LU professor reflects on causes, effects of Hurricane Harvey in new poetry collection

When English professor and poet Katherine Hoerth moved to Nederland, something was brewing in the Atlantic — far from the shores of the Gulf Coast where each year, a handful of hurricanes are projected to make landfall. Each name evokes an emotion, a memory, a feeling of something lost — Rita, Ike, Imelda, Laura and others. But none gnaw at the deep knot of our center quite like Hurricane Harvey, which made landfall on Aug. 17, 2017 — just two weeks after Hoerth moved to the area.

‘In the middle of this hurricane, / it’s hard to think of anyone
but Noah / as the weatherman says Biblical / proportions.’

Five years after the torrential tempest devastated Southeast Texas, the professor and poet has published “Flare Stacks in Full Bloom,” an eco-feminist collection of poetry that explores the causes and effects of Hurricane Harvey — the personal, the communal and the universal. They are poems, she said, about the natural beauty of our landscape here in Southeast Texas, the strange beauty of the industrial landscapes and the tenuousness of life on the Gulf Coast.

‘Everybody knows that story / ends with parting clouds, a snowy dove, / an olive branch extended to the world, / the symbol of a promise that tomorrow / Beaumont will emerge a sparkling city, / clean of all its sins and shining new.’

Hoerth said she’s wanted to be a writer since she was a little kid and began writing poetry in her high school years. She would later graduate with a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry from the University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley and she is currently starting her sixth year teaching in the Department of English and Modern Languages at Lamar University.

“Flare Stacks in Full Blooms” is Hoerth’s fourth full-length collection of poetry, with previous book titles including the following: “The Garden Uprooted” (2012), a feminist reimagining of Eve’s life set in south Texas; “Goddess Wears Cowboy Boots” (2014), a feminist retelling of Ovid’s Metamorphoses set in contemporary Texas; and “The Lost Chronicles of Slue Foot Sue” (2018), a feminist retelling of Pecos Bill’s love story with Slue Foot Sue.

Unlike most contemporary poetry, which is free verse and shies away from rhyme, her latest title, “Flare Stacks in Bloom,” features formal poems (lots of sonnets, she stressed) written in blank verse — unrhymed iambic pentameter — and blurs the boundaries between “the urban and the rural, the natural world and civilization, the conventionally beautiful and the conventionally ugly,” Hoerth said, explaining how she conceived the collection’s title. “I needed a title that juxtaposed all of these ideas. I came up with the idea one night while driving home from my night class at Lamar University. I had to pass the refinery to get home and I saw it flaring in the most vivid orange color that reminded me of the crossvine flowers I had growing in my garden. So, that was the title!”

‘I’m not Noah. This is not a story, / but our lives
unfolding on a sheet / of scritta paper.’

Everyone has their own tale of Harvey. It's the kind of storm that elicits lore. When Harvey bloomed into that Category 4 monster, Hoerth was unpacking boxes in her newly-rented Nederland apartment.

“I was terrified of hurricanes, so my husband, Bruno, and I loaded our five cats into the car and drove off just before the floods got too bad to leave,” she said. “It was so scary! We stayed in the Rio Grande Valley, where we were from, for two weeks until the roads opened up again.”

Nederland would have the highest watermark with the highest rainfall total in 24 hours — a record it still holds to this day. “Miraculously, our apartment didn’t flood.”

'Earth returns the water / to the sea. It leaves a
skin of much / a sheen oil, the fetid soup of us.'

The natural and unnatural landscapes of Southeast Texas — namely, the refineries with their smoke and flames that claw at the sky — would come to inspire her to write. One image was engrained in her mind in the aftermath of the storm: the refineries shutting down. Katie Hoerth

“It was so surreal! Those plants are such a constant in our landscape and without their flares and smoke and humming, it felt like it was the end of the world. But then I remember when they started up again and seeing that first flare stack fire up and I felt like there was hope,” Hoerth said. “Before Harvey, I would look at the refineries and plants and think they were ugly and just a scar on the landscape. But after the storm, for me, they took on new meaning. They meant normalcy, security and resilience. And though the plants contribute to climate change, which contributes to hurricanes, the truth is more nuanced than that. So, to reconcile this complexity, I started writing.”

She added that she hopes the collection will broaden readers’ perspectives on the Southeast Texas area.

“I hope this collection will make readers see our region in a new light, whether they’re from Beaumont or elsewhere,” Hoerth said. “I hope it gives folks an appreciation for the sacrifices of the people here, their resilience in the face of disaster and the awesome beauty of our natural landscape.”

‘Here, there are no miracles, just work / to do to bring this city back to life, / to make it gasp for air, create that cough / that clears the lungs of water and debris, / ignite that flare stack so it fills the night, / beckoning all back into the city.’ (“Beaumont, After Harvey" – Katie Hoerth)

The professor and poet noted that this collection of poetry would not have come to fruition without the support and encouragement of Lamar University.

“I wouldn’t have written this book if not for Lamar! I owe the LU community a huge debt of gratitude. I have the best job in the world — I get to teach poetry to talented students! My students inspire me every day to keep writing, to keep growing and to keep learning alongside them,” Hoerth said. “In 2021, I was awarded faculty development leave and I spent much of the year editing and polishing ‘Flare Stacks in Full Bloom’ in preparation for its publication. So, this time was absolutely invaluable. And lastly, my chair Jim Sanderson is so supportive of my writing efforts. As a creative writer himself, he is very encouraging and a great mentor.”

To purchase “Flare Stacks in Full Bloom” or other collections by Hoerth, visit the publisher’s website, Amazon or wherever you purchase books.