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

6.24.20

Benjamin Morris is the author of Coronary (Fitzgerald Letterpress, 2011), Hattiesburg, Mississippi: A History of the Hub City (History Press, 2014), and Ecotone (Antenna/Press Street Press, 2017), and the editor or coeditor of four volumes of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. His work has received academic and creative fellowships from Tulane University and a residency from A Studio in the Woods in New Orleans. You’ll always find him somewhere in New Orleans supporting the literary community.

How has this pandemic impacted you personally and professionally?
In a word: multiply. During lockdown I’ve been grateful to stay healthy, but even having avoided the virus thus far, it’s hard to avoid that gnawing feeling of anxiety over so many everyday activities: It seems like everything we do now is laced with tension. That’s the strangest thing; because the virus could be anywhere, it’s everywhere. Every public move you make is a risk calculation. That said, like many folks here and across the country, I’ve taken a punch to the fiscal gut. Early on in the outbreak my hours at my day job were cut in half, and every gig, reading, and appearance I had planned since February has been canceled. Last month, I was supposed to give a lecture on trends in contemporary Mississippi poetry to the Mississippi Poetry Society, which has now been rescheduled for 2023. It’s not been easy.

What books are you reading while quarantined?
I’ve just finished The Everlasting by Katy Simpson Smith, which came out in March (so go buy it!). The novel is set in Rome, Italy, over four different time periods, following a structure not unlike David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Not only is it a gorgeous book in its own right, but mentally traveling through time and space has been an ideal antidote for the malaise of quarantine. Next up is poetry—I’ve got a stack of books from past presenters at the New Orleans Poetry Festival, such as Henk Rossouw’s Xamissa and Lee Ann Brown’s Polyverse. And just before Mardi Gras, a friend gave me a first edition of C. D. Wright’s Rooms Rented by a Single Woman published by Lost Roads Press—what a gift!

If you knew five months ago what you know now, how would you have prepared for this moment?
More exercise equipment! I’ve long held that the gym is like church for the body, and outside of church it remains the single best place to boost mental health. I was underprepared with gear when the outbreak broke out (apologies for the chiasmus), and have had to cobble together different implements since. Believe it or not, you can do more cardio with a rake than you think.

Have you attended or participated in any virtual readings? Is it here to stay or do you prefer to return to in person readings?
When we voted to cancel the 2020 New Orleans Poetry Festival, it was one of the most difficult decisions our board had ever faced. A small salve for the wound was our attempt over the original festival weekend to curate a virtual fest, soliciting videos of readings, panels, tributes, and odes to the kitchen sink—my own submission features a guest appearance from my cat. They’re all up on the festival’s website and I couldn’t be more grateful to everyone who made it happen. But no, to my mind, virtual readings versus in-person events are like how Wynton Marsalis once compared listening to a CD versus going to a live performance: like looking at a picture of a steak.

What’s your hope for New Orleans during and after this pandemic?
One thing that has moved me these last few months is the outpouring of simple kindness from our citizenship. Like many have said—most recently Maurice Ruffin in the New York Times—in some ways this is like Katrina all over again. I well remember from those years the shared recognition that just about everyone you encounter on a given day—friend, family, stranger—is suffering from untold depths of stress, and a little extra patience, tolerance, and consideration can be the difference between a day they survive and a day they don’t. It’s like that all over again. My hope for the city is that we recognize the fragility of all our relationships, even transitory ones, and allow such gentleness and tenderness to reenter civic life for good.

Benjamin Morris. (Credit: David G. Spielman)
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
6.3.20

Tracy Cunningham is the managing director of the Tennessee Williams & New Orleans Literary Festival and co-director of the New Orleans Writing Marathon. A fiction writer, her writing has appeared in Louisiana Literature and in various anthologies.

How has this pandemic impacted you personally and professionally?
Personally, I’ve been truly lucky, in that no one in my family or my immediate close circle of friends has been ill from the virus. I’ve been able to continue working with ease, as I already have a dedicated writing studio at home, so I’ve just made room for my festival work in my creative space. Professionally, this has been quite a challenge. Our year of preparing for the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival and Saints+Sinners LGBTQ literary festival was all for naught, as we had to cancel just twelve days before our opening event. Since then, we’ve scrambled to adapt to the online world, and we’ve done a few online events with more planned for the coming months. A festival is inherently a social activity, and to move portions of that to an online format is daunting, but we’re eager to connect with our writers and patrons.

