COVID Vivid Interview: Ayokunle Falomo

Hey mi gente. Hope you’re all staying safe. I’m continuing this series of interviews with Houston writers during the COVID-19 pandemic, offering them a space to respond to this question:

What have you been doing since the pandemic?

This week we hear from Ayokunle Falomo who is Nigerian, American, and the author of the poetry chapbook African, American (New Delta Review, 2019) and two self-published collections. A recipient of fellowships from Vermont Studio Center and MacDowell, his work has been published in the New York Times, Michigan Quarterly Review, the Texas Review, New England Review, and elsewhere. Falomo’s readings have been featured on Write About Now and Houston Public Media. He holds a BS in Psychology from the University of Houston, a Specialist in School Psychology degree from Sam Houston State University, and is currently an MFA in poetry candidate at the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program.

Here’s his response:

“Since the pandemic started, which feels like a decade ago now, I have mostly been (at)tending to the things that need it in my life. I’ve been reacquainting myself with beauty and truth. I’ve been learning. A lot about myself. I’ve been nursing a broken heart back to health. I’ve been teaching. I’ve been writing. I’ve been reading. A lot. I’ve been taking walks. I’ve been grieving the loss of the future I once imagined. I’ve been running. I’ve been cooking. I’ve been learning, slowly, how to embrace the future that’s mine now. I’ve been learning how to sit still. I’ve been grateful. I’ve been watching shows on Netflix. I’ve been resentful. I’ve been....”

Photo: Ayokunle Falomo.
 
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: Ana Emilia Felker

Over the past few months, I’ve been asking writers in Houston, including myself, to speak about how they’ve been doing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since this series of short interviews has been an enjoyable process, I will keep it going and look forward to introducing some more writers to the process, asking them to answer this question:

What have you been doing since the pandemic started?

Ana Emilia Felker is the author of the collection of essays, Aunque la casa se derrumbe (UNAM, 2017). Felker received Mexico’s National Journalism Award in Chronicle in 2015, was awarded a fellowship from the Foundation for Mexican Literature, and obtained the FONCA Fellowship of Young Creators in 2017 and 2019. She has a BA in journalism from UNAM Mexico and an MA in Comparative Literature from the Universidad Autonoma de Barcelona. Felker is currently a PhD candidate in Hispanic Studies and Creative Writing at the University of Houston and coordinates UNAM San Antonio’s Literature Seminar.

Here’s her response:

“I’ve shared the quarantine with my partner and my dog in an apartment we rent near Almeda Street, close to those turkey legs that smell so good but we’ve never tried, hopefully we will after this thing ends. My partner and I, we are both writing our PhD dissertations, so in a way we have already spent a lot of time in lockdown, but now we can’t alternate spaces going to a cafeteria or to the university library. At first, walking our dog Roque became the moment when we could catch some air together or by ourselves. I have enjoyed paying more attention to strolls, watching the plants, figuring out names of trees in English and Spanish, observing the changes of seasons. But on the flip side, I have also had days of feeling trapped and not finding purpose or meaning in anything I do. So to fight this I started exercising a little bit, I started therapy online with a psychologist in Mexico and also tried to stay away from social media because it was causing me a great deal of anxiety. So overall, I would say I’ve had some peace and quiet but realized that being in lockdown means to hold all your energy together (kind and hostile demons) without the dispersion that social interaction allows. That is a challenge, but hopefully we all meet on the other side, reconciled with ourselves, ready to go outside with less fear and ready to try those turkey legs.”

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

COVID Vivid Self Interview Part II

Hey mi gente, I will get right to the point. This series of interviews has been enlightening and inspirational these last few months and so what was supposed to be only five entries will now be extended. So far, you have heard from Katherine Hoerth, Daniel Peña, Melissa Studdard, and Jonathan Moody. Although I have answered already, I am in a new place (as I’m sure we all are each day of this pandemic) and will again answer the question I’ve been asking other writers:

What have you been doing since the pandemic started?

“I am adding myself as a double entry for one very brutal reason: I know what the pandemic has cost me. My mother died from complications due to COVID-19 earlier this month on October 1. She died at the age of eighty-six.

What have I been doing since the pandemic started? Trying to do all the things I said I was doing in the last post but more importantly, trying my damnedest to keep my family alive and well. I have to admit, a part of me feels like I have failed. In truth, there are so many feelings about this pandemic and how it has treated my family and many people of color.

I spent the last month or so, from August 25 to the start of October, in such distress. We were dealing/planning for the possibility of two storms in the Gulf of Mexico (my heart and candles are lit for folks in Lake Charles and to Kelly Harris, our literary outreach coordinator in New Orleans, as always staying in “hurricane mode” can wear on you), and my parents telling me they had a cold, which later turned out to be COVID-19. To this day, I don’t know how my father got it. He took care as much as he could (especially in the third most Republican county in Texas, where I have witnessed people not following social distancing measures with full care), but to no avail, my mother caught it.

I have spent time thinking. I have spent time thinking about how COVID-19 affects families. As this double storm was a thing, I think about the last conversation I had with my mother on August 25. I called to convince my folks to come up to Houston after Galveston initiated a voluntary evacuation. My mother told me, “no mijo, we will stay here, I don’t know if I have this thing and if I do, I don’t want to give it to you or Jasminne or mija.” My mom knew my wife is immunocompromised and she couldn’t think of even giving it to her two-year-old granddaughter. So they stayed home. She got worse. She went to the ER. She was treated. It didn’t work and she died.

