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.

11.25.20

This week I took time to catch up on the VS podcast, a biweekly series hosted by poets Danez Smith and Franny Choi, presented by the Poetry Foundation and Postloudness. Smith and Choi have interviewed a number of my favorite writers and their November 10 episode featured Detroit writer Nandi Comer.

Comer’s poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Callaloo, Crab Orchard Review, the Journal of Pan African Studies, Sycamore Review and Third Coast. She is the author of American Family: A Syndrome (Finishing Line Press, 2018) and, most recently, Tapping Out (Northwestern University Press, 2020).

Comer opens the podcast by reading her poem “¡Sangre! ¡Sangre! ¡Sangre!” that puts the reader in the crowd of a wrestling match—the sport of lucha libre being a main subject in Tapping Out. Readers get a snippet, not only of the blood and bruises, but the grace and dance of a brutal sport craved by the author and the crowds that watch these matches. “The first match. I couldn’t have expected the kind of joy just out of that experience,” says Comer, speaking about the first time she attended a live lucha libre match. “A lot of it has to do with that experience of being at that call and response, watching the wrestlers come down the ramp.”

In my favorite portion of this VS episode, when diving into the language of Comer’s collection, Smith asks a fantastic question harping on its bilingual nature: “Is there anything that you learned from Spanish language or Spanish poetry that you sort of found yourself trying to import into the English of this book?” Comer speaks frankly about how she failed a Spanish class, and how the traditional sense of learning a language doesn’t work for everyone. She further explains how she used “imports” from the Spanish language in her book: “I think I was trying to enact moments of utterances that are seamless to me,” says Comer. “Oftentimes I’m not trying to invent another language, but…it’s like when you have two decks of cards and you’re trying to get the right shuffle.”

I thoroughly enjoyed this podcast interview and reading with Comer and highly encourage everyone to listen to this episode and others!

Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
11.18.20

I recently had an opportunity to speak with Susan Larson, former book editor for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and host of WWNO’s The Reading Life, a podcast where she interviews celebrated and emerging authors. Larson has served on the boards of the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival and the New Orleans Public Library, and is the founder of the New Orleans chapter of the Women’s National Book Association. She is also the author of The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans.

You were the book editor for the New Orleans Times Picayune for many years. Do you miss doing that work?
I was the book editor from 1988 to 2009, such a grand period in local literary history, with many writers emerging to national recognition and major prizes, and the rise of so many great literary festivals. It was absolutely the best job of my life and I miss it every day! In the current days of the shrinking book review, it now seems to me impossibly lucky that I had two, sometimes three, pages a week for book review coverage, and I miss all those talented reviewers’ voices as well.

Talking to writers is a privilege and a gift: I am forever grateful for life-changing conversations I have had over the years with Dorothy Allison, Stephen E. Ambrose, James Lee Burke, Andre Dubus, Ernest J. Gaines, Derek Walcott, and Christine Wiltz.

Why was it important for you to start a chapter of the Women’s National Book Association in New Orleans?
I asked my longtime friend Mary Grey James, who had recently retired from working with Ingram Book Company and then went on to work at Parnassus Books, an independent bookstore in Nashville, what activity had meant most to her in her new life. She said that she was most proud of her involvement with the WNBA. After she came to talk to a group of women in New Orleans, we were off!

When people think of New Orleans, they often think of our food and culture. What do you wish people knew about New Orleans as a literary city?
One of my cherished dreams is to see New Orleans designated as a UNESCO City of Literature. As we continue to excavate our long history, we are learning more and more about how much we have contributed to American literature—consider the beginnings of African American literature here, for example, that are just beginning to be appreciated properly. And I wish more people realized how diverse the literary contributions have been from novelists, poets, playwrights, political writers, historians, writers of creative nonfiction. One of the things I treasure about living here is how much of our literary landscape survives in physical form—it means so much to me to drive or walk past the homes of writers who have meant so much to the world, imagining the lives they lived here, including Shirley Ann Grau, Walker Percy, Anne Rice, and Tennessee Williams, to name only a few. I often think I see New Orleans through a hazy dream of books I’ve read.

