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.

11.20.19

“Are you in line?” asks a man ringing out the rain from his shirt behind me. He tells me he is there to see Ta-Nehisi Coates.

As I scan the line of people waiting to enter Temple Sinai on Saint Charles Avenue, I think to myself, I wonder if anyone would ever stand out in the rain to hear me speak.

On October 30, the rain didn’t stop New Orleans from packing the main floor and balcony of the temple to see Jesmyn Ward in conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates. Ward, an acclaimed novelist and professor at nearby Tulane University, asked Coates questions about his new book, The Water Dancer, and if it was difficult to transition from writing nonfiction to writing his first novel.

“In a novel you have to pay attention to details and almost obsess about them in ways you don’t have to in nonfiction,” said Coates. He gave an example of how in fiction, you have to include what kind of curtains are hanging when a character enters a room.

Coates was charismatic and blended his journalist instincts and oftentimes flipped the questions asked of him onto Ward, especially when asked the question she hates being asked, “What are you working on?” His reply, “I don’t know Jesymn, what are you working on?”

Ward acquiesced to the reply and talked about a new novel she’s working on that is set in New Orleans. In turn, Coates responded that he’s just touring for now, but projects are always in the works.

The event ended with questions from the audience ranging from the 2020 election to civil discourse. In a reply to a question about how to speak to people who don’t want to hear views different from their own, he told the audience that we can’t put too much stock in people whose minds are already set. “Life is short,” said Coates. “We got books to write.”

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
11.19.19

This week I wanted to spotlight a beautiful, new reading series that is run entirely in Spanish, known as Lecturas en Español de Comité Permanente (the Permanent Committee Readings). Comité Permanente is organized by the brilliant students currently studying in the PhD program in Spanish with a concentration in Creative Writing at the University of Houston, the first program of its kind in the United States.

A small group of students, many of whom are prize–winning authors from Latin America, got together to create some space for Spanish-language writing and reading outside of the confines of the program. Founding writers and organizers include Ana Emilia Felker, Mauricio Patrón Rivera, and Raquel Abend van Dalen. Officially this group is hard to find, outside of Facebook where members of the organizing committee post invites to readings and Instagram where you can find them @comitepermanente.

Comité Permanente provides a space to celebrate the writings of people in the UH program, but also invites Spanish-language writers and readers in Houston to enjoy good writing. They have even incorporated an open mic into their events to welcome writers of any age to share their work.

I was happy to inform them about the Readings & Workshops minigrants, which have helped fund their readings. So far I have had the chance to check out two of their readings with open mics and am looking forward to what comes up next! If you are in the Houston area, and are looking to catch something new, please head into the Montrose area and check out the next Comité Permanente reading, which are currently held at Inprint.

Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
11.18.19

In 2016, Detroit became part of the National Youth Poet Laureate program, a joint initiative of Urban Word NYC and the InsideOut Literary Arts, Penmanship Books, the Academy of American Poets, Poetry Society of America, and Cave Canem. With over forty cities participating, the program now honors one youth poet laureate to be named the National Youth Poet Laureate. Each poet must submit writing and a community engagement idea for an opportunity to be chosen by a panel of esteemed judges, which has included former U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera and National Book Award winner Elizabeth Acevedo.

For the 2018 term, Detroit named Imani Nichele as our city’s youth poet laureate. Since spring of 2018, Imani has led workshops, written two books, and read and performed her work on many stages. I took a moment to speak with Imani about her development as a writer. 

“My biggest writing influence has been my internal competition,” said Imani about what inspires her to keep writing. When we spoke about what her community can do to offer writers more support, Imani said, “I want the literary community to help by offering more spaces to meetup. I want to know who I can reach out to and how to find them.”

This reminded me of the work that numerous artistic organizers and I are aiming to do in order to build a more connected literary community in Detroit. It’s been motivating to begin making these connections in response to an ask for such community. Sharing information about our Readings & Workshops minigrants and offering the Detroit Writers Circle workshops are just a couple ways we are aiming to address this need.

When I asked Imani what she thought her work would look like in twenty years, she wisely responded, “It’s impossible for me to know what my art will look like in twenty years—I don’t know who that woman is yet.”

I am excited about the seeds being planted that will blossom in the near and distant future. Imani has recently passed the torch to the 2019 Detroit Youth Poet Laureate, Mahalia Hill, who is continuing to forge this path for young Detroiters. 

Imani Nichele, the 2018 Detroit Youth Poet Laureate.
 

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

11.13.19

“I want you to show them the difference between what they think you are and what you can be.”
—Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

I met Ernest J. Gaines, who died on November 5 at the age of eighty-six, at the Louisiana Book Festival a couple of years ago. After a talk he gave from his wheelchair, I introduced myself and told him I was trying to be a writer. “Keep trying and reading,” he replied. It was said with the kindness and warning of an elder that knew trying (i.e. many bad drafts and rejections) is a precursor to being a writer.

