RW LOC: New Orleans

Writer’s Notes From COVID NOLA: Carolyn Hembree

Today I’m continuing my series of interviews during the quarantine with poet Carolyn Hembree. Hembree’s debut poetry collection, Skinny, was published by Kore Press in 2012. In 2016, Trio House Books published her second collection, Rigging a Chevy Into a Time Machine and Other Ways to Escape a Plague, winner of the 2015 Trio Award and the 2015 Rochelle Ratner Memorial Award. Hembree’s work has appeared in Colorado Review, Gulf Coast, Poetry Daily, West Branch, and other publications. She received a 2016-2017 ATLAS grant from the Louisiana Board of Regents and has also received grants and fellowships from PEN America, the Louisiana Division of the Arts, and the Southern Arts Federation. Hembree is an associate professor at the University of New Orleans and serves as poetry editor of Bayou Magazine.

How has this pandemic impacted you personally and professionally?
I’m a tenured associate professor, so while migrating brick-and-mortar classes online has been kind of awful, I have a job and health insurance, whereas many of my friends and students rely on our gig economy. An introvert who feels exhausted rather than invigorated by social events, I’m good nesting with my family. My mother is in a retirement facility, and a close friend has Stage 4 cancer: I worry about them.

What books are you reading while quarantined?
With the semester going, I primarily read MFA theses and workshop poems, as well as undergraduate writing in all genres. I’ve been reading Toi Derricotte and Kalamu ya Salaam in preparation for their upcoming visits to our MFA program. I’ve been rereading the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales to think about plagues of the past, what it means to tell (or post) our stories, and what a pilgrimage would look like now. I’m also settling into the newest issue of one of my favorite literary magazines, West Branch.

If you knew five months ago what you know now, how would you have prepared for this moment?
Gone to see my mother before they closed the home to guests.

Have you attended or participated in any virtual readings? Do you think they’re here to stay or do you prefer to return to in-person readings?
Yes, I have attended and participated in virtual readings, thesis defenses, faculty meetings, and workshops. Full disclosure: I’m a Luddite with a flip phone, so virtual anything makes my list of “hateful things,” à la Sei Shōnagon’s list in The Pillow Book. As a vain person and a control freak, I like a filter that peels off ten years, a control panel to diminish or enlarge others, and an “End Meeting” button. I like that I can wear makeup, a fancy blouse, and PJ bottoms. I like being able to mute myself and black out my screen, so no one can see that I walked off during a meeting. In sum, I think it encourages me to be phony—yes, more comfortable, but comfortable comes at a price. It’s too curated. Andy Warhol said, “I want to be a machine.” Me too, but then what: How do we machine together? Will we go back to in-person readings? I think so. People need each other. Will in-person gatherings be “zoomed” or what have you? Sure. Now that we have a taste, folks will want that synchronous, “participatory” experience you don’t get from a recording.

What’s your hope for New Orleans during and after this pandemic?
My hope for New Orleans is the same as before the pandemic: equal access to education for all kids. As a teaching artist in grammar, middle, and high schools and the mother of a ten-year-old, I’ve noticed that funding, class sizes, and quality of education vary significantly from school to school. In general, I see white kids getting better stuff. I believe that doing away with admissions tests and lotteries, and opening enrollment to all students would advance our community.

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

Writer’s Notes From COVID NOLA: Annell López

Today I’m starting an interview series on this blog called: Writer’s Notes From COVID NOLA. This series will highlight how New Orleans writers are coping during the quarantine due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Writer Annell López is up first. Annell is a Dominican immigrant fiction writer and an assistant poetry editor for the Night Heron Barks who is working on a collection of short stories. In her free time, she documents her travels to independent bookstores across the country on Instagram, @annellthebookbabe.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted you personally and professionally?
I have struggled to maintain my writing routine. Though I’m not lacking motivation, I find it really hard to focus. There have been some good days where I sit and write with ease, and then there have been days where I am trudging through, forcing myself to put pen to paper.

Isolation has been taxing in many ways. But it has also reminded me of how fortunate I am. I have friends and family checking in on me constantly. I am surrounded (virtually) by kind people who make me feel like things will be all right.

What books are you reading while quarantined?
I’ve read so many! I loved Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson, Ordinary Girls by Jaquira Díaz, These Ghosts Are Family by Maisy Card, We Were Promised Spotlights by Lindsay Sproul, Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett, The Lost Book of Adana Moreau by Michael Zapata, and poems from Godspine by Terri Muuss and Demolition in the Tropics by Rogan Kelly. These works have become my companions during this isolation.

