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

4.8.20

As we celebrate National Poetry Month, I wanted to pause for a moment in the blog to talk about how writers in New Orleans are adjusting to the COVID-19 restrictions.

Like in many cities, writers in New Orleans are adapting to stay-at-home orders by hosting readings and other literary events virtually. Whether you were ready to leap into the virtual world and take on technology or not, we have suddenly become each other’s online audience.

Although I miss browsing my local bookstores and bumping into writers while attending events, this online surge of literary events has offered me the opportunity to hear and see more local writers without having to pick and choose what I can attend due to a busy schedule. Quarantine means I am able to experience hearing more from local and national writers from the comfort of my couch.

I have already joined a newly formed New Orleans poetry series Facebook Group, watched a fiction reading, and peeked in on a Zoom workshop of local writers. And I’m sure there’s more I’m forgetting to mention.

If you are organizing virtual literary events in New Orleans, reach out me at NOLA@pw.org. The Readings & Workshops program has recently updated its mini-grants to accommodate virtual literary programming and applications are open now. You can also view and list online events on the Literary Events Calendar. Enjoy online and stay safe.

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
4.1.20

As we remain at home and do our part to stop the spread of the coronavirus, I wanted to share a short interview I did with poet and performance artist José Torres-Tama who I met a few years ago when we read along with other featured New Orleans poets at a venue off of St. Claude. I remember his chant of “no guacamole for immigrant haters” vividly. Torres-Tama has been touring his solo show Aliens, Immigrants & Other Evildoers across the country for almost ten years. The multimedia and bilingual show, which he describes as a “sci-fi Latino noir,” is updated regularly to reflect current events and is based on interviews Torres-Tama conducts with undocumented immigrants who share their courageous stories. The Readings & Workshops program cosponsored a powerful performance of the show this past September at the Alvar Branch of the New Orleans Public Library. I was able to speak with him about his work, his life in New Orleans, and the importance of giving voice to the immigrant experience.

How has Aliens, Immigrants & Other Evildoers evolved over the years?
Aliens, Immigrants & Other Evildoers premiered in 2010 at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans. In August 2019, we restaged the show for sold-out houses back at the Ashé to kick off a national tour. The show is about the hypocrisy of a country that exploits immigrant labor while criminalizing them. My comic battle cry is, “No guacamole for immigrant haters!” My 2020 tour opened in Mexico City and celebrated Glossolalia, a bilingual poetry book edited by iconic poet Guillermo Gómez-Peña that includes poems from Aliens, Immigrants & Other Evildoers.

Why does New Orleans feel like home to you?
I’m an Ecuadorian immigrant and naturalized U.S. citizen, and immigrant rights is the thematic platform for my poems. New Orleans is the northernmost point of the Caribbean with an often forgotten Latin legacy, and since the 1980s, I proudly call these swamplands home because I’ve cultivated my voice as a poet and performance artist here.

What do you feel is your contribution to the New Orleans literary scene?
I’m one of few Latin American poets here speaking to the immigrant experience. I believe my work is vital to a poetry scene that’s often stuck in a white and black binary quagmire. We need more Latinx voices to claim our rightful place in a city whose post-Katrina resurrection owes much to Latin American immigrant reconstruction workers who gave their blood, labor, and love to our rebirth.

Who are some local poets on your radar that we should look out for?
Two poets to watch in New Orleans are Linett Luna Tovar, a fierce Mexican wordsmith, and José Fermin Ceballos, an Afro-Dominican singer and poet.

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
3.25.20

This week I’m continuing to highlight New Orleans women writers to celebrate Women’s History Month. Gina Ferrara was born and raised in New Orleans and is the author of the poetry collection, The Weight of the Ripened, out this week from Dos Madres Press. Ferrara teaches English and writing at Delgado Community College as an associate professor. Since 2007, she has curated the Poetry Buffet, a monthly reading series sponsored by the New Orleans Public Library, and she gave me my first opportunity to be a featured poet for one of their readings. I was able to sit down with Ferrara to talk about her work with the reading series and her new book.

