COVID Vivid Interview: Melissa Studdard

Hey mi gente, I want to jump right in and continue with the interviews I’ve been able to hold with local Houston writers about life during the pandemic. For this series, I reached out to writers and posed one simple question:

What have you been doing since the pandemic started?

This series began with insights from Katie Hoerth and Daniel Peña, and this week, I bring you poet Melissa Studdard. Studdard is the author of five books and the recipient of the 2019 Penn Review Poetry Prize and the 2019 Tom Howard/Margaret Reid Poetry Contest sponsored by Winning Writers. Her works include the poetry collection, I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast (Saint Julian Press, 2014), and the poetry chapbook, Like a Bird With a Thousand Wings (Saint Julian Press, 2020). Her writing has been published in the New York Times, POETRY, Kenyon Review, and the Guardian.

Here is what Melissa had to say:

“Like so many others, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get my head around what’s happening. Kelli Russell Agodon and I have been coauthoring poems five days a week that grapple with this new life we’re living and how suddenly it was thrust upon us. As well, I pen a daily poem for the Grind. Outside of writing, I’ve been cooking, gardening, spending a lot of time with my kid, and reading. In some ways, it feels like everything has changed, and in others, it feels like nothing has changed. I still do a lot of the same things, but differently. Whereas before I was a little more solitary and introspective, now I seek connection in everything. When I read, I read to understand, as deeply as possible, other humans. When I garden, I want to know the tomato, feel the basil, be the soil. The pandemic has forced me to slow down and see things I looked past before. Everything feels so fragile now; I want to take great care with it all. I don’t want to take anything for granted.

I have also been collaborating with a composer friend, Christopher Theofanidis, with whom I recently released a chapbook of my poems and fragments of his musical scores called Like a Bird With a Thousand Wings. The musical scores are from his composition “The Conference of the Birds,” which is based on Attar’s allegorical poem by the same title. All the release performances and activities were cancelled, so we’ve been doing limited virtual events instead, and we’ve begun work on an oratorio based on Hesse’s Siddhartha. In addition to my own writing, I’ve been trying to support other writers. Among other small gestures, I’ve held some monthly drawings on Twitter to give writers money for contest entry fees. I had the good luck of winning several contests recently, and I was thinking about how there are a lot of writers who should be placing in and winning contests but can’t afford to participate. I wanted to spend some of my winnings to help them enter contests because I think it’s important right now to find ways to make and give joy, and to create things for ourselves and others to look forward to.”

Photo: Melissa Studdard.
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.

COVID Vivid Interview: Daniel Peña

Hey mi gente, wishing you the best in this crazy time we’re living in. Here in Texas, smaller rural spaces and larger metro spaces are in heated battles as to what is appropriate for a “restart” as cities begin to open their businesses back up. Every day is an interesting day here in Houston. Despite the difficulties of this pandemic life, the literary world has been doing brilliant work and touching base with writers in ways it hasn’t done so before. So with this in mind, I wanted to continue conversations with writers here in the city and ask how they have been spending their time during stay-at-home orders. For this series, I reached out to writers and posed one simple question:

What have you been doing since the pandemic started?

This series started off with Katherine Hoerth and this week, we continue with Daniel Peña. A Pushcart Prize–winning writer, Peña is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Houston–Downtown and the author of the novel, Bang (ArtePublico Press, 2018).

Here is what Daniel had to say:

“I’ve been teaching a lot. Transitioning all of my classes online has been time-consuming but I’ve been grateful for the distraction. I record podcasts for all of my classes (Mexican-American Literature, Creative Writing, and Literary Magazine Production) so my students can get to the lessons asynchronously (meaning on their own time).

So many of my students are on the front line of this pandemic: delivery drivers, grocery store workers, EMS medics working twelve-hour shifts. I read them poems, stories, essays and talk about those readings with them, almost like a radio show or something. They can listen to it when they’re driving on their way to work or in those splices of moments between moments. Hit pause, hit play, hit pause again. I try to make each lesson a kind of artifact: heavily produced with bumper music, a monologue, a volta, some trivia, sometimes a rant. I try to mimic class more or less. And mostly, I’m just trying to keep them in the game, correspond with them when they’re free. And that’ll take up about two months of time if you get carried away with it (and I do).

I go to my home office in the morning, I record my lessons, I read the readings for the next class in the evenings, I write out the podcast longhand, and then I record that lesson the next day. I try to stay about two weeks ahead in case I get sick.

I get a little writing done when I can. I can’t wait to get back into my own writing this summer.”

Check back next week for the next writer!

Photo: Daniel Peña. (Credit: Paula N. Luu)
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.

COVID Vivid Interview: Katherine Hoerth

Hey mi gente, glad you could stop in for a little post about what’s been happening here in Houston. Summer is here and I wanted to take a moment to talk to some writers in my city and see how they have been spending their time during the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For this series of posts, I posed one simple question to these writers:

What have you been doing since the pandemic started?

