Poets Laureate of New Orleans

What’s the history of poets laureate in your state or city? New Orleans doesn’t have a poet laureate but the state of Louisiana makes an appointment every two years. For Black History Month, I’m highlighting the past and present African American poets laureate of Louisiana. Through their poetry and service, these poets have led the way for the next generation of New Orleans writers and beyond.

Pinkie Gordon Lane (1989-1992)
I did not have the opportunity to meet Pinkie Gordon Lane before she died in 2008, but I have great admiration for her. Lane was the first African American poet laureate of Louisiana. Born in Philadelphia, Lane moved to Baton Rouge in the 1950s and became chair of the English Department at Southern University. Lane was also the director of an annual Black poetry festival in the 1970s that was a destination for writers such as Toni Morrison and Nikki Giovanni. Lane’s second book of poetry, The Mystic Female (1978), was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1979. Her influence on New Orleans writers is unmeasurable.

Brenda Marie Osbey (2005-2007)
Of this short list, Brenda Marie Osbey is the only New Orleans native. I’ve met Osbey and heard her read several times in town. She captures New Orleans history with detailed precision in her writing. Summoning Our Saints: The Poetry and Prose of Brenda Marie Osbey (Lexington Books, 2019) is a new book of essays about her work and career edited by John Wharton Lowe. In-depth analysis of Black writers is not always readily available, and the essays in this collection thoroughly examine Osbey’s place in African American and Southern writing.

John Warner Smith (2019-2021)
John Warner Smith is a Cave Canem fellow, as am I, but we didn’t meet until we were both featured readers at the state’s library a few years ago during National Poetry Month. Smith is the first African American man to be appointed Louisiana poet laureate and I interviewed him last fall for this blog shortly after the announcement. His latest book, Our Shut Eyes: New and Selected Poems on Race in America, was published by MadHat Press last year and he currently teaches English at Southern University. Smith has only been the poet laureate for a few months, but I look forward to seeing how he’ll utilize the position to implement poetry throughout the state.

Let’s keep the conversation going: What should the role of a poet laureate be? Find me on Twitter, @NOLApworg.

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

Community Book Center: Opening Doors for Black Writers

For Black History Month, I will be writing about Black writers and institutions that have contributed to the Black literary experience in New Orleans. This first post is dedicated to Community Book Center.

When I walk into Community Book Center, I feel like I am stepping into my grandmother’s house. I’m usually greeted by the straight talk of Mama Jen (Jennifer). “Where yo ass been?” is usually her first question to me followed by, of course, a hug. It is the balance of realness and love that makes this place so special, not only for me but for so many Black writers in the city.

If you are a Black writer in New Orleans, it’s likely not every literary door is open to your work. At Community Book Center, the emphasis on community allows Black writers of all levels and genres an opportunity to promote and sell their books, and discover authors that make you feel represented and invited in.

Community Book Center is owned by Vera Warren Williams and is currently the only Black-owned bookstore left in New Orleans, to my knowledge. It has thrived for more than thirty years and survived Katrina, gentrification, and the ever-changing publishing industry.

Whenever I’m there, I feel a sense of pride because I don’t have to look for the African American section like in other bookstores—the entire store ignores the white gaze that Toni Morrison often spoke about. When I browse the shelves and see all the books for children, women, parents, and families that span the Black and African experience, I know that I am home. Thank you, Community Book Center!

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

Reach Out to Me

Many writers know me in New Orleans. I’ve served on literary boards and coordinated festival events, and now I am a Poets & Writers Literary Outreach Coordinator. So, what’s that? Through a grant from the Hearst Foundations, Poets & Writers launched a pilot initiative in 2019 called the United States of Writing in three cities: Detroit, Houston, and New Orleans. Each city has a literary outreach coordinator to help spread the word to writers about the resources Poets & Writers has to offer and to contribute to and strengthen our literary community.

Although my job is less than part-time, I am very busy trying to encourage writers to apply for Readings & Workshops mini-grants, which provide funds for literary events in New Orleans (as well as in Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Seattle, Tucson, Washington, D.C., all of California, and New York State). I try to attend as many literary events around the city as possible. Sometimes I make myself known, other times I’m in the back enjoying the event quietly. When I can’t get to an event, I try to make sure I tweet about it on Twitter, @NOLApworg, or post events on P&W’s Literary Events Calendar.

