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.

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.
2.24.21

If you are reading this and aren’t from Texas, say some prayers. We are still in recovery mode—our homes are still spaces scarred by ice and busted pipes, waterlogged walls and no food or shelter, all on top of a pandemic. Give us grace.

It isn’t that the winter storm is something we cannot adapt to—it is that this is the latest in a series of natural disasters that Houston has had to endure. The trauma is real. The longing for calm is palpable.

We are boiling water, we are waiting for plumbers to fix the pipes, who in turn have to scavenge to find the materials to fix our houses, and their own. Some of us are still waiting on the lights...IN THE MIDDLE OF A PANDEMIC.

I wrote a poem on the second night of my own family’s personal ordeal. I thought of what could bring down cheer to the heart, not even knowing when this would see the light of day. I wrote this with my phone at 5 percent battery life.

How to Prepare for Winter Storm in TX

The day brings white ice and soon the
Stars see us, wishing on a single thread.
At dusk, we come undone, wait for light
Night brings a child we cannot avoid, we
Are creatures of light, we gather in
Big pockets, we muscle fire forward
And we do howl for peace and flame.
Bright smiles keep us warm even when
Deep rains cause us to freeze. We know
In the gut, what it means to rise up, take
Heart that this won’t bring me down.

I’ll find you, bring you hot hands and song.

If you have a moment, please consider donating to these sources to help the Houston community. Many are overwhelmed with monetary donations, but offer other ways to help. Please also be careful to verify the accounts you send funds to as there have been reports of scams and fake accounts on Venmo and other payment platforms.

Here are a few local organizations to consider supporting:

1. Houseless Organizing Coalition (@HocHtx) is a revolutionary coalition fully operated by BIPOC organizers building dual power within Houston’s houseless community. They are currently distributing supplies and addressing needs for those in our houseless community.

2. West Street Recovery (@weststreetrecovery) is a horizontally organized grassroots nonprofit organization which aims to use efforts toward recovery after Hurricane Harvey to build community power.

3. Houston Food Bank (@HoustonFoodBank ) serves more than 1.1 million people in the eighteen Southeast Texas counties and distributes food and other essentials to those in need through a network of 1,500 community partners.

4. Texas Jail Project (@TxJailProject) is a grassroots advocacy project that listens, informs, and advocates for people trapped in Texas county jails. Amidst the Texas Winter Storm, they have set up a rapid response helpline for folks and their families to report on-the-ground conditions in jail facilities where thousands have no clean drinking water and are experiencing neglect. They are distributing funds to people's commissaries for those who are able to purchase food, water, and hygiene products through their jail’s commissary stores. They are also posting money to phone accounts and covering the cost of all collect calls from jails.

Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
2.17.21

The Motown Mic spoken word competition is an annual event held at the historic Motown Museum in Detroit. The museum preserves the former home of Motown founder Berry Gordy, the offices of Hitsville U.S.A., and the legendary studio where Motown artists recorded some of their greatest hits. Not only did the label record celebrated music, African American poets and orators, including Elaine Brown, Stokey Carmichael, Ossie Davis, Langston Hughes, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., were recorded by the label.

The annual spoken word competition usually involves a series of poetry slams that require participants to write about a specific topic or theme related to Motown. I am excited to see that Motown is able to modify the competition this year to accept auditions recorded on video. Beyond being an amazing opportunity to share poetry, this year’s grand prize includes a two-hour studio session at Hitsville, publication in a literary broadside published by Broadside Lotus Press, and $2,500! 

This year’s original poem theme is focused on the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Marvin Gaye’s award-winning song “What’s Going On”: “At a time when conversations about social justice are taking place with new urgency and passion, and in reflection of the words that Marvin Gaye sang, we want to hear from you. As you compose your submission, keep this, and the legacy of Motown’s contributions to these conversations in mind. Doing so will further influence hearts and minds and contribute to conversations about the moral and civic perspectives shaping our collective future.”

The competition is open to all residents of South East Michigan over sixteen years old. The application deadline is March 5. I hope many of you share your words!

Photo: Motown Mic spoken word competition 2021 poster art.
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
2.10.21

In my last post, I reflected on the ways writing can unite us wherever we live, and I’d like to continue that thread a bit more.

One recent example of how writing can unite us is Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb,” which she read at the presidential inauguration of Joe Biden last month. Gorman is the youngest inaugural poet at 22 years old, and the first youth poet laureate of the United States. She also received a Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award from Poets & Writers in 2020. Gorman’s reading was widely shared, and it’s likely you’ve come across it on your own social media feed. In fact, it was so popular that this past Sunday, Gorman became the first poet to perform at the Super Bowl.

