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

1.22.20

There’s nothing like living in New Orleans, especially during Mardi Gras. You’ll see the wacky, the tacky, and everything in between. The school band around the corner from my house practices their songs and steps for one of the many parades happening during the season. As students make the block, neighbors and I often rush out the door to catch a glimpse of them polishing their moves and sound. If you haven’t been to New Orleans during Mardi Gras season, what are you waiting for?

Before you catch those beads, catch these reads and prepare yourself for all that is Mardi Gras. And if you can’t make it to the streets in February, these books can offer you a true taste of the celebration. As it’s often said in New Orleans, “laissez les bon temps rouler” or “let the good times roll!”

Cherchez la Femme: New Orleans Women (University Press of Mississippi, 2019) by Cheryl Gerber. Cherchez la femme is a French phrase which literally means “look for the woman.” This book, which was just released in time for this year’s Mardi Gras, captures the essence of what it means to be a woman in New Orleans culture. There are amazing photos and essays written by women about women including musicians and second-liners, and local favorites like Leah Chase and Irma Thomas.

New Orleans Carnival Krewes: The History, Spirit & Secrets of Mardi Gras (The History Press, 2014) by Jennifer Atkins. Can you say pomp and circumstance? New Orleans does it better than any other American city. Balls. Gowns. Masks. Parades. Parties. Learn about the traditions and history of the carnival krewes behind the celebrations with this book.

Lords of Misrule: Mardi Gras and the Politics of Race in New Orleans (University Press of Mississippi, 1997) by James Gill. If you want some tea on Mardi Gras, this is a good start. There are no traditions without politics. Read about the history, codes, and racism intertwined with Mardi Gras. Find out what’s really behind some of those masks.

From the Kingdom of Kongo to Congo Square: Kongo Dances and the Origins of the Mardi Gras Indians (University of Louisiana at Lafayette, 2017) by Jeroen Dewulf. This is my favorite book on this list and traces the history of Black Indian masking to its African roots. This is a must-read that explores the connection between Black Indians in New Orleans and Native American culture.

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
1.15.20

One Book One New Orleans is a campaign for literacy and community where New Orleans residents share the experience of reading the same book at the same time. The city has many great writers but its adult illiteracy rates are troubling. I had an opportunity to speak with One Book One New Orleans’s executive director Megan Holt and ask a few questions about the organization’s mission and how reading books together can build community. Megan and I have worked together at the Words & Music Festival for the last two years but most importantly, we are friends that share a love for motherhood and literacy.

Can you tell us a little bit about the mission of One Book One New Orleans?
One Book One New Orleans selects one book each year for New Orleans residents to read. We make an extra effort to ensure that our selected book is accessible to all adults. Through a network of community partners, we get the book, as well as a curriculum for the book, into adult education classes, adult ESL classes, HiSET classes, educational programs in juvenile justice centers, and prisons. We also arrange for the book to be recorded and broadcast for the blind community. Finally, we host a series of free, family-friendly events inspired by the book.

Why is it so important to get the whole city of New Orleans reading?
Often it feels that New Orleans is a city divided—by education level, by socioeconomic class, by neighborhood, by race. Bringing people from different walks of life together through a shared reading experience can be the first step to realizing that we have more in common with one another than we thought.

How can reading as a city transform New Orleans?
Increased adult literacy is linked to lower poverty rates, lower crime rates, lower domestic violence rates, better chances of securing a job that pays a living wage, better health care outcomes, and increased participation in the democratic process. These effects then get passed on to the next generation. While it would be overly simplistic to say that reading together as a city is a magic cure-all for some of the struggles our city faces, coming together certainly can serve as a catalyst for change.

What are some of the books the city has read together in the past?
Our first book in 2004 was A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines. The last few years we’ve included titles such as Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans by Louis Armstrong, Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas by Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker, and Counting Descent by Clint Smith.

What’s the book for 2020?
New Orleans Griot: The Tom Dent Reader
edited by Kalamu ya Salaam.