I enjoy reporting about literary events in New Orleans to the P&W staff and to you all through this blog. One thing is for sure: Literary scenes are not one-size-fits-all. Regional culture influences local literary scenes in cities across the country. Detroit is not Houston. Houston is not New Orleans—and you know what? That’s a good thing! Every city contributes to the national literary landscape, and I am committed to working in a way that is authentic to New Orleans.

My job is also to find out what I don’t know. So if you have a question, an event, or a recommendation, or if you want to organize a gathering in New Orleans, let me know. I’m here for you, New Orleans.

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

Before Beads, Catch These Reads

There’s nothing like living in New Orleans, especially during Mardi Gras. You’ll see the wacky, the tacky, and everything in between. The school band around the corner from my house practices their songs and steps for one of the many parades happening during the season. As students make the block, neighbors and I often rush out the door to catch a glimpse of them polishing their moves and sound. If you haven’t been to New Orleans during Mardi Gras season, what are you waiting for?

Before you catch those beads, catch these reads and prepare yourself for all that is Mardi Gras. And if you can’t make it to the streets in February, these books can offer you a true taste of the celebration. As it’s often said in New Orleans, “laissez les bon temps rouler” or “let the good times roll!”

Cherchez la Femme: New Orleans Women (University Press of Mississippi, 2019) by Cheryl Gerber. Cherchez la femme is a French phrase which literally means “look for the woman.” This book, which was just released in time for this year’s Mardi Gras, captures the essence of what it means to be a woman in New Orleans culture. There are amazing photos and essays written by women about women including musicians and second-liners, and local favorites like Leah Chase and Irma Thomas.

New Orleans Carnival Krewes: The History, Spirit & Secrets of Mardi Gras (The History Press, 2014) by Jennifer Atkins. Can you say pomp and circumstance? New Orleans does it better than any other American city. Balls. Gowns. Masks. Parades. Parties. Learn about the traditions and history of the carnival krewes behind the celebrations with this book.

Lords of Misrule: Mardi Gras and the Politics of Race in New Orleans (University Press of Mississippi, 1997) by James Gill. If you want some tea on Mardi Gras, this is a good start. There are no traditions without politics. Read about the history, codes, and racism intertwined with Mardi Gras. Find out what’s really behind some of those masks.

From the Kingdom of Kongo to Congo Square: Kongo Dances and the Origins of the Mardi Gras Indians (University of Louisiana at Lafayette, 2017) by Jeroen Dewulf. This is my favorite book on this list and traces the history of Black Indian masking to its African roots. This is a must-read that explores the connection between Black Indians in New Orleans and Native American culture.

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

One Book Can Change a City

One Book One New Orleans is a campaign for literacy and community where New Orleans residents share the experience of reading the same book at the same time. The city has many great writers but its adult illiteracy rates are troubling. I had an opportunity to speak with One Book One New Orleans’s executive director Megan Holt and ask a few questions about the organization’s mission and how reading books together can build community. Megan and I have worked together at the Words & Music Festival for the last two years but most importantly, we are friends that share a love for motherhood and literacy.

Can you tell us a little bit about the mission of One Book One New Orleans?
One Book One New Orleans selects one book each year for New Orleans residents to read. We make an extra effort to ensure that our selected book is accessible to all adults. Through a network of community partners, we get the book, as well as a curriculum for the book, into adult education classes, adult ESL classes, HiSET classes, educational programs in juvenile justice centers, and prisons. We also arrange for the book to be recorded and broadcast for the blind community. Finally, we host a series of free, family-friendly events inspired by the book.

Why is it so important to get the whole city of New Orleans reading?
Often it feels that New Orleans is a city divided—by education level, by socioeconomic class, by neighborhood, by race. Bringing people from different walks of life together through a shared reading experience can be the first step to realizing that we have more in common with one another than we thought.

How can reading as a city transform New Orleans?
Increased adult literacy is linked to lower poverty rates, lower crime rates, lower domestic violence rates, better chances of securing a job that pays a living wage, better health care outcomes, and increased participation in the democratic process. These effects then get passed on to the next generation. While it would be overly simplistic to say that reading together as a city is a magic cure-all for some of the struggles our city faces, coming together certainly can serve as a catalyst for change.

