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 New Orleans

1.20.21

Happy 2021! Yes, despite the pandemic and political unrest in our country— I still believe happiness is possible.

In these times, our arts communities can provide shelter from some of the anxiety we may feel when we follow the news on our televisions and smart phones. Art can provide a sense of support and inspiration. That’s why taking part in the United States of Writing initiative has been so rewarding. Writing can unite us wherever we live.

Part of my duties as a literary outreach coordinator has been to help support writers in New Orleans. This includes encouraging writers to apply for funding for their virtual events through the Readings & Workshops program’s mini-grants. Last year, the program funded writers in selected states and cities including New Orleans and its surrounding parishes as well as Detroit and Houston, where my fellow literary outreach coordinators Justin Rogers and Lupe Mendez are working to support their communities. We are proud to report that in 2020, the Readings & Workshops program distributed $2,450 in New Orleans, $3,250 in Houston, and $6,750 in Detroit.

I encourage writers and event organizers living in New Orleans, as well as other R&W–supported cities, to apply for a mini-grant. Currently, due to COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings, these grants are only supporting virtual events, which include readings, writing workshops, poetry slams, and panels. The aim is to support writers, and foster and sustain writing communities during these trying times.

Learn more about how to apply for Readings & Workshops mini-grants and feel free to reach out to me at NOLA@pw.org.

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
12.30.20

What word would you use to describe 2020? I pick the word: grateful. Despite this year’s challenges, writers in New Orleans and its surrounding areas have continued to create and contribute to a vibrant writing community that has found amazing ways to thrive in uncertain times. For this, I am grateful. If you’re looking for ways to support and give back, here are a few of my recommendations to help support the New Orleans literary community and its writers, and your own community:

Buy from local bookstores: Help stimulate your local economy and small businesses by shopping at your local bookstores. Circulate local dollars. Many have been able to transition to curbside pickup or online orders during the pandemic. Search for local bookstores in your area with the Literary Places database and read my post on New Orleans bookstores.

Purchase books by local authors: Ask your neighborhood independent bookstore or public library to point you in the direction of local writers. Or take it upon yourself to do a little online research, many writers have social media accounts you can follow on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter where you might even connect.

Sharing is caring: See news about a local writer online? Retweet, share, tag. Help promote your favorite writers and the city.

Donate to local literary organizations: Invest in the literary future of New Orleans by donating to organizations like One Book One New Orleans, 826 New Orleans, Runagate Press, and Friends of New Orleans Public Library. Find an organization (or writer) that reflects your passion and stuff their stocking with a donation of any size.

Help Poets & Writers support writers in New Orleans and beyond: Become a friend of Poets & Writers and help support the resources of this website and programs that give back to the literary community.

Finally, have a safe and healthy remainder of the year. We’ll return in 2021 with more literary news to share with you.

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
12.9.20

Last month, Poets & Writers’ Readings and Workshops program, with support from the Hearst Foundation, cofunded three virtual literary events for the 2020 New Orleans Words and Music Festival. Due to the pandemic this year, instead of purchasing tickets, donations were suggested to attend virtual events. Proceeds from the four-day festival provide literacy resources for adults, education programs for incarcerated adults and teens, and free community programming in New Orleans through Words & Music’s parent organization, One Book One New Orleans. Here are the three events:

1. Queering the South: LGBTQ+ Writers on Home, Love, and History
A discussion and reading curated by New Orleans poet Brad Richard with a panel featuring Matthew Draughter, M’Bilia Meekers, and Megan Volpert.

2. Heartbreak, or Research? Poets on the Writing Process
A discussion and reading curated by Stacey Balku with panelists Elizabeth Gross, Skye Jackson, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Melinda Palacio, and Rebecca Morgan Frank.

3. The Power of Jazz and Place in Tom Dent Poetry: A Workshop With Skye Jackson
Writers from an earlier workshop hosted by Skye Jackson were invited to read their work, including Stacey Balkun, Joshua Benitez, Liz Granite, Sonny Miro, Kiana Naquin, and Lisa O’Neill.

Bonus: Poets, Presidents, and Pandemics: A Reading for These Times
Catch our literary outreach coordinators from Houston and Detroit, Lupe Mendez and Justin Rogers, read with Pulitzer Prize–winning author Tyehimba Jess for a virtual event I curated.

If you missed the festival or any affiliated events, you can view them at the YouTube channel for One Book One New Orleans.

Find out more about funding for events through the Readings & Workshops program.

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
11.18.20

I recently had an opportunity to speak with Susan Larson, former book editor for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and host of WWNO’s The Reading Life, a podcast where she interviews celebrated and emerging authors. Larson has served on the boards of the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival and the New Orleans Public Library, and is the founder of the New Orleans chapter of the Women’s National Book Association. She is also the author of The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans.

