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.

1.20.21

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.
1.13.21

In the new year, I am keeping this series of interviews going, speaking with more Houston writers to ask how and what they’ve been doing since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. I continue to enjoy and receive comfort from their responses to this question:

What have you been doing since the pandemic?

This week, we hear from Joshua Nguyen. Nguyen is a Vietnamese American writer, a collegiate national poetry slam champion (CUPSI), and a native Houstonian. He is the author of the chapbook, American Lục Bát for My Mother, forthcoming from Bull City Press, and has received fellowships from Kundiman, Sundress Academy for the Arts, and the Vermont Studio Center. Nguyen’s poetry has been published in the Offing, Wildness, American Poetry Review, the Texas Review, PANK, Auburn Avenue, Crab Orchard Review, and Gulf Coast magazine. Nguyen has been a guest on the Poetry Foundation’s VS podcast and Tracy K. Smith’s podcast The Slowdown. A bubble tea connoisseur who works in a kitchen, Nguyen received his MFA at the University of Mississippi where he is currently pursuing a PhD. You can find him on Twitter, @joshuanguyen03.

“Honestly, I don’t think I have written a poem since April. Don’t get me wrong, I have been shipping my manuscript out to open submission periods and book prizes, but in regards to new poems, it’s been hard to get into the excitement of creating forms. I have been writing more creative nonfiction. I think one reason why I have gravitated towards creative nonfiction during the pandemic is because it’s easier for my humor to come across in that form (in comparison to writing humor in poetry). And I think during these dark times, I need laughter more than ever. I also think that I have been afforded a kind of isolation with my thoughts which helps me come up with arguments, and counterarguments, for essays I’ve been writing. Most of my energy as a creative writing PhD student has been reading for my literature courses, creating lesson plans for the discussion sections I lead, working at my part-time job in the kitchen of a restaurant, and trying to stretch my butt in between Zoom classes so it doesn’t cramp up. I haven’t had time to write a poem, but I have had time to just sit and be alone with my thoughts whenever I’m resting my eyes between Zoom rooms. I am able to write those thoughts down at the end of the day, and then just turn them into essays.”

Photo: Joshua Nguyen.
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
1.6.21

As 2020 fades and 2021 begins, I’m taking time to return to the poetry section of my bookshelf. I am happy to report that there are still more Detroit authors and books that I am eager to share with you. Today I’ll be highlighting Necessary Evils, a poetry collection by Aja Allante.

Necessary Evils is a self-published book that Allante put into the world at just eighteen years old in 2018. Allante describes the collection as “poems that express the idea that sometimes, bad things need to happen in order for progression and growth to occur.” She holds true to expressing this sentiment in poems such as “Father’s Day,” where the author openly confronts her feelings regarding her father and the impact of his actions on her life, yet still ends up wishing him a happy Father’s Day. This poem and “Stopwatch,” which includes the lines: “I am the house of horrors he sees in himself / in me / you can hear his soles tap dance / against the bottom of my stomach,” give readers a snapshot into the emotional tug of war family can sometimes present.

Allante launches into even more complex emotional battles, such as contemplating love, breakups, and the discovery of self. This young voice shows growth and maturity as the book goes on, even offering sound advice as exemplified in a letter to a younger version of herself: “Stop breaking through walls for people / who would not extend themselves / to open a door for you.” This poem seems to offer a way of looking ahead into the future for both Allante and the reader to reflect on.

Lastly, I can’t help but mention a poem that has become a favorite of mine as we move deeper into the COVID-19 pandemic titled “Homebody.” Though written years before, this poem perfectly conveys the lonely and sometimes cramped feeling of being stuck at home with others. “Windows turn into aching bones too stiff to open,” writes Allante. “Sneaking away in silence is impossible.”

I highly recommend this collection, and you can watch Allante read “Father’s Day” in this InsideOut Literary Arts video.

Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
12.30.20

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.
12.23.20

I am in awe of the effects of time on the city of Detroit as I write this final blog post for the year of 2020. A different world has taken shape since December of last year. The landscape of how writers and non-writers alike engage with the literary arts has changed just as much. In Detroit, streamed virtual events, online book sales, and Facebook Live panels have taken the place of in-person poetry nights, storytelling events, and all festivals. While a tough move for all of us, it has also afforded writers the ability to speak with wider audiences despite where they are physically located. Considering the long-standing transportation issues that exist within the city, there is a new sort of connectedness that has come from these virtual readings. Readings by Aricka Foreman, Nandi Comer, and Tommye Blount come to mind as highlights of 2020. 

