United States of Writing Blog

United States of Writing is an initiative to expand our core programs to better serve writers coast to coast. This year, we’re piloting United States of Writing in Detroit, Houston, and New Orleans with plans to expand in the coming years.

Follow our literary outreach coordinators—Justin Rogers in Detroit, Lupe Mendez in Houston, and Kelly Harris in New Orleans—as they report on the literary life in three storied American cities.

United States of Writing is supported with a generous grant from the Hearst Foundations and additional support from Amazon Literary Partnership.

10.26.20

If you enjoyed our Hurricane Katrina Anniversary virtual event, join us on Thursday, October 29 as we celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the NOMMO Literary Society of New Orleans with a Facebook Live event.

NOMMO began as a workshop for Black writers in 1994 led by Kalamu ya Salaam in New Orleans. The workshop had high profile writing guests including Amiri Baraka, Toi Derricotte, and Terrance Hayes. Many consider it the foundation for similar writers workshops that would come soon after, such as Cave Canem and VONA. NOMMO dismantled formally after Hurricane Katrina but many of the participants continue their writing pursuits with success. Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jericho Brown was one of NOMMO’s early participants.

The upcoming virtual event will include Jericho Brown, Karen Celestan, Jarvis DeBerry, Freddi Williams Evans, Ayo Fayemi-Robinson, Keturah Kendrick, Marian Moore, and Kalamu ya Salaam. The panel will discuss the need for building community as writers, the cultural impact of New Orleans, and the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina and how it is applicable to our current pandemic.

Register for Unique and Unified: Celebrating the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the NOMMO Literary Society here!

To learn more about NOMMO, read my previous post about its history.

Photo: NOMMO Literary Society anniversary event flyer.
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.

 

10.21.20

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.
10.14.20

Hamtramck is a small city in Wayne County that is surrounded by the city of Detroit. It is one of the many cultural hubs of southeastern Michigan, home to large Middle Eastern and South Asian communities. Hamtramck has been influential to numerous Detroit writers who have taken up residence there and enjoyed the company of welcoming bakeries, coffee shops, and bookstores. I have personally spent quality writing time at Cafe 1923 and Book Suey.

I recently had an opportunity to speak with Hamtramck native and high school student Katja Rowan about how the city has influenced her writing. Rowan is a dancer, violinist, and writer who participated in virtual panels, readings, and workshops this summer as a member of InsideOut Citywide Poets’ new Performance Troupe. Rowan became serious about her writing in middle school. “I realized writing can be more than just something I like to do,” she says. “It can be powerful and can make a change.”

Rowan enjoys the closeness felt between residents in Hamtramck and the diversity of the city. “Hamtramck has made me aware of different perspectives because there are so many cultures and backgrounds to learn from,” she says.

Rowan also discussed how Detroit offers artists on stage and on paper support, and how the community comes together in a strong way. The dynamics of both Hamtramck’s physical tight-knit nature and Detroit’s supportive community are valuable gems for residents in the area. The thinking and creating that comes from this support is inspiring and has the potential to inform the wider world on how an encouraging environment can influence art and be enriching for all.

Rowan is currently working on a project that she hopes will inform her community and the wider world on “Queer Narratives of Joy,” the running theme of her novel-in-progress. “Queer folks face a lot but I also want to highlight some of the beauty and joy,” she says. “I want to create for queer readers like me who want to read those positive narratives too.”

Photo: Katja Rowan.
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
10.7.20

If you have sincere interest in Black New Orleans, the Louisiana Creole language, and how language summons us to grapple with history—Brenda Marie Osbey is my first recommendation. Osbey is the author of books in English and French, most recently, 1967 (William & Mary, 2018), All Souls: Essential Poems (LSU Press, 2015), and History and Other Poems (Time Being Books, 2013). For more than thirty years she has researched and recorded the history of Faubourg Tremé, a community founded by free Blacks in New Orleans. From 2005 to 2007, Osbey served as the first peer-selected poet laureate of Louisiana. I had an opportunity to speak with Osbey about her appointment as poet laureate, her writing process, and her advice for writers.

Photo: Brenda Marie Osbey (Credit: Baquet, New Orleans)
 

You were the second Black woman to be selected for the role of poet laureate of Louisiana. What lessons, if any, did you learn from this public role?
Because my spring 2005 appointment was the first one recommended by a committee of literary peers, I began by considering how I might best serve beyond the expected class visits that dominate most laureateship tenures. Then Katrina hit New Orleans on the 29 of August as a Category 1* hurricane, after which the levees broke, flooding the city of New Orleans and the surrounding area.