You were the book editor for the New Orleans Times Picayune for many years. Do you miss doing that work?
I was the book editor from 1988 to 2009, such a grand period in local literary history, with many writers emerging to national recognition and major prizes, and the rise of so many great literary festivals. It was absolutely the best job of my life and I miss it every day! In the current days of the shrinking book review, it now seems to me impossibly lucky that I had two, sometimes three, pages a week for book review coverage, and I miss all those talented reviewers’ voices as well.

Talking to writers is a privilege and a gift: I am forever grateful for life-changing conversations I have had over the years with Dorothy Allison, Stephen E. Ambrose, James Lee Burke, Andre Dubus, Ernest J. Gaines, Derek Walcott, and Christine Wiltz.

Why was it important for you to start a chapter of the Women’s National Book Association in New Orleans?
I asked my longtime friend Mary Grey James, who had recently retired from working with Ingram Book Company and then went on to work at Parnassus Books, an independent bookstore in Nashville, what activity had meant most to her in her new life. She said that she was most proud of her involvement with the WNBA. After she came to talk to a group of women in New Orleans, we were off!

When people think of New Orleans, they often think of our food and culture. What do you wish people knew about New Orleans as a literary city?
One of my cherished dreams is to see New Orleans designated as a UNESCO City of Literature. As we continue to excavate our long history, we are learning more and more about how much we have contributed to American literature—consider the beginnings of African American literature here, for example, that are just beginning to be appreciated properly. And I wish more people realized how diverse the literary contributions have been from novelists, poets, playwrights, political writers, historians, writers of creative nonfiction. One of the things I treasure about living here is how much of our literary landscape survives in physical form—it means so much to me to drive or walk past the homes of writers who have meant so much to the world, imagining the lives they lived here, including Shirley Ann Grau, Walker Percy, Anne Rice, and Tennessee Williams, to name only a few. I often think I see New Orleans through a hazy dream of books I’ve read.

As host of The Reading Life podcast, what are some of your most memorable shows?
We are celebrating our tenth year on the air, after a brief pandemic hiatus. We try to present a range of writers, local and national, authors of fiction and nonfiction and poetry, focusing on writers who live here or are coming here for appearances.

Our show is conversational, rather than scripted because you always have to be ready to follow the author where they want to go. Some of my favorite guests have been Hillary Clinton and Chelsea Clinton talking about their book The Book of Gutsy Women: Favorite Stories of Courage and Resilience (Simon & Schuster, 2019); Alex Beard sharing the African adventures that led to his children’s picture books; Eddie S. Glaude Jr. on Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own (Crown, 2020); Sarah Broom on her debut memoir, The Yellow House (Grove Press, 2019); and Albert Woodfox on Solitary: My Story of Transformation and Hope (Grove Press, 2019).

What are you currently reading?
I’ve just finished Together in a Sudden Strangeness: America’s Poets Respond to the Pandemic (Knopf, 2020) edited by Alice Quinn, which is a book of great wisdom and consolation for these troubled times; there are days when poetry is the only answer. I’m savoring Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi (Bloomsbury, 2020) for my private pleasure after the long wait for this book; her debut novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is one of my favorite novels.

Next on my list are The Rib King by Ladee Hubbard, forthcoming from Amistad in January, and Economy Hall: The Hidden History of a Free Black Brotherhood by Fatima Shaik, forthcoming in March, which illuminates an important chapter in the history of free people of color in New Orleans. I’m also eager to read former president Barack Obama’s memoir A Promised Land (Crown, 2020).

Photo: Susan Larson.
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
10.26.20

If you enjoyed our Hurricane Katrina Anniversary virtual event, join us on Thursday, October 29 as we celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the NOMMO Literary Society of New Orleans with a Facebook Live event.

NOMMO began as a workshop for Black writers in 1994 led by Kalamu ya Salaam in New Orleans. The workshop had high profile writing guests including Amiri Baraka, Toi Derricotte, and Terrance Hayes. Many consider it the foundation for similar writers workshops that would come soon after, such as Cave Canem and VONA. NOMMO dismantled formally after Hurricane Katrina but many of the participants continue their writing pursuits with success. Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jericho Brown was one of NOMMO’s early participants.

The upcoming virtual event will include Jericho Brown, Karen Celestan, Jarvis DeBerry, Freddi Williams Evans, Ayo Fayemi-Robinson, Keturah Kendrick, Marian Moore, and Kalamu ya Salaam. The panel will discuss the need for building community as writers, the cultural impact of New Orleans, and the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina and how it is applicable to our current pandemic.