What books are you reading while quarantined?
I’m finally finding time to read some of the books by authors who were part of our 2020 festival programming. I’ve recently enjoyed Jac Jem’s False Bingo, Saeed Jones’s How We Fight for Our Lives and Jamie Attenberg’s All This Could Be Yours. Now I’m diving into Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s We Cast a Shadow, and I can already see why it’s getting so much praise. Katy Simpson Smith’s newest book, The Everlasting, is next in my pile.

If you knew five months ago what you know now, how would you have prepared for this moment?
Professionally, knowing that far in advance that our festivals would be canceled would have made that process so much easier. Cancelling just twelve days before kickoff was extremely stressful, especially since we were among the earlier events that had to shut down, so there was no real model to follow.

Luckily, our small team works well together and we were able to get the word out to our people and handle refunds quickly. Personally, I would have enjoyed the city more, had more cocktails and dinners with friends, and appreciated everything NOLA has to offer just a bit more.

Have you attended or participated in any virtual readings? Are they here to stay or do you prefer in-person readings?
I have attended some and I like it just fine, although it’s a bit awkward with everyone smiling and nodding silently. I like how unexpected fun can erupt, though, like at the end of Leigh Camacho Rourks’s reading and interview for her book Moon Trees and Other Orphans. We were all fawning over her two cats, and suddenly all of us grabbed our pets to show them off onscreen. It was a hilariously sweet moment.

In-person readings are ultimately better though for connecting readers and writers, getting books signed, and feeling more in tune to the literary community. But for now, this is what we have and I’m happy to see how many opportunities we have to connect. Our independent bookstores, like Garden District Book Shop, have hosted some great online events, and we partnered with them and Beauregard-Keyes House to host an upcoming Sunday Salon Series. And we partnered with Tubby & Coo’s Mid-City Book Shop to feature some of our Saints+Sinners Festival speakers.

What’s your hope for New Orleans during and after this pandemic?
My husband works at Galatoire’s, so we’re eager to see the numbers drop low enough for restaurants to re-open (with careful measures to keep patrons safe, of course). I hope we’re able to gather again and enjoy the beauty and history and culture that is so uniquely New Orleans.

Tracy Cunningham. (Credit: Tracy Cunningham)
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
5.27.20

Tad Bartlett is a fiction writer, essayist, and recovering poet. He was born in Ankara, Turkey; raised in Selma, Alabama; and married into New Orleans, Louisiana. Bartlett received his BA in theater and creative writing from Spring Hill College and a law degree from Tulane University. He earned his MFA in fiction from the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans, where he was a reader for Bayou Magazine. Bartlett lives in New Orleans, where he practices law and works on various writing projects, including a collaborative novel with fellow Peauxdunquian J.Ed. Marston, a new novel project, and various short stories and essays. He also serves as the managing editor of Peauxdunque Review.

How has this pandemic impacted you personally and professionally?
Personally, the pandemic has been, of course, anxiety inducing. It has had potentially devastating financial effect on me and, more guttingly and assuredly, the communities around me here in New Orleans. Friends and colleagues have experienced sickness and death in their families. I have lost a good friend, not directly to the pandemic, but to depression and substance abuse issues that were undoubtedly exacerbated by the pandemic. I am helpless as to so much of that. My family is scattered from Montgomery to Austin, but even my close friends here in New Orleans I have only been able to see through the magic of technology. I want nothing more than to give them long hugs, to share a drink with them, and I know I’m far from alone in that.

Professionally, as a writer and member of writing communities, the pandemic has been oddly galvanizing. We “meet” (through that technological magic) far more often than we did in pre-pandemic times, and with far more deliberativeness. I have more time to write, which still isn’t as much time as I would want, but my writing feels more clearheaded and focused, and in certain ways, more driven and less obligatory. And the journal for which I’m managing editor, Peauxdunque Review, has provided a great opportunity to engage more with other writers and hopefully bring some positivity to them.

What books are you reading while quarantined?
The Lost Book of Adana Moreau by Michael Zapata, A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash, The Beauty of Your Face by Sahar Mustafah, Pride of Eden by Taylor Brown, Exile Music by Jennifer Steil, and How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon.