One Book One New Orleans executive director Megan Holt. (Credit: Paula Burch-Celentano)
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
1.8.20

Just before the holidays, I highlighted a few local bookstores in New Orleans worth checking out for gifts. Tubby & Coo’s is an indie bookstore doing great work in Mid-City and as luck would have it, our Poets & Writers table was set up next to their onsite bookstore during the recent Words & Music Festival. The shop specializes in genre fiction, including science fiction, fantasy, graphic novels, and children’s books. Tubby & Coo’s owner Candice Huber named the shop after her grandparents who lived in Mid-City and opening a bookstore has been a lifelong dream. Below is a short chat I had with Huber about her bookstore.

What lessons have you learned as a bookstore owner over the last five years?
The main thing I’ve learned is my customer base and what they look for. It’s always a bit of trial and error when you first start, but over the years you listen to customers and learn what they want, and that is immensely helpful. I’ve also learned a lot about the book and publishing industries in general, and about my own personal limitations and skills. Owning my own business has really pushed me, but it’s also been so rewarding.

How does the Mid-City neighborhood play into how Tubby & Coo’s functions?
I love that we’re close to City Park and right on the streetcar line. Also, Mid-City is very community oriented. I love that we know and interact with our neighbors and other Mid-City businesses regularly and that everyone helps each other out and supports each other. I couldn’t ask for a better neighborhood!

The shops website mentions that Tubby & Coos is also a community center. What else makes your bookstore unique?
We’re a niche store that appeals directly to nerd and queer folk. We carry mostly science fiction and fantasy, but we also have a great selection of queer books, children’s books, and board games. I think we’ve done a good job of creating a safe space and environment and a wonderful community space where anyone can be themselves.

Are there any upcoming bookstore events we should look out for in 2020?
We’re currently in the process of planning for 2020. We’ll definitely continue our book clubs and board game night, which are always hits. And we’re already planning our super popular Harry Potter Birthday Party. Our sibling publishing company, TALES Publishing, will also be picking up in 2020 to publish a few more books. We’ll have other fun events as well, so stay tuned to our Twitter feed, @tubbyandcoos!

Tubby & Coo’s owner Candice Huber visits the Poets & Writers booth at the Words & Music Festival.
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
1.1.20

Last November, I spoke with poet Peter Cooley following the International Poetry Reading cosponsored by Poets & Writers at Tulane University. Cooley, professor emeritus of English at Tulane University and the former poet laureate of Louisiana, is the author of ten books of poetry, most recently World Without Finishing (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2018). We talked about the passing of his dear wife and laughed about advice his daughters recently gave him about the dating world. Here’s a short Q&A that extends our conversation.

As professor emeritus of English at Tulane, what do you look for in the writing of MFA applicants?
The ability to see life a little differently, from a new angle, and the possession of a facility with language.

How have creative writing programs changed since you were a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop?
There are, happily, many different kinds of MFA programs now, from the studio model like the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, to the more structured programs like the University of Arkansas. They are all over the country. And there are low-residency programs, similar to Warren Wilson College’s MFA program.

Recently, you spoke to me about becoming a widower and the advice your daughters have given you about dating. How has this experience impacted your writing?
I am finishing a whole book about grief and being a widower. My wife died on March 15, 2018. I thought I couldn’t write about this, which meant I needed to write it.

As a former poet laureate of Louisiana what advice can you offer for writers?
My advice to writers is the old advice: read, read, read, revise, revise, revise. Find a couple of people whose opinion you respect and show your stuff to them with the hope of receiving criticism. Be prepared for continuous rejection in sending your work out and remember that some of the most famous works have been rejected countless times.

You told me you’ve subscribed to Poets & Writers Magazine for years. What do you like most about the magazine?
I have subscribed to Poets & Writers Magazine for as long as I can remember. I enjoy the feature articles, the news of new writers, and the classifieds. I also like the layouts and photographs of writers.

Peter Cooley.
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
12.18.19

If you’re looking for more community and a spirited festival, you should look into Saints and Sinners. Founded in 2003, the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival highlights LGBTQ writers and publishers from the United States and beyond. The three-day event features panel discussions, workshops, and readings and is held each spring in the French Quarter at the Hotel Monteleone—an official literary landmark that has welcomed William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Eudora Welty, and Tennessee Williams to its rooms.

The 2020 festival is set for March 27–29 and will feature poet Savannah Sipple, fiction writer Leona Beasley, historian Frank Perez, and many others. Registration is open now with day passes and student rates available.

