How Houston Leads the Way: A Finale

Hey gente, happy summer! This will be my last post on this blog as the literary outreach coordinator in Houston. It’s been a pleasure sharing news and highlights over the last two years, and calling attention to all the ways that Houston is a major literary city. Things are always happening in the Bayou City and here are a few more folks and events to mention.

All the Books
I wanted to take a moment to talk about some Houstonians who have books coming out in the near future. Ayokunle Falomo’s collection AFRICANAMERICAN’T and Tamara Al-Qaisi-Coleman’s collection The Raven, the Bayou and the Willow will be published by FlowerSong Press, due out sometime in 2022. J. Estanislao Lopez’s debut collection, We Borrowed Gentleness, is forthcoming from Alice James Books in October 2022, and lastly (and as a way to welcome a new Houstonian to her new town) I’m happy to share that Ariana Brown’s debut collection, We Are Owed, will be released from Grieveland Press in July.

More Reading
Shout-out to powerhouse essayist Icess Fernandez Rojas as she interrogates and speaks truth to power about the lack of Black representation in Latinx Hollywood and offers an analysis of the new film, In the Heights, in her essay “When They Forget About Us… Again” published in Sofrito For Your Soul.

Live Events
I am excited to see all the things Houston has to offer as readings are starting to come back in front of live audiences. Last Saturday, Write About Now held their first live event since the pandemic called “Mics + Murals,” a collaborative reading with live painting and music copresented by the Station Museum of Contemporary Art.

One foot in front of the other and let’s walk together to see where the words take us.

Write About Now Mics + Murals event at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art in Houston.
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.

How Houston Leads the Way Part III

Hey mi gente, thanks for joining me for another blog post, and a big thank you to all who read these posts. As my time as literary outreach coordinator comes to a close, I will continue to highlight all things literary in Houston, and how the city leads the way with great community work.

First, I would like to shine a light on all the organizations and literary journals doing the work during the pandemic and keeping the doors open: Public Poetry, Nuestra Palabra, Defunkt Magazine, Inprint, Stages Theatre, and Poetry Around Houston, to name a few. They adapted and created new ways for literature to stay alive. Some organizations flipped their live scheduled events and adapted them into Zoom or Facebook Live events while others switched to podcasts. The most important effect is that the public benefited from it all. These aren’t the only examples. So many individual artists are making waves and collaborating to make words come alive in the city, and as we approach the summer, new events are beginning to blossom and it is beautiful to see.

Speaking of, two Houston grantees from our United States of Writing Project Grants, Omer Ahmed and Joy Priest, will each be hosting events in the coming weeks. Ahmed is collaborating with Loyce Gayo to lead a three-part workshop series focused on community identity in the face of gentrification. You can check out the upcoming sessions on June 10 and June 17 which are open to all communities in Houston, not just writers. Priest and Aris Kian will be cohosting the “Poet &” reading series, which will highlight and support Houston poets who have careers or practices outside of writing, including myself! The readings are scheduled for June 15, June 22, and June 29.

And finally, a shout-out to Deborah DEEP Mouton—who keeps it ever so real, always doing the work—for being a part of the planning committee and participating in events for last weekend’s third annual Fresh Arts Summit. If you missed it, videos from the keynote kick-off event and other panels are available on YouTube through July 5.

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

How Houston Leads the Way Part II

Hey mi gente, thanks for joining me for another blog post. As my time as Houston’s literary outreach coordinator comes to a close, I want to get back into all the ways that Houston is making waves.

Let’s talk about the only literary conference created specifically for the emerging writer: the Boldface Conference for Emerging Writers. Hosted by University of Houston’s undergraduate literary magazine Glass Mountain and run by a brilliant set of up-and-coming writers from the university’s Creative Writing Program, Boldface is a conference like no other. The five-day conference includes daily workshops, readings, craft talks, social events, and panels with professionals in the literary field, all specifically designed with the needs of the emerging writer in mind.

What I love most about how their programming works is that the organizers are versatile and thoughtful enough to change it up to meet the needs of the public. Last year, they were able to quickly reorganize and provide a virtual experience called the Strikethrough Workshop. This year, the annual conference will be held virtually from May 24 to May 28 and features craft talks with Melissa Febos, Diana Goetsch, Donika Kelly, and Ito Romo. Visit the website for the Boldface conference to find out more and to register for the events.

I also want to give a big congrats to local educator and poet Kim-Ling Sun who was awarded a United States of Writing Project Grant for her upcoming project “Celebrate and Stop the Hate.”

