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

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 minigrants 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.
11.6.19

2020 will mark the fifth year that directors Bill Lavender and Megan Burns have organized the New Orleans Poetry Festival. The four-day event will take place the third weekend of April, which is also National Poetry Month. If you’re a poet or affiliated with a literary journal or small press, they are actively seeking proposals for festival events and tables for their Small Press Fair, and the deadline is December 1. Anyone interested should jump on this opportunity.

What’s special about the festival is that the events are hosted outside of a university or convention hall. Attendees get a chance to truly be inside a New Orleans neighborhood while attending readings, workshops, and panel discussions at local venues around town.

Last year’s opening night featured readings by Oliver Baez Bendorf, Lee Ann Brown, Chen Chen, and Henk Rossouw. There was also a five-hour-long marathon open mic that I joined, which was electric. One night of the festival was dedicated solely to international poets and their translators, which included readings from Brazilian poet Salgado Maranhäo and translator Alexis Levitin, Uruguayan poet Martín Barea Mattos and translator Mark Statman, and fellow Uruguayan Javier Etchevarren and translator Jesse Lee Kercheval.

Of course when in New Orleans, you must have music and dancing. The Poets With Bands event highlighted poetry and music, while a traditional second line parade complete with a brass band honored poets who recently passed away.

The New Orleans Poetry Festival connects poets from all over the world to this wonderful city. Stay tuned for more details as the date approaches!

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
10.30.19

Every place has writers that reflect its culture. Literary place-making, I call it. If you want to know more about a place, you need to hear its stories. There are so many books to choose from, but here are just a few that celebrate New Orleans culture by writers who live, breathe, and love this city.

From a Bend in the River: 100 New Orleans Poets (Runagate Press, 1998) edited by Kalamu ya Salaam. This anthology captures the diverse voices of New Orleans, celebrating the multi-ethnic tapestry of the city. Established and emerging writers of all ages are included in this extensive collection of poetry.

Monday Nights: Stories From the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans (University of New Orleans Press, 2016) edited by Fredrick Barton and Joanna Leake. The University of New Orleans MFA program in creative writing has produced some fantastic writers. The writers in this anthology took part in a Monday night workshop that has lasted over twenty-five years, where they met to share and discuss their work. Included are stories by graduates of the program, such as Rebecca Antoine, Maurice Carlos Ruffin, and Che Yeun, as well as faculty members, such as Fredrick Barton, Amanda Boyden, and M. O. Walsh.

N.O. Lit: 200 Years of New Orleans Literature (Lavender Ink, 2013) edited by Nancy Dixon. This book highlights the literature of New Orleans over the past two hundred years including prominent writers like Truman Capote, Eudora Welty, and Tennessee Williams, but also historic writers like the poets of Les Cenelles, French Creoles of color who published the first anthology of African American literature in 1845. The book was made possible by grants from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation.

The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans (LSU Press, 2013) by Susan Larson. For years, Susan Larson was the book editor for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and now hosts WWNO’s public radio program The Reading Life. Susan shares her wealth of knowledge for local bookstores, historic landmarks, current literary festivals, and more.

Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans (University of Louisiana at Lafayette, 2011) by Freddi Williams Evans. This book explores the history of the Sunday gatherings of enslaved Africans at Congo Square beginning in the eighteenth century. Included are stories and descriptions of the songs, dances, and musical instruments of these gatherings. Congo Square is often considered the birth place of American music and continues to be a prominent venue for music festivals and community gatherings.

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
10.23.19

Who says bookstores are losing popularity? In New Orleans, independent bookstores continue to thrive, bringing in local and national writers for literary events and avid readers. Here are some of my favorite places to buy local.

The Community Book Center is, currently, the only Black-owned bookstore in New Orleans. Mama Jen and Mama Vera are the beloved owners. Known as the social hub of the Seventh Ward, be prepared to debate about the latest local and national issues while perusing and buying books. They keep it real here.

Blue Cypress Books is located on happening Oak Street. I always enjoy their window displays because I discover books I previously didn’t know existed. They buy, sell, and trade quality secondhand books, offer a large selection of children’s books, and host monthly book club meetings. It is definitely worth a stop inside.