Saints and Sinners is a project of the Tennessee Williams & New Orleans Literary Festival, which I’ve attended several times in the past. The two festivals overlap so it’s possible to attend events from both. Last year, Saints and Sinners kicked off the festival with the return of their open mic slam and first-ever Drag Queen show. And to conclude the event, there are Saints and Sinners Hall of Fame awards given to those who best embody the mission of the festival.

My poet friend Brad Richard has attended the festival and speaks highly of it: “The Saints and Sinners Festival is a wonderful community within the larger community of the Tennessee Williams Festival. I’ve met writers I’ve always wanted to meet and discovered new ones, and found a publisher, Sibling Rivalry Press, for my third book, Butcher’s Sugar.”

Although I haven’t had the chance to attend Saints and Sinners yet, I look forward to supporting the festival and attendees in the coming year.

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

12.11.19

It’s the holiday season and time for giving. If you’re considering what to give to the writer or booklover in your life, here are a few ideas.

Independent bookstore gift cards: I’ve never met a writer or reader who didn’t love a gift card from a local bookstore. There are always independent bookstores that could use shoppers and you never know what author might be giving a reading or signing a book while you’re there. Not only is a gift card a great present, you’ll be supporting small businesses and literary artists. A few of my favorites in New Orleans are Blue Cypress Books, Community Book Center, Faulkner House Books, Garden District Book Shop, Octavia Books, and Tubby & Coo’s Mid-City Book Shop. You can also check out the Literary Places database for bookstores near you.

Buy a book from a small press: There are so many small presses putting out incredible work from emerging and established writers who may not be on the big best sellers lists. Get their books into the hands of a friend. Some small presses operating out of New Orleans are Lavender Ink, Trembling Pillow Press, and University of New Orleans Press. The Small Presses database also has a list of wonderful publishers to choose from.

Donate to a literary organization: For something outside of the box, consider donating to a literary organization in the name of a friend or family member as a gift. These nonprofits are instrumental in creating support systems and opportunities for local writers, including fellowships, retreats, and workshops. Some organizations to consider in New Orleans are 826 New Orleans (which has chapters in other cities), Antenna, and One Book One New Orleans.

Take a friend out to a literary event: Maybe you have a friend who’s never been to a poetry reading or you’ve been meaning to take someone to your favorite reading series. What better time than now to introduce new writers to a good friend and create more community as a way of giving back? The Literary Events Calendar is a great place to start to find an event near you.

Random act of kindness: Is there a writer you like or follow online? Give them a big shout-out on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Give the gift of recommendation. Let your networks know who’s on your literary radar and why. You’d be surprised how helpful this can be to a writer in your community and beyond.

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
12.4.19

On November 22, I attended “Poets Respond to Gentrification,” a reading cosponsored by the Readings & Workshops program that was part of the 2019 Words & Music Festival.

The sold-out reading was held at the Community Book Center, the only remaining Black-owned bookstore in New Orleans. There was a large, diverse crowd of attendees which included local poets. The evening began with youth jazz musicians playing classic songs including “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans.” Veteran poet Peteh Muhammad Haroon emceed the reading which featured Skye Jackson, Michael Quess Moore, Sha’Condria iCon Sibley, and Akilah Toney.

Seventeen-year-old Akilah Toney started the evening with a poem containing the refrain: “You not from here, you don’t know how it feel. You love the culture, not the people—the love not real.” Skye Jackson wore a long, black velvet, off-the-shoulder dress and delivered a poem about being born and raised in New Orleans and the tension she feels from watching the neighborhoods change. Michael Quess Moore, a former teacher and now a full-time artist, addressed colonization and the global impact of white supremacy in his poems. Moore has been on the front line of the removal of Confederate monuments in New Orleans. Sha’Condria iCon Sibley opened with a poem exploring the current political climate and questioned what her poem should be called suggesting, “We’re Living Between Barack and a Hard Place.”

It was great to know that these four engaging readers were able to receive mini-grants from the R&W program. The reading was followed by an open mic and drinks at nearby Whiskey & Sticks, a wonderful way to wrap up a night about community.

The flyer for the “Poets Respond to Gentrification” reading.
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
11.27.19

In New Orleans, you don’t have to be an adult to hone your skills and find a literary community. Youth writers are thriving and preparing to lead the next generation of New Orleans writers.