If you knew five months ago what you know now, how would you have prepared for this moment?
During those afternoon happy hours, I would have listened more attentively to my friends. I would have hugged them a little tighter, loved them a little harder.

Have you attended or participated in any virtual readings? Do you think they’re here to stay or do you prefer in-person readings?
I am so grateful that they exist and I hope they’re here to stay. The Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans and Catahoula zine have hosted some lovely readings on Zoom. Under the Creole Chandelier, a reading series in town, also hosts an open mic every Sunday night on Zoom. I love popping in there and listening to people read their work. It’s helped me cope. Though I prefer in-person readings, virtual readings have made access to creatives from other cities possible, and people from across the country now have access to us as well. Everyone in the country should have access to our literary magic in New Orleans!

What’s your hope for New Orleans during and after this pandemic?
New Orleans is synonymous with resilience, with strength. New Orleanians are some of the most soulful, courageous, and creative people in this country. This will pass, and when it does we will be blown away by the creative outburst that follows.

I am sure New Orleanians will continue to love and support one another just as fiercely as they always have.

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

Louisiana Celebrates Poetry Virtually

For ten years the State Library of Louisiana has celebrated poetry during the month of April for National Poetry Month with a myriad of reading events. This year, the library adjusted their plans due to COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders and continued with their programming virtually.

On Thursday, April 30, the Louisiana Center for the Book in the State Library of Louisiana closed out the month with an online reading as part of their annual “Just Listen to Yourself” event. Louisiana poet laureate John Warner Smith invited six poets from across the state to read their work. Participating poets included Liz Adair, Katie Bickham, David Havird, Brad Richard, Donney Rose, and I was also happy to be asked to join the reading.

The event is typically held at the state’s library in Baton Rogue, but the opportunity to showcase poets from across the state virtually allowed for a wider audience to watch and get to know us.

“The richness of Louisiana poetry can give us solace during these challenging days,” said Louisiana lieutenant governor Billy Nungesser in a press release about the event.

Although Covid-19 poses several challenges for writers, I believe this virtual reading will be an artifact in Louisiana literary history.

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

Eight New Orleans Poets to Watch

There are only a couple days left for this year’s National Poetry Month and I wanted to celebrate by highlighting some New Orleans poets and their recorded readings. Some have been created during the COVID-19 quarantine and others showcase the venues we miss visiting. If you’re looking for virtual readings to watch from home, check out the online events in the Literary Events Calendar and follow me on Twitter, @nolapworg.

1. Jessica Kinnison, cofounder of the Dogfish reading series, reads poems for the Virtual New Orleans Poetry Festival 2020.

2. Sunni Patterson reads a poem with musical accompaniment for the Letters From the Porch video series, which brings musicians and performers together to offer gratitude to the medical community.

3. Slam New Orleans member FreeQuency reads her poem “Lessons on Being an African Immigrant in America” at the 2014 National Poetry Slam Finals.

4. Brad Richard reads from his collection Parasite Kingdom (The Word Works, 2019). Richard codirects the LGBTIQ reading series the Waves with poet Elizabeth Gross.

5. New Orleans poet Skye Jackson reads from her chapbook, A Faster Grave (Antenna Press, 2019), for a book launch reading at Malvern Books.

6. Justin Lamb, a former Slam New Orleans member and the program director at Bard Early College in New Orleans, performs “The Friend Zone.”

7. Megan Burns, cofounder of the New Orleans Poetry Festival and Trembling Pillow Press publisher, reads for the Unlikely Salons reading series at the Zeitgeist Theatre and Lounge in Arabi, Louisiana.

8. Gina Ferrara, host of the Poetry Buffet series, reads her poem “The Religion Once But No Longer Shared” at Cafe Istanbul in New Orleans.

Bonus: 826 New Orleans program director Kyley Pulphus offers an online writing workshop for their #agoodtimetowrite series.

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

Let’s Read Part Two: Poetry From New Orleans

To continue celebrating National Poetry Month, here is the second half of my recommended New Orleans book list to read during quarantine. I hope you enjoy and remember to support your local writers, small presses, and bookstores however you can as we all get through this difficult time together.

1. Poems Don’t Have to Be Perfect: 2019 Pizza Poetry Anthology by 826 New Orleans. The poems (some about pizza) from this anthology by young writers ages 6–18 are collected by the nonprofit 826 New Orleans at their annual Pizza Poetry event, which publishes student poems on the boxes of local pizza joints.

