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

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!

9.9.20

This COVID Vivid blog series has been a real treat to work on these last couple months, and so, what was supposed to be only five entries will now be extended for a few more. So far, you have heard from Katherine Hoerth, Daniel Peña, Melissa Studdard, and Jonathan Moody. And now I will spin the question on to myself:

What have you been doing since the pandemic started?

“I have been trying to keep it together. I’ll be honest: I’ve been praying. I’ve been cooking. I’ve started three little gardens and built things for my kid. I’ve been playing with my two year old and trying my damnedest not to go down the rabbit hole of what-ifs when it comes to reading about the pandemic on social media.

I’ve also spent a little bit of time trying to write, but sometimes, I just stare at my screen. I’ve been buying useless things and binge-watching shows, and fighting and then making up with my wife, and trying to lose myself in good music. I was lucky enough to get the month of June off (I am an eleven-month contract employee in my local school district) and as of this writing, I am knee-deep in creating updated lesson plans for teachers in my district as well as creating two sets of digital lessons for students under the scenario that they won’t have access to their teachers online. It is tough trying to plan for teachers and students in a situation where we are totally blind as to what might happen next. If you haven’t seen how Texas is handling COVID-19, it’s not pretty.

I am entirely in alert mode. I am in hurricane warning mode. It’s like I stay up at night listening to the house, listening to my daughter sleep, maybe writing late into the night or working on curriculum, but I am lucky if I get a full night’s sleep. I am working on trying to build routines to take better care of myself, but honestly I have always sucked at it. It is easier for me to tend to other people. I probably look a wreck. I know I look a wreck. But everything is a slow movement. I am learning every day to take better care of myself. I am reading more. That’s where I begin.”

And speaking of reading, if you don’t already have your copy of the September/October 2020 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, check out the piece published online about Spanish-language and bilingual creative writing programs, “Writing in Spanish Elevates Academia” by Enma K. Elias.

Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
8.19.20

If you are just jumping on to this blog, thank you for coming along for the ride. I have had the pleasure to speak with local Houston writers about how their lives have changed during the pandemic, in particular, how their writing lives have been altered. It has been a difficult time, to say the least, but there have been some new, positive aspects as far as accessibility and inclusion for literary events, and as you’ll see below, family time. For this series, I reached out to writers and posed one simple question:

What have you been doing since the pandemic started?

So far we have heard from Katie Hoerth, Daniel Peña, and Melissa Studdard, and this week I bring you, poet Jonathan Moody.

Jonathan Moody is a Cave Canem alum and received his MFA from the University of Pittsburgh. His poetry has appeared in African American Review, Borderlands, the Common, Crab Orchard Review, Harvard Review Online, and other publications. He is the author of The Doomy Poems (Six Gallery Press, 2012) and Olympic Butter Gold, which won the 2014 Cave Canem/Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize. For the upcoming school term, Jonathan will join the English department faculty at South Houston High School. He lives in Pearland, Texas with his wife and three sons.

Here is what Jonathan had to say:

“Before the Coronavirus pandemic, my gruesome teaching schedule didn’t permit me to hydrate as much as I should. I always knew water was essential for the kidneys, but I had no clue that it cushions the brain and the spinal cord. The headaches and lower back pain that caused me distress have now dissipated. I also start each day taking immune boosters: echinacea, elderberry, and Vitamin C. And I’ve stuck to a consistent workout regimen that includes wind sprints and knee taps, as well as calisthenic exercises like push-ups, plyometric push-ups, and chest dips. Now that I’m in much better shape, I’m less complacent when it comes to meal prepping and cooking creative dishes like feijoada, patatas bravas, and flan. One change that I’m most proud of is how Avery Langston, my six-year-old son, demands that I, my wife, and the Moody Twins—Aiden and Aristin—eat dinner together every night as a family.”

Photo: Jonathan Moody (Credit: Thu Nguyen)
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
7.29.20

Hey mi gente, I want to jump right in and continue with the interviews I’ve been able to hold with local Houston writers about life during the pandemic. For this series, I reached out to writers and posed one simple question:

What have you been doing since the pandemic started?

This series began with insights from Katie Hoerth and Daniel Peña, and this week, I bring you poet Melissa Studdard. Studdard is the author of five books and the recipient of the 2019 Penn Review Poetry Prize and the 2019 Tom Howard/Margaret Reid Poetry Contest sponsored by Winning Writers. Her works include the poetry collection, I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast (Saint Julian Press, 2014), and the poetry chapbook, Like a Bird With a Thousand Wings (Saint Julian Press, 2020). Her writing has been published in the New York Times, POETRY, Kenyon Review, and the Guardian.