Here are a few places where young writers can find resources and adults can hear some amazing youth writers share their work:

N.O.Y.O.M.: The New Orleans Youth Open Mic was started in the spring of 2014. N.O.Y.O.M. is open to seventh through twelfth grade students in the Greater New Orleans area and provides a stage and space for young people to explore themselves and share their experiences with their peers through writing. N.O.Y.O.M. partners with the Ashé Cultural Arts Center, which hosts their shows on the third Wednesday of the month, and the New Orleans Public Library is often on-site proving free books and additional resources for all students in attendance.

826 New Orleans: I served on the board in the early days when it was called Big Class. The 826 New Orleans Youth Writing Center has after-school programming, workshops, and field trips for young writers aged six to eighteen. It’s a beautiful space on St. Bernard Avenue with a shop full of books, including student publications, 826 T-shirts, and more.

NOCCA: New Orleans Center for Creative Arts is the local school of the arts that offers intensive instruction in culinary arts, dance, media arts, music, theatre arts, visual arts, and creative writing. Their creative writing program is robust and rigorous. I’ve taught classes there on several occasions and students are reared to enter creative writing programs in the future.

Scholastic Art & Writing Awards: The Greater New Orleans Writing Project is an affiliate sponsor that administers the Scholastic Writing Awards for Southeast Louisiana. The competition provides awards to writers in grades seventh through twelfth in our region in writing categories that include flash fiction, novel writing, personal essay and memoir, and poetry.

Can you imagine having all these resources as a writer in high school? Amazing!

Young writers at 826 New Orleans.
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
11.20.19

“Are you in line?” asks a man wringing out the rain from his shirt behind me. He tells me he is there to see Ta-Nehisi Coates.

As I scan the line of people waiting to enter Temple Sinai on Saint Charles Avenue, I think to myself, I wonder if anyone would ever stand out in the rain to hear me speak.

On October 30, the rain didn’t stop New Orleans from packing the main floor and balcony of the temple to see Jesmyn Ward in conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates. Ward, an acclaimed novelist and professor at nearby Tulane University, asked Coates questions about his new book, The Water Dancer, and if it was difficult to transition from writing nonfiction to writing his first novel.

“In a novel you have to pay attention to details and almost obsess about them in ways you don’t have to in nonfiction,” said Coates. He gave an example of how in fiction, you have to include what kind of curtains are hanging when a character enters a room.

Coates was charismatic and blended his journalist instincts and oftentimes flipped the questions asked of him onto Ward, especially when asked the question she hates being asked, “What are you working on?” His reply, “I don’t know Jesymn, what are you working on?”

Ward acquiesced to the reply and talked about a new novel she’s working on that is set in New Orleans. In turn, Coates responded that he’s just touring for now, but projects are always in the works.

The event ended with questions from the audience ranging from the 2020 election to civil discourse. In a reply to a question about how to speak to people who don’t want to hear views different from their own, he told the audience that we can’t put too much stock in people whose minds are already set. “Life is short,” said Coates. “We got books to write.”

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
11.13.19

“I want you to show them the difference between what they think you are and what you can be.”
—Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

I met Ernest J. Gaines, who died on November 5 at the age of eighty-six, at the Louisiana Book Festival a couple of years ago. After a talk he gave from his wheelchair, I introduced myself and told him I was trying to be a writer. “Keep trying and reading,” he replied. It was said with the kindness and warning of an elder that knew trying (i.e. many bad drafts and rejections) is a precursor to being a writer.

Gaines represented a pride in the South and the African American experience of his rural Louisiana childhood through his writing. Born in Oscar, Louisiana, the son of sharecroppers, Gaines graduated from San Francisco State University and attended graduate school at Stanford University. He was the author of eight novels, including The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (Dial Press, 1971), A Gathering of Old Men (Knopf, 1983), and A Lesson Before Dying (Knopf, 1993), which received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 1993. In addition, Gaines was the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship and a MacArthur “Genius” grant.

If you’re ever in Louisiana and have some time on your hands, stop by the Ernest J. Gaines Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Gaines donated his early papers and manuscripts through 1983 there, and it is expected that the center will acquire the remainder of his papers.

Ernest J. Gaines.
 
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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