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

6.23.21

It’s impossible to sum up everything that has blossomed since taking on the role of literary outreach coordinator (LOC) in Detroit in April of 2019. Onboarding at the offices of Poets & Writers in New York City seems like a distant point along an intricate timeline layered with colorful stories and discoveries. In this role, I have seen the literary community of Detroit grow and transform with support from the United States of Writing initiative. One huge highlight was the Project Grants for BIPOC Writers. These grants have opened a world of opportunity for local writers to engage with communities, whether in-person or virtually, through writing workshops, readings, and discussions.

Another highlight: The Detroit Writers Circle workshops that acted as informational and inspirational spaces, allowing me to put my own facilitation skills on the forefront. These activities paired with visits to many venues and organizers have made this an experience that I will be drawing from for years to come. There are also spaces like Room Project and Detroit Writing Room that helped enhance our efforts to connect with writers, and the countless individual artists and writers I have met and gotten to know better along the way.

As we end this season of exploration and growth, my LOC work will be taking a planned hiatus. How has it been two-plus years already? How were we able to grow even in a pandemic? How did we remain focused in the midst of police brutality and political unrest? It’s because our focus is the community. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

I keep asking myself what was the best part of it all? What really recharged me were the interviews with writers that were included in this blog. The opportunity to lift up the amazing literary talent coming out of Detroit is something that is close to my heart, and I appreciate the opportunity to have done so through this blog. There are a wealth of writers who I still haven’t had the chance to connect with, and that makes me even more excited: to know there is still more work to be done and more talent to lift up. I’ve enjoyed my time as literary outreach coordinator and thank all of you!

If you’d like to find out more about mini-grants for writers, read more about the Readings & Workshops program and their guidelines.

Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
5.26.21

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

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

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

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

Photo: Kyle Mack, winner of the 2021 Motown Mic Spoken Word Competition.
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
5.12.21

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

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

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

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

Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
4.21.21

I am excited to share my thoughts after reading Christiana Castillo’s poetry chapbook, Crushed Marigold, illustrated by and Karla Rosas and published by Flower Press, a Detroit-based publishing practice centering womxn, femme, queer, and trans artists. Castillo is a Latina/Chicana poet, teaching artist, and gardener born in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil and living in the Detroit area. She is the recipient of fellowships from Room Project, Voices of Our Nation (VONA), and Disquiet International.

Castillo joined the Writing in Detroit virtual reading last October, sponsored by Poets & Writers, which offered an inspiring insight to her writing style and bright imagery. Crushed Marigold further expounds upon her writing with colors and textures juxtaposed against the theme of brown skin. In addition, the warm illustrations by artist Karla Rosas throughout the book leave the reader wondering what world we will be pulled into next with each poem.

A favorite poem of mine from Castillo’s collection is “Questions for the Moon,” which asks: “Does the Moon practice self care? / Does she have the time? / I know she controls the / tides / and the water within / us all / but / can she control herself?” The poem gently personifies the moon in a way that opens the reader’s mind to consider how the world around us not only responds to us, but how it responds to itself. The entire collection made me reconsider how we interact with the everyday aspects of our own cultures.

This collection also leaves me with a feeling of hope and perseverance with couplets like “in the midst of decay / there are always more seeds sprouting.” While Castillo touches on heavier topics such as colonization, there is always a sense of moving forward, of growth, of survival.

Crushed Marigold is available at Flower Press’s website and a percentage of the proceeds goes to American Indian Health and Family Services in Michigan, and Kooyrigs, an organization that provides resources to Armenian communities worldwide.

Photo: An open page of Crushed Marigold by Christiana Castillo, illustrated by Karla Rosas.
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
3.31.21

Recently I reconnected with Detroit’s Deonte Osayande, whose new collection, Recipe for the Poet, is available now from Finishing Line Press. Osayande describes this collection as a mix of both form and free verse pieces acting as a sampler ahead of his anticipated full-length collection. “It blends the lessons I’ve learned about form poetry with the relevant topics of today,” says Osayande. I also believe that this is an important approach for both readers and writers of poetry; to allow poetic forms that are often thought of as “old” to reflect on the current world.

Serving the Detroit literary community as a poet, host, and slam master for over a decade, Osayande is a well-known artist in the city and is the author of three other collections, Class (Urban Farmhouse Press, 2017), Circus (Brick Mantle Books, 2018), and Civilian (Urban Farmhouse Press, 2019).

Given Osayande’s experience publishing in literary journals and working on manuscripts, I asked what advice he would give to those who want to submit work. “Never give up and write what you know. Rejection is part of the game and happens to everyone,” says Osayande. “You just need to have the drive and passion to persevere through it. If you write about what is close to your heart, those will be the most meaningful poems.”

Photo: Book cover of Recipe for the Poet (Finishing Line Press, 2021) by Deonte Osayande.
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
3.10.21

On February 26, I was honored to take part in a virtual reading event celebrating Black poets and Black History Month. We Won’t Turn Back was presented by the Youth Advisory Board (YAB) at InsideOut Literary Arts, which curates literary events focused for teens in Detroit. This event featured members of the YAB and special guests, all of whom are Detroit natives: Nandi Comer, Wes Matthews, and Imani Nichele with host LaShaun phoenix Moore.

Each poet shared powerful work that investigated culture and community. While the work was strong, what stood out most for me was what Moore stated: “There are so many ways to be Black.” This was highlighted in the experiences and perspectives shared in the writing. Each poem proved that there are many layers to being Black and being from Detroit, and that there is much more still to be written.

As we move into Women’s History Month, make sure to check out Page to Stage: Bel Canto, a discussion on the inspiration behind Ann Patchett’s opera-centered novel Bel Canto presented virtually by Pages Bookshop and Michigan Opera Theatre on March 16, and Ain’t I a Woman presented virtually by the Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers on April 16. These are sure to be great shows.

Watch the We Won’t Turn Back reading here:

Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
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.
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.
1.6.21

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.

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