I have spent time writing. The day we found out that she was being admitted to the hospital, they told us she tested positive. My father and I were stunned. We spent three hours together in a waiting room and so I had to rush to get him tested. He tested positive and we had to quarantine for two weeks. To keep from going crazy, I was posting daily updates on Twitter and on Facebook. I was writing curriculum for my day job. Now that my mother is gone, I have had to take notes about how to transfer information for bills, insurance policies, contact numbers, etc.—all the process of laying someone to rest. I even wrote my mother’s obituary.

I honestly don’t know what else I will do during the pandemic. I mean, I know I will do what I can do to try to stay alive, but so far, all I can really see is managing things one day at a time. I know I will take care of my father who has been shattered at the guilt of infecting his partner of forty-six years (even after I explain how transmission is a community thing) and try my best to find peace for my wife and child.

What am I doing during the pandemic? Trying to find light and pass it on to others, just like my mom taught me to do.”

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

Special Reminder: Deadline for Project Grants

We interrupt our regularly scheduled United States of Writing Blog content to remind writers in Detroit, Houston, and New Orleans that applications for Project Grants for BIPOC Writers are due this Wednesday, September 30!

Grants range from $250 to $750 and can be used to pay for costs related to coordinating online literary events in the genres of poetry, fiction, or creative nonfiction. In addition, projects must take place between October 16 and December 31.

To be eligible, applicants must:

  • identify as Black, Indigenous, or a person of color;
  • be a resident of Detroit, Houston, or New Orleans, including the surrounding metro areas of each city;
  • be a published writer of poetry, fiction, or creative nonfiction, or have performance credits as a spoken word artist.

So for example, if you were a Black fiction writer living in Houston who wants to coordinate a fiction reading that will be live-streamed to the public, and you want to compensate yourself and other writers who will give readings for the event, you would be a great candidate for a project grant!

Of course, not all projects need to fit the mold above: We are also interested in supporting other literary projects that will engage the communities of these cities, such as workshops, panels, discussions, town halls, or Q&As.

Writers interested in applying can find the guidelines and link to the application form here.

We can’t wait to read your project ideas!

COVID Vivid Self Interview

This COVID Vivid blog series has been a real treat to work on these last couple months, and so, what was supposed to be only five entries will now be extended for a few more. So far, you have heard from Katherine Hoerth, Daniel Peña, Melissa Studdard, and Jonathan Moody. And now I will spin the question on to myself:

What have you been doing since the pandemic started?

“I have been trying to keep it together. I’ll be honest: I’ve been praying. I’ve been cooking. I’ve started three little gardens and built things for my kid. I’ve been playing with my two year old and trying my damnedest not to go down the rabbit hole of what-ifs when it comes to reading about the pandemic on social media.

I’ve also spent a little bit of time trying to write, but sometimes, I just stare at my screen. I’ve been buying useless things and binge-watching shows, and fighting and then making up with my wife, and trying to lose myself in good music. I was lucky enough to get the month of June off (I am an eleven-month contract employee in my local school district) and as of this writing, I am knee-deep in creating updated lesson plans for teachers in my district as well as creating two sets of digital lessons for students under the scenario that they won’t have access to their teachers online. It is tough trying to plan for teachers and students in a situation where we are totally blind as to what might happen next. If you haven’t seen how Texas is handling COVID-19, it’s not pretty.

I am entirely in alert mode. I am in hurricane warning mode. It’s like I stay up at night listening to the house, listening to my daughter sleep, maybe writing late into the night or working on curriculum, but I am lucky if I get a full night’s sleep. I am working on trying to build routines to take better care of myself, but honestly I have always sucked at it. It is easier for me to tend to other people. I probably look a wreck. I know I look a wreck. But everything is a slow movement. I am learning every day to take better care of myself. I am reading more. That’s where I begin.”

And speaking of reading, if you don’t already have your copy of the September/October 2020 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, check out the piece published online about Spanish-language and bilingual creative writing programs, “Writing in Spanish Elevates Academia” by Enma K. Elias.

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: Jonathan Moody

If you are just jumping on to this blog, thank you for coming along for the ride. I have had the pleasure to speak with local Houston writers about how their lives have changed during the pandemic, in particular, how their writing lives have been altered. It has been a difficult time, to say the least, but there have been some new, positive aspects as far as accessibility and inclusion for literary events, and as you’ll see below, family time. For this series, I reached out to writers and posed one simple question:

What have you been doing since the pandemic started?

So far we have heard from Katie Hoerth, Daniel Peña, and Melissa Studdard, and this week I bring you, poet Jonathan Moody.

Jonathan Moody is a Cave Canem alum and received his MFA from the University of Pittsburgh. His poetry has appeared in African American Review, Borderlands, the Common, Crab Orchard Review, Harvard Review Online, and other publications. He is the author of The Doomy Poems (Six Gallery Press, 2012) and Olympic Butter Gold, which won the 2014 Cave Canem/Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize. For the upcoming school term, Jonathan will join the English department faculty at South Houston High School. He lives in Pearland, Texas with his wife and three sons.

Here is what Jonathan had to say:

“Before the Coronavirus pandemic, my gruesome teaching schedule didn’t permit me to hydrate as much as I should. I always knew water was essential for the kidneys, but I had no clue that it cushions the brain and the spinal cord. The headaches and lower back pain that caused me distress have now dissipated. I also start each day taking immune boosters: echinacea, elderberry, and Vitamin C. And I’ve stuck to a consistent workout regimen that includes wind sprints and knee taps, as well as calisthenic exercises like push-ups, plyometric push-ups, and chest dips. Now that I’m in much better shape, I’m less complacent when it comes to meal prepping and cooking creative dishes like feijoada, patatas bravas, and flan. One change that I’m most proud of is how Avery Langston, my six-year-old son, demands that I, my wife, and the Moody Twins—Aiden and Aristin—eat dinner together every night as a family.”

Photo: Jonathan Moody (Credit: Thu 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: 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.

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