United States of Writing Blog

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.

8.12.20

As summer swiftly sweeps through Detroit, I’ve been keeping an eye out for more virtual events. Today I want to highlight two virtual readings I was able to attend in July that have more events coming soon.

Skazat! Poetry Series at Sweetwaters is based in Ann Arbor, a short drive from Detroit and a regular destination for many of us. Skazat! has been around for as long as I can remember and is hosted by Scott Beal. Beal is the author of >Wait ‘Til You Have Real Problems published by Dzanc Books in 2014 and The Octopus published by Gertrude Press in 2016. Additionally, Beal is the winner of a 2014 Pushcart Prize for the poem “Things to Think About.” Beal has invited me to read for the series a few times in the past which have been great experiences, so it is encouraging to see it continuing virtually. On July 28 Skazat! featured Jon Sands, winner of the 2018 National Poetry Series, selected for his second poetry collection, It’s Not Magic (Beacon Press, 2019). This event offered a light-hearted open mic and then a powerful reading by Sands, all via Zoom. Skazat! will be returning in October following an annual late-summer break.

M. L. Liebler has established the Living Room Online Literary Series during Michigan’s stay-at-home orders. Liebler is known for many reading series in the Detroit area and has overseen publications such as the Wayne Literary Review with Wayne State University’s Department of English. The Living Room Online Literary Series features three artists. In July, we heard from this Gary Metras, author of White Storm (Presa Press, 2018); Laura Hulthen Thomas, University of Michigan’s RC creative writing director; and a personal favorite and Detroit native, Aurora Harris. Liebler will be returning with this series on August 16 with Mark Doty, Minnie Bruce Pratt, and Mary Jo Frith Gillett. Find the series on Facebook to join the event!

Both of these series offered a relaxing yet relevant listening party for me last month. With the open mics and the diverse featured readers, I was happy to attend and definitely will have their upcoming events on my calendar!

Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.

 

8.5.20

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Flyer for the Hurricane Katrina anniversary reading.
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
7.29.20

Hey mi gente, I want to jump right in and continue with the interviews I’ve been able to hold with local Houston writers about life during the pandemic. For this series, I reached out to writers and posed one simple question:

What have you been doing since the pandemic started?

This series began with insights from Katie Hoerth and Daniel Peña, and this week, I bring you poet Melissa Studdard. Studdard is the author of five books and the recipient of the 2019 Penn Review Poetry Prize and the 2019 Tom Howard/Margaret Reid Poetry Contest sponsored by Winning Writers. Her works include the poetry collection, I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast (Saint Julian Press, 2014), and the poetry chapbook, Like a Bird With a Thousand Wings (Saint Julian Press, 2020). Her writing has been published in the New York Times, POETRY, Kenyon Review, and the Guardian.

Here is what Melissa had to say:

“Like so many others, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get my head around what’s happening. Kelli Russell Agodon and I have been coauthoring poems five days a week that grapple with this new life we’re living and how suddenly it was thrust upon us. As well, I pen a daily poem for the Grind. Outside of writing, I’ve been cooking, gardening, spending a lot of time with my kid, and reading. In some ways, it feels like everything has changed, and in others, it feels like nothing has changed. I still do a lot of the same things, but differently. Whereas before I was a little more solitary and introspective, now I seek connection in everything. When I read, I read to understand, as deeply as possible, other humans. When I garden, I want to know the tomato, feel the basil, be the soil. The pandemic has forced me to slow down and see things I looked past before. Everything feels so fragile now; I want to take great care with it all. I don’t want to take anything for granted.

I have also been collaborating with a composer friend, Christopher Theofanidis, with whom I recently released a chapbook of my poems and fragments of his musical scores called Like a Bird With a Thousand Wings. The musical scores are from his composition “The Conference of the Birds,” which is based on Attar’s allegorical poem by the same title. All the release performances and activities were cancelled, so we’ve been doing limited virtual events instead, and we’ve begun work on an oratorio based on Hesse’s Siddhartha. In addition to my own writing, I’ve been trying to support other writers. Among other small gestures, I’ve held some monthly drawings on Twitter to give writers money for contest entry fees. I had the good luck of winning several contests recently, and I was thinking about how there are a lot of writers who should be placing in and winning contests but can’t afford to participate. I wanted to spend some of my winnings to help them enter contests because I think it’s important right now to find ways to make and give joy, and to create things for ourselves and others to look forward to.”

Photo: Melissa Studdard.
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
7.22.20

Since 2008, Kresge Arts in Detroit has awarded more than $5 million to Detroit artists through their annual awards and Kresge Artist fellowships. I have the privilege of working at InsideOut with Shawntai Brown, one of the 2020 Kresge Fellowship recipients, and was able to sit down with her to speak about her work and the literary community in Detroit.

