Lit in the Age of COVID: CoogSlam

First off, I’d like to share some cheer with a belated Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms of the world. You change the world, moms—don’t ever forget it.

As we all continue to adjust to life in the COVID-19 era, I wanted to include in this blog some of the ways Houston has been rising to the occasion to work its literary magic. This month, I will be writing about three different spaces and organizations that have been adapting their programs and events for the virtual world.

Today I’ll focus on the University of Houston’s CoogSlam—the name is a nod to the university mascot, the cougar, and slam poetry. The group is less than three years old and has already garnered national attention with its slam team for the collegiate competition known as CUPSI, the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational.

Before the University of Houston made the decision to keep its doors closed for the rest of the spring semester, CoogSlam was hosting writing workshops and a weekly slam and now, they have seamlessly adapted to the virtual world and continued their work. CoogSlam offers writing workshops on Wednesdays and has an open mic on Saturdays, all online. Writers and spectators can join from a link to a Google form available on their Instagram page, @uhcoogslam. The rest is a purely, magical experience. Just this past week, CoogSlam hosted an open mic featuring the talented Ryan McMasters, and from what I have heard it was stupendous. I can’t wait to see who is featured next.

You can also follow CoogSlam on Twitter, @uhcoogslam, for their latest news and events. They are doing big things and representing the city in such a humble and honest way. It is a delight to see what they do.

Participants in a recent online CoogSlam writing workshop.
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.

Poet of the Spirit: Sunni Patterson

To conclude my Black History Month themed posts, I interviewed poet Sunni Patterson. Patterson was instrumental in giving voice to New Orleans through her poetry after Hurricane Katrina. The performance of her poem “We Made It” on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam has over six hundred thousand views on YouTube. In many ways Patterson has become the face of New Orleans spoken word.

How has New Orleans shaped your poetry?
When you’re born and raised in New Orleans, you can’t help but have poetry in your bones. Even if you don’t know what it is, or what to call it, it’s there. From the way a story is told, the sayings, the anecdotes—all of it shapes my artistry. I know the music, air, culture, thickness of the city contributes to the sound of my poems.

Take us back to your appearance on Def Poetry Jam in 2007, what was that moment like for you?
I was asked to do it years before that performance. For some reason, I didn’t want to do it. Fast forward to after Hurricane Katrina. I’d just finished speaking at the University of Houston when I got the call from producers. I agreed immediately! I knew my voice and point of view about Hurricane Katrina and its impact on the city and residents needed to be heard.

I had no clothes after Katrina. A box of clothing from a church in Houston was sent to me. Most of the things I didn’t keep. I kept a crop top. I already had some denim material I wanted to use. I was leaving the next day, I called Mama Rukiya, she sewed something quickly with mudcloth and made detachable sleeves. Chile, I was sewing myself into the dress until it was time to go on stage! The needle and thread were still in the seams. It was a great experience.

Who are some of your poetry influences?
Ayi Kwei Armah, Lucille Clifton, Jayne Cortez, Neville Goddard, Zora Neale Hurston, Acklyn Lynch, Brenda Marie Osbey, Arturo Pfister, Rumi, Kalamu ya Salaam, Mona Lisa Saloy, and Sonia Sanchez.

What message do you have for the future writers of New Orleans?
My hope for the next generation of writers is to have hope. To hold the light. To honor the ancestors, elders, culture, children, and spirit of the city, but most importantly, to do the ugly, yet necessary, work of the heart. Those are the things that’ll keep them and us alive.

Sunni Patterson. (Credit: Gus Bennett, Jr. / 2016 New Orleans People Project)
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.

Tsunami Rising

Caption: 

“Black women are crafting a collective response / to centuries of being under everybody’s water / We are a rising tsunami of fury come back / to take back what was carried away/without consent....” Staceyann Chin reads “Tsunami Rising” from her debut poetry collection, Crossfire: A Litany for Survival (Haymarket Books, 2019), for the Unbound series in Brooklyn, copresented by BAM and Greenlight Bookstore.

Growing in Writing: Part Two

In part two of my conversation with poet Deonte Osayande, I want to highlight his role in helping other writers share their work on stages in Detroit. Deonte was one of the first writers to introduce me to the Readings & Workshops program and the mini-grants offered to poets and writers. As an independent artist, Deonte was able to receive funding through the R&W program for his reading appearances and for leading writing workshops. As a series curator, Deonte has applied for, and received, a number of mini-grants for writers that he has invited to take part in events. Together we ran the Detroit slam series known as Freshwater Wordsmiths, which was first awarded funding from the R&W program in 2015.

Deonte says that he discovered the mini-grants from a peer and thought it would help the Freshwater Wordsmiths series grow. “I wanted a better way to pay people to come and perform for us, and I found it as an excellent way to recruit incoming writers,” says Deonte. The ability to fund writers in this way allowed Deonte to invite many who had never been to the Midwest before. Some of the writers who shared their work at Freshwater Wordsmiths and were funded through the R&W program include Troy Cunio, Safia Elhillo, Joel Greene, Robert Lashley, Ed Mabrey, Hieu Minh Nguyen, and Paul Tran.

In turn, local writers and fans of the literary arts in Detroit have been able to experience and build connections with writers from around the country. The ability to receive funding for writers also allows small venues in the city to lure traveling artists to their events even if the backing of a large university or organization is not present.

Interest in the literary world has expanded among the local writers who have been to reading series such as Freshwater Wordsmiths, and the many series that have been established in Detroit since the series closed. Through this support system, we are building community and sharing inspiration for our writing.

Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.

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