Jane Wolfe of Melba’s: Po’boys and Books

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of being a featured author at Melba’s in New Orleans as part of their Eat and Read series. Melba’s has been a unique leader for literacy in the city, offering customers free books with their lunch purchases. Authors read from and sign their books, and engage with customers and staff. Over the years authors have included Sarah Broom, Melissa Rogers, and Colson Whitehead. By combining food and books, folks are united in reading and eating. Melba’s literacy program has the support of the Clinton Foundation, and Bill and Hillary Clinton have even come to visit. It’s an amazing experience to see customers with a book in one hand and a po’boy in the other. I spoke with the woman behind it all—Jane Wolfe—about her love for New Orleans and literature.

How did the literacy program at Melba’s get started?
In 2007, as an older student, I entered academia to acquire a college degree. My graduate advisor was Jonathan Walton and in 2018, he visited New Orleans with his family. We had a book giveaway at Melba’s for his book The Lens Of Love: Reading the Bible in its World for Our World.

In the middle of the book signing, Jonathan looked up and said, “Jane, this is so needed to get these books into the hands of everyday people!” At that moment, I came to understand how I could help literacy in New Orleans.

You chronicle your personal and professional journey in your book, From GED to Harvard Then Inc. 500: How Two Teens Went From GEDs to Building the Fastest Growing Business in New Orleans (ForbesBooks, 2020). What were some of the challenges you faced in shifting from business owner to author?
Authors need time to bring thoughts to fruition. A businessperson does not operate in such a framework: There is no time for reflection in business. The greatest challenge was turning off the day-to-day operational mode of my mind that I used to succeed in business in order to write.

Beyond being a business owner, you have a masters degree in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. How does faith influence your writing and work?
As an older student I was given the gift of time to learn about my faith tradition. Once I understood Catholic Social Teaching I could see more clearly my place in the business world.

My two favorite classes at Harvard were “God and Money” by professor Harvey Cox and “Religion, Politics, and Public Policy” by professor Richard Parker. Their instruction put forth my faith in action at work through Catholic Social Teaching, and most importantly, helped me understand that businesses are not positioned in a society to merely make money. To learn about the world’s sacred scriptures at Harvard Divinity School, my thinking adjusted towards a global perspective. The theological degree allowed writing to come alive in ways I never thought possible.

What books are you currently reading?
Right now I’m reading Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (Knopf, 2021) by Benjamin M. Friedman, Black Women, Black Love: America’s War on African American Marriage (Seal Press, 2020) by Dianne M. Stewart, 70 Hebrew Words Every Christian Should Know (Abingdon Press, 2018) by Matthew Richard Schlimm, NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity (Avery, 2015) by Steve Silberman, and Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African American Religion (NYU Press, 2014) by Lerone A. Martin.

Photo: Colson Whitehead with staff members of Melba's at an event celebrating his novel The Nickel Boys.
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.

Live Events Return to New Orleans

Now that many are getting vaccinated and New Orleans has its lowest number of COVID-19 cases since last year, I am expecting to see more in-person events happening in the city.

Arts and culture are the pulse of New Orleans and its economy. Many writers and artists have struggled during the pandemic, but this summer will usher in more outdoor events to showcase and support their work. In addition, the New Orleans Book Festival, the Louisiana Book Festival, and the New Orleans Words & Music Festival are just a few literary events that have recently announced dates for live events in the fall that you can plan to attend in person. In the meantime, you can always stop by a local bookstore to give them an economic boost and support your favorite authors. See the Literary Places database for bookstores to order books from or visit.

The pandemic showed us how technology can close the gap of social distancing and offer access to incredible virtual programming. We will likely see a combination of in-person and virtual events in the future, but I’m sure many of us are looking forward to taking part in live events, whether on a stage or in the audience. Whatever your comfort level may be for socializing, there are always plenty of ways to enjoy writing and support the literary community. Check out the Literary Events Calendar for upcoming readings, workshops, and other literary events.

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.

Benefits of the Twittersphere

Want to know what’s happening in the New Orleans literary scene? A good way to learn more about how to support the writers and the work Poets & Writers’ United States of Writing initiative is doing in the city is to follow the Poets & Writers’ New Orleans Twitter feed. There, you can:

1. Learn more about the writers in New Orleans. Often I tweet or retweet about upcoming events happening in the city featuring emerging and established writers, some of whom have received funding from the Readings & Workshops program.

2. Stay in the literary loop. Organizations and writers both inside and outside of New Orleans often ask me to share opportunities such as jobs, internships, and submission calls for publications.

3. Follow the conversation. What topics are writers talking about? What are literary organizations and publications sharing? You can find out how broad the community is, the latest news, and how to connect by checking out our feed.

Lastly, a big congrats to the seven New Orleans writers who received United States of Writing Project Grants from our second round! A special shout-out to Ayo Fayemi-Robinson who was awarded a grant for her project “The Black Pages,” the first session of which will take place Wednesday, May 26 at 5:00 PM CT.