Brown is a local poet and playwright whose work centers around Black queer characters, experiences, and histories. When I asked what she enjoys best about Detroit’s literary world, she said: “The support! There is an excitement about the work being done, and I have met so many encouraging fellow writers who simply love having more voices on the page and stage.” I agree wholeheartedly with this statement. I find that there is a belief in the creation of new and unexpected literary exploration in our city.

As a Kresge Live Arts Fellow, Brown has the opportunity to connect to a wide range of artists, organizers, and mentors, which she feels is necessary for her work to come alive. “My playwriting is a communal undertaking. I need to see the work on its feet to really come into conversation with it. It takes a village to raise a play,” said Brown. “This year is about financing and stage productions, collaborating and carving more space to retreat and create.”

To close, I asked Brown to share a word for anyone who is exploring Detroit’s artist community for the first time. “Look everywhere,” she said. “Take the bus and ride your bike to harvest an intimacy with the city. Where the art and the artist come from is a huge part of the texture of the creation. Detroit has art spilling out of every part of the city, so build relationships with various communities.”

Photo: Shawntai Brown.
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
7.15.20

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

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

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

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

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

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
7.8.20

Hey mi gente, wishing you the best in this crazy time we’re living in. Here in Texas, smaller rural spaces and larger metro spaces are in heated battles as to what is appropriate for a “restart” as cities begin to open their businesses back up. Every day is an interesting day here in Houston. Despite the difficulties of this pandemic life, the literary world has been doing brilliant work and touching base with writers in ways it hasn’t done so before. So with this in mind, I wanted to continue conversations with writers here in the city and ask how they have been spending their time during stay-at-home orders. For this series, I reached out to writers and posed one simple question:

What have you been doing since the pandemic started?

This series started off with Katherine Hoerth and this week, we continue with Daniel Peña. A Pushcart Prize–winning writer, Peña is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Houston–Downtown and the author of the novel, Bang (ArtePublico Press, 2018).

Here is what Daniel had to say:

“I’ve been teaching a lot. Transitioning all of my classes online has been time-consuming but I’ve been grateful for the distraction. I record podcasts for all of my classes (Mexican-American Literature, Creative Writing, and Literary Magazine Production) so my students can get to the lessons asynchronously (meaning on their own time).

So many of my students are on the front line of this pandemic: delivery drivers, grocery store workers, EMS medics working twelve-hour shifts. I read them poems, stories, essays and talk about those readings with them, almost like a radio show or something. They can listen to it when they’re driving on their way to work or in those splices of moments between moments. Hit pause, hit play, hit pause again. I try to make each lesson a kind of artifact: heavily produced with bumper music, a monologue, a volta, some trivia, sometimes a rant. I try to mimic class more or less. And mostly, I’m just trying to keep them in the game, correspond with them when they’re free. And that’ll take up about two months of time if you get carried away with it (and I do).

I go to my home office in the morning, I record my lessons, I read the readings for the next class in the evenings, I write out the podcast longhand, and then I record that lesson the next day. I try to stay about two weeks ahead in case I get sick.

I get a little writing done when I can. I can’t wait to get back into my own writing this summer.”

Check back next week for the next writer!

Photo: Daniel Peña. (Credit: Paula N. Luu)
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
7.1.20

Michigan is just past the three-month mark since entering a state of emergency and a stay-at-home order due to COVID-19 cases rising in our area. It’s been a long and very different spring for everyone, however, as of June 1 our stay-at-home order was finally lifted allowing businesses to slowly open up in phases.

We are still under a state of emergency through July, however, and indoor businesses are ordered to operate at only 50 percent, which means literary events are still primarily occurring virtually or not at all. By now, we are all familiar with Zoom meetings and other live-streaming platforms. Only a handful of Detroit-based literary workshops, open mics, and showcases have shifted to these virtual platforms, but this sudden shift to a mostly digitized world of meetings has created opportunities that may not have been possible otherwise.

When thinking about the best virtual literary events I have attended since March, readings by Mahogany Jones, Aricka Foreman, Nandi Comer, and Tariq Luthun come to the top of the list. In another time, these writers may not have had an opportunity to read together because of physical distance, but in this digital space it was a privilege to hear these writers share their work.

Our Poets & Writers roundtable event held virtually for Detroit was also successful in bringing together event planners from in and around the city. This was a great way to build community among people looking for similar opportunities in our immediate area. A meeting of this nature is not something that occurs often because of complications with schedules, location, and other barriers, but offering this panel to discuss Readings & Workshops mini-funds and shared experiences online made it more accessible.