Gaines represented a pride in the South and the African American experience of his rural Louisiana childhood through his writing. Born in Oscar, Louisiana, the son of sharecroppers, Gaines graduated from San Francisco State University and attended graduate school at Stanford University. He was the author of eight novels, including The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (Dial Press, 1971), A Gathering of Old Men (Knopf, 1983), and A Lesson Before Dying (Knopf, 1993), which received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 1993. In addition, Gaines was the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship and a MacArthur “Genius” grant.

If you’re ever in Louisiana and have some time on your hands, stop by the Ernest J. Gaines Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Gaines donated his early papers and manuscripts through 1983 there, and it is expected that the center will acquire the remainder of his papers.

Ernest J. Gaines.
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
11.12.19

Hey mi gente! This week I want to draw your attention to some indie bookstores here in Houston, the HOU.

Indie bookstores are independently operated as a small business and I am proud to say we have many in town that help build the literary fabric of the city. These spaces are important and special because they help bring authors into town and invite locals to see and hear new voices. Indie bookstores inform and build community with every reader that enters their doors.

Here are a few shops in town that I often frequent:

Brazos Bookstore is a solid space to find anything current and fresh, and the go-to spot for readings from local and national writers. They do an amazing job at keeping up with a special section for books by local writers.

Casa Ramirez is located in the heart of the Heights, in the Northside. Although it’s not technically a bookstore, Casa Ramirez Folkart Gallery has always served as a cultural pillar providing a space for community and art. Casa Ramirez houses folk art, pieces by local artists, Dia de los Muertos events, Mexican artisan work, and a large selection of books written by Latinx writers, from children’s books to short story anthologies. They also host poetry readings, author talks, and storytelling events.

Kaboom Books is a used bookstore in Woodland Heights just above Downtown Houston. I love this space because, although it focuses on used books, they have a great outside patio to host readings featuring writers with new work. Many local literary organizations have used the space for book launches and the shop owners are always all about it.

Murder By the Book is a beautiful, small shop that focuses on thriller, suspense, and mystery genres. They regularly host author readings and Akashic Books’ Houston Noir celebrated its launch party there this past May.

To find indie bookstores in your area, check out the Literary Places and Reading Venues databases.

Saeed Jones reads for a recent event at Brazos Bookstore.
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
11.11.19

This past weekend I had the privilege of coleading a session for Write-A-Thon Detroit. The Write-A-Thon was a daylong event designed to offer time and space to workshop, build community, and tackle writing projects. This event was held at Neighborhood HomeBase, a new community and office space in northwest Detroit’s Fitzgerald neighborhood. Pledges raised funds to support the Tuxedo Project Literary Center.

Event organizer Rose Gorman and I offered a session where writers and organizers shared thoughts about what events they frequent, the series that have ended and are missed, and what gaps need to be filled for the literary community to thrive.

When asked what literary happenings are missing, a lively discussion produced ideas such as readings with more physical activity, more collaborative efforts between literary organizations, and events curated with input from residents located by the venues. When asked about what stops writers from making it to events, the top barriers were time, transportation, and finances. These conversations, in addition to the opportunity to share our favorite events, offered insight on how the local writing community is responding to the literary events in Detroit.

Dialogue such as this is a huge key to planning events not only in Detroit, but in every city. I was excited to receive such strong feedback from writers of a variety of backgrounds and hope that this conversation expands and continues.

A Write-A-Thon Detroit collage made by local writer Carol Ellsberry.
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
11.6.19

2020 will mark the fifth year that directors Bill Lavender and Megan Burns have organized the New Orleans Poetry Festival. The four-day event will take place the third weekend of April, which is also National Poetry Month. If you’re a poet or affiliated with a literary journal or small press, they are actively seeking proposals for festival events and tables for their Small Press Fair, and the deadline is December 1. Anyone interested should jump on this opportunity.

What’s special about the festival is that the events are hosted outside of a university or convention hall. Attendees get a chance to truly be inside a New Orleans neighborhood while attending readings, workshops, and panel discussions at local venues around town.

Last year’s opening night featured readings by Oliver Baez Bendorf, Lee Ann Brown, Chen Chen, and Henk Rossouw. There was also a five-hour-long marathon open mic that I joined, which was electric. One night of the festival was dedicated solely to international poets and their translators, which included readings from Brazilian poet Salgado Maranhäo and translator Alexis Levitin, Uruguayan poet Martín Barea Mattos and translator Mark Statman, and fellow Uruguayan Javier Etchevarren and translator Jesse Lee Kercheval.

