand knowing I really wanted to be a part of some sort of community building among other writers.”
The Internet proved to be a useful tool, allowing Barker to reach out when she wanted to escape the solitude of her work. She began interviewing other artists about their work and processes, and these correspondences became the initial incarnation of her Nola Studiola blog.
("'Studiola' is a play on the Italian 'studiolo'," wrote Barker. “Renaissance men of nobility had studiolos -- little hiding places set apart from the grand foyers and busy meeting rooms filled with the bustle and pomp of daily life. When need be, men of means ensconced themselves in studiolos, which were filled with their books and treasures.”)
After eight weeks of productive work, Barker relinquished her New Orleans apartment and went to Denver to stay with friends and family, temporarily ceasing Nola Studiola. But it was that time out west, Barker said, that helped her realize New Orleans is where she wants to be. It didn’t hurt that she met and fell in love with a commercial diver from Morgan City, and the two moved to New Orleans together. (Barker’s mother also decided to retire and move to New Orleans, and Barker said the two argue over who decided to settle in New Orleans first.)
Barker now lives in Algiers Point, and Nola Studiola is back, this time as Nola Studiola Redux: a Collaborative Curatorial Project in which different thinkers curate a month of the Studiola, and navigate the balancing act of community and solitude in their own unique ways.
The only real rules are that Barker asks each curator to create a statement of intent and to incorporate any current projects into the blog. She also asks each curator to address food in some way and some point during their time.
“When I did it for that month, it was to look at specifically what it means to be an insider versus an outsider here in new Orleans,” said writer Julia Carey, January’s curator. “The novel that I’m writing was central to this ‘what does it mean to belong here’ and not feel like you belong here at the same time, because that’s the struggle of my main character, so I spent a lot of time thinking about that -- that’s why all of the posts come back to that."
The dialog of Studiola definitely helped Carey.
“I suppose this is something that every writer says; you don’t know what you think until you actually get it down on paper so being forced and cornered to process a lot of that was incredibly beneficial.”
But what or how much to share isn’t always easy to figure out.
“I was self-conscious because I’d never blogged before, I’d never put anything personal out on the internet like that,” said Carey, “so I had to get over a little bit of that, like how personal do I go, how personal do people want to hear about, and there’s a very fine line between what it is you’re thinking and what it is you’re writing and then actually what it is you’re living and so I had to spend a lot of time negotiating those boundaries,
“But now that I’m on the other side of it, I’m pretty proud of what I put out there, although I find that I have a lot more to say, and that is a heartening feeling to know that there’s more there and that I have more to say about it, because that’s going to be good for my writing project.”
While New Orleans is clearly the base for Nola Studiola, Barker sees the blog as more of a beacon to send and receive input from around the country.
“My idea was for it to constantly be like New Orleans and then pop out to an artist and a community that’s outside of new Orleans, so that it’s constantly switching -- in New Orleans, out of new Orleans -- so that it’s this constant feeling of being a part of a bigger community."
“It’s the same idea of the whole solitude and also needing community thing where it’s really important to be a part of the community where you actually are, but let’s try to constantly send creative energy out to see what other people are doing, so other people know about us.”
This month’s curators, for example, are a collaboration of Loren Erdrich, a Brooklyn-based visual artist, and Seattle-based poet Sierra Nelson.
“It’s the coolest thing,” Barker said. “They started by publishing a book together, a choose your own picture book called I’ll Take Back the Sponge Cake, and now they answer back and forth between visual and video -- they talk to each other through images, video, and poetry on the blog. It’s definitely the direction we want to go to kind of expand from the writers only kind of feeling.”
Nola Studiola is looking for all shapes and sizes of artists to curate, said Barker. To learn more, visit the site at www.nolastudiola.com.
Alison Barker’s work has appeared in Switchback, Monkeybicycle, Fwriction: Review, Ravenna Press’ Anemone Sidecar, Front Porch, Columbia Journal of Art and Literature, dislocate. Fiction, nonfiction, and theater reviews appear in Bitch, Paste Magazine, Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Reader, Rain Taxi, Bookslut, and Los Angeles Review of Books.
Julia Carey’s work can be found in the journals Mason’s Road and Tiferet Journal, as well as the anthologies Louisiana in Words and New Orleans: What Can’t Be Lost. A winner of the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Prize in Poetry, she was also nominated to the AWP Intro Journals Project and a finalist in the Bellingham Review’s recent Tobias Wolfe Fiction prize. Along with teaching in the English Department at Xavier University, she slings drinks at the Delachaise wine bar on St. Charles Avenue and cultivates her toddler’s love of books.
Brian Friedman writes about New Orleans for NolaVie.