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.

5.5.21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
4.28.21

Hey mi gente, I hope that you are well and reaching all your goals or if you have stumbled along the way, I wish you the strength to get back up. My last blog post was the last interview for the COVID Vivid series, in which I asked Houston writers what they’ve been doing since the pandemic started. I want to send a major thank you to everyone that participated in the series and shared their very personal experiences. I hope everybody who reads this blog has been able to benefit from these entries.

I will be switching gears as my time as literary outreach coordinator draws to a close. I’ll be focusing these last few posts highlighting all the ways that the literary experience in Houston points to the future. There are so many brilliant opportunities happening it’s hard to count. Each of these last posts will focus in on one or two (or three) things happening in the city.

While discussing the need to highlight major happenings in poetry during the month of April with Readings & Workshops program coordinator Ricardo Hernandez, I was reminded about what makes Houston such a brilliant place. I mentioned that I wondered why the Houston Poetry Fest happens in October when National Poetry Month is in April, and of course it should have made sense to me already—the Houston Poetry Fest predates National Poetry Month by a decade.

Established in 1985, the festival is held at our University of Houston-Downtown campus and is free and open to the public. There are readings and panels, and off-site events throughout the city to attend. Sadly, the festival had to be canceled last year due to the pandemic, but we hope to celebrate this October, which would mark the annual event’s thirty-sixth anniversary.

Continuing this celebratory vibe, I’d like to send congrats to Adriana Salazar who received a United States of Writing Project Grant from Poets & Writers for her upcoming workshop series. Salazar’s “Examining Oneself Through Self Portraits” will look at the building blocks of identity, examining the self both as a collective and as individuals using self-portraits to create new works. The three-part virtual workshop series will be in collaboration with fellow grantee Omer Ahmed and starts in May so keep an eye out in the Literary Events Calendar for more details.

Last but not least, major shout-out to the fifth and newest Houston poet laureate, Emanuelee “Outspoken” Bean! Bean’s two-year term began this month and runs through April 2023. As poet laureate, he will work closely with the Houston Public Library and the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs to implement his community outreach project “Space City Mixtape,” an album of twenty-track spoken word and creative audio experiences by Houstonians. He will also conduct eight workshops in Houston’s public libraries, and create videos and poems to share on social media. Looking forward to seeing his work and events in the city.

Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
4.21.21

I am excited to share my thoughts after reading Christiana Castillo’s poetry chapbook, Crushed Marigold, illustrated by and Karla Rosas and published by Flower Press, a Detroit-based publishing practice centering womxn, femme, queer, and trans artists. Castillo is a Latina/Chicana poet, teaching artist, and gardener born in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil and living in the Detroit area. She is the recipient of fellowships from Room Project, Voices of Our Nation (VONA), and Disquiet International.

Castillo joined the Writing in Detroit virtual reading last October, sponsored by Poets & Writers, which offered an inspiring insight to her writing style and bright imagery. Crushed Marigold further expounds upon her writing with colors and textures juxtaposed against the theme of brown skin. In addition, the warm illustrations by artist Karla Rosas throughout the book leave the reader wondering what world we will be pulled into next with each poem.

A favorite poem of mine from Castillo’s collection is “Questions for the Moon,” which asks: “Does the Moon practice self care? / Does she have the time? / I know she controls the / tides / and the water within / us all / but / can she control herself?” The poem gently personifies the moon in a way that opens the reader’s mind to consider how the world around us not only responds to us, but how it responds to itself. The entire collection made me reconsider how we interact with the everyday aspects of our own cultures.

This collection also leaves me with a feeling of hope and perseverance with couplets like “in the midst of decay / there are always more seeds sprouting.” While Castillo touches on heavier topics such as colonization, there is always a sense of moving forward, of growth, of survival.

Crushed Marigold is available at Flower Press’s website and a percentage of the proceeds goes to American Indian Health and Family Services in Michigan, and Kooyrigs, an organization that provides resources to Armenian communities worldwide.

Photo: An open page of Crushed Marigold by Christiana Castillo, illustrated by Karla Rosas.
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
4.14.21

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

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

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

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

Watch the I Am New Orleans reading here:

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
4.7.21

Happy April and National Poetry Month! This week, I conclude my series of interviews with Houston writers speaking about their experience during the COVID-19 pandemic, each answering the question:

What have you been doing since the pandemic started?

This week features Rose Mary Salum, founding editor of the bilingual literary magazine Literal: Latin American Voices and Literal Publishing. Salum is the author of The Water That Rocks the Silence, translated from the Spanish by C. M. Mayo, winner of the International Latino Book Award and the prestigious Panamerican Award Carlos Montemayor; Tres semillas de granada: Ensayos desde el inframundo (Vaso Roto, 2020); Una de ellas (Dislocados, 2020); El agua que mece el silencio (Vaso Roto, 2015); Delta de las arenas, cuentos árabes, cuentos judíos (Literal Publishing, 2013), winner of the International Latino Book Award; and Spaces in Between (Literal Publishing, 2006).

Here is what she had to say:

“When the pandemic started last year—I guess this happened to all of us—I was in shock. At that time, I felt like something, or someone, was stealing a part of my life away from me. There are a few days, here and there, that I still have that sense of grief and loss. I remember one day though, just as I was touching bottom on my feelings regarding the lockdown, an idea came to me: I needed to make up for all the time lost in this pandemic by putting together a book. That would be the only way I could survive this time without losing my mind. The mere idea of waking up to a project that I set for myself made all the difference. That book is finished and, in spite of the fact that I still need to go through it and make sure all looks good, at least I can say that I kept my cool thanks to it.”

