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.

12.17.19

Hey gente, I am picking up where I left off in the last two blog posts and focusing on a few reading and performance series that call Houston home.

This week is a look at the Write About Now poetry slam and open mic series. Of the four series I have decided to write about, WAN (as it is known around here) is the youngest. This nonprofit poetry collective has been around for less than ten years, but in that time the vibrant platform has garnered a great following with younger writers here in H-Town. Currently the series is hosted at a space that has been home to several other notable reading series, AvantGarden. In their back courtyard you’ll find WAN events every Wednesday night, and every performance is worth the $5 to get in.

The weekly events are almost always hosted by WAN’s founder, Amir Safi, and usually take the form of a slam. Judges are selected on the night of the slam and there is a featured reader who closes out the night. The slams start at 7:00 PM and end around 10:00 PM, and sometimes a little later. There is a super healthy crowd that attends and the energy is electric. I always have a great time when I’m able to go and I look forward to hearing new up-and-coming poets read their work.

AvantGarden is a local bar that has had a few names and changed with the times. The one thing I love about the space is that it has always been home to a poetry community—it’s actually one of the few spaces that was around in my early days of open mics. I can confidently recommend a WAN show to anyone. It is always a good time.

Write About Now poetry slam and open mic series at AvantGarden in Houston.
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
12.16.19

Recently I touched base with local writer and educator Deonte Osayande, a lifelong Detroiter. Deonte has been a part of the Detroit literary community as a poet, host, and coach for over ten years (see more about his work in his Poets & Writers Directory profile). When I asked him where he first connected with the literary world, Deonte says, “I attended an open mic as a student, and I knew I had to learn more about it.”

Deonte has since become an internationally recognized poet, a published writer, and is a professor of English at Wayne County Community College District. In addition to his writing career, Deonte has coached both youth and adults in regional poetry slam teams through to national competition. After all of the performances, edits, publications, and travel, Deonte says, “it’s just more than that. I’ve learned how to be more deliberate with the words I use and I’ve learned how to teach others the same.”

I love this response because it reminds us that whether we are writing metaphors on bathroom walls or publishing our second full-length novel, words offer writers so much more. There is always “something more” than just stringing words together on paper—we learn intentionality. We discover how we process. We become better communicators. “I still exist as a writer because I have to, I wouldn’t be who I am without expressing my thoughts in such a way,” says Deonte.

Deonte Osayande.
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
12.11.19

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
12.10.19

The Poison Pen Reading Series holds events in a bar called the Poison Girl Cocktail Lounge. The series has been going for twelve years, just a little longer than Houston VIP Slam (which I featured last week), but functions in a very different way. The series brings three writers together who read on the outside patio of the lounge. Audience members get to relax in a space under the stars and listen to literary works from writers from Houston and beyond.

The readings are usually hosted by Scott Repass, one of the owners of the lounge, and start at 8:00 PM on every third Thursday of the month. The featured readers vary for each event, but most times, audience members will get the opportunity to hear from at least one writer from the University of Houston Creative Writing Program, a writer from the Houston literary community, and a visiting writer from outside of Houston. Writers share work from all genres including poetry, fiction, and nonfiction.

I have been to many Poison Pen readings and have had the pleasure of being a featured reader, the last time was this past July when I was honored to share the stage with poet Natasha Carrizosa and fiction writer Robert Liddell. The readings are always jam-packed, standing room only in most cases, so if you plan to attend, get there early for a drink and to find a good seat for the reading. It’s worth it.

The Poison Pen Reading Series at Poison Girl in Houston.
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
12.9.19

There are so many writers in Detroit that I am discovering. This week I want to share a conversation I recently had with local poet and editor Jeni De La O.

Jeni founded Relato:Detroit, a bilingual community storytelling series, and Poems in the Park, an acoustic poetry reading series in historic Lafayette Park. A first-generation Cuban American who grew up in Miami, Jeni came to writing from humble beginnings. “My mom grabbed some scraps of fabric from a dress she’d made me, cut up a cereal box and went at it with her hot glue gun to make me a journal,” she says about what drove her to write as a youngster.

Jeni moved from Miami to Detroit about ten years ago. “When I got to Detroit, the people felt like home, and that feeling of home lets you breathe,” says Jeni. “This city puts life and movement and connection into your writing in a way I haven’t felt or seen elsewhere.” Some of her favorite venues and events in Detroit include the Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers, the Brain Candy series held at Green Brain Comics, and the East Side Reading Series

I asked Jeni if she could put out a call to action to Detroit writers, what would it be? In chorus with many of the local writers I have spoken with, Jeni suggested a large gathering of literary artists or a citywide poetry festival. I truly think that there are already writers beginning to lay the groundwork for something of that magnitude in years to come. I am glad to have a voice and to highlight voices in this growing conversation.