I’ve found myself deeply appreciative of Detroit’s dedication to providing quality literary events and programming. I recall InsideOut Literary Arts’ Louder Than a Bomb Detroit Youth Poetry Festival, which pivoted to a completely online model just weeks after statewide shutdowns. That festival provided youth with numerous workshop and reading opportunities that allowed for direct reflection on the pandemic. I also remember M. L. Liebler’s virtual adaptation of the Detroit Lit Walk, which invited viewers to engage with seven artists from the comfort of their home. These examples and more represent the resiliency of writing as an art form, and sharing that writing as a form of expression. 

Great things have also come out of the United States of Writing this year! I have to commend Lupe Mendez of Houston and Kelly Harris of New Orleans for leading amazing events in their hometowns and allowing all of us to get a taste of their literary communities through this blog. Poets & Writers’ funding through 2020 Project Grants for BIPOC Writers and rolling out Readings & Workshops mini-grants for virtual events have given each of our cities the means to expand our literary communities like never before. We look forward to continuing this great work in 2021.

Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
12.16.20

I’m continuing this series of interviews, asking Houston writers how and what they’ve been doing since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s been enlightening and heartwarming to hear these responses when I pose the question:

What have you been doing since the pandemic?

This week we hear from Reyes Ramirez, a Houstonian, writer, educator, curator, and organizer of Mexican and Salvadoran descent. Ramirez is the winner of the 2019 YES Contemporary Art Writers Grant, 2017 Blue Mesa Review Nonfiction Contest, and 2014 riverSedge Poetry Prize. His poems, stories, essays, and reviews have been published in Indiana Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, the Latinx Archive, december magazine, Arteinformado, Texas Review, TRACK//FOUR, Houston Noir, Gulf Coast, the Acentos Review, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere. Ramirez is a 2020 CantoMundo fellow and 2021 Crosstown Arts writer in residence, and has been awarded grants from the Houston Arts Alliance, Poets & Writers, and the Warhol Foundation’s Idea Fund.

Here’s what he says:

“What have I been doing since the pandemic started? Well, I’ve been editing my collection of short stories titled The Book of Wanderers, which I’ll have some news to report about soon. I’m working on a collection of poetry that’s been kicking me around in terms of order and titles, but I’m loving the journey for the destination. I did a whole podcast with Houston creatives where we discussed career-based issues for the contemporary artist. Oh! I also received a Poets & Writers’ United States of Writing grant to organize a series of virtual readings focused on pop culture featuring Houston writers of color titled Houston Eyes, Silver Screens (HESS). It’s cofunded by the Houston Arts Alliance because I originally received a grant from them to organize a literary reading/pro wrestling event where pro wrestlers were going to perform parts of my short story. But this whole pandemic thing happened, and I had to cancel it. C’est la vie, lo que sea, oh well.

If you missed the first and second installments of HESS (on films and video games, respectively), it’s totally okay! Not only is the last one coming up on December 18 at 7:00 PM CT (on music with Miranda Ramírez, Aliah Lavonne Tigh, and José Eduardo Sánchez), but you can watch the other readings with captions in English and Spanish on my YouTube channel. Happy reading and writing!”

Photo: Flyer for December 18 Houston Eyes, Silver Screens virtual event.
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
12.9.20

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.
12.2.20

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.
11.25.20

This week I took time to catch up on the VS podcast, a biweekly series hosted by poets Danez Smith and Franny Choi, presented by the Poetry Foundation and Postloudness. Smith and Choi have interviewed a number of my favorite writers and their November 10 episode featured Detroit writer Nandi Comer.

Comer’s poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Callaloo, Crab Orchard Review, the Journal of Pan African Studies, Sycamore Review and Third Coast. She is the author of American Family: A Syndrome (Finishing Line Press, 2018) and, most recently, Tapping Out (Northwestern University Press, 2020).

Comer opens the podcast by reading her poem “¡Sangre! ¡Sangre! ¡Sangre!” that puts the reader in the crowd of a wrestling match—the sport of lucha libre being a main subject in Tapping Out. Readers get a snippet, not only of the blood and bruises, but the grace and dance of a brutal sport craved by the author and the crowds that watch these matches. “The first match. I couldn’t have expected the kind of joy just out of that experience,” says Comer, speaking about the first time she attended a live lucha libre match. “A lot of it has to do with that experience of being at that call and response, watching the wrestlers come down the ramp.”