You have worked at building an inclusive poetry community with the Poetry Buffet series for many years. Why is this so important to you?
Prior to Hurricane Katrina, I was in a group called the Women’s Poetry Conspiracy. The group formed in 2002 or 2003. Latter Library was one of our venues for reading events. The group dissolved after Katrina, but the head librarian Missy Abbott saw a need to bring poetry to the library again and invited me to start a new series.

I think of the Poetry Buffet series as something distinctively New Orleans, as we read on St. Charles Avenue, surrounded by canopies of live oaks and crape myrtles, and the streetcar passes on the tracks with its bell while poets share their work in a historic mansion, which is now a library. It’s my honor to curate this series.

Who has Delgado Community College recently invited to their growing reading series?
Our English department has a bevy of writers that drive our reading series. We bring in readers who are able to connect with our students. We recently featured Malaika Favorite, an African American visual artist and poet. Another writer we invited was J. Bruce Fuller, who actually began his academic career as a Delgado student and went on to become a Stegner Fellow.

What inspired your new book, Weight of the Ripened?
Like its title indicates, the poems are dense and distinctive with a lyrical specificity. The poems span from 2013 until early 2019, and although I didn’t set out with the purpose of writing poems about women, in retrospect, quite a few of the poems are investigations about them.

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
3.18.20

As I type these words the case count of residents in Louisiana who have tested positive for coronavirus is 196. The total number of cases in Orleans Parish in New Orleans is 136.

On Sunday, New Orleans mayor LaToya Cantrell announced that the city enforced a ban on large gatherings and the Tennessee Williams Festival, the New Orleans Book Festival, and the New Orleans Poetry Festival have been canceled.

I will do my best to share resources and ways to support local authors and bookstores through my Twitter feed, @NOLApworg.

The coronavirus will be a blow to our city in many ways. New Orleans is a city that heavily depends on tourism. We are a port city and a large event destination city. We are the city of Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest. Many local writers have had readings canceled or postponed. Local bookstores are impacted, too. While I’m sure this narrative is nationwide, the uncertainty and rising deaths in our state underscore the trauma experienced from a lack of federal response during Hurricane Katrina fifteen years ago.

In some ways we are prepared and know how to hunker down. We know how to find small moments of joy. So to everyone near and far, I say to you, we will get through this because one of the things New Orleans has taught the world is how to survive.

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
3.11.20

It’s Women’s History Month and I wanted to take a moment to shout-out ten women writers living in New Orleans that you should know about and can follow on Twitter. These are just a few of many amazing women who live in this thriving literary city doing phenomenal work.

Bernice L. McFadden
@queenazsa
McFadden is the author of the novel The Book of Harlan (Akashic Books, 2016), winner of the 2017 American Book Award. Her latest novel, Praise Song for the Butterflies (Akashic Books, 2018), was longlisted for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Cate Root
@cateroot
Root is a poet who helps run a monthly literary salon called Dogfish, which invites the public to a free poetry reading set in a living room. She also has a very active Twitter feed and you can subscribe to her love letters.

Andy Young
@andimuse
Young is a poet and teaches in the creative writing department at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.

Dr. Mona Lisa Saloy
@redbeansista

Dr. Saloy is a scholar, author, and active member of the Louisiana Folklore Society. Her latest book, Second Line Home: New Orleans Poems (Truman State University Press, 2014), is a collection of poems that celebrates the language and people of New Orleans.

Stephanie Grace
@stephgracela
Grace is a political columnist for the New Orleans Advocate, our local newspaper.

Fatima Shaik
@FShaik1
Shaik is a native of New Orleans and the author of adult and children’s books, including What Went Missing and What Got Found (Xavier Review Press, 2015), a short story collection depicting life before and after Hurricane Katrina.

Megan Burns
@bloodjetpoetry
Burns is a poet, publisher of Trembling Pillow Press, and cofounder of the New Orleans Poetry Festival.

M. M. Kaufman
@mm_kaufman
Kaufman is a writer and alumni of the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans, and the publicist for the Tennessee Williams & New Orleans Literary Festival.

Kristina Kay Robinson
@_Kristina_Kay
Robinson is a writer and New Orleans editor at large at Burnaway, a nonprofit magazine about contemporary art from Atlanta and the American South.

Jami Attenberg
@jamiattenberg
Attenberg is the author of seven books of fiction including her latest novel, All This Could Be Yours (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019). You can read more about her writing process in her installment of Poets & Writers’ Ten Questions.