Sun, along with writer Addie Tsai, have created a two-part writing workshop series for BIPOC teens to celebrate heritage and work towards unity between communities. In the first workshop, teens will learn about different poetic forms and work on generative poetry. In the second workshop, teens will all present their works as part of a community reading. The workshops are free and will be held on Saturday, May 22 and Saturday, May 29, from 1:00–2:00 PM CDT. Those interested can sign up for the workshop here.

In addition, a reading featuring Sun and Tsai, along with Tamara Al-Qaisi-Coleman and Min Kang, will be held live at Social Beer Garden HTX and live-streamed via Facebook on June 5 starting at 4:00 PM CDT. The “Celebrate and Stop the Hate” AAPI reading will also include a charity raffle, food trucks, and lion dance performances.

And, a major shout-out to Joshua Nguyen who won the 2021 Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry for his first full-length collection, Come Clean, forthcoming in the fall from University of Wisconsin Press.

Lastly, I am so excited to share that I have been named the 2022 Texas poet laureate by the Texas Commission on the Arts! I have plans and can’t wait to celebrate with everyone.

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

How Houston Leads the Way

Hey mi gente, I hope that you are well and reaching all your goals or if you have stumbled along the way, I wish you the strength to get back up. My last blog post was the last interview for the COVID Vivid series, in which I asked Houston writers what they’ve been doing since the pandemic started. I want to send a major thank you to everyone that participated in the series and shared their very personal experiences. I hope everybody who reads this blog has been able to benefit from these entries.

I will be switching gears as my time as literary outreach coordinator draws to a close. I’ll be focusing these last few posts highlighting all the ways that the literary experience in Houston points to the future. There are so many brilliant opportunities happening it’s hard to count. Each of these last posts will focus in on one or two (or three) things happening in the city.

While discussing the need to highlight major happenings in poetry during the month of April with Readings & Workshops program coordinator Ricardo Hernandez, I was reminded about what makes Houston such a brilliant place. I mentioned that I wondered why the Houston Poetry Fest happens in October when National Poetry Month is in April, and of course it should have made sense to me already—the Houston Poetry Fest predates National Poetry Month by a decade.

Established in 1985, the festival is held at our University of Houston-Downtown campus and is free and open to the public. There are readings and panels, and off-site events throughout the city to attend. Sadly, the festival had to be canceled last year due to the pandemic, but we hope to celebrate this October, which would mark the annual event’s thirty-sixth anniversary.

Continuing this celebratory vibe, I’d like to send congrats to Adriana Salazar who received a United States of Writing Project Grant from Poets & Writers for her upcoming workshop series. Salazar’s “Examining Oneself Through Self Portraits” will look at the building blocks of identity, examining the self both as a collective and as individuals using self-portraits to create new works. The three-part virtual workshop series will be in collaboration with fellow grantee Omer Ahmed and starts in May so keep an eye out in the Literary Events Calendar for more details.

Last but not least, major shout-out to the fifth and newest Houston poet laureate, Emanuelee “Outspoken” Bean! Bean’s two-year term began this month and runs through April 2023. As poet laureate, he will work closely with the Houston Public Library and the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs to implement his community outreach project “Space City Mixtape,” an album of twenty-track spoken word and creative audio experiences by Houstonians. He will also conduct eight workshops in Houston’s public libraries, and create videos and poems to share on social media. Looking forward to seeing his work and events in the city.

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: Rose Mary Salum

Happy April and National Poetry Month! This week, I conclude my series of interviews with Houston writers speaking about their experience during the COVID-19 pandemic, each answering the question:

What have you been doing since the pandemic started?

This week features Rose Mary Salum, founding editor of the bilingual literary magazine Literal: Latin American Voices and Literal Publishing. Salum is the author of The Water That Rocks the Silence, translated from the Spanish by C. M. Mayo, winner of the International Latino Book Award and the prestigious Panamerican Award Carlos Montemayor; Tres semillas de granada: Ensayos desde el inframundo (Vaso Roto, 2020); Una de ellas (Dislocados, 2020); El agua que mece el silencio (Vaso Roto, 2015); Delta de las arenas, cuentos árabes, cuentos judíos (Literal Publishing, 2013), winner of the International Latino Book Award; and Spaces in Between (Literal Publishing, 2006).