2. City Without People: The Katrina Poems (Black Widow Press, 2011) by Niyi Osundare. The Nigerian-born poet connects his roots with the African influences of New Orleans and recalls the people who helped him when he lost his home to Hurricane Katrina.

3. Louisiana Midrash (University of New Orleans Press, 2019) by Marian D. Moore. Moore writes about her African American Jewish experience in this wonderful collection of poetry.

4. Memory Wing (Black Widow Press, 2011) by Bill Lavender. Lavender has written more than ten books of poetry and is the publisher of the popular local press Lavender Ink. This collection reads like a memoir taking us deep into his family life and experiences in Arkansas and New Orleans.

5. Fractal Song (Black Widow Press, 2016) by Jerry Ward. Esteemed professor and scholar, Ward writes poems with imagery that bring the fractures of life together.

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

Let’s Read Part One: Poetry From New Orleans

During this pandemic, as many of us are quarantined in our homes, we may be looking for ways to find a silver lining in all of this. Might I suggest more reading? In honor of National Poetry Month, I wanted to share a few poetry books written by New Orleans authors to remind us about this beloved city. I hope you’ll enjoy some poems from this list of books (I’ve included links to their listings in the New Orleans Public Library), and maybe it will inspire you to make your own list of poetry books about the cities you love.

1. From a Bend in the River: 100 New Orleans Poets (Runagate Press, 1998) edited by Kalamu ya Salaam. This classic anthology gives voice to a diverse group of poets, and includes poetry from both established and emerging writers.

2. Hearing Sappho in New Orleans: The Call of Poetry From Congo Square to the Ninth Ward (Louisiana State University Press, 2012) by Ruth Salvaggio. In this book Salvaggio, inspired by a volume of Sappho’s poetry she finds while going through her belongings just after Hurricane Katrina, explores the history of lyric poetry in New Orleans.

3. My Name Is New Orleans: 40 Years of Poetry & Other Jazz (Margaret Media, Inc., 2009) by Arthur Pfister. This collection of poetry captures the sounds and smells and culture of New Orleans from a native who was a fixture of the poetry scene in the city for decades.

4. Geometry of the Heart (Portals Press, 2007) by Valentine Pierce. Ms Valentine, as I affectionately call her, is a veteran to the New Orleans poetry scene. Her work showcases years of knowledge and wisdom.

5. Red Beans and Ricely Yours (Truman State University Press, 2005) by Mona Lisa Saloy. This is a classic book of Southern poetry—and a winner of the PEN Oakland-Josephine Miles Literary Award for poetry—from one of our city’s beloved folklorists.

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

The Readings Must Go On

As we celebrate National Poetry Month, I wanted to pause for a moment in the blog to talk about how writers in New Orleans are adjusting to the COVID-19 restrictions.

Like in many cities, writers in New Orleans are adapting to stay-at-home orders by hosting readings and other literary events virtually. Whether you were ready to leap into the virtual world and take on technology or not, we have suddenly become each other’s online audience.

Although I miss browsing my local bookstores and bumping into writers while attending events, this online surge of literary events has offered me the opportunity to hear and see more local writers without having to pick and choose what I can attend due to a busy schedule. Quarantine means I am able to experience hearing more from local and national writers from the comfort of my couch.

I have already joined a newly formed New Orleans poetry series Facebook Group, watched a fiction reading, and peeked in on a Zoom workshop of local writers. And I’m sure there’s more I’m forgetting to mention.

If you are organizing virtual literary events in New Orleans, reach out me at The Readings & Workshops program has recently updated its mini-grants to accommodate virtual literary programming and applications are open now. You can also view and list online events on the Literary Events Calendar. Enjoy online and stay safe.

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

José Torres-Tama and His Sci-fi Latino Noir

As we remain at home and do our part to stop the spread of the coronavirus, I wanted to share a short interview I did with poet and performance artist José Torres-Tama who I met a few years ago when we read along with other featured New Orleans poets at a venue off of St. Claude. I remember his chant of “no guacamole for immigrant haters” vividly. Torres-Tama has been touring his solo show Aliens, Immigrants & Other Evildoers across the country for almost ten years. The multimedia and bilingual show, which he describes as a “sci-fi Latino noir,” is updated regularly to reflect current events and is based on interviews Torres-Tama conducts with undocumented immigrants who share their courageous stories. The Readings & Workshops program cosponsored a powerful performance of the show this past September at the Alvar Branch of the New Orleans Public Library. I was able to speak with him about his work, his life in New Orleans, and the importance of giving voice to the immigrant experience.