In my favorite portion of this VS episode, when diving into the language of Comer’s collection, Smith asks a fantastic question harping on its bilingual nature: “Is there anything that you learned from Spanish language or Spanish poetry that you sort of found yourself trying to import into the English of this book?” Comer speaks frankly about how she failed a Spanish class, and how the traditional sense of learning a language doesn’t work for everyone. She further explains how she used “imports” from the Spanish language in her book: “I think I was trying to enact moments of utterances that are seamless to me,” says Comer. “Oftentimes I’m not trying to invent another language, but…it’s like when you have two decks of cards and you’re trying to get the right shuffle.”

I thoroughly enjoyed this podcast interview and reading with Comer and highly encourage everyone to listen to this episode and others!

Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
11.18.20

I recently had an opportunity to speak with Susan Larson, former book editor for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and host of WWNO’s The Reading Life, a podcast where she interviews celebrated and emerging authors. Larson has served on the boards of the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival and the New Orleans Public Library, and is the founder of the New Orleans chapter of the Women’s National Book Association. She is also the author of The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans.

You were the book editor for the New Orleans Times Picayune for many years. Do you miss doing that work?
I was the book editor from 1988 to 2009, such a grand period in local literary history, with many writers emerging to national recognition and major prizes, and the rise of so many great literary festivals. It was absolutely the best job of my life and I miss it every day! In the current days of the shrinking book review, it now seems to me impossibly lucky that I had two, sometimes three, pages a week for book review coverage, and I miss all those talented reviewers’ voices as well.

Talking to writers is a privilege and a gift: I am forever grateful for life-changing conversations I have had over the years with Dorothy Allison, Stephen E. Ambrose, James Lee Burke, Andre Dubus, Ernest J. Gaines, Derek Walcott, and Christine Wiltz.

Why was it important for you to start a chapter of the Women’s National Book Association in New Orleans?
I asked my longtime friend Mary Grey James, who had recently retired from working with Ingram Book Company and then went on to work at Parnassus Books, an independent bookstore in Nashville, what activity had meant most to her in her new life. She said that she was most proud of her involvement with the WNBA. After she came to talk to a group of women in New Orleans, we were off!

When people think of New Orleans, they often think of our food and culture. What do you wish people knew about New Orleans as a literary city?
One of my cherished dreams is to see New Orleans designated as a UNESCO City of Literature. As we continue to excavate our long history, we are learning more and more about how much we have contributed to American literature—consider the beginnings of African American literature here, for example, that are just beginning to be appreciated properly. And I wish more people realized how diverse the literary contributions have been from novelists, poets, playwrights, political writers, historians, writers of creative nonfiction. One of the things I treasure about living here is how much of our literary landscape survives in physical form—it means so much to me to drive or walk past the homes of writers who have meant so much to the world, imagining the lives they lived here, including Shirley Ann Grau, Walker Percy, Anne Rice, and Tennessee Williams, to name only a few. I often think I see New Orleans through a hazy dream of books I’ve read.

As host of The Reading Life podcast, what are some of your most memorable shows?
We are celebrating our tenth year on the air, after a brief pandemic hiatus. We try to present a range of writers, local and national, authors of fiction and nonfiction and poetry, focusing on writers who live here or are coming here for appearances.

Our show is conversational, rather than scripted because you always have to be ready to follow the author where they want to go. Some of my favorite guests have been Hillary Clinton and Chelsea Clinton talking about their book The Book of Gutsy Women: Favorite Stories of Courage and Resilience (Simon & Schuster, 2019); Alex Beard sharing the African adventures that led to his children’s picture books; Eddie S. Glaude Jr. on Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own (Crown, 2020); Sarah Broom on her debut memoir, The Yellow House (Grove Press, 2019); and Albert Woodfox on Solitary: My Story of Transformation and Hope (Grove Press, 2019).

What are you currently reading?
I’ve just finished Together in a Sudden Strangeness: America’s Poets Respond to the Pandemic (Knopf, 2020) edited by Alice Quinn, which is a book of great wisdom and consolation for these troubled times; there are days when poetry is the only answer. I’m savoring Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi (Bloomsbury, 2020) for my private pleasure after the long wait for this book; her debut novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is one of my favorite novels.

Next on my list are The Rib King by Ladee Hubbard, forthcoming from Amistad in January, and Economy Hall: The Hidden History of a Free Black Brotherhood by Fatima Shaik, forthcoming in March, which illuminates an important chapter in the history of free people of color in New Orleans. I’m also eager to read former president Barack Obama’s memoir A Promised Land (Crown, 2020).

Photo: Susan Larson.
 
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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