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.

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.
1.27.21

On January 15, the Estuary Collective hosted a virtual event cosponsored by Poets & Writers’ Readings & Workshops program called Lipservice. The Estuary Collective is a group of Black, Femme writers who believe bridges will always be stronger than gates. The collective is committed to providing free and low-cost resources and opportunities for emerging writers. Founders and active members include Jeni De La O, Ashley Elizabeth, Lysz Flo, and Zora Satchell.

Lipservice featured ten writers of varying genres and was hosted by De La O, who asked the writers to share what lipstick brands they were wearing for the show. Black- and Detroit-owned makeup brand the Lip Bar was highlighted along with brands such as Fenty Beauty and Armani Beauty. The work shared by these writers was moving to say the least, from deep reflections to playful metaphors.

De La O is a Detroit-based writer who I had the honor of connecting with in 2019. I was able to speak with her about the recent event and asked what stood out for her. “When we came up with the concept for Lipservice, an environment where readers and attendees explore a variety of themes from a starting point of feeling held and holding others was our primary goal,” said De La O. “Mutual consideration for self and others has been so radically stripped from public discourse, it was critical to us that this event help reclaim a sense of communal, interdependent care.”

I admire the thoughtful lineup that the Estuary Collective curated for the evening and I am glad to know that our Detroit community is thriving through writing and virtual events!

Photo: Host Jeni De La O with Lipservice virtual event readers.
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
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.

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