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

4.7.21

Happy April and National Poetry Month! This week, I conclude my series of interviews with Houston writers speaking about their experience during the COVID-19 pandemic, each answering the question:

What have you been doing since the pandemic started?

This week features Rose Mary Salum, founding editor of the bilingual literary magazine Literal: Latin American Voices and Literal Publishing. Salum is the author of The Water That Rocks the Silence, translated from the Spanish by C. M. Mayo, winner of the International Latino Book Award and the prestigious Panamerican Award Carlos Montemayor; Tres semillas de granada: Ensayos desde el inframundo (Vaso Roto, 2020); Una de ellas (Dislocados, 2020); El agua que mece el silencio (Vaso Roto, 2015); Delta de las arenas, cuentos árabes, cuentos judíos (Literal Publishing, 2013), winner of the International Latino Book Award; and Spaces in Between (Literal Publishing, 2006).

Here is what she had to say:

“When the pandemic started last year—I guess this happened to all of us—I was in shock. At that time, I felt like something, or someone, was stealing a part of my life away from me. There are a few days, here and there, that I still have that sense of grief and loss. I remember one day though, just as I was touching bottom on my feelings regarding the lockdown, an idea came to me: I needed to make up for all the time lost in this pandemic by putting together a book. That would be the only way I could survive this time without losing my mind. The mere idea of waking up to a project that I set for myself made all the difference. That book is finished and, in spite of the fact that I still need to go through it and make sure all looks good, at least I can say that I kept my cool thanks to it.”

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

 

3.17.21

Hey gente, thanks for joining me for another installment of this blog series, where I ask Houston writers this question: What have you been doing since the pandemic started?

The entries are about what folks are doing to make the most of a precarious situation. Things are slowly (and quickly) changing in the state of Texas. It is a difficult moment for many. Although Texas governor Greg Abbott has chosen to declare that it is “time to open Texas 100%” we are in fact far from being out of the pandemic.

Photo: Catherine LuThis week we hear from Catherine Lu, senior producer of Houston Public Media, covering arts and culture. Lu is a producer and writer for the talk show Town Square With Ernie Manouse and produces the National Poetry Month series Voices and Verses, the arts podcast Unwrap Your Candies Now (currently on hiatus), and hosts the annual Christmas Revels national broadcast. As the “voice” of Houston Public Media, Lu records the station’s radio and TV spots.

Here’s what she had to say:

“In mid-March of 2020, I began working from home. The station provided a mic and other gear, and I set up a recording studio in my closet with two TV tray tables and a solar-powered lantern suspended from a clothes hanger. It’s like my little recording cave—a bit small and dim, but it works! That’s where I record voiceovers and interviews. For online meetings, writing and research, I work in my study where my coworker (orange tabby cat) also has her office (scratching post).

My favorite work project has been producing the video “Poetry in a Pandemic.” It tells the story behind “When We Get Lonely, It Will Be Together,” a beautiful poem about social distancing, cowritten by Houston poet Melissa Studdard and Seattle poet Kelli Russell Agodon. My colleagues Joe Brueggeman, Dave Mcdermand and I coproduced it entirely remotely in April 2020, an experience that was really special to me—it felt like we had accomplished the impossible. The story itself showed me how much we need artists in a pandemic, to remind us of the human experience that still connects us. The video was nominated for a 2020 Lone Star EMMY Award for Arts/Entertainment Program Feature, Segment or Special.

During the pandemic, I have also learned how to ride a skateboard, and I love doing art with my kid. We paint rocks, make tiny clay sculptures, draw comics, build stuff from cardboard boxes. She’s had a lot of milestones since quarantine: she learned how to ride a bike on two wheels, lost her first tooth, turned seven. As a parent, I wonder how she’ll remember this time. I hope I’m showing her that, no matter what, we can always have fun being spontaneous, creative, and curious.”

Watch “Poetry in a Pandemic” with Melissa Studdard and Kelli Russell Agodon here:

Photo: Catherine Lu (Credit: Catherine Lu)
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
2.24.21

If you are reading this and aren’t from Texas, say some prayers. We are still in recovery mode—our homes are still spaces scarred by ice and busted pipes, waterlogged walls and no food or shelter, all on top of a pandemic. Give us grace.

It isn’t that the winter storm is something we cannot adapt to—it is that this is the latest in a series of natural disasters that Houston has had to endure. The trauma is real. The longing for calm is palpable.

