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 Houston

1.21.20

This week I want to spotlight the amazing work done by the podcast Bootleg Like Jazz. It’s funny because everyone seems to have ties to Nuestra Palabra—Icess Fernandez Rojas, featured in last week’s post, is a member of the group as am I, and the creator of Bootleg Like Jazz, Terrell Quillin, better known as Q, is the Nuestra Palabra Radio Show’s producer! I have been following the work of Bootleg Like Jazz, aka #bllj, and I love the format and energy behind the podcasting. It’s an interview style format where Q focuses on the Black Diaspora, Afro-Latinidad, and Latinx culture. #bllj covers the arts, music, travel, and books.

I was lucky enough to be tapped for an interview and it was great experience. Q asks all the important questions with a great balance of information about who the artists are and what’s behind the work they are creating. Q has interviewed local writers like Deborah D.E.E.P Mouton and Leslie Contreras Schwartz, Houston’s former and current poets laureate, respectively, and writers outside of Houston like Roberto Carlos Garcia, a New York City poet and author of the collection black / Maybe (Willow Books, 2018).

The podcast started last year and puts out episodes every month. If you are looking for a fresh take on the literary world, then look no further than Bootleg Like Jazz.

Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
1.14.20

Last week, I highlighted the work of Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say, and their long-running radio show. Today, I want to spotlight local writer Icess Fernandez Rojas, a member of Nuestra Palabra. Rojas is a masterful writer and blogger who focuses her efforts on all things fiction, in particular mystery and noir. A former journalist, she is a graduate of Goddard College’s MFA program and currently teaches in the English Department at Lone Star College-Kingwood.

Over ten years ago, Rojas created the blog Dear Reader, where she offers tips to fellow writers and welcomes them into her writing life. Recently, she expanded her blog into a weekly podcast of the same name. The podcast, hosted by Rojas, focuses on mental health and the writing life and acts as a guide to “help you write your best life.” Take some time, folks, to read and listen to what Rojas puts out. She is an unsung hero in our writing community.

Dear Reader: Mental Health and the Writing Life, a podcast hosted by Icess Fernandez Rojas.
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
1.7.20

Happy New Year! I wanted to kick off 2020 by focusing on what the literary community looks like outside of author readings and book events. This includes groups like Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say, blogs and podcasts such as Dear Reader and Bootleg Like Jazz, ekphrastic experiences like the workshop and reading series Words & Art, and book lover groups like the Afrofuturism Book Club.

Today I want to spotlight the work of Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say. This group has been bringing Latino writers to the Houston area for more than twenty years, beginning with a monthly reading series in the late 1990s and organizing the Latino Book and Family Festival in the early 2000s to a literary radio program that’s been running for more than fifteen years called the Nuestra Palabra Radio Show.

The show goes on the air every Tuesday from 6:00 PM to 7:00 PM CST on Houston’s local Pacifica station KPFT 90.1FM and is livestreamed at KPFT.org. It is an hour-long show that focuses on literary works, as well as local community events and political happenings in the Houston area. Nuestra Palabra founder and director Tony Diaz interviews authors of all kinds—including poets, musicians, visual artists, historians, and chefs. The show is a brilliant opportunity to check out what is happening regionally, nationally, and internationally across the Latino landscape. You can listen to their archive of shows on the Nuestra Palabra website.

Tony Diaz on the Nuestra Palabra Radio Show.
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
12.31.19

Today’s post will wrap up my roundup of reading and performance series that have included Houston VIP Slam, Poison Pen Reading Series, and Write About Now Poetry.

The First Friday Reading Series is the oldest series in Houston and has been going strong for the last forty-four years, holding monthly readings on the first Friday of each month since 1975. This classic platform has seen many of the city’s strongest writers grace its podium. The reading format is super simple: Have the Inprint House host on the first Friday of the month, select a featured poet, and then get the open mic going.

The series has always been open to the public so that any and every person gets a chance to read in a beautiful setting. What could be more literary than reading in a space that was once the living room of Claudia Rankine? The readings start at 8:30 PM and usually go on until 11:00 PM. This space is always packed and there is a running joke that even the “VIP Section,” the staircase, gets full quick providing extra seating when all the chairs are taken. I always have a great time when I am able to go and look forward to getting to hear a variety of poets, those that I have known for years and new friends I’m meeting for the first time.