Register for Unique and Unified: Celebrating the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the NOMMO Literary Society here!

To learn more about NOMMO, read my previous post about its history.

Photo: NOMMO Literary Society anniversary event flyer.
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.

 

10.7.20

If you have sincere interest in Black New Orleans, the Louisiana Creole language, and how language summons us to grapple with history—Brenda Marie Osbey is my first recommendation. Osbey is the author of books in English and French, most recently, 1967 (William & Mary, 2018), All Souls: Essential Poems (LSU Press, 2015), and History and Other Poems (Time Being Books, 2013). For more than thirty years she has researched and recorded the history of Faubourg Tremé, a community founded by free Blacks in New Orleans. From 2005 to 2007, Osbey served as the first peer-selected poet laureate of Louisiana. I had an opportunity to speak with Osbey about her appointment as poet laureate, her writing process, and her advice for writers.

Photo: Brenda Marie Osbey (Credit: Baquet, New Orleans)
 

You were the second Black woman to be selected for the role of poet laureate of Louisiana. What lessons, if any, did you learn from this public role?
Because my spring 2005 appointment was the first one recommended by a committee of literary peers, I began by considering how I might best serve beyond the expected class visits that dominate most laureateship tenures. Then Katrina hit New Orleans on the 29 of August as a Category 1* hurricane, after which the levees broke, flooding the city of New Orleans and the surrounding area.

During my two-year laureateship, I traveled the United States, advocating for the right to return and rebuild, speaking on disaster panels, giving mini-versions of the Black New Orleans Research Seminar I had been teaching at universities across the country in the years before the storm. For a while, there was a narrative floating about that New Orleans was not worth rebuilding or saving in any way that would be deemed costly. I sought to dispel this notion in various ways. Additionally, every week I gave readings, and met and engaged with southeast Louisianians—mostly New Orleanians—dispersed across the country, bearing with them their narratives of displacement. It was a wrenching and humbling experience. And it taught me countless lessons about the far reach of community.

In a 1986 interview in the Mississippi Quarterly, you were asked if the New Orleans community was supportive of your work and mentioned that although you love the city, you do some of your best work away from here. You also made a distinction between New Orleans being an arts city and a cultural city. Do you still feel the same way today, and how has that impacted your work?
I was attempting to convey how, despite the city’s long history of cultural/creative output, there was no structure or system in place in New Orleans to support the arts—beyond the entertainment model, that is—which would include supporting arts workers. Which is a longer conversation than is possible here.

Rooted as it is in New Orleans—history, culture, language, sensibilities—writing often requires the kind of distance that allows one to see and consider one’s objectives and materials differently away than at home. Seeing the forest for the trees is necessary to thought, insight, and reflection, and is required to produce work.

Out of all your amazing books, which was the most difficult to write and why?
I don’t think in terms of difficulty or ease. My work is primarily research-based, and each book is a deliberately conceived project with its own arc and progression. And since I’m always working on multiple projects at any given time, my attention is either on the work at hand, what’s next in queue, or some combination.

What’s your advice to young poets?
Learn to read one or more languages. Moreover, study your native language as if learning it for the first time. More so than other genres, poetry is rooted in the human tongue.

Listen to Osbey read “Everything Happens to (Monk and) Me”:

 
*“Reported in 2005 as having struck New Orleans as a Category 1, online information has recently changed the impact of Hurricane Katrina to a Category 3—levees purportedly having been built to withstand hurricanes at the higher level,” Osbey says. “Those of us who were here in New Orleans, however, experienced and witnessed Katrina as a Category 1 hurricane, and recognize the levee breaches and loss of lives as a man-made disaster.”
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
9.16.20

On August 26, I curated a virtual reading highlighting New Orleans writers to remember, as I said at the event, all the people, all the cultural places, all the businesses, all the family artifacts, all the schools, all the neighborhoods, and the ways of being that were lost physically and dismantled systematically by Hurricane Katrina. It is hard to believe, but August 29 marked the day the levees broke in New Orleans fifteen years ago.

To commemorate the occasion, Dr. Mona Lisa Saloy, Tom Piazza, Alison Pelegrin, José Torres Tama, Lolis Elie, and Asia Rainey read from their work and shared their experiences. Fourteen-year-old New Orleans saxophonist Akeel Salah Muhammad Haroon treated us with a performance to close the evening.

Readings & Workshops program coordinator Ricardo Hernandez, who helped with tech support, said of the event: “The featured readers were all incredible. I was especially moved to hear Lolis Elie read from “The Whys” and I looked up the piece so I could quote it accurately: ‘Some of us came back because we didn’t believe that the insurance company that we’d dutifully paid for decades would cheat us in our hour of gravest need. (If Dante Alighieri had endured the inferno of our flood, he would have kindled a special fire for insurance companies!)’”