If you knew five months ago what you know now, how would you have prepared for this moment?
I don’t know what I would have done differently to better prepare myself for this moment. For example, if I knew even two and a half months ago what I know now, I probably would not have gone to the AWP conference in San Antonio at the beginning of March. As it is, for both personal and professional reasons, I am so glad that I did go, that I had those days of very carefully navigated closeness with old friends and new friends to talk about words and writing and community, even knowing in the back of our heads that this might end up being the last time in a long time for that to happen. There was a sad deliciousness to it that I am glad I experienced.

Have you attended or participated in any virtual readings? Is it here to stay or do you prefer to return to in-person readings?
I have participated in a few virtual readings. They have been invaluable in keeping the various writing communities, of which I am part, together and vital. Though, nothing beats the in-person reading. In my deepest wishes (fantasies?), we can all return to those evenings in a bar or a bookstore or a generous reading space, where we hug and dap and laugh over a cheap cheese plate and crackers and cheaper wine, and then all quiet down in joyful anticipation for the evening’s readers.

I do not fool myself, though. The world will be different coming out of this. I think we will have in-person readings again. But we may be masked. We will certainly be less physically intimate in our greetings and interactions. We will feel sadness in greater portions along with the joy.

What’s your hope for New Orleans during and after this pandemic?
My greatest hope for New Orleans during the pandemic has already been realized—that it will be New Orleans’s writers and artists who will do the good work of expressing our experience with the pandemic to the world. My greatest hope is that our writing and artistic communities will move forward with full respect for how we’ve changed, for how we are still a unique place in America and in the world, and for how we are all tied together.

Tad Bartlett. (Credit: Tad Bartlett)
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
5.20.20

Today I’m continuing my series of interviews during the quarantine with poet Carolyn Hembree. Hembree’s debut poetry collection, Skinny, was published by Kore Press in 2012. In 2016, Trio House Books published her second collection, Rigging a Chevy Into a Time Machine and Other Ways to Escape a Plague, winner of the 2015 Trio Award and the 2015 Rochelle Ratner Memorial Award. Hembree’s work has appeared in Colorado Review, Gulf Coast, Poetry Daily, West Branch, and other publications. She received a 2016-2017 ATLAS grant from the Louisiana Board of Regents and has also received grants and fellowships from PEN America, the Louisiana Division of the Arts, and the Southern Arts Federation. Hembree is an associate professor at the University of New Orleans and serves as poetry editor of Bayou Magazine.

How has this pandemic impacted you personally and professionally?
I’m a tenured associate professor, so while migrating brick-and-mortar classes online has been kind of awful, I have a job and health insurance, whereas many of my friends and students rely on our gig economy. An introvert who feels exhausted rather than invigorated by social events, I’m good nesting with my family. My mother is in a retirement facility, and a close friend has Stage 4 cancer: I worry about them.

What books are you reading while quarantined?
With the semester going, I primarily read MFA theses and workshop poems, as well as undergraduate writing in all genres. I’ve been reading Toi Derricotte and Kalamu ya Salaam in preparation for their upcoming visits to our MFA program. I’ve been rereading the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales to think about plagues of the past, what it means to tell (or post) our stories, and what a pilgrimage would look like now. I’m also settling into the newest issue of one of my favorite literary magazines, West Branch.

If you knew five months ago what you know now, how would you have prepared for this moment?
Gone to see my mother before they closed the home to guests.

Have you attended or participated in any virtual readings? Do you think they’re here to stay or do you prefer to return to in-person readings?
Yes, I have attended and participated in virtual readings, thesis defenses, faculty meetings, and workshops. Full disclosure: I’m a Luddite with a flip phone, so virtual anything makes my list of “hateful things,” à la Sei Shōnagon’s list in The Pillow Book. As a vain person and a control freak, I like a filter that peels off ten years, a control panel to diminish or enlarge others, and an “End Meeting” button. I like that I can wear makeup, a fancy blouse, and PJ bottoms. I like being able to mute myself and black out my screen, so no one can see that I walked off during a meeting. In sum, I think it encourages me to be phony—yes, more comfortable, but comfortable comes at a price. It’s too curated. Andy Warhol said, “I want to be a machine.” Me too, but then what: How do we machine together? Will we go back to in-person readings? I think so. People need each other. Will in-person gatherings be “zoomed” or what have you? Sure. Now that we have a taste, folks will want that synchronous, “participatory” experience you don’t get from a recording.

