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

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.
3.30.20

It has been about a week since Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer announced a stay-at-home order to all residents as a measure to slow the spread of the coronavirus. In these sheltered times, I am reflecting on the moment and finding solace in books of poetry. Although just a few poems in, I am excited to say a few words about How the Water Holds Me by Palestinian American poet and Detroit local Tariq Luthun, which is forthcoming from Bull City Press in April.

In the introductory poems, we learn about Luthun’s background and family with subtle hints about the significance of place. As a reader, I found my curiosity building line by line as I gained snapshots of Tariq’s memories while sharing desires such as:

“I haven’t forgotten that / everyone needs a place on this planet. / And I, / I prefer to live where I can leave / the doors unlocked...”

Midway through this collection, I am beginning to better understand the title of the book as the poems “dive in” (pun intended) to how water plays a role in Luthun’s life and family. His words invite me to consider the distance over water between Detroit and Palestine. Luthun writes:

“Earth, / itself, I realize, is just a body / of waters.”

Luthun’s poems pull readers’ minds in and ask us to consider what displacement, home, ancestry, and identity mean to each of us. I am thinking about how I can connect more with my own family and history. I look forward to my journey through the rest of these poems, and highly recommend reading this collection.

Tariq Luthun, author of How the Water Holds Me (Bull City Press, 2020).
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
3.23.20

Michigan has implemented social distancing for just over a week now, meaning many of us are doing our best to self-isolate. What better to do with this time than blow the dust off of the bookshelf and dive in? For today’s post I’d like to do a quick reflection on a poetry collection by one of my favorite writers, and a past mentor of mine, Aricka Foreman.

Dream With a Glass Chamber is Aricka’s chapbook published by YesYes Books in 2016. Her imagery is prominent and haunting throughout, allowing the reader to grasp dreams, memories, and grief with lines like:

“...find us making promise, find us clutching the static / of a wormhole where we settled into disappointment”

Place and time play a role in these poems moving us from Detroit in the eighties to the month of September in New York and back again, evaluating different losses along the way. Emotional complexities that shift from platonic to romantic flow seamlessly throughout, introducing close and distant characters that carry the collection from beginning to end. One of my favorite lines in the entire book is:

“Numb, I’ve run out of wicks and / your songs pour thick in my ears, love.”

It seems as if every word written is a part of Aricka’s many nuanced ways of grieving while her reality acts as the glass chamber, where both she and the reader watch these concepts unfold. I think this is best captured in her poem “dream in which you survive and in the morning things are back to normal,” a very fitting title for a poem that questions reality after waking from a dream. Throughout the entire collection, we are reminded to continue evaluating the fine line between dream and reality, and how grief exists on each side of that line.

Aricka Foreman, author of Dream With a Glass Chamber.
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
3.16.20

Michigan saw its first coronavirus (COVID-19) case early last week. In an effort to be preventative, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency last Tuesday. Organizations across Detroit have closed offices and asked team members to work from home. Detroit Public Schools Community District and surrounding districts have been ordered to close their buildings to students through April 6. Whitmer also ordered an official ban that prohibits gatherings of over 250 people, and recommended gatherings of over 100 people to be canceled or postponed, and reminded the public to wash hands frequently, stay home if sick, and to check in on family and friends.

I find it important to look at each of the ways we are responding to best understand the enormous circumstance that has been placed upon those who don’t have the resources to simply stay home and be safe. Students being out of school doesn’t mean that their parents have the same luxury of staying home, and lack of food security could put many families in crisis. Several literary events have been cancelled thus drying up the main source of income for many full-time artists. These are just a few ways that the coronavirus outbreak puts people at risk beyond just exposure to illness, and it will get worse before it gets better.

With that said, resources are popping up left and right within the community to help get us through the next few weeks. For parents looking to make sure their young ones are able to keep up academically, a Google Doc has been created that lists free educational resources. In addition, Kekere Emergency Childcare Collective is forming mutual aid childcare for families with an online sign-up sheet for those who can help with childcare, transportation, supplies, and food. I am keeping an eye out for resources for artists who are losing funds due to canceled readings or their own canceled event series. Many writers are taking to Twitter for ways to support working artists by buying books, merch, or making other financial contributions. Keep up with my findings on Twitter, @Detroitpworg, and stay safe! 

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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