As host of The Reading Life podcast, what are some of your most memorable shows?
We are celebrating our tenth year on the air, after a brief pandemic hiatus. We try to present a range of writers, local and national, authors of fiction and nonfiction and poetry, focusing on writers who live here or are coming here for appearances.

Our show is conversational, rather than scripted because you always have to be ready to follow the author where they want to go. Some of my favorite guests have been Hillary Clinton and Chelsea Clinton talking about their book The Book of Gutsy Women: Favorite Stories of Courage and Resilience (Simon & Schuster, 2019); Alex Beard sharing the African adventures that led to his children’s picture books; Eddie S. Glaude Jr. on Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own (Crown, 2020); Sarah Broom on her debut memoir, The Yellow House (Grove Press, 2019); and Albert Woodfox on Solitary: My Story of Transformation and Hope (Grove Press, 2019).

What are you currently reading?
I’ve just finished Together in a Sudden Strangeness: America’s Poets Respond to the Pandemic (Knopf, 2020) edited by Alice Quinn, which is a book of great wisdom and consolation for these troubled times; there are days when poetry is the only answer. I’m savoring Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi (Bloomsbury, 2020) for my private pleasure after the long wait for this book; her debut novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is one of my favorite novels.

Next on my list are The Rib King by Ladee Hubbard, forthcoming from Amistad in January, and Economy Hall: The Hidden History of a Free Black Brotherhood by Fatima Shaik, forthcoming in March, which illuminates an important chapter in the history of free people of color in New Orleans. I’m also eager to read former president Barack Obama’s memoir A Promised Land (Crown, 2020).

Photo: Susan Larson.
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
11.11.20

Over the past few months, I’ve been asking writers in Houston, including myself, to speak about how they’ve been doing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since this series of short interviews has been an enjoyable process, I will keep it going and look forward to introducing some more writers to the process, asking them to answer this question:

What have you been doing since the pandemic started?

Ana Emilia Felker is the author of the collection of essays, Aunque la casa se derrumbe (UNAM, 2017). Felker received Mexico’s National Journalism Award in Chronicle in 2015, was awarded a fellowship from the Foundation for Mexican Literature, and obtained the FONCA Fellowship of Young Creators in 2017 and 2019. She has a BA in journalism from UNAM Mexico and an MA in Comparative Literature from the Universidad Autonoma de Barcelona. Felker is currently a PhD candidate in Hispanic Studies and Creative Writing at the University of Houston and coordinates UNAM San Antonio’s Literature Seminar.

Here’s her response:

“I’ve shared the quarantine with my partner and my dog in an apartment we rent near Almeda Street, close to those turkey legs that smell so good but we’ve never tried, hopefully we will after this thing ends. My partner and I, we are both writing our PhD dissertations, so in a way we have already spent a lot of time in lockdown, but now we can’t alternate spaces going to a cafeteria or to the university library. At first, walking our dog Roque became the moment when we could catch some air together or by ourselves. I have enjoyed paying more attention to strolls, watching the plants, figuring out names of trees in English and Spanish, observing the changes of seasons. But on the flip side, I have also had days of feeling trapped and not finding purpose or meaning in anything I do. So to fight this I started exercising a little bit, I started therapy online with a psychologist in Mexico and also tried to stay away from social media because it was causing me a great deal of anxiety. So overall, I would say I’ve had some peace and quiet but realized that being in lockdown means to hold all your energy together (kind and hostile demons) without the dispersion that social interaction allows. That is a challenge, but hopefully we all meet on the other side, reconciled with ourselves, ready to go outside with less fear and ready to try those turkey legs.”

Photo: Ana Emilia Felker.
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
11.4.20

On Friday, October 23, I had the privilege of hosting Writing in Detroit: A Virtual Reading featuring Christiana Castillo, Scheherazade Washington Parrish, and Devin Samuels. All three artists shared stunning work and responded to the question, “How has Detroit influenced your writing?”

Not only did I find myself blown away by the writing shared by our guests, but their responses to what I thought was a simple question opened a door for complex perspectives on the city that each expressed a deep love for.