So first off, we begin with Katherine Hoerth. The author of several poetry collections, including Goddess Wears Cowboy Boots, which won the Helen C. Smith Prize for the best book of poetry in Texas in 2015, Hoerth is an assistant professor of English at Lamar University and serves as editor-in-chief of Lamar University Literary Press. This fall, her collaborative poetry collection Borderland Mujeres will be published by SFA Press. The book is a bilingual collection of feminist poetry and art created with poet Julieta Corpus and artist Corinne McCormack-Whittemore.

Here is Hoerth’s response:

“When the pandemic started, I was just getting off for my spring break; I never would have imagined what would unfold in the coming weeks and months, and that I would never see many of my graduating students again. Alas, I have been hunkered down at home with my cats but in good health and spirits, and I've been writing new poetry, Zooming with students, workshopping online, and participating in virtual poetry readings such as Houston’s Public Poetry reading series to share my latest poems. For National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo), I participated in the 30/30 challenge to write a poem a day on my blog, and I felt compelled to write about the pandemic just as a means of recording the experience. Two of my pandemic poems have found homes in TEJASCOVIDO, a blog curated by Angelo State University English professor Laurence Musgrove. Thankfully, I am still able to work remotely for Lamar University Literary Press, and my coeditor Daniel Valdez and I will be spending much of the summer putting together a new anthology of eco-poetry from the Texas Gulf Coast titled Odes and Elegies. What I miss most dearly is attending poetry readings in person—I long for the camaraderie of my fellow Southeast Texas poets, and I look forward to the day when we can share a mic once again.”

Katherine Hoerth with her cats. (Credit: Katherine Hoerth)
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.

Lit in the Age of COVID: Writers in the Schools

This month I’ve been covering the way Houston has been rising to the occasion to support the literary scene during the COVID-19 pandemic. So far, I have written about the University of Houston’s CoogSlam, gave some love to Casa Ramirez Folkart Gallery, and today I want to focus on what’s going on for youth at Writers in the Schools (WITS).

In a previous post I briefly mentioned what WITS is doing for K–5 grade students, but I wanted to hammer down exactly what this looks like. WITS is a nonprofit organization that focuses on providing K–12 grade students an opportunity to work with established writers with the goal of creating their own published works in fiction or poetry. This is done through in-class workshops and writing time with mentors. Up until the pandemic, WITS was leading the way with creative writing workshops led by published writers in over seventy schools across the Houston area. With schools shut down and no announcements as to when students will be back on campus, WITS quickly readjusted how they work and shifted to creating content with virtual learning in mind.

Now kids in Houston, and anywhere in the world online, have access to Quick WITS, fifteen-minute mini-writing sessions recorded and hosted by a variety of Houston-based poets, writers, and filmmakers. The videos offer a lesson and questions for reflection, along with a writing prompt or activity. The mini-workshop videos are free and are just the right amount of time to get kids writing creatively. There are also Spanish-language lessons, and this is major here in Houston where over 55 percent of students in the area come from Spanish-speaking homes.

If you have a student in your house, come let them explore what Writers in the Schools has to offer. Students can also share their writing with WITS via e-mail or on social media using #QuickWITS.

A Spanish-language lesson from the Quick WITS series.
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.

Lit in the Age of COVID: Casa Ramirez Folkart Gallery

Last week I started off a series of posts featuring some of the ways the Houston literary world has been rising to the occasion with innovation and community in mind during the pandemic. I covered University of Houston’s CoogSlam, and this week I want to give some love to Casa Ramirez Folkart Gallery.

I’ve mentioned Casa Ramirez before which makes them being on this list maybe a little overindulgent but if you are like me, you celebrate your elders when they keep things fresh. Casa Ramirez is doing just that. For the most part, Casa Ramirez is like any staple small business here in Houston, but what makes this space unique is that the couple in charge, Macario Ramirez and Chrissie Dickerson Ramirez, are good luck charms for every Latino in the city.

If you are an artist or writer, fan or hobbyist, Casa Ramirez is like a shrine. If you have a literary event there, having your book in their shop makes it destined for success. I have seen it with my own two eyes. It might be a “folk art” gallery, but don’t let the Ramirezes fool you—they are book lovers and carry an extensive bookstore inside the shop with all the texts to build up an ethnic studies library in Latinx lit.

That said, the stay-at-home orders in Houston have been devastating to businesses and now that Texas has chosen to slowly open up this month, so has Casa Ramirez—but with new safety measures. The shop has created a “retail-to-go” shopping experience: Patrons get to peruse all the art and books with a “curator” by their side to answer questions and make recommendations. Only one person, one couple, or one family is allowed in the shop at a time and you must wear a mask (employees also wear masks). You have access to the whole bookstore and gallery area for thirty to forty minutes, buy what you want and then, boom, you are out the door. The shop has limited hours from noon to 4:00 PM every day.

From what I have heard, they’ve had a line a block long every day. Leave it to Casa Ramirez to lead the way. Check out their Facebook page and their Instagram, @casaramirezfolkartgallery, to see what they have going on.

Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.

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.