We are boiling water, we are waiting for plumbers to fix the pipes, who in turn have to scavenge to find the materials to fix our houses, and their own. Some of us are still waiting on the lights...IN THE MIDDLE OF A PANDEMIC.

I wrote a poem on the second night of my own family’s personal ordeal. I thought of what could bring down cheer to the heart, not even knowing when this would see the light of day. I wrote this with my phone at 5 percent battery life.

How to Prepare for Winter Storm in TX

The day brings white ice and soon the
Stars see us, wishing on a single thread.
At dusk, we come undone, wait for light
Night brings a child we cannot avoid, we
Are creatures of light, we gather in
Big pockets, we muscle fire forward
And we do howl for peace and flame.
Bright smiles keep us warm even when
Deep rains cause us to freeze. We know
In the gut, what it means to rise up, take
Heart that this won’t bring me down.

I’ll find you, bring you hot hands and song.

If you have a moment, please consider donating to these sources to help the Houston community. Many are overwhelmed with monetary donations, but offer other ways to help. Please also be careful to verify the accounts you send funds to as there have been reports of scams and fake accounts on Venmo and other payment platforms.

Here are a few local organizations to consider supporting:

1. Houseless Organizing Coalition (@HocHtx) is a revolutionary coalition fully operated by BIPOC organizers building dual power within Houston’s houseless community. They are currently distributing supplies and addressing needs for those in our houseless community.

2. West Street Recovery (@weststreetrecovery) is a horizontally organized grassroots nonprofit organization which aims to use efforts toward recovery after Hurricane Harvey to build community power.

3. Houston Food Bank (@HoustonFoodBank ) serves more than 1.1 million people in the eighteen Southeast Texas counties and distributes food and other essentials to those in need through a network of 1,500 community partners.

4. Texas Jail Project (@TxJailProject) is a grassroots advocacy project that listens, informs, and advocates for people trapped in Texas county jails. Amidst the Texas Winter Storm, they have set up a rapid response helpline for folks and their families to report on-the-ground conditions in jail facilities where thousands have no clean drinking water and are experiencing neglect. They are distributing funds to people's commissaries for those who are able to purchase food, water, and hygiene products through their jail’s commissary stores. They are also posting money to phone accounts and covering the cost of all collect calls from jails.

Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
2.3.21

Hey mi gente, happy February. I’m happy to share with you more reflections from Houston writers about how they have been spending their time during the COVID-19 pandemic. Each writer has answered this simple question:

What have you been doing since the pandemic?

This week, we hear from Robin Davidson. Davidson is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Kneeling in the Dojo (Finishing Line Press, 2013) and City That Ripens on the Tree of the World (Calypso Editions, 2013), and the collection, Luminous Other, awarded the Ashland Poetry Press’s 2012 Richard Snyder Memorial Publication Prize. Recipient of a Fulbright professorship at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland and an NEA translation fellowship, Davidson is cotranslator with Ewa Elżbieta Nowakowska of Ewa Lipska’s poems from the Polish—The New Century (Northwestern University Press, 2009) and Dear Ms. Schubert (Princeton University Press, 2021). Davidson served as Houston poet laureate under the leadership of mayors Annise Parker and Sylvester Turner from 2015 to 2017, and edited the citywide 2018 anthology, Houston’s Favorite Poems. She was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters in 2019, and teaches literature and creative writing as professor emeritus of English for the University of Houston-Downtown.

Here’s what she had to say:

