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

1.20.20

Looking ahead to what to expect from me in 2020, I am excited to continue offering installments of the Detroit Writers Circle (DWC), a gathering of literary minds with an aim to build community. Each gathering includes an information session and discussion, and ends with a writing workshop and informal open mic. The first DWC was held last August at Tuxedo Project, and was followed by a second gathering at ArtBlock in October. Both were welcomed opportunities to bring people together and produced strong conversations about what a sustainable literary event circuit would look like in Detroit.

Local writer Cheryl L. attended the first DWC and informed us of a hashtag she began on Facebook to help find literary events in Detroit: #2019StandingRoomOnly. This year look out for #2020StandingRoomOnly for future events. Cheryl was passionate about the literary talent in the city and impressed with their ability to completely pack Detroit’s poetry venues. Adding this hashtag when posting upcoming events has made finding new events far easier. As I mentioned in my last post, word of mouth and social media are the primary means for circulating information about literary events—especially poetry events—in Detroit. This simple hashtag has already led me to numerous events.

The opportunity to learn more about what is happening in the city through conversation is absolutely my favorite part of the Detroit Writers Circle. Our first gathering of the year will be held at Pages Bookshop on February 8, from 3:00 PM to 5:30 PM. We will have a featured performing artist, LaShaun Phoenix Moore, joining us! For more information, RSVP on our Facebook event page or reach out to me at Detroit@pw.org.

Detroit Writers Circle featuring LaShaun Phoenix Moore.
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
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.
1.6.20

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.
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.
12.16.19

Recently I touched base with local writer and educator Deonte Osayande, a lifelong Detroiter. Deonte has been a part of the Detroit literary community as a poet, host, and coach for over ten years (see more about his work in his Poets & Writers Directory profile). When I asked him where he first connected with the literary world, Deonte says, “I attended an open mic as a student, and I knew I had to learn more about it.”

Deonte has since become an internationally recognized poet, a published writer, and is a professor of English at Wayne County Community College District. In addition to his writing career, Deonte has coached both youth and adults in regional poetry slam teams through to national competition. After all of the performances, edits, publications, and travel, Deonte says, “it’s just more than that. I’ve learned how to be more deliberate with the words I use and I’ve learned how to teach others the same.”

I love this response because it reminds us that whether we are writing metaphors on bathroom walls or publishing our second full-length novel, words offer writers so much more. There is always “something more” than just stringing words together on paper—we learn intentionality. We discover how we process. We become better communicators. “I still exist as a writer because I have to, I wouldn’t be who I am without expressing my thoughts in such a way,” says Deonte.

Deonte Osayande.
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
12.9.19

There are so many writers in Detroit that I am discovering. This week I want to share a conversation I recently had with local poet and editor Jeni De La O.

Jeni founded Relato:Detroit, a bilingual community storytelling series, and Poems in the Park, an acoustic poetry reading series in historic Lafayette Park. A first-generation Cuban American who grew up in Miami, Jeni came to writing from humble beginnings. “My mom grabbed some scraps of fabric from a dress she’d made me, cut up a cereal box and went at it with her hot glue gun to make me a journal,” she says about what drove her to write as a youngster.

Jeni moved from Miami to Detroit about ten years ago. “When I got to Detroit, the people felt like home, and that feeling of home lets you breathe,” says Jeni. “This city puts life and movement and connection into your writing in a way I haven’t felt or seen elsewhere.” Some of her favorite venues and events in Detroit include the Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers, the Brain Candy series held at Green Brain Comics, and the East Side Reading Series

I asked Jeni if she could put out a call to action to Detroit writers, what would it be? In chorus with many of the local writers I have spoken with, Jeni suggested a large gathering of literary artists or a citywide poetry festival. I truly think that there are already writers beginning to lay the groundwork for something of that magnitude in years to come. I am glad to have a voice and to highlight voices in this growing conversation.

Jeni De La O.
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
12.2.19

Lia Greenwell is a poet and essayist currently living in Detroit. We work together at InsideOut where Lia is the operations coordinator. Recently I was able to speak with Lia, who offered fresh insight on how Southeast Michigan has influenced her writing.

Originally from Adrian, Michigan, Lia first discovered the magic of writing in The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, which she describes as full of “colorful, lyrical prose.” Although the novel was assigned for school, it felt different from the other books she had been reading. “I had never seen language used like that before, especially in something that I was reading for school. Cisneros’s prose took away the idea that books all had to look and feel the same.”

Although Lia began writing as a poet, she says, “poetry felt like I had to fit my writing into too small of a format—it felt strict. Prose allowed my writing to be weird.” I personally found this very relatable as someone who started out writing (very bad) fan fiction, and thought my path in writing would be confined to novels. Much like Lia, the discovery of a new genre (for me it was poetry) allowed me to go in new directions.

Lia is a graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina and worked with youth writers through the Girls Write Now program in New York City. When asked about how leaving and returning to Michigan has affected her as a writer, Lia says, “I had to leave and come back to see what the landscape meant to me.” Lia has lived in Detroit for over three years, but still feels like a newcomer and enjoys discovering local venues and writers. “I think of places like Room Project. I feel like there is always something new being revealed there.”