What women writers influence your work? Tell us by using #WomenWritersTaughtMe and tagging @nolapworg on Twitter.

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
3.5.20

I was looking forward to meeting up with the literary outreach coordinators, Justin Rogers from Detroit and Lupe Mendez from Houston, and staff members from Poets & Writers at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference in San Antonio, Texas this week, but safety first. Due to the concern about the coronavirus in San Antonio, we decided not to attend and sadly had to cancel the wonderful panel planned on Saturday to discuss our respective literary communities in New Orleans, Detroit, and Houston.

Nevertheless, people in New Orleans are taking all the news in stride. Some local writers who were planning to attend the AWP conference stayed in New Orleans, others went ahead to San Antonio.

The good thing is, we still have lots of great literary events to look forward to in New Orleans:

The New Orleans Book Festival at Tulane University is March 19­–21.

The Tennessee Williams & New Orleans Literary Festival is March 25–29.

The New Orleans Poetry Festival will be in April during National Poetry Month.

Join us in 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.
2.26.20

To conclude my Black History Month themed posts, I interviewed poet Sunni Patterson. Patterson was instrumental in giving voice to New Orleans through her poetry after Hurricane Katrina. The performance of her poem “We Made It” on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam has over six hundred thousand views on YouTube. In many ways Patterson has become the face of New Orleans spoken word.

How has New Orleans shaped your poetry?
When you’re born and raised in New Orleans, you can’t help but have poetry in your bones. Even if you don’t know what it is, or what to call it, it’s there. From the way a story is told, the sayings, the anecdotes—all of it shapes my artistry. I know the music, air, culture, thickness of the city contributes to the sound of my poems.

Take us back to your appearance on Def Poetry Jam in 2007, what was that moment like for you?
I was asked to do it years before that performance. For some reason, I didn’t want to do it. Fast forward to after Hurricane Katrina. I’d just finished speaking at the University of Houston when I got the call from producers. I agreed immediately! I knew my voice and point of view about Hurricane Katrina and its impact on the city and residents needed to be heard.

I had no clothes after Katrina. A box of clothing from a church in Houston was sent to me. Most of the things I didn’t keep. I kept a crop top. I already had some denim material I wanted to use. I was leaving the next day, I called Mama Rukiya, she sewed something quickly with mudcloth and made detachable sleeves. Chile, I was sewing myself into the dress until it was time to go on stage! The needle and thread were still in the seams. It was a great experience.

Who are some of your poetry influences?
Ayi Kwei Armah, Lucille Clifton, Jayne Cortez, Neville Goddard, Zora Neale Hurston, Acklyn Lynch, Brenda Marie Osbey, Arturo Pfister, Rumi, Kalamu ya Salaam, Mona Lisa Saloy, and Sonia Sanchez.

What message do you have for the future writers of New Orleans?
My hope for the next generation of writers is to have hope. To hold the light. To honor the ancestors, elders, culture, children, and spirit of the city, but most importantly, to do the ugly, yet necessary, work of the heart. Those are the things that’ll keep them and us alive.

Sunni Patterson. (Credit: Gus Bennett, Jr. / 2016 New Orleans People Project)
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
2.19.20

My New Orleans Black History Month series of posts continues today with the NOMMO Literary Society. It’s impossible to talk about New Orleans Black literary history without talking about Kalamu ya Salaam and the NOMMO Literary Society.

Many of you may not know that NOMMO was founded by Salaam in New Orleans in 1995, a rare Black writers workshop established a year before Cave Canem. That summer, Salaam had led a writing workshop for male students on the invitation of Tommye Myrick at Southern University New Orleans. Poet Ayo Fayemi-Robinson (formerly known as Kysha Brown Robinson) then questioned Salaam about the exclusion of women writers in the workshop and from that encounter, NOMMO was born and had its first meeting that fall.

The workshop consisted of three parts: a selected reading, a “housekeeping” to share information about upcoming literary events and resources, and giving and receiving feedback on original compositions. The physical space of NOMMO had shelves full of books and CDs of music by Black artists, and there was a monthly reading held at Community Book Center.