“In the early hours of March 11, 2020, I woke to intense chills, fever, nausea, and the beginning of what would become three weeks of a flu-like illness more severe than I’d ever before experienced. I was bedridden for most of that time, with a persistent fever of 103 to 104, and for days Sappho’s line resonated in my thoughts, I feel that death has come near me. There was no COVID testing in Houston then, and my doctor believed I likely had contracted a flu, despite the vaccine I’d had weeks earlier. My husband, too, experienced some of these symptoms, though far milder, and we did not sleep in the same room for two weeks after forty-four years of sharing a bed nightly, except when one of us was traveling. We did not see any of our children or grandchildren for more than two months, and I thought I would die of grief in their absence, rather than of some unnameable disease. The morning I woke to the weight of an icy hand pressing down hard on my chest, I recognized the signs of pneumonia. I prayed, willed that hand away, and decided to get up and move, no matter if I stumbled, couldn’t entirely stand. In the weeks that followed I saw friends and family members lose loved ones to COVID, loved ones they could not sit with in their illness, nor bury upon their death. I tried to read, to write. Nothing worked, except for sorting through photographs of my grandsons which I’d print, cut out, and glue into a tiny scrapbook for each of them to have in our absence. My husband and I have recovered slowly over the course of ten months, with intermittent symptoms recurring like mild sequelae. We only learned for certain in late summer that we had had COVID when our antibodies tests showed positive results for SARS-CoV-2. As I’ve watched this virus sweep through our nation and the world, I recognize how minor my family’s experience has been compared to the great suffering of so many others. I wrote this piece initially on the eve of one of the most critical presidential elections in the history of the United States. As of that morning, November 2, 2020, the U.S. reported 9,282,358 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 230,937 deaths. Since January, Americans have seen that death toll surpass 450,000. We have seen an insurrection play out in our nation’s Capitol Building in which violent extremists attempted a governmental coup. But we have also witnessed the successful election and inauguration of president Joseph Biden and vice president Kamala Harris as a powerful step on behalf of a renewed democracy. This nation has some distance to go in combatting the COVID pandemic, systemic racism and its concomitant violence, extreme climate, economic crisis, and global unrest, but the future looks far brighter this month than it has in the past four years. May we continue to choose well.”

Photo: Robin Davidson (Credit: Robin Davidson).
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
1.13.21

In the new year, I am keeping this series of interviews going, speaking with more Houston writers to ask how and what they’ve been doing since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. I continue to enjoy and receive comfort from their responses to this question:

What have you been doing since the pandemic?

This week, we hear from Joshua Nguyen. Nguyen is a Vietnamese American writer, a collegiate national poetry slam champion (CUPSI), and a native Houstonian. He is the author of the chapbook, American Lục Bát for My Mother, forthcoming from Bull City Press, and has received fellowships from Kundiman, Sundress Academy for the Arts, and the Vermont Studio Center. Nguyen’s poetry has been published in the Offing, Wildness, American Poetry Review, the Texas Review, PANK, Auburn Avenue, Crab Orchard Review, and Gulf Coast magazine. Nguyen has been a guest on the Poetry Foundation’s VS podcast and Tracy K. Smith’s podcast The Slowdown. A bubble tea connoisseur who works in a kitchen, Nguyen received his MFA at the University of Mississippi where he is currently pursuing a PhD. You can find him on Twitter, @joshuanguyen03.

“Honestly, I don’t think I have written a poem since April. Don’t get me wrong, I have been shipping my manuscript out to open submission periods and book prizes, but in regards to new poems, it’s been hard to get into the excitement of creating forms. I have been writing more creative nonfiction. I think one reason why I have gravitated towards creative nonfiction during the pandemic is because it’s easier for my humor to come across in that form (in comparison to writing humor in poetry). And I think during these dark times, I need laughter more than ever. I also think that I have been afforded a kind of isolation with my thoughts which helps me come up with arguments, and counterarguments, for essays I’ve been writing. Most of my energy as a creative writing PhD student has been reading for my literature courses, creating lesson plans for the discussion sections I lead, working at my part-time job in the kitchen of a restaurant, and trying to stretch my butt in between Zoom classes so it doesn’t cramp up. I haven’t had time to write a poem, but I have had time to just sit and be alone with my thoughts whenever I’m resting my eyes between Zoom rooms. I am able to write those thoughts down at the end of the day, and then just turn them into essays.”

Photo: Joshua Nguyen.
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
12.16.20

I’m continuing this series of interviews, asking Houston writers how and what they’ve been doing since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s been enlightening and heartwarming to hear these responses when I pose the question:

What have you been doing since the pandemic?

This week we hear from Reyes Ramirez, a Houstonian, writer, educator, curator, and organizer of Mexican and Salvadoran descent. Ramirez is the winner of the 2019 YES Contemporary Art Writers Grant, 2017 Blue Mesa Review Nonfiction Contest, and 2014 riverSedge Poetry Prize. His poems, stories, essays, and reviews have been published in Indiana Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, the Latinx Archive, december magazine, Arteinformado, Texas Review, TRACK//FOUR, Houston Noir, Gulf Coast, the Acentos Review, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere. Ramirez is a 2020 CantoMundo fellow and 2021 Crosstown Arts writer in residence, and has been awarded grants from the Houston Arts Alliance, Poets & Writers, and the Warhol Foundation’s Idea Fund.