Octavia Books is located uptown on Octavia Street. If you’re going for an author reading, get there early for a seat. For sure their calendar of events will have a writer you want to hear read. Octavia Books also cosponsors The Reading Life, a locally-produced literary radio show with host Susan Larson on WWNO Public Radio.

The Garden District Book Shop is located around the corner from the famous Commander’s Palace restaurant. Purchase a book and hang out in the beautiful atrium area of the historic “Rink” in the beautiful Garden District, or catch a reading with an author in the shop.

A recent author event at Octavia Books.
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
10.16.19

Louisiana has a new poet laureate! John Warner Smith will take on the duties for the next two years, appointed by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities and governor John Bel Edwards. Smith received an MFA in creative writing at the University of New Orleans, and he and I are both Cave Canem Fellows. Smith has published four collections of poetry and his fifth collection, Our Shut Eyes, is forthcoming this year from MadHat Press. I was happy to reconnect with him and congratulate him on his new appointment.

As a poet who grew up in Louisiana, Smith feels that his writing is grounded in history and personal experience. “I was one of five Black students who integrated my junior high school. I had early work experiences with racism,” says Smith. “As a native son of Louisiana and a product of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement, I find inspiration in the struggles of my grandparents and parents.”

For his tenure as the state’s first African American male poet laureate, Smith hopes to do readings and writing workshops in different regions of the state over the next two years. “I especially want to reach youth in the poorer parts of the state,” says Smith. “I want to be very visible and accessible.”

As for advice for writers, Smith says, “Follow the passion. Nurture it. Read and study the works of writers. Attend workshops. Share work with a community of writers.”

Read more about John Warner Smith in his Poets & Writers Directory profile.

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
10.9.19

Whether you’re a local writer or visitor to the city of New Orleans, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find more than beads and bands in our city. There are plenty of literary festivals where you can hear amazing writers read from their work, get resources, and build your tribe. Here are a few worth checking out:

Take the hour drive from New Orleans to Baton Rouge for the Louisiana Book Festival. Held at the State Library of Louisiana, the annual festival hosts national and local writers from the state and of course, the South. Attendees can browse the massive bookstore, meet with representatives from literary journals, get books signed, and listen to live music. This year marks the sixteenth year of the festival, which will take place on Saturday, November 2 from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM. Pro tip: purchase a ticket to attend the mix and mingle event the night before.

This year’s theme for the Words and Music festival is “Mapping Change,” and aims at exploring how the arts can serve as vehicles for social justice. The four-day event will take place at the Ace Hotel from November 21–24 and includes keynote presentations by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Shapiro, and a conversation between authors DaMaris Hill and Maurice Carlos Ruffin. Proceeds from the festival benefit One Book One New Orleans, a nonprofit organization dedicated to adult literacy in the Greater New Orleans area.

The thirty-third annual Tennessee Williams & New Orleans Literary Festival in 2020 will be from March 25–29. The five-day event includes writing workshops by acclaimed writers, panel discussions, a book fair, a Tennessee Williams tribute reading, live music, and of course, the hilarious Stanley and Stella Shouting Contest.

The 2020 New Orleans Poetry Festival and Small Press Fair will be held at the New Orleans Healing Center from April 16–19 and is currently accepting proposals for events through their website.

Attendees at the Louisiana Book Festival.
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
10.2.19

I’m Kelly Harris and I’ll be reporting from the Big Easy: New Orleans, Louisiana. I am a poet—see my Poets & Writers Directory profile for more on that—and I work as a freelancer and consultant for many projects around town, including the Words & Music festival. The annual event, upcoming in November, celebrates the literature, music, films, and history of New Orleans and is definitely worth checking out, whether you’re a local or a visitor. If you haven’t already, check out the Literary Events Calendar where you can peruse local events and list more for free. And if you’re on the go, download the Poets & Writers Local app.

As the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans, I have the pleasure of engaging with the local literary community and informing them about the resources and funding opportunities that P&W offers. Several local writers have already been funded by the minigrants from the Readings & Workshops program and I look forward to spreading the word to more writers in Orleans Parish and beyond. Writers at all levels who give readings or conduct writing workshops can submit an application and find out more about the program.

New Orleans is typically known for its food and music, but there is a thriving literary arts scene worth exploring. I’m excited to highlight the many writers and events that make writing in New Orleans magical.

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