The name NOMMO has two origins. First is the central African concept of NOMMO being the power of the spoken word. Second is from Salaam’s sarcastic quip that it was time for the elevation of the Black vernacular and “no more of that literary shit.” The workshop met weekly and hosted several prominent writers, such as Amiri Baraka, Staceyann Chin, Toi Derricotte, Terrance Hayes, Major Jackson, E. Ethelbert Miller, and Sonia Sanchez.

Hurricane Katrina ended NOMMO in 2005, but the legacy lives on through published books by alumni like Jericho Brown, Jarvis DeBerry, Freddi Williams Evans, and Keturah Kendrick.

New Orleans has a long literary history, including the 1845 publication of Les Cenelles, the first anthology of poetry by African Americans which featured the work of seventeen New Orleans poets. NOMMO was a continuation of this rich tradition of African American writing that lives on today.

NOMMO Literary Society reunion at Community Book Center in 2014. (Credit: NOMMO)
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
2.12.20

What’s the history of poets laureate in your state or city? New Orleans doesn’t have a poet laureate but the state of Louisiana makes an appointment every two years. For Black History Month, I’m highlighting the past and present African American poets laureate of Louisiana. Through their poetry and service, these poets have led the way for the next generation of New Orleans writers and beyond.

Pinkie Gordon Lane (1989-1992)
I did not have the opportunity to meet Pinkie Gordon Lane before she died in 2008, but I have great admiration for her. Lane was the first African American poet laureate of Louisiana. Born in Philadelphia, Lane moved to Baton Rouge in the 1950s and became chair of the English Department at Southern University. Lane was also the director of an annual Black poetry festival in the 1970s that was a destination for writers such as Toni Morrison and Nikki Giovanni. Lane’s second book of poetry, The Mystic Female (1978), was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1979. Her influence on New Orleans writers is unmeasurable.

Brenda Marie Osbey (2005-2007)
Of this short list, Brenda Marie Osbey is the only New Orleans native. I’ve met Osbey and heard her read several times in town. She captures New Orleans history with detailed precision in her writing. Summoning Our Saints: The Poetry and Prose of Brenda Marie Osbey (Lexington Books, 2019) is a new book of essays about her work and career edited by John Wharton Lowe. In-depth analysis of Black writers is not always readily available, and the essays in this collection thoroughly examine Osbey’s place in African American and Southern writing.

John Warner Smith (2019-2021)
John Warner Smith is a Cave Canem fellow, as am I, but we didn’t meet until we were both featured readers at the state’s library a few years ago during National Poetry Month. Smith is the first African American man to be appointed Louisiana poet laureate and I interviewed him last fall for this blog shortly after the announcement. His latest book, Our Shut Eyes: New and Selected Poems on Race in America, was published by MadHat Press last year and he currently teaches English at Southern University. Smith has only been the poet laureate for a few months, but I look forward to seeing how he’ll utilize the position to implement poetry throughout the state.

Let’s keep the conversation going: What should the role of a poet laureate be? Find me 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.
2.5.20

For Black History Month, I will be writing about Black writers and institutions that have contributed to the Black literary experience in New Orleans. This first post is dedicated to Community Book Center.

When I walk into Community Book Center, I feel like I am stepping into my grandmother’s house. I’m usually greeted by the straight talk of Mama Jen (Jennifer). “Where yo ass been?” is usually her first question to me followed by, of course, a hug. It is the balance of realness and love that makes this place so special, not only for me but for so many Black writers in the city.

If you are a Black writer in New Orleans, it’s likely not every literary door is open to your work. At Community Book Center, the emphasis on community allows Black writers of all levels and genres an opportunity to promote and sell their books, and discover authors that make you feel represented and invited in.

Community Book Center is owned by Vera Warren Williams and is currently the only Black-owned bookstore left in New Orleans, to my knowledge. It has thrived for more than thirty years and survived Katrina, gentrification, and the ever-changing publishing industry.

Whenever I’m there, I feel a sense of pride because I don’t have to look for the African American section like in other bookstores—the entire store ignores the white gaze that Toni Morrison often spoke about. When I browse the shelves and see all the books for children, women, parents, and families that span the Black and African experience, I know that I am home. Thank you, Community Book Center!

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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