The attention on Gorman’s poem got me thinking about how poetry can make us feel engaged in the world politically, socially, and spiritually. I believe poetry offers each of us different meaning and purpose. For youth, poetry can provide a seat at the table in an adult world that impacts them. For women and people of color, poetry can provide a space to empower their voice and take agency against systems of oppression.

I also thought about the role poets laureate, like Amanda Gorman, serve in public and the amazing work they do in their cities and states. Two previous Louisiana poets laureate, Peter Cooley and Brenda Marie Osbey, were kind enough to share their experiences with me for this blog.

Poets in New Orleans (and across Louisiana), you should know that the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities is currently seeking nominations from the public for the state’s next poet laureate, and you can submit recommendations now through February 24.

If you were selected as the next poet laureate of Louisiana, what role might you take? How would you use poetry to cultivate community and conversation?

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
2.3.21

Hey mi gente, happy February. I’m happy to share with you more reflections from Houston writers about how they have been spending their time during the COVID-19 pandemic. Each writer has answered this simple question:

What have you been doing since the pandemic?

This week, we hear from Robin Davidson. Davidson is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Kneeling in the Dojo (Finishing Line Press, 2013) and City That Ripens on the Tree of the World (Calypso Editions, 2013), and the collection, Luminous Other, awarded the Ashland Poetry Press’s 2012 Richard Snyder Memorial Publication Prize. Recipient of a Fulbright professorship at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland and an NEA translation fellowship, Davidson is cotranslator with Ewa Elżbieta Nowakowska of Ewa Lipska’s poems from the Polish—The New Century (Northwestern University Press, 2009) and Dear Ms. Schubert (Princeton University Press, 2021). Davidson served as Houston poet laureate under the leadership of mayors Annise Parker and Sylvester Turner from 2015 to 2017, and edited the citywide 2018 anthology, Houston’s Favorite Poems. She was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters in 2019, and teaches literature and creative writing as professor emeritus of English for the University of Houston-Downtown.

Here’s what she had to say:

“In the early hours of March 11, 2020, I woke to intense chills, fever, nausea, and the beginning of what would become three weeks of a flu-like illness more severe than I’d ever before experienced. I was bedridden for most of that time, with a persistent fever of 103 to 104, and for days Sappho’s line resonated in my thoughts, I feel that death has come near me. There was no COVID testing in Houston then, and my doctor believed I likely had contracted a flu, despite the vaccine I’d had weeks earlier. My husband, too, experienced some of these symptoms, though far milder, and we did not sleep in the same room for two weeks after forty-four years of sharing a bed nightly, except when one of us was traveling. We did not see any of our children or grandchildren for more than two months, and I thought I would die of grief in their absence, rather than of some unnameable disease. The morning I woke to the weight of an icy hand pressing down hard on my chest, I recognized the signs of pneumonia. I prayed, willed that hand away, and decided to get up and move, no matter if I stumbled, couldn’t entirely stand. In the weeks that followed I saw friends and family members lose loved ones to COVID, loved ones they could not sit with in their illness, nor bury upon their death. I tried to read, to write. Nothing worked, except for sorting through photographs of my grandsons which I’d print, cut out, and glue into a tiny scrapbook for each of them to have in our absence. My husband and I have recovered slowly over the course of ten months, with intermittent symptoms recurring like mild sequelae. We only learned for certain in late summer that we had had COVID when our antibodies tests showed positive results for SARS-CoV-2. As I’ve watched this virus sweep through our nation and the world, I recognize how minor my family’s experience has been compared to the great suffering of so many others. I wrote this piece initially on the eve of one of the most critical presidential elections in the history of the United States. As of that morning, November 2, 2020, the U.S. reported 9,282,358 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 230,937 deaths. Since January, Americans have seen that death toll surpass 450,000. We have seen an insurrection play out in our nation’s Capitol Building in which violent extremists attempted a governmental coup. But we have also witnessed the successful election and inauguration of president Joseph Biden and vice president Kamala Harris as a powerful step on behalf of a renewed democracy. This nation has some distance to go in combatting the COVID pandemic, systemic racism and its concomitant violence, extreme climate, economic crisis, and global unrest, but the future looks far brighter this month than it has in the past four years. May we continue to choose well.”

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

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