What’s your hope for New Orleans during and after this pandemic?
My hope for New Orleans is the same as before the pandemic: equal access to education for all kids. As a teaching artist in grammar, middle, and high schools and the mother of a ten-year-old, I’ve noticed that funding, class sizes, and quality of education vary significantly from school to school. In general, I see white kids getting better stuff. I believe that doing away with admissions tests and lotteries, and opening enrollment to all students would advance our community.

Carolyn Hembree.
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
5.13.20

Today I’m starting an interview series on this blog called: Writer’s Notes From COVID NOLA. This series will highlight how New Orleans writers are coping during the quarantine due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Writer Annell López is up first. Annell is a Dominican immigrant fiction writer and an assistant poetry editor for the Night Heron Barks who is working on a collection of short stories. In her free time, she documents her travels to independent bookstores across the country on Instagram, @annellthebookbabe.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted you personally and professionally?
I have struggled to maintain my writing routine. Though I’m not lacking motivation, I find it really hard to focus. There have been some good days where I sit and write with ease, and then there have been days where I am trudging through, forcing myself to put pen to paper.

Isolation has been taxing in many ways. But it has also reminded me of how fortunate I am. I have friends and family checking in on me constantly. I am surrounded (virtually) by kind people who make me feel like things will be all right.

What books are you reading while quarantined?
I’ve read so many! I loved Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson, Ordinary Girls by Jaquira Díaz, These Ghosts Are Family by Maisy Card, We Were Promised Spotlights by Lindsay Sproul, Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett, The Lost Book of Adana Moreau by Michael Zapata, and poems from Godspine by Terri Muuss and Demolition in the Tropics by Rogan Kelly. These works have become my companions during this isolation.

If you knew five months ago what you know now, how would you have prepared for this moment?
During those afternoon happy hours, I would have listened more attentively to my friends. I would have hugged them a little tighter, loved them a little harder.

Have you attended or participated in any virtual readings? Do you think they’re here to stay or do you prefer in-person readings?
I am so grateful that they exist and I hope they’re here to stay. The Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans and Catahoula zine have hosted some lovely readings on Zoom. Under the Creole Chandelier, a reading series in town, also hosts an open mic every Sunday night on Zoom. I love popping in there and listening to people read their work. It’s helped me cope. Though I prefer in-person readings, virtual readings have made access to creatives from other cities possible, and people from across the country now have access to us as well. Everyone in the country should have access to our literary magic in New Orleans!

What’s your hope for New Orleans during and after this pandemic?
New Orleans is synonymous with resilience, with strength. New Orleanians are some of the most soulful, courageous, and creative people in this country. This will pass, and when it does we will be blown away by the creative outburst that follows.

I am sure New Orleanians will continue to love and support one another just as fiercely as they always have.

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
5.6.20

For ten years the State Library of Louisiana has celebrated poetry during the month of April for National Poetry Month with a myriad of reading events. This year, the library adjusted their plans due to COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders and continued with their programming virtually.

On Thursday, April 30, the Louisiana Center for the Book in the State Library of Louisiana closed out the month with an online reading as part of their annual “Just Listen to Yourself” event. Louisiana poet laureate John Warner Smith invited six poets from across the state to read their work. Participating poets included Liz Adair, Katie Bickham, David Havird, Brad Richard, Donney Rose, and I was also happy to be asked to join the reading.

The event is typically held at the state’s library in Baton Rogue, but the opportunity to showcase poets from across the state virtually allowed for a wider audience to watch and get to know us.

“The richness of Louisiana poetry can give us solace during these challenging days,” said Louisiana lieutenant governor Billy Nungesser in a press release about the event.

Although Covid-19 poses several challenges for writers, I believe this virtual reading will be an artifact in Louisiana literary history.

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
4.29.20

There are only a couple days left for this year’s National Poetry Month and I wanted to celebrate by highlighting some New Orleans poets and their recorded readings. Some have been created during the COVID-19 quarantine and others showcase the venues we miss visiting. If you’re looking for virtual readings to watch from home, check out the online events in the Literary Events Calendar and follow me on Twitter, @nolapworg.

1. Jessica Kinnison, cofounder of the Dogfish reading series, reads poems for the Virtual New Orleans Poetry Festival 2020.

