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

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.
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.

Pages