When writer and literary salon organizer Cate Root moved to New Orleans in 2006 from Kansas City, she was fascinated by the ways in which Hurricane Katrina had changed the landscape of storytelling in the city. “Katrina changed a lot of perceptions about truth and story,” she says. “There were all of these wild stories because New Orleans is both a very rich and a very poor city, so the stories coming out of this strange disaster reflected multiple realities.”
A graduate of the UNO Creative Writing MFA program, Root has taken the road less traveled in planting her literary roots in the Crescent City. She has worked in the banking industry and as a community calendar editor for the Times-Picayune. Today she works as a legal secretary (a profession she states values “intelligent people”) where she has the free time to be the creative writer she wants to be.
If you wanted to find Root and other writers, you can find them at Dogfish – a monthly reading series with featured authors and an open mic lottery where writers are able to share their work for five minutes with a captive audience. The modern-day literary salon came about after Cate was laid off from her position as calendar editor at the Times-Picayune.
“My job was to tell people what was going on in the community, and I felt good connecting people,” she said. “There are people looking for connection and I can help them find it. There are lonely people in the world, so there needs to be poetry reading and things like that. I had met Jessica Kinnison, another writer, and we were in a writing group together when she decided to host this series in a house she had just bought.”
These days, Dogfish has grown to fill a packed house. Featured writers from all over the country fly in to get eyes and ears tuned in to their work. “We can’t offer them money, but we can offer them attention,” Root said. Admission is free. Snacks and drinks are provided, and Cate stresses the importance of the laid-back atmosphere.
“I always tell people you can interact at Dogfish however you want,” Root said, “People wouldn’t be upset if you didn’t want to interact much or you can go there and talk to someone and make a new friend.”
In addition to making guests feel welcome, Cate is proud of the diversity and inclusiveness going on at Dogfish.
“When I started reading poetry in New Orleans in 2008/09, I was struck by how segregated it was – there were very distinctly white rooms and black rooms, and I think some parts of it are still true,” Root said. “We have tried by booking diverse people; we welcome all people; we invite them to sign up for the open mic, invite them back. It will not turn into a stuffy library. One of the things for accessibility is the open mic as a lottery – if it’s an open mic you can’t say no, but you can encourage people to put their name on the list. It upset me only after we fixed the problem [of people signing themselves up over and over] how cliquish and unwelcoming it could have been. I am really proud of our diversity of features, of the crowds, the fact we are half new people every time – all of these are very important to me.”
Root’s knack for connecting people in the community is serving her well in her volunteer campaign efforts for Marguerite Green who is running for Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry.
When asked about how students in the current MFA in creative writing program at UNO can capitalize on their experience, Cate says: “Be kind to your colleagues – they are by far the best thing that you can get out of this program – relationships with people who care about you and know your work and want you to succeed as much as they want to. Writing can feel very lonely but it can also be a community.”
On top of producing Dogfish events and rallying behind political candidates, Cate is working on a book she calls “ a mix of essays, poetry, letters about desire and essentially the ways we have scripts about how desire is supposed to work that come from society even if we explicitly don’t believe in them.”
Dogfish is run by Root, Jessica Kinnison, Alex Jennings and Taylor Murrow. Their next event will be held at 7 p.m. Oct. 17 at their regular location, 2448 N Villere Street. (From UNO take the 55 bus to Elysian Fields at North Villere). Follow Cate on Twitter @cateroot. For more information on Dogfish, visit www.dogfishneworleans.com.
Photo courtesy of Cate Root