Here is what Melissa had to say:

“Like so many others, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get my head around what’s happening. Kelli Russell Agodon and I have been coauthoring poems five days a week that grapple with this new life we’re living and how suddenly it was thrust upon us. As well, I pen a daily poem for the Grind. Outside of writing, I’ve been cooking, gardening, spending a lot of time with my kid, and reading. In some ways, it feels like everything has changed, and in others, it feels like nothing has changed. I still do a lot of the same things, but differently. Whereas before I was a little more solitary and introspective, now I seek connection in everything. When I read, I read to understand, as deeply as possible, other humans. When I garden, I want to know the tomato, feel the basil, be the soil. The pandemic has forced me to slow down and see things I looked past before. Everything feels so fragile now; I want to take great care with it all. I don’t want to take anything for granted.

I have also been collaborating with a composer friend, Christopher Theofanidis, with whom I recently released a chapbook of my poems and fragments of his musical scores called Like a Bird With a Thousand Wings. The musical scores are from his composition “The Conference of the Birds,” which is based on Attar’s allegorical poem by the same title. All the release performances and activities were cancelled, so we’ve been doing limited virtual events instead, and we’ve begun work on an oratorio based on Hesse’s Siddhartha. In addition to my own writing, I’ve been trying to support other writers. Among other small gestures, I’ve held some monthly drawings on Twitter to give writers money for contest entry fees. I had the good luck of winning several contests recently, and I was thinking about how there are a lot of writers who should be placing in and winning contests but can’t afford to participate. I wanted to spend some of my winnings to help them enter contests because I think it’s important right now to find ways to make and give joy, and to create things for ourselves and others to look forward to.”

Photo: Melissa Studdard.
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
7.8.20

Hey mi gente, wishing you the best in this crazy time we’re living in. Here in Texas, smaller rural spaces and larger metro spaces are in heated battles as to what is appropriate for a “restart” as cities begin to open their businesses back up. Every day is an interesting day here in Houston. Despite the difficulties of this pandemic life, the literary world has been doing brilliant work and touching base with writers in ways it hasn’t done so before. So with this in mind, I wanted to continue conversations with writers here in the city and ask how they have been spending their time during stay-at-home orders. For this series, I reached out to writers and posed one simple question:

What have you been doing since the pandemic started?

This series started off with Katherine Hoerth and this week, we continue with Daniel Peña. A Pushcart Prize–winning writer, Peña is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Houston–Downtown and the author of the novel, Bang (ArtePublico Press, 2018).

Here is what Daniel had to say:

“I’ve been teaching a lot. Transitioning all of my classes online has been time-consuming but I’ve been grateful for the distraction. I record podcasts for all of my classes (Mexican-American Literature, Creative Writing, and Literary Magazine Production) so my students can get to the lessons asynchronously (meaning on their own time).

So many of my students are on the front line of this pandemic: delivery drivers, grocery store workers, EMS medics working twelve-hour shifts. I read them poems, stories, essays and talk about those readings with them, almost like a radio show or something. They can listen to it when they’re driving on their way to work or in those splices of moments between moments. Hit pause, hit play, hit pause again. I try to make each lesson a kind of artifact: heavily produced with bumper music, a monologue, a volta, some trivia, sometimes a rant. I try to mimic class more or less. And mostly, I’m just trying to keep them in the game, correspond with them when they’re free. And that’ll take up about two months of time if you get carried away with it (and I do).

I go to my home office in the morning, I record my lessons, I read the readings for the next class in the evenings, I write out the podcast longhand, and then I record that lesson the next day. I try to stay about two weeks ahead in case I get sick.

I get a little writing done when I can. I can’t wait to get back into my own writing this summer.”

Check back next week for the next writer!

Photo: Daniel Peña. (Credit: Paula N. Luu)
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
6.17.20

Hey mi gente, glad you could stop in for a little post about what’s been happening here in Houston. Summer is here and I wanted to take a moment to talk to some writers in my city and see how they have been spending their time during the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For this series of posts, I posed one simple question to these writers:

What have you been doing since the pandemic started?

So first off, we begin with Katherine Hoerth. The author of several poetry collections, including Goddess Wears Cowboy Boots, which won the Helen C. Smith Prize for the best book of poetry in Texas in 2015, Hoerth is an assistant professor of English at Lamar University and serves as editor-in-chief of Lamar University Literary Press. This fall, her collaborative poetry collection Borderland Mujeres will be published by SFA Press. The book is a bilingual collection of feminist poetry and art created with poet Julieta Corpus and artist Corinne McCormack-Whittemore.

Here is Hoerth’s response:

“When the pandemic started, I was just getting off for my spring break; I never would have imagined what would unfold in the coming weeks and months, and that I would never see many of my graduating students again. Alas, I have been hunkered down at home with my cats but in good health and spirits, and I've been writing new poetry, Zooming with students, workshopping online, and participating in virtual poetry readings such as Houston’s Public Poetry reading series to share my latest poems. For National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo), I participated in the 30/30 challenge to write a poem a day on my blog, and I felt compelled to write about the pandemic just as a means of recording the experience. Two of my pandemic poems have found homes in TEJASCOVIDO, a blog curated by Angelo State University English professor Laurence Musgrove. Thankfully, I am still able to work remotely for Lamar University Literary Press, and my coeditor Daniel Valdez and I will be spending much of the summer putting together a new anthology of eco-poetry from the Texas Gulf Coast titled Odes and Elegies. What I miss most dearly is attending poetry readings in person—I long for the camaraderie of my fellow Southeast Texas poets, and I look forward to the day when we can share a mic once again.”

