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

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.
5.4.20

This week I am continuing to write about Mahalia Frost’s collection, Soft Animal Wounds. As each poem pulls at my skin with uncomfortable, sometimes bloody, images, I am increasingly impressed with the consistency and continuity of the writing and themes introduced in this book. Frost’s collection is a healthy fifty-eight pages split into four parts titled “Sleep,” “Gleam,” “Thrash,” and “Bite.” Each part is introduced by a thought-provoking illustration. For example, “Sleep” opens with an image of a human head presenting a dissatisfied facial expression on top of the body of what seems to be a serpent—plus angel wings! Each part includes an odd yet fitting variation of this illustration.

What’s more is that these images are the artwork of Frost—helping us readers understand not only the imagery from what’s written in these poems, but also from what she sees when creating. I can’t say enough about the complexity being offered by this young writer. I am especially fond of the first poem titled “Birdheart” in the “Bite” portion of the book. This poem uses an extended metaphor to describe the heart as a bird:

“its feathers clump together with scabs / sticky in your ooze”

“Bite” also gives my absolute favorite ending to a yet another poem that makes me reflect on myself:

“how could it know of anything / beyond the hollow between your ribs? / how could it want?”

If you can’t tell by now, I highly recommend this collection. InsideOut Literary Arts hosted the book release for Soft Animal Wounds in late February, a few short weeks before social distancing and stay-at-home orders were enforced in Michigan. Because of this, distribution of this collection is currently limited. If you’re interested in getting your hands on this book, reach out to me: Justin@insideoutdetroit.org.

InsideOut is also hosting a digital literary festival called Essential Words: InsideOut’s Louder Than a Bomb Youth Poetry Festival. The virtual events began on April 30 and run through May 7. Hosted by poet LaShaun Phoenix Moore, events include discussions, workshops, and more. Check out the website for more, and follow the activity on Instagram, @LTAB_Essential. I can’t wait to report back on our digital experience next week!

Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
4.27.20

It has been my pleasure to dive into books from Detroit authors during quarantine days and I’m excited to share another book with you this week. Soft Animal Wounds is the first collection by 2019 Detroit Youth Poet Laureate Mahalia Frost. Since her appointment, Frost has become a prominent figure in the Detroit youth poetry community. I am proud of her growth and her work on this collection! Here, I will give you my reflections on the first half of this book.

Soft Animal Wounds dives deep into Frost’s imaginative mind with complex images that throw the reader curveball after curveball. Themes range from self-reflection to relationships with family and the surrounding world. Even when a question isn’t asked, the reader can find a question to explore between the lines. I found myself on my toes through one of my favorite poems early in the book “Ghazal With a Trace of Something Disappearing” with lines like:

“I run inside the crimson oceans of a song”

Frost’s open honesty is felt through many of the ways she chooses to build imagery. Some may find parts painful or grotesque, but Frost finds a way to make everything tie back to a larger meaning—often with commentary on her own relationships.

“...I remember her calling me wound / when we went to the doctors they said mother’s body / was trying to kill her & I sat there quiet like a good wound”

As I near the midpoint of this collection, I am further impressed by the poetic forms that are being explored by Frost. She seems to take a liking to the ghazal form and even has a poem that requires the reader to turn the book horizontally. Dialogue, footnotes, and other writing techniques truly show the growth and dedication of this young poet.

Soft Animal Wounds by Mahalia Frost.
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
4.20.20

This time last month the state of Michigan was taking the first steps into enforcing social distancing measures due to the coronavirus pandemic. While we cannot enjoy day-to-day life as we once knew it, some innovative minds have begun to produce virtual events and miniseries to keep the readings, open mics, and literary festivals going online. Here are a few Detroit shout-outs that you will want to catch!

Lyrics & Libations Poetry Series has shifted to a weekly Instagram Live open mic every Wednesday at 7:30 PM EST. You can find host Caesar Torreano on Instagram, @caesartorreano. Just log in to read!

