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.

1.15.20

One Book One New Orleans is a campaign for literacy and community where New Orleans residents share the experience of reading the same book at the same time. The city has many great writers but its adult illiteracy rates are troubling. I had an opportunity to speak with One Book One New Orleans’s executive director Megan Holt and ask a few questions about the organization’s mission and how reading books together can build community. Megan and I have worked together at the Words & Music Festival for the last two years but most importantly, we are friends that share a love for motherhood and literacy.

Can you tell us a little bit about the mission of One Book One New Orleans?
One Book One New Orleans selects one book each year for New Orleans residents to read. We make an extra effort to ensure that our selected book is accessible to all adults. Through a network of community partners, we get the book, as well as a curriculum for the book, into adult education classes, adult ESL classes, HiSET classes, educational programs in juvenile justice centers, and prisons. We also arrange for the book to be recorded and broadcast for the blind community. Finally, we host a series of free, family-friendly events inspired by the book.

Why is it so important to get the whole city of New Orleans reading?
Often it feels that New Orleans is a city divided—by education level, by socioeconomic class, by neighborhood, by race. Bringing people from different walks of life together through a shared reading experience can be the first step to realizing that we have more in common with one another than we thought.

How can reading as a city transform New Orleans?
Increased adult literacy is linked to lower poverty rates, lower crime rates, lower domestic violence rates, better chances of securing a job that pays a living wage, better health care outcomes, and increased participation in the democratic process. These effects then get passed on to the next generation. While it would be overly simplistic to say that reading together as a city is a magic cure-all for some of the struggles our city faces, coming together certainly can serve as a catalyst for change.

What are some of the books the city has read together in the past?
Our first book in 2004 was A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines. The last few years we’ve included titles such as Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans by Louis Armstrong, Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas by Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker, and Counting Descent by Clint Smith.

What’s the book for 2020?
New Orleans Griot: The Tom Dent Reader
edited by Kalamu ya Salaam.

One Book One New Orleans executive director Megan Holt. (Credit: Paula Burch-Celentano)
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
1.14.20

Last week, I highlighted the work of Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say, and their long-running radio show. Today, I want to spotlight local writer Icess Fernandez Rojas, a member of Nuestra Palabra. Rojas is a masterful writer and blogger who focuses her efforts on all things fiction, in particular mystery and noir. A former journalist, she is a graduate of Goddard College’s MFA program and currently teaches in the English Department at Lone Star College-Kingwood.

Over ten years ago, Rojas created the blog Dear Reader, where she offers tips to fellow writers and welcomes them into her writing life. Recently, she expanded her blog into a weekly podcast of the same name. The podcast, hosted by Rojas, focuses on mental health and the writing life and acts as a guide to “help you write your best life.” Take some time, folks, to read and listen to what Rojas puts out. She is an unsung hero in our writing community.

Dear Reader: Mental Health and the Writing Life, a podcast hosted by Icess Fernandez Rojas.
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
1.13.20

Finding literary events in Detroit can sometimes be tough. It seems like every other month I come across someone who says, “I don’t know if there are any open mics or readings I can go to.” Social media, alongside word of mouth, is the primary way Detroit offers up information about literary events. I wanted to share a couple of the digital spaces I use as references to help people track events.

When I want to know what evening events are taking place, I always visit In the Loop Poetic Haven. Although this Facebook group began by highlighting poetry events, I have found a variety of hip-hop and comedy events here as well. The group has developed since 2011 and now has over two thousand members. In addition to daily posts, well-known local poet Caesar Torreano adds weekly posts featuring recurring open mics.

Many Detroit poets, myself included, follow the Detroit Poetry Society. This Facebook group is made up of multi-genre artists who hold open mics, offer workshops, and do hands-on work in Detroit neighborhoods. Their Instagram feed also stays up to date with information about upcoming events.

I have also recently discovered Writing Workshops Detroit, an independent writing school that offers a variety of writing classes and workshops in Detroit and online, and individual consultations. You can keep up with them on Twitter.

Finally, the Poets & Writers Literary Events Calendar is a great way to see what events are in your area. You can also help out the community by posting events you know about for free.

Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
1.8.20

Just before the holidays, I highlighted a few local bookstores in New Orleans worth checking out for gifts. Tubby & Coo’s is an indie bookstore doing great work in Mid-City and as luck would have it, our Poets & Writers table was set up next to their onsite bookstore during the recent Words & Music Festival. The shop specializes in genre fiction, including science fiction, fantasy, graphic novels, and children’s books. Tubby & Coo’s owner Candice Huber named the shop after her grandparents who lived in Mid-City and opening a bookstore has been a lifelong dream. Below is a short chat I had with Huber about her bookstore.

What lessons have you learned as a bookstore owner over the last five years?
The main thing I’ve learned is my customer base and what they look for. It’s always a bit of trial and error when you first start, but over the years you listen to customers and learn what they want, and that is immensely helpful. I’ve also learned a lot about the book and publishing industries in general, and about my own personal limitations and skills. Owning my own business has really pushed me, but it’s also been so rewarding.