Samuels, a Providence, Rhode Island native who recently moved to Detroit, spoke about his gratitude for the city’s writing community and his ongoing exploration of literary resources and the various historic narratives reflected in the work of local writers. “I can’t sing the praises of Detroit’s writing community enough,” said Samuels. “Being in a place like that will change you.”

Washington Parrish expressed how “Detroit is home, and so Detroit influences my writing the way home influences everything.” I identified deeply with this response as someone who has also reflected on how the city influences my work. At times we talk about how Detroit is different from other cities or mysterious. This answer identified Detroit clearly and simply as another home. Washington Parrish continued by saying what we all feel about our respective hometowns: “You have to have a particular sight to see and appreciate what is happening here.”

Castillo closed out our discussion by speaking about her family, who have spent four generations in Detroit. “To me that’s just a lot of ancestral knowledge I can tap into,” said Castillo. She also praised the writing community and how special it feels to be a writer in Detroit. “There’s never been a moment I haven’t felt held and supported in Detroit’s community,” said Castillo. “I can’t imagine writing anywhere else.”

I was struck by all of the thoughtful answers our guests brought to the table. You can watch the reading and discussion on Poets & Writers’ Facebook page now!

Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
10.26.20

If you enjoyed our Hurricane Katrina Anniversary virtual event, join us on Thursday, October 29 as we celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the NOMMO Literary Society of New Orleans with a Facebook Live event.

NOMMO began as a workshop for Black writers in 1994 led by Kalamu ya Salaam in New Orleans. The workshop had high profile writing guests including Amiri Baraka, Toi Derricotte, and Terrance Hayes. Many consider it the foundation for similar writers workshops that would come soon after, such as Cave Canem and VONA. NOMMO dismantled formally after Hurricane Katrina but many of the participants continue their writing pursuits with success. Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jericho Brown was one of NOMMO’s early participants.

The upcoming virtual event will include Jericho Brown, Karen Celestan, Jarvis DeBerry, Freddi Williams Evans, Ayo Fayemi-Robinson, Keturah Kendrick, Marian Moore, and Kalamu ya Salaam. The panel will discuss the need for building community as writers, the cultural impact of New Orleans, and the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina and how it is applicable to our current pandemic.

Register for Unique and Unified: Celebrating the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the NOMMO Literary Society here!

To learn more about NOMMO, read my previous post about its history.

Photo: NOMMO Literary Society anniversary event flyer.
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.

 

10.21.20

Hey mi gente, I will get right to the point. This series of interviews has been enlightening and inspirational these last few months and so what was supposed to be only five entries will now be extended. So far, you have heard from Katherine Hoerth, Daniel Peña, Melissa Studdard, and Jonathan Moody. Although I have answered already, I am in a new place (as I’m sure we all are each day of this pandemic) and will again answer the question I’ve been asking other writers:

What have you been doing since the pandemic started?

“I am adding myself as a double entry for one very brutal reason: I know what the pandemic has cost me. My mother died from complications due to COVID-19 earlier this month on October 1. She died at the age of eighty-six.

What have I been doing since the pandemic started? Trying to do all the things I said I was doing in the last post but more importantly, trying my damnedest to keep my family alive and well. I have to admit, a part of me feels like I have failed. In truth, there are so many feelings about this pandemic and how it has treated my family and many people of color.

I spent the last month or so, from August 25 to the start of October, in such distress. We were dealing/planning for the possibility of two storms in the Gulf of Mexico (my heart and candles are lit for folks in Lake Charles and to Kelly Harris, our literary outreach coordinator in New Orleans, as always staying in “hurricane mode” can wear on you), and my parents telling me they had a cold, which later turned out to be COVID-19. To this day, I don’t know how my father got it. He took care as much as he could (especially in the third most Republican county in Texas, where I have witnessed people not following social distancing measures with full care), but to no avail, my mother caught it.

I have spent time thinking. I have spent time thinking about how COVID-19 affects families. As this double storm was a thing, I think about the last conversation I had with my mother on August 25. I called to convince my folks to come up to Houston after Galveston initiated a voluntary evacuation. My mother told me, “no mijo, we will stay here, I don’t know if I have this thing and if I do, I don’t want to give it to you or Jasminne or mija.” My mom knew my wife is immunocompromised and she couldn’t think of even giving it to her two-year-old granddaughter. So they stayed home. She got worse. She went to the ER. She was treated. It didn’t work and she died.