Jeni De La O.
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
12.4.19

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

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

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

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

The flyer for the “Poets Respond to Gentrification” reading.
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
12.3.19

I would like to take time to focus some attention on a few of the literary organizations helping Houston shine bright. Houston VIP Slam, currently led by Houston’s poet laureate Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton, is a slam team that provides community for writers who want to take their stories to the stage. Houston VIP has just celebrated ten years of their program and they show no signs of stopping.

I have been a big fan of their work and dedication for quite a while and the format for their monthly slam is so inclusive and so necessary for community building. Each slam is scheduled for the last Saturday of the month and begins with a writing workshop, a unique structure that provides time and inspiration for new work to be created. Local poets and anyone in attendance for the slam are invited to participate in a series of writing exercises led by the night’s emcee. The workshop usually takes place between 7:00 PM and 8:00 PM.  The slam begins at 8:00 PM and concludes with a featured poet taking the stage to wow the crowd. 

Houston VIP holds twelve slam events for the year, with one poet winning each slam. The winning twelve poets then move on to compete in the Grand Slam at the end of the season for a spot on the Houston VIP National Poetry Slam Team. The top five poets from the Grand Slam represent Houston at the annual National Poetry Slam.

The next workshop and slam will be on December 14 featuring Rudy Francisco. If you’re in the Houston area and looking for something to do on a Saturday night, go by. It is truly a beautiful experience. 

The 2018 Houston VIP National Poetry Slam Team. (Credit: Christy Lee)
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.

12.2.19

Lia Greenwell is a poet and essayist currently living in Detroit. We work together at InsideOut where Lia is the operations coordinator. Recently I was able to speak with Lia, who offered fresh insight on how Southeast Michigan has influenced her writing.

Originally from Adrian, Michigan, Lia first discovered the magic of writing in The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, which she describes as full of “colorful, lyrical prose.” Although the novel was assigned for school, it felt different from the other books she had been reading. “I had never seen language used like that before, especially in something that I was reading for school. Cisneros’s prose took away the idea that books all had to look and feel the same.”

Although Lia began writing as a poet, she says, “poetry felt like I had to fit my writing into too small of a format—it felt strict. Prose allowed my writing to be weird.” I personally found this very relatable as someone who started out writing (very bad) fan fiction, and thought my path in writing would be confined to novels. Much like Lia, the discovery of a new genre (for me it was poetry) allowed me to go in new directions.

Lia is a graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina and worked with youth writers through the Girls Write Now program in New York City. When asked about how leaving and returning to Michigan has affected her as a writer, Lia says, “I had to leave and come back to see what the landscape meant to me.” Lia has lived in Detroit for over three years, but still feels like a newcomer and enjoys discovering local venues and writers. “I think of places like Room Project. I feel like there is always something new being revealed there.”

I enjoyed the opportunity to speak with Lia and discuss the long-term transitions that a writer goes through to find their niche and community. It was encouraging and made me think of how writers often feel isolated on the journey to find their place in the literary world. In Detroit, there is a home for writers.

Lia Greenwell. (Credit: Tyler Klifman)
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
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.
11.26.19

Hey mi gente! This week I wanted to spend a little time putting a spotlight on what community building through writing can look like. Here in Houston, we have writing groups that focus on poetry or fiction, and those are excellent workspaces being put together, but there is a need for information about the world around writing and publishing for writers of color. Enter the Colony Summit—a space and group designed to be a resource for writers of color in the Houston area.

The idea is super simple: Give writers of color a space to meet, provide some snacks, some ideas, some experts, and some resources and let these writers ask questions. Tintero Projects, a group I started for emerging Latinx writers, has a hand in organizing these events, along with support from VIP Arts Houston, Houston Public Library, My Brother’s Keeper, Houston Department of Health, and the Mayor’s Office of Education.

This project is still fairly new. So far it’s been a year of meetings. The Colony Summit meets quarterly and so the meetings are always packed. This all began as an idea batted around by Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton, the current poet laureate for Houston, and me about a year ago. We both felt more needed to be done to gather all the writers of color up in the city and get folks talking to one another about where they are in their writing and what ways we could provide support. For example, some writers don’t know about submissions to literary journals or how to create a Submittable account for submissions. Others want to know about fellowships and residencies, or are just searching for community.

Our last Colony Summit meeting was on November 9, but be on the lookout for the next one. If you are in the Houston area and want to check out a session, don’t hesitate. Look for @vipartshouston on Instagram for announcements and more information.

Writers at a recent Colony Summit meeting.
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.

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