How does the Mid-City neighborhood play into how Tubby & Coo’s functions?
I love that we’re close to City Park and right on the streetcar line. Also, Mid-City is very community oriented. I love that we know and interact with our neighbors and other Mid-City businesses regularly and that everyone helps each other out and supports each other. I couldn’t ask for a better neighborhood!

The shops website mentions that Tubby & Coos is also a community center. What else makes your bookstore unique?
We’re a niche store that appeals directly to nerd and queer folk. We carry mostly science fiction and fantasy, but we also have a great selection of queer books, children’s books, and board games. I think we’ve done a good job of creating a safe space and environment and a wonderful community space where anyone can be themselves.

Are there any upcoming bookstore events we should look out for in 2020?
We’re currently in the process of planning for 2020. We’ll definitely continue our book clubs and board game night, which are always hits. And we’re already planning our super popular Harry Potter Birthday Party. Our sibling publishing company, TALES Publishing, will also be picking up in 2020 to publish a few more books. We’ll have other fun events as well, so stay tuned to our Twitter feed, @tubbyandcoos!

Tubby & Coo’s owner Candice Huber visits the Poets & Writers booth at the Words & Music Festival.
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
1.7.20

Happy New Year! I wanted to kick off 2020 by focusing on what the literary community looks like outside of author readings and book events. This includes groups like Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say, blogs and podcasts such as Dear Reader and Bootleg Like Jazz, ekphrastic experiences like the workshop and reading series Words & Art, and book lover groups like the Afrofuturism Book Club.

Today I want to spotlight the work of Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say. This group has been bringing Latino writers to the Houston area for more than twenty years, beginning with a monthly reading series in the late 1990s and organizing the Latino Book and Family Festival in the early 2000s to a literary radio program that’s been running for more than fifteen years called the Nuestra Palabra Radio Show.

The show goes on the air every Tuesday from 6:00 PM to 7:00 PM CST on Houston’s local Pacifica station KPFT 90.1FM and is livestreamed at KPFT.org. It is an hour-long show that focuses on literary works, as well as local community events and political happenings in the Houston area. Nuestra Palabra founder and director Tony Diaz interviews authors of all kinds—including poets, musicians, visual artists, historians, and chefs. The show is a brilliant opportunity to check out what is happening regionally, nationally, and internationally across the Latino landscape. You can listen to their archive of shows on the Nuestra Palabra website.

Tony Diaz on the Nuestra Palabra Radio Show.
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
1.6.20

I still remember as a child, my mother telling me that “a lot of people didn’t think we would make it to 1999, and we don’t know what’s going to happen with Y2K!” Twenty years later, we now know the panic of Y2K was an unnecessary hype and the world survived and, if anything, expanded. This, of course, includes the literary world.

I didn’t discover the literary world that thrives in Detroit until 2008, but upon that introduction was quickly pointed toward those who preceded me. I discovered names like francine j. harris and Vievee Francis, and venues such as Cliff Bell’s and Liv Bistro Lounge. These were the people and places that produced the mentors I was introduced to in my high school years, and are the same people and places that helped mold me into the poet I am today.

With that, I simply want to use this blog as an opportunity to give a huge thank you to all of the writers, venues, hosts, and audiences that embraced and gave rise to not only me, but the current generation of Detroit artists—literary and otherwise—over this past decade. I wouldn’t be here without the wise teachings and mentorship of Nandi Comer, Jamaal May, and Aricka Foreman. I wouldn’t have found them without the English teachers that encouraged me to continue exploring writing and the art teachers who made me feel like my creativity was valid.

I am very excited about what 2020 has to hold for the community. I see us growing and shifting and learning, and I am happy to be along for the ride.

Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
1.1.20

Last November, I spoke with poet Peter Cooley following the International Poetry Reading cosponsored by Poets & Writers at Tulane University. Cooley, professor emeritus of English at Tulane University and the former poet laureate of Louisiana, is the author of ten books of poetry, most recently World Without Finishing (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2018). We talked about the passing of his dear wife and laughed about advice his daughters recently gave him about the dating world. Here’s a short Q&A that extends our conversation.

As professor emeritus of English at Tulane, what do you look for in the writing of MFA applicants?
The ability to see life a little differently, from a new angle, and the possession of a facility with language.

How have creative writing programs changed since you were a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop?
There are, happily, many different kinds of MFA programs now, from the studio model like the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, to the more structured programs like the University of Arkansas. They are all over the country. And there are low-residency programs, similar to Warren Wilson College’s MFA program.

Recently, you spoke to me about becoming a widower and the advice your daughters have given you about dating. How has this experience impacted your writing?
I am finishing a whole book about grief and being a widower. My wife died on March 15, 2018. I thought I couldn’t write about this, which meant I needed to write it.