Over the last month, Black Lives Matter protests in response to the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others encouraged thousands to brave the looming threat of COVID-19 in order to make important statements about the mistreatment of Black people by police forces. In Detroit, these protests included organized outdoor open mics that became the first stage many writers and performers have touched since March. This reminded me of how writers, along with others in our community, continue to fight to share our voices and contribute to positive change, even in the midst of a pandemic.

Through these lenses, there is a silver lining to highlight from the last three months: Writers are resilient and will continue to find a way to write, share, organize, and build community no matter the challenge.

Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
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.
6.17.20

Hey mi gente, glad you could stop in for a little post about what’s been happening here in Houston. Summer is here and I wanted to take a moment to talk to some writers in my city and see how they have been spending their time during the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For this series of posts, I posed one simple question to these writers:

What have you been doing since the pandemic started?

So first off, we begin with Katherine Hoerth. The author of several poetry collections, including Goddess Wears Cowboy Boots, which won the Helen C. Smith Prize for the best book of poetry in Texas in 2015, Hoerth is an assistant professor of English at Lamar University and serves as editor-in-chief of Lamar University Literary Press. This fall, her collaborative poetry collection Borderland Mujeres will be published by SFA Press. The book is a bilingual collection of feminist poetry and art created with poet Julieta Corpus and artist Corinne McCormack-Whittemore.

Here is Hoerth’s response:

“When the pandemic started, I was just getting off for my spring break; I never would have imagined what would unfold in the coming weeks and months, and that I would never see many of my graduating students again. Alas, I have been hunkered down at home with my cats but in good health and spirits, and I've been writing new poetry, Zooming with students, workshopping online, and participating in virtual poetry readings such as Houston’s Public Poetry reading series to share my latest poems. For National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo), I participated in the 30/30 challenge to write a poem a day on my blog, and I felt compelled to write about the pandemic just as a means of recording the experience. Two of my pandemic poems have found homes in TEJASCOVIDO, a blog curated by Angelo State University English professor Laurence Musgrove. Thankfully, I am still able to work remotely for Lamar University Literary Press, and my coeditor Daniel Valdez and I will be spending much of the summer putting together a new anthology of eco-poetry from the Texas Gulf Coast titled Odes and Elegies. What I miss most dearly is attending poetry readings in person—I long for the camaraderie of my fellow Southeast Texas poets, and I look forward to the day when we can share a mic once again.”

Katherine Hoerth with her cats. (Credit: Katherine Hoerth)
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
6.10.20

As of June 1, the stay-at-home order has been lifted in Michigan, however many of us are still taking extreme caution against the coronavirus. One silver lining to this extended time staying inside our home has been having plenty of time to spend with my wife Brittany Rogers who is also an active poet. She always stays three steps ahead of me with new books, so I thought that this would be a great time to share both of our thoughts on a new collection by someone we have both received mentorship from: Aricka Foreman.

I recently wrote about Foreman’s chapbook, Dream With a Glass Chamber published by YesYes Books in 2016. Now, I am excited to write about Foreman’s first full-length collection, Salt Body Shimmer, which will be released in August by YesYes Books.

When I asked Brittany how she would describe Foreman as a writer, she said, “Tender. Intentional. Interrogative. Complex.” These were all words we both agreed embody the writing across Foreman’s work.

After reading Salt Body Shimmer, Brittany said, “In these poems I feel very seen. They felt like an indication for me as a Black woman to tend to my mental health. Foreman teaches me consistently about nuance—about turning a vulnerable eye to things you wish not to feel.”

The four poems in particular that embodied these feelings best, and connected most closely to Brittany as a reader and writer were: “When the Therapist Asks You to Recount, You Have to Say It,” “Intake Interview,” “Consent Is a Labyrinth of Yes,” and “Before I Fire Her, The Therapist Asks What Is it Like to Be a Black Woman Here: A Monologue.”

For me, as I read this collection, I was brought back to something Foreman said to me during her time as my mentor, “Poetry is a documentation of history.” Just like that literary (and life) advice, Salt Body Shimmer captures moments at a pivotal time in Foreman’s history during a pivotal time in world history. The intersections are layered and far beyond the bounds of my conversation with Brittany. As I mentioned before, Brittany stays a few steps ahead of me, so I am still snapping my fingers at the first twenty pages. I can’t wait to dive deep into the other poems in the collection and learn another layer of lessons from one of my favorite mentors.

Salt Body Shimmer by Aricka Foreman.
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.

 

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