“We'll walk down the history of African American poetics,” wrote Fayemi-Robinson describing her project, “and address why sound has always mattered and how it is that our poetics never left the stage. What we celebrate is not a return, but a resonance.” The event will include a presentation and Q&A led by Dr. Jerry W. Ward, Jr. Be sure to check out the Literary Events Calendar for more information on this and other upcoming projects!

If you have any questions or want to reach out, you can always contact me directly via e-mail at NOLA@pw.org

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.

I Am New Orleans Anthology Reading

On April 1, poets from the anthology I Am New Orleans, published last September by the University of New Orleans Press, kicked off the 2021 New Orleans Poetry Festival with a reading. Edited by Kalamu ya Salaam, the anthology includes thirty-six poets who revisit and celebrate Marcus B. Christian’s definitive poem of the same name.

The event was broadcast live from Café Istanbul, a popular event space in the city for music and poetry, and poets beamed in from their homes to share their work. There was a limited in-person audience and many watching virtually. For a lot of writers who hadn’t seen each other since before the pandemic, the reading served as a virtual reunion. There were shout-outs and “hey, how you doing?” messages filling up the chat.

The reading featured editor Kalamu ya Salaam along with poets Kristina Kay Robinson, Akilah Toney, Michael “Quess” Moore, Skye Jackson, Jahi Salaam, Chuck Perkins, and Frederick “Hollywood” Delahoussaye. I was also honored to take part as a reader and enjoyed this celebratory event, a launch to both the festival and to National Poetry Month.

See the entire New Orleans Poetry Festival schedule for more virtual events throughout the month of April. 

Watch the I Am New Orleans reading here:

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.

Upcoming Deadline for Project Grants

Poets & Writers has launched a second round of Project Grants for BIPOC Writers to support writers in our United States of Writing cities of Detroit, Houston, and New Orleans.

Recently Poets & Writers’ Readings & Workshops program staff members and I held an informational session to help writers from all cities get to know the organization and navigate the process of applying for a project grant. I was pleased to see many New Orleans writers and familiar faces in attendance.

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 April 19 and June 30.

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.

The response to our first grant applications was well-received in all three cities, and we’re so pleased to be able to offer this second round. For New Orleans, the project grants come at a perfect time when many of our literary festivals and National Poetry Month events are going virtual.

To find out more about the project grants, watch the virtual informational session below and read about how to apply here. And if you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me at NOLA@pw.org.

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.

One Pandemic Won’t Stop the Show

February was a challenging but exciting month. No, we didn’t have traditional Mardi Gras but we did have Yardi Gras. That’s right, the people of New Orleans made “house floats” to keep the spirit of Mardi Gras alive in our city. We’re not going to let a pandemic keep us from enjoying the culture and traditions of our city.

In that same spirit, I wanted to highlight some upcoming events and new book releases that help celebrate New Orleans and their writers.

1. Recovered Voices: Black Activism in New Orleans From Reconstruction to the Present Day, March 5­–7
The Historic New Orleans Collection will host their twenty-fifth annual symposium to celebrate the voices of Black activists from the era of Reconstruction, as featured in three new publications. The protagonists of these books include journalists, poets, politicians, educators, and ardent champions of civil rights.

2. Tennessee Williams & New Orleans Literary Festival, March 24–28
The five-day literary arts festival will be held virtually this year. Festival events include panel discussions, interviews, Books & Beignets book club, Tennessee Williams Tribute Reading, theater events, Drummer & Smoke music series, and special events. Their LGBTQ literary festival Saints+Sinners will also be held virtually March 11–14.

3. Elizabeth Miki Brina’s debut memoir, Speak, Okinawa, was published last week by Knopf. Brina lives and teaches in New Orleans, and received an MFA in creative writing from University of New Orleans. You can read more about her writing process and the book in Poets & Writers’ Ten Questions series.

4. Former Louisiana poet laureate Jack Bedell has a new poetry collection, Color All Maps New, published by Mercer University Press.

5. Daniel Jose Older, who lives and writes in New Orleans, speaks about his latest book, Flood City (Scholastic Press, 2021), and the release of the first issue of the Star Wars: The High Republic Adventures comic book series in Gambit.

In New Orleans, come hell or high water or pandemic—we find ways to thrive. The pandemic has changed many things, but our literary events and writers continue to make art and celebrate.

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.

The Role of Poetry in Your City

In my last post, I reflected on the ways writing can unite us wherever we live, and I’d like to continue that thread a bit more.

One recent example of how writing can unite us is Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb,” which she read at the presidential inauguration of Joe Biden last month. Gorman is the youngest inaugural poet at 22 years old, and the first youth poet laureate of the United States. She also received a Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award from Poets & Writers in 2020. Gorman’s reading was widely shared, and it’s likely you’ve come across it on your own social media feed. In fact, it was so popular that this past Sunday, Gorman became the first poet to perform at the Super Bowl.

The attention on Gorman’s poem got me thinking about how poetry can make us feel engaged in the world politically, socially, and spiritually. I believe poetry offers each of us different meaning and purpose. For youth, poetry can provide a seat at the table in an adult world that impacts them. For women and people of color, poetry can provide a space to empower their voice and take agency against systems of oppression.