Here is what she had to say:

“When the pandemic started last year—I guess this happened to all of us—I was in shock. At that time, I felt like something, or someone, was stealing a part of my life away from me. There are a few days, here and there, that I still have that sense of grief and loss. I remember one day though, just as I was touching bottom on my feelings regarding the lockdown, an idea came to me: I needed to make up for all the time lost in this pandemic by putting together a book. That would be the only way I could survive this time without losing my mind. The mere idea of waking up to a project that I set for myself made all the difference. That book is finished and, in spite of the fact that I still need to go through it and make sure all looks good, at least I can say that I kept my cool thanks to it.”

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: Catherine Lu

Hey gente, thanks for joining me for another installment of this blog series, where I ask Houston writers this question: What have you been doing since the pandemic started?

The entries are about what folks are doing to make the most of a precarious situation. Things are slowly (and quickly) changing in the state of Texas. It is a difficult moment for many. Although Texas governor Greg Abbott has chosen to declare that it is “time to open Texas 100%” we are in fact far from being out of the pandemic.

Photo: Catherine LuThis week we hear from Catherine Lu, senior producer of Houston Public Media, covering arts and culture. Lu is a producer and writer for the talk show Town Square With Ernie Manouse and produces the National Poetry Month series Voices and Verses, the arts podcast Unwrap Your Candies Now (currently on hiatus), and hosts the annual Christmas Revels national broadcast. As the “voice” of Houston Public Media, Lu records the station’s radio and TV spots.

Here’s what she had to say:

“In mid-March of 2020, I began working from home. The station provided a mic and other gear, and I set up a recording studio in my closet with two TV tray tables and a solar-powered lantern suspended from a clothes hanger. It’s like my little recording cave—a bit small and dim, but it works! That’s where I record voiceovers and interviews. For online meetings, writing and research, I work in my study where my coworker (orange tabby cat) also has her office (scratching post).

My favorite work project has been producing the video “Poetry in a Pandemic.” It tells the story behind “When We Get Lonely, It Will Be Together,” a beautiful poem about social distancing, cowritten by Houston poet Melissa Studdard and Seattle poet Kelli Russell Agodon. My colleagues Joe Brueggeman, Dave Mcdermand and I coproduced it entirely remotely in April 2020, an experience that was really special to me—it felt like we had accomplished the impossible. The story itself showed me how much we need artists in a pandemic, to remind us of the human experience that still connects us. The video was nominated for a 2020 Lone Star EMMY Award for Arts/Entertainment Program Feature, Segment or Special.

During the pandemic, I have also learned how to ride a skateboard, and I love doing art with my kid. We paint rocks, make tiny clay sculptures, draw comics, build stuff from cardboard boxes. She’s had a lot of milestones since quarantine: she learned how to ride a bike on two wheels, lost her first tooth, turned seven. As a parent, I wonder how she’ll remember this time. I hope I’m showing her that, no matter what, we can always have fun being spontaneous, creative, and curious.”

Watch “Poetry in a Pandemic” with Melissa Studdard and Kelli Russell Agodon here:

Photo: Catherine Lu (Credit: Catherine Lu)
 
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: Robin Davidson

Hey mi gente, happy February. I’m happy to share with you more reflections from Houston writers about how they have been spending their time during the COVID-19 pandemic. Each writer has answered this simple question:

What have you been doing since the pandemic?

This week, we hear from Robin Davidson. Davidson is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Kneeling in the Dojo (Finishing Line Press, 2013) and City That Ripens on the Tree of the World (Calypso Editions, 2013), and the collection, Luminous Other, awarded the Ashland Poetry Press’s 2012 Richard Snyder Memorial Publication Prize. Recipient of a Fulbright professorship at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland and an NEA translation fellowship, Davidson is cotranslator with Ewa Elżbieta Nowakowska of Ewa Lipska’s poems from the Polish—The New Century (Northwestern University Press, 2009) and Dear Ms. Schubert (Princeton University Press, 2021). Davidson served as Houston poet laureate under the leadership of mayors Annise Parker and Sylvester Turner from 2015 to 2017, and edited the citywide 2018 anthology, Houston’s Favorite Poems. She was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters in 2019, and teaches literature and creative writing as professor emeritus of English for the University of Houston-Downtown.

