Chris Hannan, Louisiana Poet

Born and raised in New Orleans, Chris Hannan is a 2004 graduate of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts where he received a bachelor of arts in the Classics, and a 2008 graduate of the the Loyola University, New Orleans, College of Law, where he served as Editor-in-Chief of the Loyola Law Review.  His poetry has appeared in the Magnolia Quarterly, The Classical Outlook, Towncreek Poetry, The Southern Poetry Anthology, and is forthcoming in The Texas Review and The Connecticut Review.  He was awarded First Prize in the 2004 Gulf Coast Writers’ Association’s annual Let’s Write contest for his poem “Pointing to the Brain,” and was the runner-up in the 2010 Faulkner-Wisdom Poetry Competition for his poem “Epithalamion.”   Most recently, Chris won the Grand Prize in the 2012 Tennessee Williams Festival Poetry Contest for his cycle of poems entitled “The Nephilim.”

Chris is currently an attorney in the New Orleans offices of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell and Berkowitz.  He and his wife Emily live in Mid-City, New Orleans, with their son Jack William and two cats.

Chris was interviewed by Laura Richardson for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

Laura Richardson: One of your poems, “Leadbelly,” that we published in this issue is a surprising mix of American song form and Greek mythology. What inspired this poem?

Chris Hannan: Growing up in New Orleans with music loving parents, I was constantly surrounded by the rich musical heritage of the city and the region. A part of this musical culture that always intrigued me, even as a child, was the immense mythology of Louisiana music, peopled by characters such as John Henry, Stag O’Lee, and countless others. These mythic personalities stuck with me throughout my youth and into my college days when I majored in the Classics. At some point, I realized that the music I had grown up with and still listened to was the mythology of America, or at least the Deep South. All the characters whose stories were told over and over again by Leadbelly, Professor Longhair, and a myriad of other local musicians were simply reincarnations of the archetypes sung of by Homer, Pindar, and Hesiod. With this realization of the motific importance of the familiar songs of my youth, I started working on a series of poems that connect the mythic characters of Louisiana’s musical heritage with the myths of ancient Greece.

The point of connecting the ancient myths with the modern is to emphasize that, while the characters have changed their faces and names, the underlying meaning of their stories is the same. Or, if not the same, still  relevant in new and potentially unexpected ways in our modern times.

In terms of form, the poems approximate the basic meters and rhyme schemes of the original songs on which they are based. This use of song forms is meant to mimic the ancient tradition, best exemplified in the odes of Pindar, of adhering to established forms while simultaneously reinterpreting well-known myths.

LR: How do you decide on your character pairings, for example, in this poem, Leadbelly and Tanatalus? What are some of your other pairings?

CH: I try to match the songs with myths that involve similar symbols, themes, or plot elements.  For example, the song “Midnight Special” (the basis for my poem “Leadbelly”) talks in the beginning about the monotony of prison food; this evoked for me the myth of Tantalus, who was condemned in Tartarus to eternal hunger and thirst – with food and water just beyond his reach – after he tricked the gods into eating the flesh of his own son.  As another example, my poem “Junco Partner” – after the Professor Longhair song about a sort of anti-hero drunkard – incorporates aspects of the myths of Dionysus, the god of wine.  Other pairings include the myth of Jason and Medea with the song “Frankie and Johnie,” the myth of Prometheus with the song “John Henry,” and the myth of Penelope and Odysses with the song “Little Liza Jane.”

LR: You recently won the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival 2012 poetry contest. Would you talk a little about that work?

CH: I was very humbled to be selected as the grand prize winner in the Tennessee Williams contest – in particular because of the nature of the poems that won.  The winning five-poem cycle is entitled “The Nephilim” and it tells the story of the gutting of my grandmother’s house in Chalmette, Louisiana (just south and east of New Orleans in St. Bernard Parish) after Hurricane Katrina, and our search for her wedding ring that she had left behind when she evacuated.  The best part of the whole experience was that my grandmother was able to attend the reading that I gave as part of the festival.  The poems are published in the current issue of Louisiana Cultural Vistas (the journal of the Louisiana endowment for the humanities), which is available in print and online at http://www.leh.org/html/lcv.html.

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