United States of Writing

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.

Reports From Detroit

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.
12.23.20

I am in awe of the effects of time on the city of Detroit as I write this final blog post for the year of 2020. A different world has taken shape since December of last year. The landscape of how writers and non-writers alike engage with the literary arts has changed just as much. In Detroit, streamed virtual events, online book sales, and Facebook Live panels have taken the place of in-person poetry nights, storytelling events, and all festivals. While a tough move for all of us, it has also afforded writers the ability to speak with wider audiences despite where they are physically located. Considering the long-standing transportation issues that exist within the city, there is a new sort of connectedness that has come from these virtual readings. Readings by Aricka Foreman, Nandi Comer, and Tommye Blount come to mind as highlights of 2020. 

I’ve found myself deeply appreciative of Detroit’s dedication to providing quality literary events and programming. I recall InsideOut Literary Arts’ Louder Than a Bomb Detroit Youth Poetry Festival, which pivoted to a completely online model just weeks after statewide shutdowns. That festival provided youth with numerous workshop and reading opportunities that allowed for direct reflection on the pandemic. I also remember M. L. Liebler’s virtual adaptation of the Detroit Lit Walk, which invited viewers to engage with seven artists from the comfort of their home. These examples and more represent the resiliency of writing as an art form, and sharing that writing as a form of expression. 

Great things have also come out of the United States of Writing this year! I have to commend Lupe Mendez of Houston and Kelly Harris of New Orleans for leading amazing events in their hometowns and allowing all of us to get a taste of their literary communities through this blog. Poets & Writers’ funding through 2020 Project Grants for BIPOC Writers and rolling out Readings & Workshops mini-grants for virtual events have given each of our cities the means to expand our literary communities like never before. We look forward to continuing this great work in 2021.

Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
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.
11.4.20

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.
10.14.20

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.
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.
9.2.20

Leaves are flirting with fall colors all across Michigan as we walk into September. I am excited to see more virtual events being planned out in advance, and I hope a few of these that feature Detroit writers make it on to your calendar.

On September 2, PEN America is facilitating a panel discussion in collaboration with the Authors Guild and the NYC Literary Action Coalition to speak about how literary organizations are surviving and responding to COVID-19. Moderated by Cheryl Davis of the Authors Guild, Detroit’s own Nandi Comer of Allied Media Projects will be one of the panelists sharing their experiences. I think that this panel will be rich with tips and tools for anyone working within a nonprofit organization, literary or otherwise.

The Zell Visiting Writers Series presented by the Helen Zell Writers’ Program with support from the University of Michigan’s Department of English Language and Literature is going with a virtual platform on September 3 to offer a reading and Q&A with Kaveh Akbar. This is an opportunity not only for the Detroit community, but those who can access the event online worldwide to take part in this renowned reading series.

Pages Bookshop has steadily hosted their visiting artist series virtually this summer. There is an upcoming event scheduled for September 15 featuring novelist Sharon Harrigan in conversation with Kelly Fordon. In addition, Pages is still open for business online!

Finally, on September 20, M. L. Liebler and Jennifer DeBellis, in collaboration with the Detroit Writers’ Guild, will host the ninth annual Midtown Detroit Lit Walk via Facebook Live—although there won’t be any walking involved this year. The reading will feature Shonda Buchanon, Brian Gilmore, and Alison Swan, just to name a few.

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

Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
8.12.20

As summer swiftly sweeps through Detroit, I’ve been keeping an eye out for more virtual events. Today I want to highlight two virtual readings I was able to attend in July that have more events coming soon.

Skazat! Poetry Series at Sweetwaters is based in Ann Arbor, a short drive from Detroit and a regular destination for many of us. Skazat! has been around for as long as I can remember and is hosted by Scott Beal. Beal is the author of >Wait ‘Til You Have Real Problems published by Dzanc Books in 2014 and The Octopus published by Gertrude Press in 2016. Additionally, Beal is the winner of a 2014 Pushcart Prize for the poem “Things to Think About.” Beal has invited me to read for the series a few times in the past which have been great experiences, so it is encouraging to see it continuing virtually. On July 28 Skazat! featured Jon Sands, winner of the 2018 National Poetry Series, selected for his second poetry collection, It’s Not Magic (Beacon Press, 2019). This event offered a light-hearted open mic and then a powerful reading by Sands, all via Zoom. Skazat! will be returning in October following an annual late-summer break.