Five Things to Do Online to Help Catch Your Breath

As we enter into a new month of the coronavirus pandemic, we are in a new phase of transition as some states are reopening businesses and outdoor spaces. In Houston, there are some restaurants open with limited capacity and the Galleria mall even opened with limited hours. All this change can leave us feeling turned around and unsure. But one thing is for sure, the literary community is here for us and there are plenty of things to do online to keep us busy and provide some calm in these times.

Here is my countdown of five Houston-based virtual literary activities for you:

5. Feel like listening to a literary podcast? No sweat. Ink Well: A Tintero Projects & Inprint Podcast just released three new episodes (one with Carolyn Forché), all recorded just before the lockdown.

4. Have kids at home and you want them to get into some writing? Check out Writers In the Schools’ website for Quick WITS, fifteen-minute mini-workshops for K-5 grade students.

3. Want to check out some readings by some of your favorite authors? Head over to Inprint where they keep a full collection of readings from both the Margarett Root Brown and Cool Brains! Inprint Readings for Young People series.

2. Do you want to hear from authors in Spanish? Then check out Literal magazine’s YouTube channel, where they keep a series of interviews with writers from Mexico, Central America, and South America.

1. Lastly, make sure you register for Glass Mountain’s Strikethrough, a four-day virtual writing workshop for emerging writers from May 25 to 28, which is in lieu of their annual Boldface writing conference.

Enjoy and let me know what caught your attention. Hit me up on Twitter, @houstonpworg.

Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.

The Houses on My Block: Calypso Editions

Hey, mi gente. I want to get right to the point and keep up the flow of discussion on the publishing houses here in Houston. Throughout the month I’ve written about Arte Público Press, Mutabilis Press, and Bloomsday Literary, so I’ll keep it going today and introduce you to Calypso Editions.

Calypso Editions is the city’s main publishing house focused on translation—getting books written by foreign authors into English. In addition, they publish books of poetry and fiction written in English and are committed to “providing a space for talented, new voices.” One of the main things that has always caught my attention about Calypso Editions is that it is a cooperative! That’s right—it is a nonprofit press that is artist-run, which makes their publishing choices all the more engaging and remarkable.

They are also a community-oriented publishing house. Back in 2017, when PEN America planned out the Writers Resist reading in New York City, Calypso Editions was one of the first organizations that was willing to stand with Houston writers as we planned our own Writers Resist events.

On May 1, Calypso Editions will release The Child Who, a book by Jeanne Benameur, translated from the French by Bill Johnston. This work of poetic prose explores the worlds of a young boy whose mother has disappeared, his father, and the boy’s grandmother. As always, Calypso Editions hopes to introduce yet another wonderful voice to a new audience of English-language readers.

Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.

The Houses on My Block: Bloomsday Literary

I keep reading about independent bookstores closing due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and I’ve also been thinking about the state of small presses during this time. With this in mind, I am glad to have the opportunity in this blog to present to you more of the publishing houses that make Houston tick.

I started the month by featuring Arte Público Press and Mutabilis Press, so I’ll keep it going and introduce you to the rookie on the block, Bloomsday Literary.

Bloomsday was established just about five years ago, and in that short time they have made a strong mark on the publishing world. Their latest publications include former Houston poet laureate Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton’s Newsworthy and Jabari Asim’s Stop & Frisk: American Poems, both hard-hitting books on contemporary themes that we need in this day and age.

On top of publishing amazing works of literature, Bloomsday hosts and runs F***ing Shakespeare, a podcast series where they talk all things literary with writers from all over the country. The podcast is a refreshing way to advocate for writing, interview authors, and highlight the work of wonderful writers like recent guests Jericho Brown, Edan Lepucki, and Phong Nguyen. I secretly want them to invite me to be a guest!

Coowners Kate Martin Williams and Jessica Cole, along with chief creative officer Phuc Luu run Bloomsday and they are delightful folks. They are always on the literary scene around these parts hunting around for the next writer to make shine bright.

Get your hands on their books and listen to their podcast interviews archived on their website.

Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.

The Houses on My Block: Mutabilis Press

Last week I started highlighting the publishing houses here in Houston by looking at Arte Público Press. Today I want to write about Mutabilis Press. This nonprofit literary press is all about supporting the poetry world, especially poets in the greater Houston area.

The press was founded in 2003 by poet and artist Carolyn Tourney Florek and is a great source of literary work, including first books from some of the best poets that Houston has to offer. I personally own Why Me? (Mutabilis Press, 2009), the debut collection of poetry by Inprint founder Rich Levy, and it’s a great collection. Mutabilis also publishes poetry anthologies and makes it a point to find ways to gather as many Houston area poets as possible to write on a variety of themes. Their latest anthology, Enchantment of the Ordinary, edited by Galveston poet and dear friend of mine John Gorman, collects poems from Houston area authors with a connection to the state of Texas. I love the idea behind this anthology.

It is a blessing to be able to thumb through the anthologies and poetry collections published by Mutabilis and find the names and words of poets who I call friend. If you have the means to support this wonderful press, please take a look at their catalog and order books from them directly or from your local independent bookstore. Either way your purchase helps keep the lights on for these publishing houses.

Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.

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