What are some of the books the city has read together in the past?
Our first book in 2004 was A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines. The last few years we’ve included titles such as Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans by Louis Armstrong, Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas by Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker, and Counting Descent by Clint Smith.

What’s the book for 2020?
New Orleans Griot: The Tom Dent Reader
edited by Kalamu ya Salaam.

One Book One New Orleans executive director Megan Holt. (Credit: Paula Burch-Celentano)
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.

Tubby & Coo’s: A Neighborhood Bookstore

Just before the holidays, I highlighted a few local bookstores in New Orleans worth checking out for gifts. Tubby & Coo’s is an indie bookstore doing great work in Mid-City and as luck would have it, our Poets & Writers table was set up next to their onsite bookstore during the recent Words & Music Festival. The shop specializes in genre fiction, including science fiction, fantasy, graphic novels, and children’s books. Tubby & Coo’s owner Candice Huber named the shop after her grandparents who lived in Mid-City and opening a bookstore has been a lifelong dream. Below is a short chat I had with Huber about her bookstore.

What lessons have you learned as a bookstore owner over the last five years?
The main thing I’ve learned is my customer base and what they look for. It’s always a bit of trial and error when you first start, but over the years you listen to customers and learn what they want, and that is immensely helpful. I’ve also learned a lot about the book and publishing industries in general, and about my own personal limitations and skills. Owning my own business has really pushed me, but it’s also been so rewarding.

How does the Mid-City neighborhood play into how Tubby & Coo’s functions?
I love that we’re close to City Park and right on the streetcar line. Also, Mid-City is very community oriented. I love that we know and interact with our neighbors and other Mid-City businesses regularly and that everyone helps each other out and supports each other. I couldn’t ask for a better neighborhood!

The shops website mentions that Tubby & Coos is also a community center. What else makes your bookstore unique?
We’re a niche store that appeals directly to nerd and queer folk. We carry mostly science fiction and fantasy, but we also have a great selection of queer books, children’s books, and board games. I think we’ve done a good job of creating a safe space and environment and a wonderful community space where anyone can be themselves.

Are there any upcoming bookstore events we should look out for in 2020?
We’re currently in the process of planning for 2020. We’ll definitely continue our book clubs and board game night, which are always hits. And we’re already planning our super popular Harry Potter Birthday Party. Our sibling publishing company, TALES Publishing, will also be picking up in 2020 to publish a few more books. We’ll have other fun events as well, so stay tuned to our Twitter feed, @tubbyandcoos!

Tubby & Coo’s owner Candice Huber visits the Poets & Writers booth at the Words & Music Festival.
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.

Spotlight on Poet Peter Cooley

Last November, I spoke with poet Peter Cooley following the International Poetry Reading cosponsored by Poets & Writers at Tulane University. Cooley, professor emeritus of English at Tulane University and the former poet laureate of Louisiana, is the author of ten books of poetry, most recently World Without Finishing (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2018). We talked about the passing of his dear wife and laughed about advice his daughters recently gave him about the dating world. Here’s a short Q&A that extends our conversation.

As professor emeritus of English at Tulane, what do you look for in the writing of MFA applicants?
The ability to see life a little differently, from a new angle, and the possession of a facility with language.

How have creative writing programs changed since you were a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop?
There are, happily, many different kinds of MFA programs now, from the studio model like the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, to the more structured programs like the University of Arkansas. They are all over the country. And there are low-residency programs, similar to Warren Wilson College’s MFA program.

Recently, you spoke to me about becoming a widower and the advice your daughters have given you about dating. How has this experience impacted your writing?
I am finishing a whole book about grief and being a widower. My wife died on March 15, 2018. I thought I couldn’t write about this, which meant I needed to write it.

As a former poet laureate of Louisiana what advice can you offer for writers?
My advice to writers is the old advice: read, read, read, revise, revise, revise. Find a couple of people whose opinion you respect and show your stuff to them with the hope of receiving criticism. Be prepared for continuous rejection in sending your work out and remember that some of the most famous works have been rejected countless times.

You told me you’ve subscribed to Poets & Writers Magazine for years. What do you like most about the magazine?
I have subscribed to Poets & Writers Magazine for as long as I can remember. I enjoy the feature articles, the news of new writers, and the classifieds. I also like the layouts and photographs of writers.