During my two-year laureateship, I traveled the United States, advocating for the right to return and rebuild, speaking on disaster panels, giving mini-versions of the Black New Orleans Research Seminar I had been teaching at universities across the country in the years before the storm. For a while, there was a narrative floating about that New Orleans was not worth rebuilding or saving in any way that would be deemed costly. I sought to dispel this notion in various ways. Additionally, every week I gave readings, and met and engaged with southeast Louisianians—mostly New Orleanians—dispersed across the country, bearing with them their narratives of displacement. It was a wrenching and humbling experience. And it taught me countless lessons about the far reach of community.

In a 1986 interview in the Mississippi Quarterly, you were asked if the New Orleans community was supportive of your work and mentioned that although you love the city, you do some of your best work away from here. You also made a distinction between New Orleans being an arts city and a cultural city. Do you still feel the same way today, and how has that impacted your work?
I was attempting to convey how, despite the city’s long history of cultural/creative output, there was no structure or system in place in New Orleans to support the arts—beyond the entertainment model, that is—which would include supporting arts workers. Which is a longer conversation than is possible here.

Rooted as it is in New Orleans—history, culture, language, sensibilities—writing often requires the kind of distance that allows one to see and consider one’s objectives and materials differently away than at home. Seeing the forest for the trees is necessary to thought, insight, and reflection, and is required to produce work.

Out of all your amazing books, which was the most difficult to write and why?
I don’t think in terms of difficulty or ease. My work is primarily research-based, and each book is a deliberately conceived project with its own arc and progression. And since I’m always working on multiple projects at any given time, my attention is either on the work at hand, what’s next in queue, or some combination.

What’s your advice to young poets?
Learn to read one or more languages. Moreover, study your native language as if learning it for the first time. More so than other genres, poetry is rooted in the human tongue.

Listen to Osbey read “Everything Happens to (Monk and) Me”:

 
*“Reported in 2005 as having struck New Orleans as a Category 1, online information has recently changed the impact of Hurricane Katrina to a Category 3—levees purportedly having been built to withstand hurricanes at the higher level,” Osbey says. “Those of us who were here in New Orleans, however, experienced and witnessed Katrina as a Category 1 hurricane, and recognize the levee breaches and loss of lives as a man-made disaster.”
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
9.28.20

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!

9.23.20

As we near the end of September, temperatures in Detroit are falling with leaves highlighting the end of the summer season. Safety concerns regarding COVID-19 are still lingering, meaning beloved and well-known Detroit festivals such as the annual African World Festival and Dally in the Alley have been canceled. These festivals are networking hubs for local writers and artists alike so it is unfortunate that they can’t be held this year. Despite these cancellations, writers are still documenting this ever-changing new era with their words and sharing work through virtual events like the ninth annual Detroit Lit Walk hosted by M. L. Liebler and Jenifer DeBellis, which provided a daylong literary experience.

There is also a buzz among the writers and organizers of literary events who have been applying for Poets & Writers’ Project Grants available for BIPOC writers in Detroit, Houston, and New Orleans—applications are due by September 30! The grants provide funding for one-, two-, or three-session projects and can be used to cover any cost associated with your project. Read more about the guidelines and apply here!

As we move into October and look for ways to help writers stay connected, I am excited to be hosting Writing in Detroit, a virtual reading on October 23 sponsored by Poets & Writers. Writing in Detroit will feature Christiana Castillo, Devin Samuels, and Scheherazade Washington Parish. Each writer will share original work and say a few words about how living in Detroit has influenced their writing. I believe these three writers will offer a unique insight into how our city’s culture finds its way into our words. Register for your virtual seat and tune in on October 23 at 4:00 PM EST.

For more upcoming events, check out the Literary Events Calendar.

Photo: Writing in Detroit Virtual Reading flyer.
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
9.16.20

On August 26, I curated a virtual reading highlighting New Orleans writers to remember, as I said at the event, all the people, all the cultural places, all the businesses, all the family artifacts, all the schools, all the neighborhoods, and the ways of being that were lost physically and dismantled systematically by Hurricane Katrina. It is hard to believe, but August 29 marked the day the levees broke in New Orleans fifteen years ago.

To commemorate the occasion, Dr. Mona Lisa Saloy, Tom Piazza, Alison Pelegrin, José Torres Tama, Lolis Elie, and Asia Rainey read from their work and shared their experiences. Fourteen-year-old New Orleans saxophonist Akeel Salah Muhammad Haroon treated us with a performance to close the evening.