I enjoyed the opportunity to speak with Lia and discuss the long-term transitions that a writer goes through to find their niche and community. It was encouraging and made me think of how writers often feel isolated on the journey to find their place in the literary world. In Detroit, there is a home for writers.

Lia Greenwell. (Credit: Tyler Klifman)
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
11.25.19

I love having an opportunity at the end of each week to reflect on the connections I have been able to make as a literary outreach coordinator. I want to take this opportunity to highlight venues in the city that have been getting more involved in the literary community through events, workshops, and books.

Spread Deli in Detroit’s Midtown area (formerly known as Cass Corridor) has a mission to “spread good vibes and great sandwiches.” On December 17, they will be opening their doors to host an open mic starting at 5:00 PM. This small but inviting space is also a fantastic choice for any writer who needs a place to write during the day.

Detroit Sip has been a supportive space for community activists and writers, and home to numerous workshops sponsored by Riverwise. Detroit Sip shares a building complex with Neighborhood HomeBase, a new community space that hosted this year’s Write-A-Thon Detroit. Located in the city’s University District, this is another small and welcoming space that remains rooted in its surrounding neighborhood.

Norwest Gallery of Art is a growing gallery in Detroit’s Rosedale community along the developing Grand River Creative Corridor, an art corridor and neighborhood revitalization project. The gallery is dedicated to contemporary arts with a curatorial focus on African and African American artists, and is open for rent to literary artists seeking event space. In fact, Riverwise writing workshops have been hosted here as well.

Norwest Gallery is directly next door to Pages Bookshop, which often hosts readings with authors of new books. Pages will be offering 10 percent off for teachers on Black Friday, and is an annual participant in Small Business Saturday. Another community-based bookstore to support is KAN Books (Know Allegiance Nation Books), which is dedicated to authors and artists of color in Michigan and beyond. Located in Detroit’s North End, the bookstore and co-op space hosts writing and self-publishing workshops and aims to bring communities together by inspiring the next generation of writers.

I hope that this list of Detroit venues encourages everyone to visit a new space and strengthen our literary community.

Readers at a KAN Books event.
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
11.18.19

In 2016, Detroit became part of the National Youth Poet Laureate program, a joint initiative of Urban Word NYC and the InsideOut Literary Arts, Penmanship Books, the Academy of American Poets, Poetry Society of America, and Cave Canem. With over forty cities participating, the program now honors one youth poet laureate to be named the National Youth Poet Laureate. Each poet must submit writing and a community engagement idea for an opportunity to be chosen by a panel of esteemed judges, which has included former U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera and National Book Award winner Elizabeth Acevedo.

For the 2018 term, Detroit named Imani Nichele as our city’s youth poet laureate. Since spring of 2018, Imani has led workshops, written two books, and read and performed her work on many stages. I took a moment to speak with Imani about her development as a writer.

“My biggest writing influence has been my internal competition,” said Imani about what inspires her to keep writing. When we spoke about what her community can do to offer writers more support, Imani said, “I want the literary community to help by offering more spaces to meetup. I want to know who I can reach out to and how to find them.”

This reminded me of the work that numerous artistic organizers and I are aiming to do in order to build a more connected literary community in Detroit. It’s been motivating to begin making these connections in response to an ask for such community. Sharing information about our Readings & Workshops mini-grants and offering the Detroit Writers Circle workshops are just a couple ways we are aiming to address this need.

When I asked Imani what she thought her work would look like in twenty years, she wisely responded, “It’s impossible for me to know what my art will look like in twenty years—I don’t know who that woman is yet.”

I am excited about the seeds being planted that will blossom in the near and distant future. Imani has recently passed the torch to the 2019 Detroit Youth Poet Laureate, Mahalia Hill, who is continuing to forge this path for young Detroiters. 

Imani Nichele, the 2018 Detroit Youth Poet Laureate.
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
11.11.19

This past weekend I had the privilege of coleading a session for Write-A-Thon Detroit. The Write-A-Thon was a daylong event designed to offer time and space to workshop, build community, and tackle writing projects. This event was held at Neighborhood HomeBase, a new community and office space in northwest Detroit’s Fitzgerald neighborhood. Pledges raised funds to support the Tuxedo Project Literary Center.

Event organizer Rose Gorman and I offered a session where writers and organizers shared thoughts about what events they frequent, the series that have ended and are missed, and what gaps need to be filled for the literary community to thrive.

When asked what literary happenings are missing, a lively discussion produced ideas such as readings with more physical activity, more collaborative efforts between literary organizations, and events curated with input from residents located by the venues. When asked about what stops writers from making it to events, the top barriers were time, transportation, and finances. These conversations, in addition to the opportunity to share our favorite events, offered insight on how the local writing community is responding to the literary events in Detroit.

Dialogue such as this is a huge key to planning events not only in Detroit, but in every city. I was excited to receive such strong feedback from writers of a variety of backgrounds and hope that this conversation expands and continues.

A Write-A-Thon Detroit collage made by local writer Carol Ellsberry.
 
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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