Here’s what he says:

“What have I been doing since the pandemic started? Well, I’ve been editing my collection of short stories titled The Book of Wanderers, which I’ll have some news to report about soon. I’m working on a collection of poetry that’s been kicking me around in terms of order and titles, but I’m loving the journey for the destination. I did a whole podcast with Houston creatives where we discussed career-based issues for the contemporary artist. Oh! I also received a Poets & Writers’ United States of Writing grant to organize a series of virtual readings focused on pop culture featuring Houston writers of color titled Houston Eyes, Silver Screens (HESS). It’s cofunded by the Houston Arts Alliance because I originally received a grant from them to organize a literary reading/pro wrestling event where pro wrestlers were going to perform parts of my short story. But this whole pandemic thing happened, and I had to cancel it. C’est la vie, lo que sea, oh well.

If you missed the first and second installments of HESS (on films and video games, respectively), it’s totally okay! Not only is the last one coming up on December 18 at 7:00 PM CT (on music with Miranda Ramírez, Aliah Lavonne Tigh, and José Eduardo Sánchez), but you can watch the other readings with captions in English and Spanish on my YouTube channel. Happy reading and writing!”

Photo: Flyer for December 18 Houston Eyes, Silver Screens virtual event.
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
12.2.20

Hey mi gente. Hope you’re all staying safe. I’m continuing this series of interviews with Houston writers during the COVID-19 pandemic, offering them a space to respond to this question:

What have you been doing since the pandemic?

This week we hear from Ayokunle Falomo who is Nigerian, American, and the author of the poetry chapbook African, American (New Delta Review, 2019) and two self-published collections. A recipient of fellowships from Vermont Studio Center and MacDowell, his work has been published in the New York Times, Michigan Quarterly Review, the Texas Review, New England Review, and elsewhere. Falomo’s readings have been featured on Write About Now and Houston Public Media. He holds a BS in Psychology from the University of Houston, a Specialist in School Psychology degree from Sam Houston State University, and is currently an MFA in poetry candidate at the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program.

Here’s his response:

“Since the pandemic started, which feels like a decade ago now, I have mostly been (at)tending to the things that need it in my life. I’ve been reacquainting myself with beauty and truth. I’ve been learning. A lot about myself. I’ve been nursing a broken heart back to health. I’ve been teaching. I’ve been writing. I’ve been reading. A lot. I’ve been taking walks. I’ve been grieving the loss of the future I once imagined. I’ve been running. I’ve been cooking. I’ve been learning, slowly, how to embrace the future that’s mine now. I’ve been learning how to sit still. I’ve been grateful. I’ve been watching shows on Netflix. I’ve been resentful. I’ve been....”

Photo: Ayokunle Falomo.
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
11.11.20

Over the past few months, I’ve been asking writers in Houston, including myself, to speak about how they’ve been doing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since this series of short interviews has been an enjoyable process, I will keep it going and look forward to introducing some more writers to the process, asking them to answer this question:

What have you been doing since the pandemic started?

Ana Emilia Felker is the author of the collection of essays, Aunque la casa se derrumbe (UNAM, 2017). Felker received Mexico’s National Journalism Award in Chronicle in 2015, was awarded a fellowship from the Foundation for Mexican Literature, and obtained the FONCA Fellowship of Young Creators in 2017 and 2019. She has a BA in journalism from UNAM Mexico and an MA in Comparative Literature from the Universidad Autonoma de Barcelona. Felker is currently a PhD candidate in Hispanic Studies and Creative Writing at the University of Houston and coordinates UNAM San Antonio’s Literature Seminar.

Here’s her response:

“I’ve shared the quarantine with my partner and my dog in an apartment we rent near Almeda Street, close to those turkey legs that smell so good but we’ve never tried, hopefully we will after this thing ends. My partner and I, we are both writing our PhD dissertations, so in a way we have already spent a lot of time in lockdown, but now we can’t alternate spaces going to a cafeteria or to the university library. At first, walking our dog Roque became the moment when we could catch some air together or by ourselves. I have enjoyed paying more attention to strolls, watching the plants, figuring out names of trees in English and Spanish, observing the changes of seasons. But on the flip side, I have also had days of feeling trapped and not finding purpose or meaning in anything I do. So to fight this I started exercising a little bit, I started therapy online with a psychologist in Mexico and also tried to stay away from social media because it was causing me a great deal of anxiety. So overall, I would say I’ve had some peace and quiet but realized that being in lockdown means to hold all your energy together (kind and hostile demons) without the dispersion that social interaction allows. That is a challenge, but hopefully we all meet on the other side, reconciled with ourselves, ready to go outside with less fear and ready to try those turkey legs.”