I have spent time writing. The day we found out that she was being admitted to the hospital, they told us she tested positive. My father and I were stunned. We spent three hours together in a waiting room and so I had to rush to get him tested. He tested positive and we had to quarantine for two weeks. To keep from going crazy, I was posting daily updates on Twitter and on Facebook. I was writing curriculum for my day job. Now that my mother is gone, I have had to take notes about how to transfer information for bills, insurance policies, contact numbers, etc.—all the process of laying someone to rest. I even wrote my mother’s obituary.

I honestly don’t know what else I will do during the pandemic. I mean, I know I will do what I can do to try to stay alive, but so far, all I can really see is managing things one day at a time. I know I will take care of my father who has been shattered at the guilt of infecting his partner of forty-six years (even after I explain how transmission is a community thing) and try my best to find peace for my wife and child.

What am I doing during the pandemic? Trying to find light and pass it on to others, just like my mom taught me to do.”

Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
10.14.20

Hamtramck is a small city in Wayne County that is surrounded by the city of Detroit. It is one of the many cultural hubs of southeastern Michigan, home to large Middle Eastern and South Asian communities. Hamtramck has been influential to numerous Detroit writers who have taken up residence there and enjoyed the company of welcoming bakeries, coffee shops, and bookstores. I have personally spent quality writing time at Cafe 1923 and Book Suey.

I recently had an opportunity to speak with Hamtramck native and high school student Katja Rowan about how the city has influenced her writing. Rowan is a dancer, violinist, and writer who participated in virtual panels, readings, and workshops this summer as a member of InsideOut Citywide Poets’ new Performance Troupe. Rowan became serious about her writing in middle school. “I realized writing can be more than just something I like to do,” she says. “It can be powerful and can make a change.”

Rowan enjoys the closeness felt between residents in Hamtramck and the diversity of the city. “Hamtramck has made me aware of different perspectives because there are so many cultures and backgrounds to learn from,” she says.

Rowan also discussed how Detroit offers artists on stage and on paper support, and how the community comes together in a strong way. The dynamics of both Hamtramck’s physical tight-knit nature and Detroit’s supportive community are valuable gems for residents in the area. The thinking and creating that comes from this support is inspiring and has the potential to inform the wider world on how an encouraging environment can influence art and be enriching for all.

Rowan is currently working on a project that she hopes will inform her community and the wider world on “Queer Narratives of Joy,” the running theme of her novel-in-progress. “Queer folks face a lot but I also want to highlight some of the beauty and joy,” she says. “I want to create for queer readers like me who want to read those positive narratives too.”

Photo: Katja Rowan.
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
10.7.20

If you have sincere interest in Black New Orleans, the Louisiana Creole language, and how language summons us to grapple with history—Brenda Marie Osbey is my first recommendation. Osbey is the author of books in English and French, most recently, 1967 (William & Mary, 2018), All Souls: Essential Poems (LSU Press, 2015), and History and Other Poems (Time Being Books, 2013). For more than thirty years she has researched and recorded the history of Faubourg Tremé, a community founded by free Blacks in New Orleans. From 2005 to 2007, Osbey served as the first peer-selected poet laureate of Louisiana. I had an opportunity to speak with Osbey about her appointment as poet laureate, her writing process, and her advice for writers.

Photo: Brenda Marie Osbey (Credit: Baquet, New Orleans)
 

You were the second Black woman to be selected for the role of poet laureate of Louisiana. What lessons, if any, did you learn from this public role?
Because my spring 2005 appointment was the first one recommended by a committee of literary peers, I began by considering how I might best serve beyond the expected class visits that dominate most laureateship tenures. Then Katrina hit New Orleans on the 29 of August as a Category 1* hurricane, after which the levees broke, flooding the city of New Orleans and the surrounding area.