M. L. Liebler has established the Living Room Online Literary Series during Michigan’s stay-at-home orders. Liebler is known for many reading series in the Detroit area and has overseen publications such as the Wayne Literary Review with Wayne State University’s Department of English. The Living Room Online Literary Series features three artists. In July, we heard from this Gary Metras, author of White Storm (Presa Press, 2018); Laura Hulthen Thomas, University of Michigan’s RC creative writing director; and a personal favorite and Detroit native, Aurora Harris. Liebler will be returning with this series on August 16 with Mark Doty, Minnie Bruce Pratt, and Mary Jo Frith Gillett. Find the series on Facebook to join the event!

Both of these series offered a relaxing yet relevant listening party for me last month. With the open mics and the diverse featured readers, I was happy to attend and definitely will have their upcoming events on my calendar!

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

 

7.22.20

Since 2008, Kresge Arts in Detroit has awarded more than $5 million to Detroit artists through their annual awards and Kresge Artist fellowships. I have the privilege of working at InsideOut with Shawntai Brown, one of the 2020 Kresge Fellowship recipients, and was able to sit down with her to speak about her work and the literary community in Detroit.

Brown is a local poet and playwright whose work centers around Black queer characters, experiences, and histories. When I asked what she enjoys best about Detroit’s literary world, she said: “The support! There is an excitement about the work being done, and I have met so many encouraging fellow writers who simply love having more voices on the page and stage.” I agree wholeheartedly with this statement. I find that there is a belief in the creation of new and unexpected literary exploration in our city.

As a Kresge Live Arts Fellow, Brown has the opportunity to connect to a wide range of artists, organizers, and mentors, which she feels is necessary for her work to come alive. “My playwriting is a communal undertaking. I need to see the work on its feet to really come into conversation with it. It takes a village to raise a play,” said Brown. “This year is about financing and stage productions, collaborating and carving more space to retreat and create.”

To close, I asked Brown to share a word for anyone who is exploring Detroit’s artist community for the first time. “Look everywhere,” she said. “Take the bus and ride your bike to harvest an intimacy with the city. Where the art and the artist come from is a huge part of the texture of the creation. Detroit has art spilling out of every part of the city, so build relationships with various communities.”

Photo: Shawntai Brown.
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
7.1.20

Michigan is just past the three-month mark since entering a state of emergency and a stay-at-home order due to COVID-19 cases rising in our area. It’s been a long and very different spring for everyone, however, as of June 1 our stay-at-home order was finally lifted allowing businesses to slowly open up in phases.

We are still under a state of emergency through July, however, and indoor businesses are ordered to operate at only 50 percent, which means literary events are still primarily occurring virtually or not at all. By now, we are all familiar with Zoom meetings and other live-streaming platforms. Only a handful of Detroit-based literary workshops, open mics, and showcases have shifted to these virtual platforms, but this sudden shift to a mostly digitized world of meetings has created opportunities that may not have been possible otherwise.

When thinking about the best virtual literary events I have attended since March, readings by Mahogany Jones, Aricka Foreman, Nandi Comer, and Tariq Luthun come to the top of the list. In another time, these writers may not have had an opportunity to read together because of physical distance, but in this digital space it was a privilege to hear these writers share their work.

Our Poets & Writers roundtable event held virtually for Detroit was also successful in bringing together event planners from in and around the city. This was a great way to build community among people looking for similar opportunities in our immediate area. A meeting of this nature is not something that occurs often because of complications with schedules, location, and other barriers, but offering this panel to discuss Readings & Workshops mini-funds and shared experiences online made it more accessible.

Over the last month, Black Lives Matter protests in response to the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others encouraged thousands to brave the looming threat of COVID-19 in order to make important statements about the mistreatment of Black people by police forces. In Detroit, these protests included organized outdoor open mics that became the first stage many writers and performers have touched since March. This reminded me of how writers, along with others in our community, continue to fight to share our voices and contribute to positive change, even in the midst of a pandemic.

Through these lenses, there is a silver lining to highlight from the last three months: Writers are resilient and will continue to find a way to write, share, organize, and build community no matter the challenge.

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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