Here’s what she had to say:

“In the early hours of March 11, 2020, I woke to intense chills, fever, nausea, and the beginning of what would become three weeks of a flu-like illness more severe than I’d ever before experienced. I was bedridden for most of that time, with a persistent fever of 103 to 104, and for days Sappho’s line resonated in my thoughts, I feel that death has come near me. There was no COVID testing in Houston then, and my doctor believed I likely had contracted a flu, despite the vaccine I’d had weeks earlier. My husband, too, experienced some of these symptoms, though far milder, and we did not sleep in the same room for two weeks after forty-four years of sharing a bed nightly, except when one of us was traveling. We did not see any of our children or grandchildren for more than two months, and I thought I would die of grief in their absence, rather than of some unnameable disease. The morning I woke to the weight of an icy hand pressing down hard on my chest, I recognized the signs of pneumonia. I prayed, willed that hand away, and decided to get up and move, no matter if I stumbled, couldn’t entirely stand. In the weeks that followed I saw friends and family members lose loved ones to COVID, loved ones they could not sit with in their illness, nor bury upon their death. I tried to read, to write. Nothing worked, except for sorting through photographs of my grandsons which I’d print, cut out, and glue into a tiny scrapbook for each of them to have in our absence. My husband and I have recovered slowly over the course of ten months, with intermittent symptoms recurring like mild sequelae. We only learned for certain in late summer that we had had COVID when our antibodies tests showed positive results for SARS-CoV-2. As I’ve watched this virus sweep through our nation and the world, I recognize how minor my family’s experience has been compared to the great suffering of so many others. I wrote this piece initially on the eve of one of the most critical presidential elections in the history of the United States. As of that morning, November 2, 2020, the U.S. reported 9,282,358 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 230,937 deaths. Since January, Americans have seen that death toll surpass 450,000. We have seen an insurrection play out in our nation’s Capitol Building in which violent extremists attempted a governmental coup. But we have also witnessed the successful election and inauguration of president Joseph Biden and vice president Kamala Harris as a powerful step on behalf of a renewed democracy. This nation has some distance to go in combatting the COVID pandemic, systemic racism and its concomitant violence, extreme climate, economic crisis, and global unrest, but the future looks far brighter this month than it has in the past four years. May we continue to choose well.”

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

A Moment in the Dark

If you are reading this and aren’t from Texas, say some prayers. We are still in recovery mode—our homes are still spaces scarred by ice and busted pipes, waterlogged walls and no food or shelter, all on top of a pandemic. Give us grace.

It isn’t that the winter storm is something we cannot adapt to—it is that this is the latest in a series of natural disasters that Houston has had to endure. The trauma is real. The longing for calm is palpable.

We are boiling water, we are waiting for plumbers to fix the pipes, who in turn have to scavenge to find the materials to fix our houses, and their own. Some of us are still waiting on the lights...IN THE MIDDLE OF A PANDEMIC.

I wrote a poem on the second night of my own family’s personal ordeal. I thought of what could bring down cheer to the heart, not even knowing when this would see the light of day. I wrote this with my phone at 5 percent battery life.

How to Prepare for Winter Storm in TX

The day brings white ice and soon the
Stars see us, wishing on a single thread.
At dusk, we come undone, wait for light
Night brings a child we cannot avoid, we
Are creatures of light, we gather in
Big pockets, we muscle fire forward
And we do howl for peace and flame.
Bright smiles keep us warm even when
Deep rains cause us to freeze. We know
In the gut, what it means to rise up, take
Heart that this won’t bring me down.

I’ll find you, bring you hot hands and song.

If you have a moment, please consider donating to these sources to help the Houston community. Many are overwhelmed with monetary donations, but offer other ways to help. Please also be careful to verify the accounts you send funds to as there have been reports of scams and fake accounts on Venmo and other payment platforms.

Here are a few local organizations to consider supporting:

1. Houseless Organizing Coalition (@HocHtx) is a revolutionary coalition fully operated by BIPOC organizers building dual power within Houston’s houseless community. They are currently distributing supplies and addressing needs for those in our houseless community.

2. West Street Recovery (@weststreetrecovery) is a horizontally organized grassroots nonprofit organization which aims to use efforts toward recovery after Hurricane Harvey to build community power.

3. Houston Food Bank (@HoustonFoodBank ) serves more than 1.1 million people in the eighteen Southeast Texas counties and distributes food and other essentials to those in need through a network of 1,500 community partners.

4. Texas Jail Project (@TxJailProject) is a grassroots advocacy project that listens, informs, and advocates for people trapped in Texas county jails. Amidst the Texas Winter Storm, they have set up a rapid response helpline for folks and their families to report on-the-ground conditions in jail facilities where thousands have no clean drinking water and are experiencing neglect. They are distributing funds to people's commissaries for those who are able to purchase food, water, and hygiene products through their jail’s commissary stores. They are also posting money to phone accounts and covering the cost of all collect calls from jails.