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

Saints and Sinners Literary Festival

If you’re looking for more community and a spirited festival, you should look into Saints and Sinners. Founded in 2003, the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival highlights LGBTQ writers and publishers from the United States and beyond. The three-day event features panel discussions, workshops, and readings and is held each spring in the French Quarter at the Hotel Monteleone—an official literary landmark that has welcomed William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Eudora Welty, and Tennessee Williams to its rooms.

The 2020 festival is set for March 27–29 and will feature poet Savannah Sipple, fiction writer Leona Beasley, historian Frank Perez, and many others. Registration is open now with day passes and student rates available.

Saints and Sinners is a project of the Tennessee Williams & New Orleans Literary Festival, which I’ve attended several times in the past. The two festivals overlap so it’s possible to attend events from both. Last year, Saints and Sinners kicked off the festival with the return of their open mic slam and first-ever Drag Queen show. And to conclude the event, there are Saints and Sinners Hall of Fame awards given to those who best embody the mission of the festival.

My poet friend Brad Richard has attended the festival and speaks highly of it: “The Saints and Sinners Festival is a wonderful community within the larger community of the Tennessee Williams Festival. I’ve met writers I’ve always wanted to meet and discovered new ones, and found a publisher, Sibling Rivalry Press, for my third book, Butcher’s Sugar.”

Although I haven’t had the chance to attend Saints and Sinners yet, I look forward to supporting the festival and attendees in the coming year.

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

Literary Holiday Gifts for Writers and Booklovers

It’s the holiday season and time for giving. If you’re considering what to give to the writer or booklover in your life, here are a few ideas.

Independent bookstore gift cards: I’ve never met a writer or reader who didn’t love a gift card from a local bookstore. There are always independent bookstores that could use shoppers and you never know what author might be giving a reading or signing a book while you’re there. Not only is a gift card a great present, you’ll be supporting small businesses and literary artists. A few of my favorites in New Orleans are Blue Cypress Books, Community Book Center, Faulkner House Books, Garden District Book Shop, Octavia Books, and Tubby & Coo’s Mid-City Book Shop. You can also check out the Literary Places database for bookstores near you.

Buy a book from a small press: There are so many small presses putting out incredible work from emerging and established writers who may not be on the big best sellers lists. Get their books into the hands of a friend. Some small presses operating out of New Orleans are Lavender Ink, Trembling Pillow Press, and University of New Orleans Press. The Small Presses database also has a list of wonderful publishers to choose from.

Donate to a literary organization: For something outside of the box, consider donating to a literary organization in the name of a friend or family member as a gift. These nonprofits are instrumental in creating support systems and opportunities for local writers, including fellowships, retreats, and workshops. Some organizations to consider in New Orleans are 826 New Orleans (which has chapters in other cities), Antenna, and One Book One New Orleans.

Take a friend out to a literary event: Maybe you have a friend who’s never been to a poetry reading or you’ve been meaning to take someone to your favorite reading series. What better time than now to introduce new writers to a good friend and create more community as a way of giving back? The Literary Events Calendar is a great place to start to find an event near you.

Random act of kindness: Is there a writer you like or follow online? Give them a big shout-out on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Give the gift of recommendation. Let your networks know who’s on your literary radar and why. You’d be surprised how helpful this can be to a writer in your community and beyond.

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

From the Big Easy

I’m Kelly Harris and I’ll be reporting from the Big Easy: New Orleans, Louisiana. I am a poet—see my Poets & Writers Directory profile for more on that—and I work as a freelancer and consultant for many projects around town, including the Words & Music festival. The annual event, upcoming in November, celebrates the literature, music, films, and history of New Orleans and is definitely worth checking out, whether you’re a local or a visitor. If you haven’t already, check out the Literary Events Calendar where you can peruse local events and list more for free. And if you’re on the go, download the Poets & Writers Local app.

As the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans, I have the pleasure of engaging with the local literary community and informing them about the resources and funding opportunities that P&W offers. Several local writers have already been funded by the mini-grants from the Readings & Workshops program and I look forward to spreading the word to more writers in Orleans Parish and beyond. Writers at all levels who give readings or conduct writing workshops can submit an application and find out more about the program.

New Orleans is typically known for its food and music, but there is a thriving literary arts scene worth exploring. I’m excited to highlight the many writers and events that make writing in New Orleans magical.

Kelly Harris.
 
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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