Photo: Ana Emilia Felker.
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
10.21.20

Hey mi gente, I will get right to the point. This series of interviews has been enlightening and inspirational these last few months and so what was supposed to be only five entries will now be extended. So far, you have heard from Katherine Hoerth, Daniel Peña, Melissa Studdard, and Jonathan Moody. Although I have answered already, I am in a new place (as I’m sure we all are each day of this pandemic) and will again answer the question I’ve been asking other writers:

What have you been doing since the pandemic started?

“I am adding myself as a double entry for one very brutal reason: I know what the pandemic has cost me. My mother died from complications due to COVID-19 earlier this month on October 1. She died at the age of eighty-six.

What have I been doing since the pandemic started? Trying to do all the things I said I was doing in the last post but more importantly, trying my damnedest to keep my family alive and well. I have to admit, a part of me feels like I have failed. In truth, there are so many feelings about this pandemic and how it has treated my family and many people of color.

I spent the last month or so, from August 25 to the start of October, in such distress. We were dealing/planning for the possibility of two storms in the Gulf of Mexico (my heart and candles are lit for folks in Lake Charles and to Kelly Harris, our literary outreach coordinator in New Orleans, as always staying in “hurricane mode” can wear on you), and my parents telling me they had a cold, which later turned out to be COVID-19. To this day, I don’t know how my father got it. He took care as much as he could (especially in the third most Republican county in Texas, where I have witnessed people not following social distancing measures with full care), but to no avail, my mother caught it.

I have spent time thinking. I have spent time thinking about how COVID-19 affects families. As this double storm was a thing, I think about the last conversation I had with my mother on August 25. I called to convince my folks to come up to Houston after Galveston initiated a voluntary evacuation. My mother told me, “no mijo, we will stay here, I don’t know if I have this thing and if I do, I don’t want to give it to you or Jasminne or mija.” My mom knew my wife is immunocompromised and she couldn’t think of even giving it to her two-year-old granddaughter. So they stayed home. She got worse. She went to the ER. She was treated. It didn’t work and she died.

I have spent time writing. The day we found out that she was being admitted to the hospital, they told us she tested positive. My father and I were stunned. We spent three hours together in a waiting room and so I had to rush to get him tested. He tested positive and we had to quarantine for two weeks. To keep from going crazy, I was posting daily updates on Twitter and on Facebook. I was writing curriculum for my day job. Now that my mother is gone, I have had to take notes about how to transfer information for bills, insurance policies, contact numbers, etc.—all the process of laying someone to rest. I even wrote my mother’s obituary.

I honestly don’t know what else I will do during the pandemic. I mean, I know I will do what I can do to try to stay alive, but so far, all I can really see is managing things one day at a time. I know I will take care of my father who has been shattered at the guilt of infecting his partner of forty-six years (even after I explain how transmission is a community thing) and try my best to find peace for my wife and child.

What am I doing during the pandemic? Trying to find light and pass it on to others, just like my mom taught me to do.”

Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
9.28.20

We interrupt our regularly scheduled United States of Writing Blog content to remind writers in Detroit, Houston, and New Orleans that applications for Project Grants for BIPOC Writers are due this Wednesday, September 30!

Grants range from $250 to $750 and can be used to pay for costs related to coordinating online literary events in the genres of poetry, fiction, or creative nonfiction. In addition, projects must take place between October 16 and December 31.

To be eligible, applicants must:

  • identify as Black, Indigenous, or a person of color;
  • be a resident of Detroit, Houston, or New Orleans, including the surrounding metro areas of each city;
  • be a published writer of poetry, fiction, or creative nonfiction, or have performance credits as a spoken word artist.

So for example, if you were a Black fiction writer living in Houston who wants to coordinate a fiction reading that will be live-streamed to the public, and you want to compensate yourself and other writers who will give readings for the event, you would be a great candidate for a project grant!

Of course, not all projects need to fit the mold above: We are also interested in supporting other literary projects that will engage the communities of these cities, such as workshops, panels, discussions, town halls, or Q&As.

Writers interested in applying can find the guidelines and link to the application form here.

We can’t wait to read your project ideas!

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