During my two-year laureateship, I traveled the United States, advocating for the right to return and rebuild, speaking on disaster panels, giving mini-versions of the Black New Orleans Research Seminar I had been teaching at universities across the country in the years before the storm. For a while, there was a narrative floating about that New Orleans was not worth rebuilding or saving in any way that would be deemed costly. I sought to dispel this notion in various ways. Additionally, every week I gave readings, and met and engaged with southeast Louisianians—mostly New Orleanians—dispersed across the country, bearing with them their narratives of displacement. It was a wrenching and humbling experience. And it taught me countless lessons about the far reach of community.

In a 1986 interview in the Mississippi Quarterly, you were asked if the New Orleans community was supportive of your work and mentioned that although you love the city, you do some of your best work away from here. You also made a distinction between New Orleans being an arts city and a cultural city. Do you still feel the same way today, and how has that impacted your work?
I was attempting to convey how, despite the city’s long history of cultural/creative output, there was no structure or system in place in New Orleans to support the arts—beyond the entertainment model, that is—which would include supporting arts workers. Which is a longer conversation than is possible here.

Rooted as it is in New Orleans—history, culture, language, sensibilities—writing often requires the kind of distance that allows one to see and consider one’s objectives and materials differently away than at home. Seeing the forest for the trees is necessary to thought, insight, and reflection, and is required to produce work.

Out of all your amazing books, which was the most difficult to write and why?
I don’t think in terms of difficulty or ease. My work is primarily research-based, and each book is a deliberately conceived project with its own arc and progression. And since I’m always working on multiple projects at any given time, my attention is either on the work at hand, what’s next in queue, or some combination.

What’s your advice to young poets?
Learn to read one or more languages. Moreover, study your native language as if learning it for the first time. More so than other genres, poetry is rooted in the human tongue.

Listen to Osbey read “Everything Happens to (Monk and) Me”:

 
*“Reported in 2005 as having struck New Orleans as a Category 1, online information has recently changed the impact of Hurricane Katrina to a Category 3—levees purportedly having been built to withstand hurricanes at the higher level,” Osbey says. “Those of us who were here in New Orleans, however, experienced and witnessed Katrina as a Category 1 hurricane, and recognize the levee breaches and loss of lives as a man-made disaster.”
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
9.28.20

We interrupt our regularly scheduled United States of Writing Blog content to remind writers in Detroit, Houston, and New Orleans that applications for Project Grants for BIPOC Writers are due this Wednesday, September 30!

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 October 16 and December 31.

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.

So for example, if you were a Black fiction writer living in Houston who wants to coordinate a fiction reading that will be live-streamed to the public, and you want to compensate yourself and other writers who will give readings for the event, you would be a great candidate for a project grant!

Of course, not all projects need to fit the mold above: We are also interested in supporting other literary projects that will engage the communities of these cities, such as workshops, panels, discussions, town halls, or Q&As.

Writers interested in applying can find the guidelines and link to the application form here.

We can’t wait to read your project ideas!

9.23.20

As we near the end of September, temperatures in Detroit are falling with leaves highlighting the end of the summer season. Safety concerns regarding COVID-19 are still lingering, meaning beloved and well-known Detroit festivals such as the annual African World Festival and Dally in the Alley have been canceled. These festivals are networking hubs for local writers and artists alike so it is unfortunate that they can’t be held this year. Despite these cancellations, writers are still documenting this ever-changing new era with their words and sharing work through virtual events like the ninth annual Detroit Lit Walk hosted by M. L. Liebler and Jenifer DeBellis, which provided a daylong literary experience.

There is also a buzz among the writers and organizers of literary events who have been applying for Poets & Writers’ Project Grants available for BIPOC writers in Detroit, Houston, and New Orleans—applications are due by September 30! The grants provide funding for one-, two-, or three-session projects and can be used to cover any cost associated with your project. Read more about the guidelines and apply here!

As we move into October and look for ways to help writers stay connected, I am excited to be hosting Writing in Detroit, a virtual reading on October 23 sponsored by Poets & Writers. Writing in Detroit will feature Christiana Castillo, Devin Samuels, and Scheherazade Washington Parish. Each writer will share original work and say a few words about how living in Detroit has influenced their writing. I believe these three writers will offer a unique insight into how our city’s culture finds its way into our words. Register for your virtual seat and tune in on October 23 at 4:00 PM EST.

For more upcoming events, check out the Literary Events Calendar.

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

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