Katherine Hoerth with her cats. (Credit: Katherine Hoerth)
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
5.26.20

This month I’ve been covering the way Houston has been rising to the occasion to support the literary scene during the COVID-19 pandemic. So far, I have written about the University of Houston’s CoogSlam, gave some love to Casa Ramirez Folkart Gallery, and today I want to focus on what’s going on for youth at Writers in the Schools (WITS).

In a previous post I briefly mentioned what WITS is doing for K–5 grade students, but I wanted to hammer down exactly what this looks like. WITS is a nonprofit organization that focuses on providing K–12 grade students an opportunity to work with established writers with the goal of creating their own published works in fiction or poetry. This is done through in-class workshops and writing time with mentors. Up until the pandemic, WITS was leading the way with creative writing workshops led by published writers in over seventy schools across the Houston area. With schools shut down and no announcements as to when students will be back on campus, WITS quickly readjusted how they work and shifted to creating content with virtual learning in mind.

Now kids in Houston, and anywhere in the world online, have access to Quick WITS, fifteen-minute mini-writing sessions recorded and hosted by a variety of Houston-based poets, writers, and filmmakers. The videos offer a lesson and questions for reflection, along with a writing prompt or activity. The mini-workshop videos are free and are just the right amount of time to get kids writing creatively. There are also Spanish-language lessons, and this is major here in Houston where over 55 percent of students in the area come from Spanish-speaking homes.

If you have a student in your house, come let them explore what Writers in the Schools has to offer. Students can also share their writing with WITS via e-mail or on social media using #QuickWITS.

A Spanish-language lesson from the Quick WITS series.
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
5.19.20

Last week I started off a series of posts featuring some of the ways the Houston literary world has been rising to the occasion with innovation and community in mind during the pandemic. I covered University of Houston’s CoogSlam, and this week I want to give some love to Casa Ramirez Folkart Gallery.

I’ve mentioned Casa Ramirez before which makes them being on this list maybe a little overindulgent but if you are like me, you celebrate your elders when they keep things fresh. Casa Ramirez is doing just that. For the most part, Casa Ramirez is like any staple small business here in Houston, but what makes this space unique is that the couple in charge, Macario Ramirez and Chrissie Dickerson Ramirez, are good luck charms for every Latino in the city.

If you are an artist or writer, fan or hobbyist, Casa Ramirez is like a shrine. If you have a literary event there, having your book in their shop makes it destined for success. I have seen it with my own two eyes. It might be a “folk art” gallery, but don’t let the Ramirezes fool you—they are book lovers and carry an extensive bookstore inside the shop with all the texts to build up an ethnic studies library in Latinx lit.

That said, the stay-at-home orders in Houston have been devastating to businesses and now that Texas has chosen to slowly open up this month, so has Casa Ramirez—but with new safety measures. The shop has created a “retail-to-go” shopping experience: Patrons get to peruse all the art and books with a “curator” by their side to answer questions and make recommendations. Only one person, one couple, or one family is allowed in the shop at a time and you must wear a mask (employees also wear masks). You have access to the whole bookstore and gallery area for thirty to forty minutes, buy what you want and then, boom, you are out the door. The shop has limited hours from noon to 4:00 PM every day.

From what I have heard, they’ve had a line a block long every day. Leave it to Casa Ramirez to lead the way. Check out their Facebook page and their Instagram, @casaramirezfolkartgallery, to see what they have going on.

Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
5.12.20

First off, I’d like to share some cheer with a belated Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms of the world. You change the world, moms—don’t ever forget it.

As we all continue to adjust to life in the COVID-19 era, I wanted to include in this blog some of the ways Houston has been rising to the occasion to work its literary magic. This month, I will be writing about three different spaces and organizations that have been adapting their programs and events for the virtual world.

Today I’ll focus on the University of Houston’s CoogSlam—the name is a nod to the university mascot, the cougar, and slam poetry. The group is less than three years old and has already garnered national attention with its slam team for the collegiate competition known as CUPSI, the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational.

Before the University of Houston made the decision to keep its doors closed for the rest of the spring semester, CoogSlam was hosting writing workshops and a weekly slam and now, they have seamlessly adapted to the virtual world and continued their work. CoogSlam offers writing workshops on Wednesdays and has an open mic on Saturdays, all online. Writers and spectators can join from a link to a Google form available on their Instagram page, @uhcoogslam. The rest is a purely, magical experience. Just this past week, CoogSlam hosted an open mic featuring the talented Ryan McMasters, and from what I have heard it was stupendous. I can’t wait to see who is featured next.

You can also follow CoogSlam on Twitter, @uhcoogslam, for their latest news and events. They are doing big things and representing the city in such a humble and honest way. It is a delight to see what they do.

Participants in a recent online CoogSlam writing workshop.
 
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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