What I have always loved about First Friday, still hosted by Robert Clark after all these years, is that anyone who goes is either reading older poems they haven’t read in forever or reading brand new work for the first time. Writers often experiment with poems they are planning on adding to a manuscript in order to hear their words out loud and get live feedback. Whatever you want to bring to the open mic, this is the safest space to do this work in. Come on in, there is always a chair, or a staircase, waiting for you.

First Friday Reading Series audience at Inprint House.
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
12.17.19

Hey gente, I am picking up where I left off in the last two blog posts and focusing on a few reading and performance series that call Houston home.

This week is a look at the Write About Now poetry slam and open mic series. Of the four series I have decided to write about, WAN (as it is known around here) is the youngest. This nonprofit poetry collective has been around for less than ten years, but in that time the vibrant platform has garnered a great following with younger writers here in H-Town. Currently the series is hosted at a space that has been home to several other notable reading series, AvantGarden. In their back courtyard you’ll find WAN events every Wednesday night, and every performance is worth the $5 to get in.

The weekly events are almost always hosted by WAN’s founder, Amir Safi, and usually take the form of a slam. Judges are selected on the night of the slam and there is a featured reader who closes out the night. The slams start at 7:00 PM and end around 10:00 PM, and sometimes a little later. There is a super healthy crowd that attends and the energy is electric. I always have a great time when I’m able to go and I look forward to hearing new up-and-coming poets read their work.

AvantGarden is a local bar that has had a few names and changed with the times. The one thing I love about the space is that it has always been home to a poetry community—it’s actually one of the few spaces that was around in my early days of open mics. I can confidently recommend a WAN show to anyone. It is always a good time.

Write About Now poetry slam and open mic series at AvantGarden in Houston.
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
12.10.19

The Poison Pen Reading Series holds events in a bar called the Poison Girl Cocktail Lounge. The series has been going for twelve years, just a little longer than Houston VIP Slam (which I featured last week), but functions in a very different way. The series brings three writers together who read on the outside patio of the lounge. Audience members get to relax in a space under the stars and listen to literary works from writers from Houston and beyond.

The readings are usually hosted by Scott Repass, one of the owners of the lounge, and start at 8:00 PM on every third Thursday of the month. The featured readers vary for each event, but most times, audience members will get the opportunity to hear from at least one writer from the University of Houston Creative Writing Program, a writer from the Houston literary community, and a visiting writer from outside of Houston. Writers share work from all genres including poetry, fiction, and nonfiction.

I have been to many Poison Pen readings and have had the pleasure of being a featured reader, the last time was this past July when I was honored to share the stage with poet Natasha Carrizosa and fiction writer Robert Liddell. The readings are always jam-packed, standing room only in most cases, so if you plan to attend, get there early for a drink and to find a good seat for the reading. It’s worth it.

The Poison Pen Reading Series at Poison Girl in Houston.
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
12.3.19

I would like to take time to focus some attention on a few of the literary organizations helping Houston shine bright. Houston VIP Slam, currently led by Houston’s poet laureate Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton, is a slam team that provides community for writers who want to take their stories to the stage. Houston VIP has just celebrated ten years of their program and they show no signs of stopping.

I have been a big fan of their work and dedication for quite a while and the format for their monthly slam is so inclusive and so necessary for community building. Each slam is scheduled for the last Saturday of the month and begins with a writing workshop, a unique structure that provides time and inspiration for new work to be created. Local poets and anyone in attendance for the slam are invited to participate in a series of writing exercises led by the night’s emcee. The workshop usually takes place between 7:00 PM and 8:00 PM.  The slam begins at 8:00 PM and concludes with a featured poet taking the stage to wow the crowd. 

Houston VIP holds twelve slam events for the year, with one poet winning each slam. The winning twelve poets then move on to compete in the Grand Slam at the end of the season for a spot on the Houston VIP National Poetry Slam Team. The top five poets from the Grand Slam represent Houston at the annual National Poetry Slam.

The next workshop and slam will be on December 14 featuring Rudy Francisco. If you’re in the Houston area and looking for something to do on a Saturday night, go by. It is truly a beautiful experience. 

The 2018 Houston VIP National Poetry Slam Team. (Credit: Christy Lee)
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.