Curating this event was fun but challenging, especially with the added pressure of doing this virtually and praying for no tech hiccups. Luckily it all worked out and our virtual audience was pleased. My goal was to highlight all the ways Hurricane Katrina impacted the city’s writers. It was hard to curate because so much is at stake with a reading that represents the loss and trauma of an entire city. I was happy that each writer brought a different voice and perspective to the reading.

Thank you to all of those who joined us on Facebook for the live event. If you missed the reading, you can watch it here. There is also a wonderful piece written by Joshua Barajas for PBS NewsHour about our event.

Writing about Katrina can be painful, but mostly it is a celebration of what makes New Orleans so special. As Saloy says in the PBS NewsHour piece, “We’re not just authors. We are the carriers of our culture.”

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
8.24.20

August 29 marks the day the levees broke in New Orleans fifteen years ago. To commemorate the occasion, I am curating a multi-genre reading to remember the lives that were lost and changed by Hurricane Katrina, and the city that was abandoned and continues to thrive. The writers invited for this reading represent the vast stories and experiences of the storm.

The featured readers for our virtual event include:

Lolis Eric Elie, New Orleans native and Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker, who most recently joined the writing staff of the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle and has written for the OWN series Greenleaf and HBO series Treme.

Alison Pelegrin, author of Waterlines (Louisiana State University Press, 2016) and professor in the English department at Southeastern Louisiana University.

Tom Piazza, author of the post-Katrina manifesto Why New Orleans Matters (Harper Perennial, 2008) and a principal writer for the HBO drama series Treme, which explores the aftereffects of Katrina in New Orleans.

Asia Rainey, New Orleans native and veteran artist with a resumé spanning twenty years in spoken word poetry, music, theater, television, visual arts, and film.

Dr. Mona Lisa Saloy, professor of English at Dillard University and author of Second Line Home (Truman State University Press, 2004) and Red Beans & Ricely Yours, which won the 2006 PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Prize and the 2005 T. S. Eliot Prize in poetry.

José Torres Tama, writer and poet exploring anti-immigrant hysteria in his written work and solo theater show Aliens, Immigrants & Other Evildoers.

We will also have music performed by fourteen-year-old New Orleans saxophonist Akeel Salah Muhammad Haroon.

The reading will be livestreamed on the Poets & Writers Facebook page on Wednesday, August 26 at 6:00 PM CDT. Hope to see you there!

Photo: Flyer for the Fifteenth Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina virtual reading.
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
8.5.20

How are you doing? This is an essential question for all of us. In New Orleans, asking such a question could still mean how are post-Katrina? Recovery. Resilience. These are words attached to the city’s brand. However the reality for many people, in particular writers and artists, is still arduous.

The world can learn from New Orleans during the coronavirus pandemic without deeming it a “Katrina moment.” Our moment was our moment but the lessons about government failure, natural disasters, and depending on strangers for survival are applicable. We know how education systems can change overnight.

For many in New Orleans and the surrounding affected areas, the pandemic adds more weight to an already heavy living. But New Orleans has the writers, researchers, artists, stories, food, land, and music that tell stories of humanity and point a way to the light.

August 29 marks fifteen years since the levees broke in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. I am excited to be curating some virtual events with Poets & Writers, including a reading dedicated to remembering the impact the storm has had on the people and culture of this city.

Follow my Twitter feed, @NOLApworg, for more details and updates for this event and more from New Orleans. I’ll also share about upcoming events in our other United States of Writing cities: Detroit and Houston.

Photo: Flyer for the Hurricane Katrina anniversary reading.
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
7.15.20

I’ve lost track of the days and how many Zoom meetings and events I have attended since the start of this pandemic. All the days are a blur of keyboards and news feeds.

The toll of uncertainty on the body, mind, and spirit is real. I encourage you to unplug some days and find small joys. This pandemic will not be a sprint but a marathon. Pace yourself with quality time, loved ones, and perhaps your favorite ice cream.

One of the things I have enjoyed during quarantine is being able to attend events virtually. I would not have been able to afford or travel the distance to see many of the kind of events I’ve “attended” online. There are some great virtual events that are really giving unprecedented access to talks, writers, workshops, and more. Many are listed in the P&W Literary Events Calendar. Take advantage of them. Allow your mind to think less local and more global. Even if we ever return to a maskless society, technology will be our bedfellow.

I’m happy to say I’ve made some virtual new friends and discovered new writers that I enjoy.

Have you been attending virtual events? Have there been some pleasant surprises? Let me know how literary virtual events are impacting you for the good on Twitter, @NOLApworg.

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.

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