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.


A few months ago, I had the pleasure of being a featured author at Melba’s in New Orleans as part of their Eat and Read series. Melba’s has been a unique leader for literacy in the city, offering customers free books with their lunch purchases. Authors read from and sign their books, and engage with customers and staff. Over the years authors have included Sarah Broom, Melissa Rogers, and Colson Whitehead. By combining food and books, folks are united in reading and eating. Melba’s literacy program has the support of the Clinton Foundation, and Bill and Hillary Clinton have even come to visit. It’s an amazing experience to see customers with a book in one hand and a po’boy in the other. I spoke with the woman behind it all—Jane Wolfe—about her love for New Orleans and literature.

How did the literacy program at Melba’s get started?
In 2007, as an older student, I entered academia to acquire a college degree. My graduate advisor was Jonathan Walton and in 2018, he visited New Orleans with his family. We had a book giveaway at Melba’s for his book The Lens Of Love: Reading the Bible in its World for Our World.

In the middle of the book signing, Jonathan looked up and said, “Jane, this is so needed to get these books into the hands of everyday people!” At that moment, I came to understand how I could help literacy in New Orleans.

You chronicle your personal and professional journey in your book, From GED to Harvard Then Inc. 500: How Two Teens Went From GEDs to Building the Fastest Growing Business in New Orleans (ForbesBooks, 2020). What were some of the challenges you faced in shifting from business owner to author?
Authors need time to bring thoughts to fruition. A businessperson does not operate in such a framework: There is no time for reflection in business. The greatest challenge was turning off the day-to-day operational mode of my mind that I used to succeed in business in order to write.

Beyond being a business owner, you have a masters degree in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. How does faith influence your writing and work?
As an older student I was given the gift of time to learn about my faith tradition. Once I understood Catholic Social Teaching I could see more clearly my place in the business world.

My two favorite classes at Harvard were “God and Money” by professor Harvey Cox and “Religion, Politics, and Public Policy” by professor Richard Parker. Their instruction put forth my faith in action at work through Catholic Social Teaching, and most importantly, helped me understand that businesses are not positioned in a society to merely make money. To learn about the world’s sacred scriptures at Harvard Divinity School, my thinking adjusted towards a global perspective. The theological degree allowed writing to come alive in ways I never thought possible.

What books are you currently reading?
Right now I’m reading Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (Knopf, 2021) by Benjamin M. Friedman, Black Women, Black Love: America’s War on African American Marriage (Seal Press, 2020) by Dianne M. Stewart, 70 Hebrew Words Every Christian Should Know (Abingdon Press, 2018) by Matthew Richard Schlimm, NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity (Avery, 2015) by Steve Silberman, and Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African American Religion (NYU Press, 2014) by Lerone A. Martin.

Photo: Colson Whitehead with staff members of Melba's at an event celebrating his novel The Nickel Boys.
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.

Hey mi gente, thanks for joining me for another blog post, and a big thank you to all who read these posts. As my time as literary outreach coordinator comes to a close, I will continue to highlight all things literary in Houston, and how the city leads the way with great community work.

First, I would like to shine a light on all the organizations and literary journals doing the work during the pandemic and keeping the doors open: Public Poetry, Nuestra Palabra, Defunkt Magazine, Inprint, Stages Theatre, and Poetry Around Houston, to name a few. They adapted and created new ways for literature to stay alive. Some organizations flipped their live scheduled events and adapted them into Zoom or Facebook Live events while others switched to podcasts. The most important effect is that the public benefited from it all. These aren’t the only examples. So many individual artists are making waves and collaborating to make words come alive in the city, and as we approach the summer, new events are beginning to blossom and it is beautiful to see.

Speaking of, two Houston grantees from our United States of Writing Project Grants, Omer Ahmed and Joy Priest, will each be hosting events in the coming weeks. Ahmed is collaborating with Loyce Gayo to lead a three-part workshop series focused on community identity in the face of gentrification. You can check out the upcoming sessions on June 10 and June 17 which are open to all communities in Houston, not just writers. Priest and Aris Kian will be cohosting the “Poet &” reading series, which will highlight and support Houston poets who have careers or practices outside of writing, including myself! The readings are scheduled for June 15, June 22, and June 29.

And finally, a shout-out to Deborah DEEP Mouton—who keeps it ever so real, always doing the work—for being a part of the planning committee and participating in events for last weekend’s third annual Fresh Arts Summit. If you missed it, videos from the keynote kick-off event and other panels are available on YouTube through July 5.

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

Now that many are getting vaccinated and New Orleans has its lowest number of COVID-19 cases since last year, I am expecting to see more in-person events happening in the city.

Arts and culture are the pulse of New Orleans and its economy. Many writers and artists have struggled during the pandemic, but this summer will usher in more outdoor events to showcase and support their work. In addition, the New Orleans Book Festival, the Louisiana Book Festival, and the New Orleans Words & Music Festival are just a few literary events that have recently announced dates for live events in the fall that you can plan to attend in person. In the meantime, you can always stop by a local bookstore to give them an economic boost and support your favorite authors. See the Literary Places database for bookstores to order books from or visit.

The pandemic showed us how technology can close the gap of social distancing and offer access to incredible virtual programming. We will likely see a combination of in-person and virtual events in the future, but I’m sure many of us are looking forward to taking part in live events, whether on a stage or in the audience. Whatever your comfort level may be for socializing, there are always plenty of ways to enjoy writing and support the literary community. Check out the Literary Events Calendar for upcoming readings, workshops, and other literary events.