11.26.19

Hey mi gente! This week I wanted to spend a little time putting a spotlight on what community building through writing can look like. Here in Houston, we have writing groups that focus on poetry or fiction, and those are excellent workspaces being put together, but there is a need for information about the world around writing and publishing for writers of color. Enter the Colony Summit—a space and group designed to be a resource for writers of color in the Houston area.

The idea is super simple: Give writers of color a space to meet, provide some snacks, some ideas, some experts, and some resources and let these writers ask questions. Tintero Projects, a group I started for emerging Latinx writers, has a hand in organizing these events, along with support from VIP Arts Houston, Houston Public Library, My Brother’s Keeper, Houston Department of Health, and the Mayor’s Office of Education.

This project is still fairly new. So far it’s been a year of meetings. The Colony Summit meets quarterly and so the meetings are always packed. This all began as an idea batted around by Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton, the current poet laureate for Houston, and me about a year ago. We both felt more needed to be done to gather all the writers of color up in the city and get folks talking to one another about where they are in their writing and what ways we could provide support. For example, some writers don’t know about submissions to literary journals or how to create a Submittable account for submissions. Others want to know about fellowships and residencies, or are just searching for community.

Our last Colony Summit meeting was on November 9, but be on the lookout for the next one. If you are in the Houston area and want to check out a session, don’t hesitate. Look for @vipartshouston on Instagram for announcements and more information.

Writers at a recent Colony Summit meeting.
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
11.19.19

This week I wanted to spotlight a beautiful, new reading series that is run entirely in Spanish, known as Lecturas en Español de Comité Permanente (the Permanent Committee Readings). Comité Permanente is organized by the brilliant students currently studying in the PhD program in Spanish with a concentration in Creative Writing at the University of Houston, the first program of its kind in the United States.

A small group of students, many of whom are prize–winning authors from Latin America, got together to create some space for Spanish-language writing and reading outside of the confines of the program. Founding writers and organizers include Ana Emilia Felker, Mauricio Patrón Rivera, and Raquel Abend van Dalen. Officially this group is hard to find, outside of Facebook where members of the organizing committee post invites to readings and Instagram where you can find them @comitepermanente.

Comité Permanente provides a space to celebrate the writings of people in the UH program, but also invites Spanish-language writers and readers in Houston to enjoy good writing. They have even incorporated an open mic into their events to welcome writers of any age to share their work.

I was happy to inform them about the Readings & Workshops mini-grants, which have helped fund their readings. So far I have had the chance to check out two of their readings with open mics and am looking forward to what comes up next! If you are in the Houston area, and are looking to catch something new, please head into the Montrose area and check out the next Comité Permanente reading, which are currently held at Inprint.

Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
11.12.19

Hey mi gente! This week I want to draw your attention to some indie bookstores here in Houston, the HOU.

Indie bookstores are independently operated as a small business and I am proud to say we have many in town that help build the literary fabric of the city. These spaces are important and special because they help bring authors into town and invite locals to see and hear new voices. Indie bookstores inform and build community with every reader that enters their doors.

Here are a few shops in town that I often frequent:

Brazos Bookstore is a solid space to find anything current and fresh, and the go-to spot for readings from local and national writers. They do an amazing job at keeping up with a special section for books by local writers.

Casa Ramirez is located in the heart of the Heights, in the Northside. Although it’s not technically a bookstore, Casa Ramirez Folkart Gallery has always served as a cultural pillar providing a space for community and art. Casa Ramirez houses folk art, pieces by local artists, Dia de los Muertos events, Mexican artisan work, and a large selection of books written by Latinx writers, from children’s books to short story anthologies. They also host poetry readings, author talks, and storytelling events.

Kaboom Books is a used bookstore in Woodland Heights just above Downtown Houston. I love this space because, although it focuses on used books, they have a great outside patio to host readings featuring writers with new work. Many local literary organizations have used the space for book launches and the shop owners are always all about it.

Murder By the Book is a beautiful, small shop that focuses on thriller, suspense, and mystery genres. They regularly host author readings and Akashic Books’ Houston Noir celebrated its launch party there this past May.

To find indie bookstores in your area, check out the Literary Places and Reading Venues databases.

Saeed Jones reads for a recent event at Brazos Bookstore.
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.

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