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: Joshua Nguyen

In the new year, I am keeping this series of interviews going, speaking with more Houston writers to ask how and what they’ve been doing since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. I continue to enjoy and receive comfort from their responses to this question:

What have you been doing since the pandemic?

This week, we hear from Joshua Nguyen. Nguyen is a Vietnamese American writer, a collegiate national poetry slam champion (CUPSI), and a native Houstonian. He is the author of the chapbook, American Lục Bát for My Mother, forthcoming from Bull City Press, and has received fellowships from Kundiman, Sundress Academy for the Arts, and the Vermont Studio Center. Nguyen’s poetry has been published in the Offing, Wildness, American Poetry Review, the Texas Review, PANK, Auburn Avenue, Crab Orchard Review, and Gulf Coast magazine. Nguyen has been a guest on the Poetry Foundation’s VS podcast and Tracy K. Smith’s podcast The Slowdown. A bubble tea connoisseur who works in a kitchen, Nguyen received his MFA at the University of Mississippi where he is currently pursuing a PhD. You can find him on Twitter, @joshuanguyen03.

“Honestly, I don’t think I have written a poem since April. Don’t get me wrong, I have been shipping my manuscript out to open submission periods and book prizes, but in regards to new poems, it’s been hard to get into the excitement of creating forms. I have been writing more creative nonfiction. I think one reason why I have gravitated towards creative nonfiction during the pandemic is because it’s easier for my humor to come across in that form (in comparison to writing humor in poetry). And I think during these dark times, I need laughter more than ever. I also think that I have been afforded a kind of isolation with my thoughts which helps me come up with arguments, and counterarguments, for essays I’ve been writing. Most of my energy as a creative writing PhD student has been reading for my literature courses, creating lesson plans for the discussion sections I lead, working at my part-time job in the kitchen of a restaurant, and trying to stretch my butt in between Zoom classes so it doesn’t cramp up. I haven’t had time to write a poem, but I have had time to just sit and be alone with my thoughts whenever I’m resting my eyes between Zoom rooms. I am able to write those thoughts down at the end of the day, and then just turn them into essays.”

Photo: Joshua Nguyen.
 
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: Reyes Ramirez

I’m continuing this series of interviews, asking Houston writers how and what they’ve been doing since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s been enlightening and heartwarming to hear these responses when I pose the question:

What have you been doing since the pandemic?

This week we hear from Reyes Ramirez, a Houstonian, writer, educator, curator, and organizer of Mexican and Salvadoran descent. Ramirez is the winner of the 2019 YES Contemporary Art Writers Grant, 2017 Blue Mesa Review Nonfiction Contest, and 2014 riverSedge Poetry Prize. His poems, stories, essays, and reviews have been published in Indiana Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, the Latinx Archive, december magazine, Arteinformado, Texas Review, TRACK//FOUR, Houston Noir, Gulf Coast, the Acentos Review, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere. Ramirez is a 2020 CantoMundo fellow and 2021 Crosstown Arts writer in residence, and has been awarded grants from the Houston Arts Alliance, Poets & Writers, and the Warhol Foundation’s Idea Fund.

Here’s what he says:

“What have I been doing since the pandemic started? Well, I’ve been editing my collection of short stories titled The Book of Wanderers, which I’ll have some news to report about soon. I’m working on a collection of poetry that’s been kicking me around in terms of order and titles, but I’m loving the journey for the destination. I did a whole podcast with Houston creatives where we discussed career-based issues for the contemporary artist. Oh! I also received a Poets & Writers’ United States of Writing grant to organize a series of virtual readings focused on pop culture featuring Houston writers of color titled Houston Eyes, Silver Screens (HESS). It’s cofunded by the Houston Arts Alliance because I originally received a grant from them to organize a literary reading/pro wrestling event where pro wrestlers were going to perform parts of my short story. But this whole pandemic thing happened, and I had to cancel it. C’est la vie, lo que sea, oh well.

If you missed the first and second installments of HESS (on films and video games, respectively), it’s totally okay! Not only is the last one coming up on December 18 at 7:00 PM CT (on music with Miranda Ramírez, Aliah Lavonne Tigh, and José Eduardo Sánchez), but you can watch the other readings with captions in English and Spanish on my YouTube channel. Happy reading and writing!”

Photo: Flyer for December 18 Houston Eyes, Silver Screens virtual event.
 
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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