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

 

3.31.21

Recently I reconnected with Detroit’s Deonte Osayande, whose new collection, Recipe for the Poet, is available now from Finishing Line Press. Osayande describes this collection as a mix of both form and free verse pieces acting as a sampler ahead of his anticipated full-length collection. “It blends the lessons I’ve learned about form poetry with the relevant topics of today,” says Osayande. I also believe that this is an important approach for both readers and writers of poetry; to allow poetic forms that are often thought of as “old” to reflect on the current world.

Serving the Detroit literary community as a poet, host, and slam master for over a decade, Osayande is a well-known artist in the city and is the author of three other collections, Class (Urban Farmhouse Press, 2017), Circus (Brick Mantle Books, 2018), and Civilian (Urban Farmhouse Press, 2019).

Given Osayande’s experience publishing in literary journals and working on manuscripts, I asked what advice he would give to those who want to submit work. “Never give up and write what you know. Rejection is part of the game and happens to everyone,” says Osayande. “You just need to have the drive and passion to persevere through it. If you write about what is close to your heart, those will be the most meaningful poems.”

Photo: Book cover of Recipe for the Poet (Finishing Line Press, 2021) by Deonte Osayande.
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
3.24.21

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

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

Grants range from $250 to $750 and can be used to pay for costs related to coordinating online literary events in the genres of poetry, fiction, or creative nonfiction. In addition, projects must take place between April 19 and June 30.

To be eligible, applicants must:

  • identify as Black, Indigenous, or a person of color;
  • be a resident of Detroit, Houston, or New Orleans, including the surrounding metro areas of each city;
  • be a published writer of poetry, fiction, or creative nonfiction, or have performance credits as a spoken word artist.

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

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

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
3.17.21

Hey gente, thanks for joining me for another installment of this blog series, where I ask Houston writers this question: What have you been doing since the pandemic started?

The entries are about what folks are doing to make the most of a precarious situation. Things are slowly (and quickly) changing in the state of Texas. It is a difficult moment for many. Although Texas governor Greg Abbott has chosen to declare that it is “time to open Texas 100%” we are in fact far from being out of the pandemic.

Photo: Catherine LuThis week we hear from Catherine Lu, senior producer of Houston Public Media, covering arts and culture. Lu is a producer and writer for the talk show Town Square With Ernie Manouse and produces the National Poetry Month series Voices and Verses, the arts podcast Unwrap Your Candies Now (currently on hiatus), and hosts the annual Christmas Revels national broadcast. As the “voice” of Houston Public Media, Lu records the station’s radio and TV spots.

Here’s what she had to say:

“In mid-March of 2020, I began working from home. The station provided a mic and other gear, and I set up a recording studio in my closet with two TV tray tables and a solar-powered lantern suspended from a clothes hanger. It’s like my little recording cave—a bit small and dim, but it works! That’s where I record voiceovers and interviews. For online meetings, writing and research, I work in my study where my coworker (orange tabby cat) also has her office (scratching post).

My favorite work project has been producing the video “Poetry in a Pandemic.” It tells the story behind “When We Get Lonely, It Will Be Together,” a beautiful poem about social distancing, cowritten by Houston poet Melissa Studdard and Seattle poet Kelli Russell Agodon. My colleagues Joe Brueggeman, Dave Mcdermand and I coproduced it entirely remotely in April 2020, an experience that was really special to me—it felt like we had accomplished the impossible. The story itself showed me how much we need artists in a pandemic, to remind us of the human experience that still connects us. The video was nominated for a 2020 Lone Star EMMY Award for Arts/Entertainment Program Feature, Segment or Special.

During the pandemic, I have also learned how to ride a skateboard, and I love doing art with my kid. We paint rocks, make tiny clay sculptures, draw comics, build stuff from cardboard boxes. She’s had a lot of milestones since quarantine: she learned how to ride a bike on two wheels, lost her first tooth, turned seven. As a parent, I wonder how she’ll remember this time. I hope I’m showing her that, no matter what, we can always have fun being spontaneous, creative, and curious.”

Watch “Poetry in a Pandemic” with Melissa Studdard and Kelli Russell Agodon here:

Photo: Catherine Lu (Credit: Catherine Lu)
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
3.10.21

On February 26, I was honored to take part in a virtual reading event celebrating Black poets and Black History Month. We Won’t Turn Back was presented by the Youth Advisory Board (YAB) at InsideOut Literary Arts, which curates literary events focused for teens in Detroit. This event featured members of the YAB and special guests, all of whom are Detroit natives: Nandi Comer, Wes Matthews, and Imani Nichele with host LaShaun phoenix Moore.

Each poet shared powerful work that investigated culture and community. While the work was strong, what stood out most for me was what Moore stated: “There are so many ways to be Black.” This was highlighted in the experiences and perspectives shared in the writing. Each poem proved that there are many layers to being Black and being from Detroit, and that there is much more still to be written.

As we move into Women’s History Month, make sure to check out Page to Stage: Bel Canto, a discussion on the inspiration behind Ann Patchett’s opera-centered novel Bel Canto presented virtually by Pages Bookshop and Michigan Opera Theatre on March 16, and Ain’t I a Woman presented virtually by the Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers on April 16. These are sure to be great shows.

Watch the We Won’t Turn Back reading here:

Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
3.3.21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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