2. Sunni Patterson reads a poem with musical accompaniment for the Letters From the Porch video series, which brings musicians and performers together to offer gratitude to the medical community.

3. Slam New Orleans member FreeQuency reads her poem “Lessons on Being an African Immigrant in America” at the 2014 National Poetry Slam Finals.

4. Brad Richard reads from his collection Parasite Kingdom (The Word Works, 2019). Richard codirects the LGBTIQ reading series the Waves with poet Elizabeth Gross.

5. New Orleans poet Skye Jackson reads from her chapbook, A Faster Grave (Antenna Press, 2019), for a book launch reading at Malvern Books.

6. Justin Lamb, a former Slam New Orleans member and the program director at Bard Early College in New Orleans, performs “The Friend Zone.”

7. Megan Burns, cofounder of the New Orleans Poetry Festival and Trembling Pillow Press publisher, reads for the Unlikely Salons reading series at the Zeitgeist Theatre and Lounge in Arabi, Louisiana.

8. Gina Ferrara, host of the Poetry Buffet series, reads her poem “The Religion Once But No Longer Shared” at Cafe Istanbul in New Orleans.

Bonus: 826 New Orleans program director Kyley Pulphus offers an online writing workshop for their #agoodtimetowrite series.

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
4.22.20

To continue celebrating National Poetry Month, here is the second half of my recommended New Orleans book list to read during quarantine. I hope you enjoy and remember to support your local writers, small presses, and bookstores however you can as we all get through this difficult time together.

1. Poems Don’t Have to Be Perfect: 2019 Pizza Poetry Anthology by 826 New Orleans. The poems (some about pizza) from this anthology by young writers ages 6–18 are collected by the nonprofit 826 New Orleans at their annual Pizza Poetry event, which publishes student poems on the boxes of local pizza joints.

2. City Without People: The Katrina Poems (Black Widow Press, 2011) by Niyi Osundare. The Nigerian-born poet connects his roots with the African influences of New Orleans and recalls the people who helped him when he lost his home to Hurricane Katrina.

3. Louisiana Midrash (University of New Orleans Press, 2019) by Marian D. Moore. Moore writes about her African American Jewish experience in this wonderful collection of poetry.

4. Memory Wing (Black Widow Press, 2011) by Bill Lavender. Lavender has written more than ten books of poetry and is the publisher of the popular local press Lavender Ink. This collection reads like a memoir taking us deep into his family life and experiences in Arkansas and New Orleans.

5. Fractal Song (Black Widow Press, 2016) by Jerry Ward. Esteemed professor and scholar, Ward writes poems with imagery that bring the fractures of life together.

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
4.15.20

During this pandemic, as many of us are quarantined in our homes, we may be looking for ways to find a silver lining in all of this. Might I suggest more reading? In honor of National Poetry Month, I wanted to share a few poetry books written by New Orleans authors to remind us about this beloved city. I hope you’ll enjoy some poems from this list of books (I’ve included links to their listings in the New Orleans Public Library), and maybe it will inspire you to make your own list of poetry books about the cities you love.

1. From a Bend in the River: 100 New Orleans Poets (Runagate Press, 1998) edited by Kalamu ya Salaam. This classic anthology gives voice to a diverse group of poets, and includes poetry from both established and emerging writers.

2. Hearing Sappho in New Orleans: The Call of Poetry From Congo Square to the Ninth Ward (Louisiana State University Press, 2012) by Ruth Salvaggio. In this book Salvaggio, inspired by a volume of Sappho’s poetry she finds while going through her belongings just after Hurricane Katrina, explores the history of lyric poetry in New Orleans.

3. My Name Is New Orleans: 40 Years of Poetry & Other Jazz (Margaret Media, Inc., 2009) by Arthur Pfister. This collection of poetry captures the sounds and smells and culture of New Orleans from a native who was a fixture of the poetry scene in the city for decades.

4. Geometry of the Heart (Portals Press, 2007) by Valentine Pierce. Ms Valentine, as I affectionately call her, is a veteran to the New Orleans poetry scene. Her work showcases years of knowledge and wisdom.

5. Red Beans and Ricely Yours (Truman State University Press, 2005) by Mona Lisa Saloy. This is a classic book of Southern poetry—and a winner of the PEN Oakland-Josephine Miles Literary Award for poetry—from one of our city’s beloved folklorists.

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

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