Of course when in New Orleans, you must have music and dancing. The Poets With Bands event highlighted poetry and music, while a traditional second line parade complete with a brass band honored poets who recently passed away.

The New Orleans Poetry Festival connects poets from all over the world to this wonderful city. Stay tuned for more details as the date approaches!

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
11.5.19

Hey mi gente! This week, I am highlighting a unique literary event in Houston, Plus Fest: The Everything Plus Poetry Festival, and its mini-fest events known as Pass It On.

Three years ago, poet Emanuelee Outspoken Bean created Plus Fest, a one-day event to celebrate and highlight raw, innovative spoken word poetry. In addition to poetry slams, the interactive literary experience includes poetic photo booths, art installations, and speed-writing buskers. The number of artists on hand is massive and the bridges built between poetry and other art mediums is impressive.

Pass It On is a secondary, smaller event series created, and often hosted, by Bean that serves to give people a taste of what they will get at the larger festival. It’s a smart undertaking and gives more poets opportunities to perform and share their work.

I was able to attend a Pass It On event in October that featured local poet Xach Blunt and music from DJ Elevated, another local, who set the mood. Xach was on hand with his latest chapbook, Misfits & Bangers, and four guest poets shared work. There was also a culinary twist, as a local up-and-coming chef sold gumbo throughout the event. It was a thrilling night with a great vibe, all about building community and enjoying beautiful poetry.

Emanuelee Outspoken Bean, founder of Plus Fest: The Everything Plus Poetry Festival in Houston.
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
11.4.19

On October 25, the Slam at the Cube series invited twelve women poets from the city to fill the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. This was the second installment of this new poetry slam series. LaShaun “Phoenix” Kotaran, the event curator and host, took special care to ensure that each poet brought a different style to the stage, making for a dynamic show. After three rounds of poetry—covering topics such as police brutality, motherhood, and mental health—Brittany Rogers came out as the winner.

Brittany is a native Detroiter, public school teacher, and poet. Her work has been published widely and she is a poetry reader for Muzzle magazine. It just so happens that she is also my wife!

I asked Brittany what she feels is most worthwhile about participating in poetry slams. “I feel like the satisfaction of sharing something that is meaningful to me, in a space that is designed for me to be listened to, is most important,” she says. “I find that same satisfaction in publishing—any platform to elevate the work.”

I am excited about the ongoing growth of this series. Keep an eye on our Literary Events Calendar, or download the Poets & Writers Local app, to follow this series and more.

Slam at the Cube at Detroit Symphony Orchestra. (Credit: Justin Rogers)
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
10.30.19

Every place has writers that reflect its culture. Literary place-making, I call it. If you want to know more about a place, you need to hear its stories. There are so many books to choose from, but here are just a few that celebrate New Orleans culture by writers who live, breathe, and love this city.

From a Bend in the River: 100 New Orleans Poets (Runagate Press, 1998) edited by Kalamu ya Salaam. This anthology captures the diverse voices of New Orleans, celebrating the multi-ethnic tapestry of the city. Established and emerging writers of all ages are included in this extensive collection of poetry.

Monday Nights: Stories From the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans (University of New Orleans Press, 2016) edited by Fredrick Barton and Joanna Leake. The University of New Orleans MFA program in creative writing has produced some fantastic writers. The writers in this anthology took part in a Monday night workshop that has lasted over twenty-five years, where they met to share and discuss their work. Included are stories by graduates of the program, such as Rebecca Antoine, Maurice Carlos Ruffin, and Che Yeun, as well as faculty members, such as Fredrick Barton, Amanda Boyden, and M. O. Walsh.

N.O. Lit: 200 Years of New Orleans Literature (Lavender Ink, 2013) edited by Nancy Dixon. This book highlights the literature of New Orleans over the past two hundred years including prominent writers like Truman Capote, Eudora Welty, and Tennessee Williams, but also historic writers like the poets of Les Cenelles, French Creoles of color who published the first anthology of African American literature in 1845. The book was made possible by grants from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation.

The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans (LSU Press, 2013) by Susan Larson. For years, Susan Larson was the book editor for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and now hosts WWNO’s public radio program The Reading Life. Susan shares her wealth of knowledge for local bookstores, historic landmarks, current literary festivals, and more.

Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans (University of Louisiana at Lafayette, 2011) by Freddi Williams Evans. This book explores the history of the Sunday gatherings of enslaved Africans at Congo Square beginning in the eighteenth century. Included are stories and descriptions of the songs, dances, and musical instruments of these gatherings. Congo Square is often considered the birth place of American music and continues to be a prominent venue for music festivals and community gatherings.

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

Pages