I also thought about the role poets laureate, like Amanda Gorman, serve in public and the amazing work they do in their cities and states. Two previous Louisiana poets laureate, Peter Cooley and Brenda Marie Osbey, were kind enough to share their experiences with me for this blog.

Poets in New Orleans (and across Louisiana), you should know that the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities is currently seeking nominations from the public for the state’s next poet laureate, and you can submit recommendations now through February 24.

If you were selected as the next poet laureate of Louisiana, what role might you take? How would you use poetry to cultivate community and conversation?

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.

United in 2021

Happy 2021! Yes, despite the pandemic and political unrest in our country— I still believe happiness is possible.

In these times, our arts communities can provide shelter from some of the anxiety we may feel when we follow the news on our televisions and smart phones. Art can provide a sense of support and inspiration. That’s why taking part in the United States of Writing initiative has been so rewarding. Writing can unite us wherever we live.

Part of my duties as a literary outreach coordinator has been to help support writers in New Orleans. This includes encouraging writers to apply for funding for their virtual events through the Readings & Workshops program’s mini-grants. Last year, the program funded writers in selected states and cities including New Orleans and its surrounding parishes as well as Detroit and Houston, where my fellow literary outreach coordinators Justin Rogers and Lupe Mendez are working to support their communities. We are proud to report that in 2020, the Readings & Workshops program distributed $2,450 in New Orleans, $3,250 in Houston, and $6,750 in Detroit.

I encourage writers and event organizers living in New Orleans, as well as other R&W–supported cities, to apply for a mini-grant. Currently, due to COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings, these grants are only supporting virtual events, which include readings, writing workshops, poetry slams, and panels. The aim is to support writers, and foster and sustain writing communities during these trying times.

Learn more about how to apply for Readings & Workshops mini-grants and feel free to reach out to me at NOLA@pw.org.

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.

‘Tis the Season for Reading

What word would you use to describe 2020? I pick the word: grateful. Despite this year’s challenges, writers in New Orleans and its surrounding areas have continued to create and contribute to a vibrant writing community that has found amazing ways to thrive in uncertain times. For this, I am grateful. If you’re looking for ways to support and give back, here are a few of my recommendations to help support the New Orleans literary community and its writers, and your own community:

Buy from local bookstores: Help stimulate your local economy and small businesses by shopping at your local bookstores. Circulate local dollars. Many have been able to transition to curbside pickup or online orders during the pandemic. Search for local bookstores in your area with the Literary Places database and read my post on New Orleans bookstores.

Purchase books by local authors: Ask your neighborhood independent bookstore or public library to point you in the direction of local writers. Or take it upon yourself to do a little online research, many writers have social media accounts you can follow on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter where you might even connect.

Sharing is caring: See news about a local writer online? Retweet, share, tag. Help promote your favorite writers and the city.

Donate to local literary organizations: Invest in the literary future of New Orleans by donating to organizations like One Book One New Orleans, 826 New Orleans, Runagate Press, and Friends of New Orleans Public Library. Find an organization (or writer) that reflects your passion and stuff their stocking with a donation of any size.

Help Poets & Writers support writers in New Orleans and beyond: Become a friend of Poets & Writers and help support the resources of this website and programs that give back to the literary community.

Finally, have a safe and healthy remainder of the year. We’ll return in 2021 with more literary news to share with you.

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.

Virtual 2020 New Orleans Words and Music Festival

Last month, Poets & Writers’ Readings and Workshops program, with support from the Hearst Foundation, cofunded three virtual literary events for the 2020 New Orleans Words and Music Festival. Due to the pandemic this year, instead of purchasing tickets, donations were suggested to attend virtual events. Proceeds from the four-day festival provide literacy resources for adults, education programs for incarcerated adults and teens, and free community programming in New Orleans through Words & Music’s parent organization, One Book One New Orleans. Here are the three events:

1. Queering the South: LGBTQ+ Writers on Home, Love, and History
A discussion and reading curated by New Orleans poet Brad Richard with a panel featuring Matthew Draughter, M’Bilia Meekers, and Megan Volpert.

2. Heartbreak, or Research? Poets on the Writing Process
A discussion and reading curated by Stacey Balku with panelists Elizabeth Gross, Skye Jackson, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Melinda Palacio, and Rebecca Morgan Frank.

3. The Power of Jazz and Place in Tom Dent Poetry: A Workshop With Skye Jackson
Writers from an earlier workshop hosted by Skye Jackson were invited to read their work, including Stacey Balkun, Joshua Benitez, Liz Granite, Sonny Miro, Kiana Naquin, and Lisa O’Neill.

Bonus: Poets, Presidents, and Pandemics: A Reading for These Times
Catch our literary outreach coordinators from Houston and Detroit, Lupe Mendez and Justin Rogers, read with Pulitzer Prize–winning author Tyehimba Jess for a virtual event I curated.

If you missed the festival or any affiliated events, you can view them at the YouTube channel for One Book One New Orleans.

Find out more about funding for events through the Readings & Workshops program.

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.

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