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

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.
6.10.20

As of June 1, the stay-at-home order has been lifted in Michigan, however many of us are still taking extreme caution against the coronavirus. One silver lining to this extended time staying inside our home has been having plenty of time to spend with my wife Brittany Rogers who is also an active poet. She always stays three steps ahead of me with new books, so I thought that this would be a great time to share both of our thoughts on a new collection by someone we have both received mentorship from: Aricka Foreman.

I recently wrote about Foreman’s chapbook, Dream With a Glass Chamber published by YesYes Books in 2016. Now, I am excited to write about Foreman’s first full-length collection, Salt Body Shimmer, which will be released in August by YesYes Books.

When I asked Brittany how she would describe Foreman as a writer, she said, “Tender. Intentional. Interrogative. Complex.” These were all words we both agreed embody the writing across Foreman’s work.

After reading Salt Body Shimmer, Brittany said, “In these poems I feel very seen. They felt like an indication for me as a Black woman to tend to my mental health. Foreman teaches me consistently about nuance—about turning a vulnerable eye to things you wish not to feel.”

The four poems in particular that embodied these feelings best, and connected most closely to Brittany as a reader and writer were: “When the Therapist Asks You to Recount, You Have to Say It,” “Intake Interview,” “Consent Is a Labyrinth of Yes,” and “Before I Fire Her, The Therapist Asks What Is it Like to Be a Black Woman Here: A Monologue.”

For me, as I read this collection, I was brought back to something Foreman said to me during her time as my mentor, “Poetry is a documentation of history.” Just like that literary (and life) advice, Salt Body Shimmer captures moments at a pivotal time in Foreman’s history during a pivotal time in world history. The intersections are layered and far beyond the bounds of my conversation with Brittany. As I mentioned before, Brittany stays a few steps ahead of me, so I am still snapping my fingers at the first twenty pages. I can’t wait to dive deep into the other poems in the collection and learn another layer of lessons from one of my favorite mentors.

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

 

5.25.20

As May comes to a close and the temperature continues to rise leading into a long-awaited summer, in Michigan we are waiting to hear if stay-at-home orders will be extended beyond this month. Despite our limitations, literary events continue online and I am happy to announce that this Friday, May 29, we will be holding a panel to discuss funding opportunities from the Readings & Workshops program to help support these events.

I am excited to moderate this panel which will include Readings & Workshops program associate Ricardo Hernandez, and two guest authors, Aubri Adkins and Deonte Osayande, who will be speaking about their experiences securing funds for literary events in Detroit through the Readings & Workshops program.

Adkins is a writer and the founder of the East Side Reading Series, a Detroit literary series featuring original work from writers of all genres. I am interested to hear about her motivations behind establishing the series, and how these readings have made an impact on the literary community of the city.

Osayande is a widely published writer from Detroit, a poet recognized in many slam communities, and currently a professor of English at Wayne County Community College District. I look forward to speaking with him as he offers a variety of perspectives on intersecting literary communities.

I am looking forward to this conversation! I am expecting it to be rich with information not only about Readings & Workshops mini-grants but also about how the Detroit literary community is doing and how we can further connect with other communities.

The panel will be on Friday, May 29 at 5:00 PM EDT. Registration is required and space is limited, so register here. The meeting will also be recorded and made available to the public if you’re not able to make it, but I do hope to see you there!

Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
5.18.20

On May 9, I had the pleasure of joining End Prejudice, a diverse Metro Detroit collective united by a common dream of a future without prejudice, as the featured poet for their virtual series Slam at Home. This series is hosted by LaShaun Phoenix Moore and features one poet and one musical artist each week.

Prior to Michigan’s stay-at-home order, End Prejudice put on several events such as the Storytellers Slam that took place this past winter. Phoenix told me a bit about how End Prejudice had to shift gears for their 2020 programming due to the pandemic: “Once the pandemic hit, we had a team call in late March to determine what we should do, now that much of our programming would be suspended. H. (the founder) decided that we should follow suit with a lot of other folks in the country and do Instagram Live events.” The group has been hosting virtual events for nearly two months and do their best to get their featured artists paid by offering donations directly to the artists. They’ve supported fourteen Detroit artists so far.

You can follow @endprejudice on Instagram and tune in to their Slam at Home live events at 8:00 PM on Saturdays. End Prejudice also provides more information on their blog about what they do. This collective has a clear, dedicated focus to not only address prejudice, but also support local artists and their community.

End Prejudice’s Slam at Home poster.
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
5.11.20

The Louder Than a Bomb Michigan Youth Poetry Festival has been one of the annual highlights of my work with InsideOut Literary Arts, so I was naturally disappointed when COVID-19 rendered such a gathering unsafe. Behind the scenes I worked with festival coordinator Rose Gorman and our go-to host LaShaun Phoenix Moore, and we made the decision to quickly pivot to an online version of the festival: Louder Than a Bomb (LTAB) Essential Words. This version of the festival turned the two-day in-person festival into a weeklong digital engagement for youth and the adults and artists that support these talented youth writers.

On Thursday, April 30, LTAB opened the festival with virtual workshops and small open mics. On Saturday, May 2, we went live across multiple platforms with DJ Stayce J to offer high school students a digital prom dance party. The week culminated to an event on May 7 that we chose to name “Final Stage,” which featured 2019 Ann Arbor youth poet laureate Na Faaris, T. Miller, Darius Parker, and other stellar readers. The best part was getting festival participants to come together in one digital space to feel the energy from each of our individual spaces. Everything throughout this week of creative, community-based programming brought hope for what events might look like this summer, and what digital spaces will continue to provide after things begin to open up safely as we deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

On May 7, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer announced an extension of the state’s stay-at-home order until May 28. While we are all eager to get out and hug one another, everyone who made it to LTAB Essential Words will have this week that embraced them. In addition, there is a suite of workshops available now through InsideOut for those who want and need to keep writing.

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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