As a former poet laureate of Louisiana what advice can you offer for writers?
My advice to writers is the old advice: read, read, read, revise, revise, revise. Find a couple of people whose opinion you respect and show your stuff to them with the hope of receiving criticism. Be prepared for continuous rejection in sending your work out and remember that some of the most famous works have been rejected countless times.

You told me you’ve subscribed to Poets & Writers Magazine for years. What do you like most about the magazine?
I have subscribed to Poets & Writers Magazine for as long as I can remember. I enjoy the feature articles, the news of new writers, and the classifieds. I also like the layouts and photographs of writers.

Peter Cooley.
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
12.31.19

Today’s post will wrap up my roundup of reading and performance series that have included Houston VIP Slam, Poison Pen Reading Series, and Write About Now Poetry.

The First Friday Reading Series is the oldest series in Houston and has been going strong for the last forty-four years, holding monthly readings on the first Friday of each month since 1975. This classic platform has seen many of the city’s strongest writers grace its podium. The reading format is super simple: Have the Inprint House host on the first Friday of the month, select a featured poet, and then get the open mic going.

The series has always been open to the public so that any and every person gets a chance to read in a beautiful setting. What could be more literary than reading in a space that was once the living room of Claudia Rankine? The readings start at 8:30 PM and usually go on until 11:00 PM. This space is always packed and there is a running joke that even the “VIP Section,” the staircase, gets full quick providing extra seating when all the chairs are taken. I always have a great time when I am able to go and look forward to getting to hear a variety of poets, those that I have known for years and new friends I’m meeting for the first time.

What I have always loved about First Friday, still hosted by Robert Clark after all these years, is that anyone who goes is either reading older poems they haven’t read in forever or reading brand new work for the first time. Writers often experiment with poems they are planning on adding to a manuscript in order to hear their words out loud and get live feedback. Whatever you want to bring to the open mic, this is the safest space to do this work in. Come on in, there is always a chair, or a staircase, waiting for you.

First Friday Reading Series audience at Inprint House.
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
12.30.19

In part two of my conversation with poet Deonte Osayande, I want to highlight his role in helping other writers share their work on stages in Detroit. Deonte was one of the first writers to introduce me to the Readings & Workshops program and the mini-grants offered to poets and writers. As an independent artist, Deonte was able to receive funding through the R&W program for his reading appearances and for leading writing workshops. As a series curator, Deonte has applied for, and received, a number of mini-grants for writers that he has invited to take part in events. Together we ran the Detroit slam series known as Freshwater Wordsmiths, which was first awarded funding from the R&W program in 2015.

Deonte says that he discovered the mini-grants from a peer and thought it would help the Freshwater Wordsmiths series grow. “I wanted a better way to pay people to come and perform for us, and I found it as an excellent way to recruit incoming writers,” says Deonte. The ability to fund writers in this way allowed Deonte to invite many who had never been to the Midwest before. Some of the writers who shared their work at Freshwater Wordsmiths and were funded through the R&W program include Troy Cunio, Safia Elhillo, Joel Greene, Robert Lashley, Ed Mabrey, Hieu Minh Nguyen, and Paul Tran.

In turn, local writers and fans of the literary arts in Detroit have been able to experience and build connections with writers from around the country. The ability to receive funding for writers also allows small venues in the city to lure traveling artists to their events even if the backing of a large university or organization is not present.

Interest in the literary world has expanded among the local writers who have been to reading series such as Freshwater Wordsmiths, and the many series that have been established in Detroit since the series closed. Through this support system, we are building community and sharing inspiration for our writing.

Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
12.18.19

If you’re looking for more community and a spirited festival, you should look into Saints and Sinners. Founded in 2003, the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival highlights LGBTQ writers and publishers from the United States and beyond. The three-day event features panel discussions, workshops, and readings and is held each spring in the French Quarter at the Hotel Monteleone—an official literary landmark that has welcomed William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Eudora Welty, and Tennessee Williams to its rooms.

The 2020 festival is set for March 27–29 and will feature poet Savannah Sipple, fiction writer Leona Beasley, historian Frank Perez, and many others. Registration is open now with day passes and student rates available.

Saints and Sinners is a project of the Tennessee Williams & New Orleans Literary Festival, which I’ve attended several times in the past. The two festivals overlap so it’s possible to attend events from both. Last year, Saints and Sinners kicked off the festival with the return of their open mic slam and first-ever Drag Queen show. And to conclude the event, there are Saints and Sinners Hall of Fame awards given to those who best embody the mission of the festival.

My poet friend Brad Richard has attended the festival and speaks highly of it: “The Saints and Sinners Festival is a wonderful community within the larger community of the Tennessee Williams Festival. I’ve met writers I’ve always wanted to meet and discovered new ones, and found a publisher, Sibling Rivalry Press, for my third book, Butcher’s Sugar.”

Although I haven’t had the chance to attend Saints and Sinners yet, I look forward to supporting the festival and attendees in the coming year.

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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