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

Last week I wrote about the finalists for the Motown Mic spoken word competition. This week I had the chance to connect with the 2021 Motown Spoken Word Artist of the Year, Kyle Mack. Born and raised in Novi, Michigan, he began exploring the city of Detroit after meeting his now fiancée, Ashley Adams. Adams is a poet who goes under the stage name Galaxy and Mack credits her for inspiring him to enter the contest. “I owe all the thanks to her because if it wasn’t for her pushing me to finish and submit my poem, especially when I was doubting myself, none of this would have been possible,” says Mack.

What’s even more impressive is that Mack’s winning poem is also the first spoken word poem he’s ever written. Mack is a musician and rapper (you can find his music on Spotify and Apple Music), and this was a new venture for his artistry. Mack eloquently reflected on the differences between these two genres: “To me, I feel spoken word is more raw compared to music. With music, you always have a beat or background instruments. With spoken word there is just your voice.”

For Mack, participating in the Motown Mic spoken word competition exemplifies how pushing yourself forward to try something new can be a great experience. “The competition allowed me to step outside of my comfort zone and indulge in a different form of art that I’ve always wanted to indulge in,” says Mack. It is often said that poetry and music go hand in hand. Mack has shown how these genres can connect and transition between each other.

As for the future, Mack has an album called Catholic School Bastard coming out on July 23. He is looking forward to sharing his artistry and performing once venues begin opening up. You can watch an interview with Mack on Motown Museum’s Facebook page.

Photo: Kyle Mack, winner of the 2021 Motown Mic Spoken Word Competition.
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.

Hey mi gente, thanks for joining me for another blog post. As my time as Houston’s literary outreach coordinator comes to a close, I want to get back into all the ways that Houston is making waves.

Let’s talk about the only literary conference created specifically for the emerging writer: the Boldface Conference for Emerging Writers. Hosted by University of Houston’s undergraduate literary magazine Glass Mountain and run by a brilliant set of up-and-coming writers from the university’s Creative Writing Program, Boldface is a conference like no other. The five-day conference includes daily workshops, readings, craft talks, social events, and panels with professionals in the literary field, all specifically designed with the needs of the emerging writer in mind.

What I love most about how their programming works is that the organizers are versatile and thoughtful enough to change it up to meet the needs of the public. Last year, they were able to quickly reorganize and provide a virtual experience called the Strikethrough Workshop. This year, the annual conference will be held virtually from May 24 to May 28 and features craft talks with Melissa Febos, Diana Goetsch, Donika Kelly, and Ito Romo. Visit the website for the Boldface conference to find out more and to register for the events.

I also want to give a big congrats to local educator and poet Kim-Ling Sun who was awarded a United States of Writing Project Grant for her upcoming project “Celebrate and Stop the Hate.”

Sun, along with writer Addie Tsai, have created a two-part writing workshop series for BIPOC teens to celebrate heritage and work towards unity between communities. In the first workshop, teens will learn about different poetic forms and work on generative poetry. In the second workshop, teens will all present their works as part of a community reading. The workshops are free and will be held on Saturday, May 22 and Saturday, May 29, from 1:00–2:00 PM CDT. Those interested can sign up for the workshop here.

In addition, a reading featuring Sun and Tsai, along with Tamara Al-Qaisi-Coleman and Min Kang, will be held live at Social Beer Garden HTX and live-streamed via Facebook on June 5 starting at 4:00 PM CDT. The “Celebrate and Stop the Hate” AAPI reading will also include a charity raffle, food trucks, and lion dance performances.

And, a major shout-out to Joshua Nguyen who won the 2021 Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry for his first full-length collection, Come Clean, forthcoming in the fall from University of Wisconsin Press.

Lastly, I am so excited to share that I have been named the 2022 Texas poet laureate by the Texas Commission on the Arts! I have plans and can’t wait to celebrate with everyone.

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

The Motown Mic spoken word competition came to an exciting conclusion with a grand finale virtual event on April 29 featuring five poets: Arrie Lane, Dizmantle, Keebie Mitchell, Kyle Mack, and Vizo. This annual poetry slam hosted by the Motown Museum in Detroit was open for submissions earlier this spring asking for pieces from poets that helped celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Motown legend Marvin Gaye’s record “What’s Going On.”

Interviews with all five poets can be found on their Instagram page, @motownmuseum. Each poet had the unique opportunity to work with performance coaches in the Motown Museum studio to record video and audio of their poetry performances to be aired for the grand finale. Former Motown Mic winner Mikhaella Norwood hosted a beautifully curated airing of the short films and performances from each poet of their submitted piece. At the end of the event, viewers were able to use a unique link to vote for their favorite poet.

On April 30, the 2021 Motown Mic spoken word artist of the year was announced via Instagram Live: Kyle Mack! Mack is a musician and rapper and his poem “Young America” is the first spoken word poem he’s ever written. The rhythmic piece reflects on what the city of Detroit means to him. In my next blog post, I’ll be interviewing Mack about his inspirations and what this victory means to him. Looking forward to it!

You can watch the grand finale event with an introduction from Smokey Robinson here:

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

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.

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.

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.

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.