Readings & Workshops program coordinator Ricardo Hernandez, who helped with tech support, said of the event: “The featured readers were all incredible. I was especially moved to hear Lolis Elie read from “The Whys” and I looked up the piece so I could quote it accurately: ‘Some of us came back because we didn’t believe that the insurance company that we’d dutifully paid for decades would cheat us in our hour of gravest need. (If Dante Alighieri had endured the inferno of our flood, he would have kindled a special fire for insurance companies!)’”

Curating this event was fun but challenging, especially with the added pressure of doing this virtually and praying for no tech hiccups. Luckily it all worked out and our virtual audience was pleased. My goal was to highlight all the ways Hurricane Katrina impacted the city’s writers. It was hard to curate because so much is at stake with a reading that represents the loss and trauma of an entire city. I was happy that each writer brought a different voice and perspective to the reading.

Thank you to all of those who joined us on Facebook for the live event. If you missed the reading, you can watch it here. There is also a wonderful piece written by Joshua Barajas for PBS NewsHour about our event.

Writing about Katrina can be painful, but mostly it is a celebration of what makes New Orleans so special. As Saloy says in the PBS NewsHour piece, “We’re not just authors. We are the carriers of our culture.”

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
9.9.20

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.
9.2.20

Leaves are flirting with fall colors all across Michigan as we walk into September. I am excited to see more virtual events being planned out in advance, and I hope a few of these that feature Detroit writers make it on to your calendar.

On September 2, PEN America is facilitating a panel discussion in collaboration with the Authors Guild and the NYC Literary Action Coalition to speak about how literary organizations are surviving and responding to COVID-19. Moderated by Cheryl Davis of the Authors Guild, Detroit’s own Nandi Comer of Allied Media Projects will be one of the panelists sharing their experiences. I think that this panel will be rich with tips and tools for anyone working within a nonprofit organization, literary or otherwise.

The Zell Visiting Writers Series presented by the Helen Zell Writers’ Program with support from the University of Michigan’s Department of English Language and Literature is going with a virtual platform on September 3 to offer a reading and Q&A with Kaveh Akbar. This is an opportunity not only for the Detroit community, but those who can access the event online worldwide to take part in this renowned reading series.

Pages Bookshop has steadily hosted their visiting artist series virtually this summer. There is an upcoming event scheduled for September 15 featuring novelist Sharon Harrigan in conversation with Kelly Fordon. In addition, Pages is still open for business online!

Finally, on September 20, M. L. Liebler and Jennifer DeBellis, in collaboration with the Detroit Writers’ Guild, will host the ninth annual Midtown Detroit Lit Walk via Facebook Live—although there won’t be any walking involved this year. The reading will feature Shonda Buchanon, Brian Gilmore, and Alison Swan, just to name a few.

For more upcoming events, check out the Literary Events Calendar.

Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
8.24.20

August 29 marks the day the levees broke in New Orleans fifteen years ago. To commemorate the occasion, I am curating a multi-genre reading to remember the lives that were lost and changed by Hurricane Katrina, and the city that was abandoned and continues to thrive. The writers invited for this reading represent the vast stories and experiences of the storm.

The featured readers for our virtual event include:

Lolis Eric Elie, New Orleans native and Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker, who most recently joined the writing staff of the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle and has written for the OWN series Greenleaf and HBO series Treme.

Alison Pelegrin, author of Waterlines (Louisiana State University Press, 2016) and professor in the English department at Southeastern Louisiana University.

Tom Piazza, author of the post-Katrina manifesto Why New Orleans Matters (Harper Perennial, 2008) and a principal writer for the HBO drama series Treme, which explores the aftereffects of Katrina in New Orleans.

Asia Rainey, New Orleans native and veteran artist with a resumé spanning twenty years in spoken word poetry, music, theater, television, visual arts, and film.

Dr. Mona Lisa Saloy, professor of English at Dillard University and author of Second Line Home (Truman State University Press, 2004) and Red Beans & Ricely Yours, which won the 2006 PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Prize and the 2005 T. S. Eliot Prize in poetry.

José Torres Tama, writer and poet exploring anti-immigrant hysteria in his written work and solo theater show Aliens, Immigrants & Other Evildoers.

We will also have music performed by fourteen-year-old New Orleans saxophonist Akeel Salah Muhammad Haroon.

The reading will be livestreamed on the Poets & Writers Facebook page on Wednesday, August 26 at 6:00 PM CDT. Hope to see you there!

Photo: Flyer for the Fifteenth Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina virtual reading.
 
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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