How has Aliens, Immigrants & Other Evildoers evolved over the years?
Aliens, Immigrants & Other Evildoers premiered in 2010 at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans. In August 2019, we restaged the show for sold-out houses back at the Ashé to kick off a national tour. The show is about the hypocrisy of a country that exploits immigrant labor while criminalizing them. My comic battle cry is, “No guacamole for immigrant haters!” My 2020 tour opened in Mexico City and celebrated Glossolalia, a bilingual poetry book edited by iconic poet Guillermo Gómez-Peña that includes poems from Aliens, Immigrants & Other Evildoers.

Why does New Orleans feel like home to you?
I’m an Ecuadorian immigrant and naturalized U.S. citizen, and immigrant rights is the thematic platform for my poems. New Orleans is the northernmost point of the Caribbean with an often forgotten Latin legacy, and since the 1980s, I proudly call these swamplands home because I’ve cultivated my voice as a poet and performance artist here.

What do you feel is your contribution to the New Orleans literary scene?
I’m one of few Latin American poets here speaking to the immigrant experience. I believe my work is vital to a poetry scene that’s often stuck in a white and black binary quagmire. We need more Latinx voices to claim our rightful place in a city whose post-Katrina resurrection owes much to Latin American immigrant reconstruction workers who gave their blood, labor, and love to our rebirth.

Who are some local poets on your radar that we should look out for?
Two poets to watch in New Orleans are Linett Luna Tovar, a fierce Mexican wordsmith, and José Fermin Ceballos, an Afro-Dominican singer and poet.

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

Poetry Buffet: A Q&A With Gina Ferrara

This week I’m continuing to highlight New Orleans women writers to celebrate Women’s History Month. Gina Ferrara was born and raised in New Orleans and is the author of the poetry collection, The Weight of the Ripened, out this week from Dos Madres Press. Ferrara teaches English and writing at Delgado Community College as an associate professor. Since 2007, she has curated the Poetry Buffet, a monthly reading series sponsored by the New Orleans Public Library, and she gave me my first opportunity to be a featured poet for one of their readings. I was able to sit down with Ferrara to talk about her work with the reading series and her new book.

You have worked at building an inclusive poetry community with the Poetry Buffet series for many years. Why is this so important to you?
Prior to Hurricane Katrina, I was in a group called the Women’s Poetry Conspiracy. The group formed in 2002 or 2003. Latter Library was one of our venues for reading events. The group dissolved after Katrina, but the head librarian Missy Abbott saw a need to bring poetry to the library again and invited me to start a new series.

I think of the Poetry Buffet series as something distinctively New Orleans, as we read on St. Charles Avenue, surrounded by canopies of live oaks and crape myrtles, and the streetcar passes on the tracks with its bell while poets share their work in a historic mansion, which is now a library. It’s my honor to curate this series.

Who has Delgado Community College recently invited to their growing reading series?
Our English department has a bevy of writers that drive our reading series. We bring in readers who are able to connect with our students. We recently featured Malaika Favorite, an African American visual artist and poet. Another writer we invited was J. Bruce Fuller, who actually began his academic career as a Delgado student and went on to become a Stegner Fellow.

What inspired your new book, Weight of the Ripened?
Like its title indicates, the poems are dense and distinctive with a lyrical specificity. The poems span from 2013 until early 2019, and although I didn’t set out with the purpose of writing poems about women, in retrospect, quite a few of the poems are investigations about them.

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

What’s Changing in New Orleans

As I type these words the case count of residents in Louisiana who have tested positive for coronavirus is 196. The total number of cases in Orleans Parish in New Orleans is 136.

On Sunday, New Orleans mayor LaToya Cantrell announced that the city enforced a ban on large gatherings and the Tennessee Williams Festival, the New Orleans Book Festival, and the New Orleans Poetry Festival have been canceled.

I will do my best to share resources and ways to support local authors and bookstores through my Twitter feed, @NOLApworg.

The coronavirus will be a blow to our city in many ways. New Orleans is a city that heavily depends on tourism. We are a port city and a large event destination city. We are the city of Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest. Many local writers have had readings canceled or postponed. Local bookstores are impacted, too. While I’m sure this narrative is nationwide, the uncertainty and rising deaths in our state underscore the trauma experienced from a lack of federal response during Hurricane Katrina fifteen years ago.

In some ways we are prepared and know how to hunker down. We know how to find small moments of joy. So to everyone near and far, I say to you, we will get through this because one of the things New Orleans has taught the world is how to survive.

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


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