In collaboration with poet and host Joel Fluent Greene, the Detroit Historical Museum is presenting an Instagram miniseries that covers the beauty of poetry in the city and celebrates National Poetry Month. Beginning today, April 20, through April 29 there will be live Instagram events at 7:00 PM EST featuring readings and talks with local writers like Arrie Lane and M. L. Liebler. I will take part in the April 28 program “Pockets of Joy” alongside youth and recent alums I’ve worked with through the InsideOut Literary Arts’ after-school program Citywide Poets. You can find the museum on Instagram, @detroithistorical.

And speaking of Citywide Poets, they are holding a weekly #SaturdayShare Open Mic at 3:00 PM EST every Saturday via Instagram, @citywidepoets. You can find me hosting these live events where we share daily prompts and poems. While the program primarily serves teen writers, we encourage adult writers to join us to continue building community across generations.

The team at InsideOut Literary Arts is also putting on Essential Words: Louder Than a Bomb Youth Poetry Festival Online, which is going fully virtual in order to stay engaged with youth and the community. Beginning on April 30 and ending on May 7, the festival will provide a variety of daily interactions both publicly via Instagram and privately via Google Meet and other online meeting platforms. Writers ages 13-19 as well as adults are encouraged to register in order to take part.

Consider joining these excellent events and I hope to see you soon online!

Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
4.13.20

Temperatures are rising in the Midwest in these first weeks of a long-awaited spring as we continue to track whether COVID-19 cases are reducing. Michigan is still under a stay-at-home order, which makes it difficult to enjoy the warm weather but perfect for sitting down and reading some more books by Detroit authors.

For the Love of Boys by Imani Nichele is a collection of poetry written during her term as the 2018 Detroit youth poet laureate. The chapbook opens with a thoughtful preface that helps frame the book for the reader: “When you approach this body of work, I ask that you come knowing this is not heartbreak or about bitterness or a bite back at love gone sour. This within itself is not a cry for a father. It is coming of age. It is my capacity to hold men broadening, within and through different relationships.” She further describes this collection as an examination of how when boys transition into men, they are allowed space to still operate in boyhood. This touches on her thoughts of linear time being meaningless when becoming an adult in these lines:

“All of the clocks are broken here / in a tight room / Only enough space for our bodies to be pendulum”

I love the images associated with the body in this collection as exemplified in these lines:

“I imagine my father is a bloodless boy, with running feet / split-chested & / picking everything broken from inside of him”

Nichele further makes efforts to better understand her body and standing in the world with two poetic definitions of disambiguation that split the collection into thirds. In these, Nichele sees her body as a weapon and “full of answers and opinions and dying things.”

I am so proud of this young voice! Nichele has since sold out of her chapbook, but has announced that her first full-length manuscript, If You Must Know, is coming soon. I look forward to the release of this collection and will share it with you once it is out!

Imani Nichele, author of the chapbook For the Love of Boys.
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
4.6.20

Last week, I introduced the first half of my reading of How the Water Holds Me by Detroit poet Tariq Luthun. I am more than happy to say that I remained locked in as a reader all the way through and finished reading the collection. More memories pour out of this book from one poem to the next, and as I continued to read I began to notice the significance of parental figures. In reflection, this collection mentions the word “father” more times than any other collection I’ve read. The second half of this book is also where I felt I learned something about Luthun’s mother, who I found mentioned far less than his father.

“...she raises / her eyes from the dishes, / her hands up from the bath, / and gives / a gentle laugh, / a sigh, we make / du’a, we pray...

I think this realization is very important to the entire collection and the concept of being “held” by water. It begs the question, “What is the water?” I am inclined to wonder if the water Luthun speaks of, in addition to the physical waters between Detroit and Palestine, are his family.

“I fear what becomes / of the family that feasts on pain.”

I highly recommend Luthun’s collection, which is forthcoming this month from Bull City Press and is currently available for pre-order. This has been a fantastic read to keep me company as the state of Michigan remains under a stay-at-home order.

If you are missing the sounds of live poetry, I am hosting a weekly virtual open mic for Citywide Poets on Instagram Live every Saturday at 3:00 PM EDT! Follow @citywidepoets to tune in or participate with a poem. Our Citywide Poets program focuses on teen writers, but we welcome adults to join in to share as we get through this pandemic together. Stay safe.

Citywide Poets Instagram Live Saturday Share Open Mic poster.
 
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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