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.

5.19.20

Last week I started off a series of posts featuring some of the ways the Houston literary world has been rising to the occasion with innovation and community in mind during the pandemic. I covered University of Houston’s CoogSlam, and this week I want to give some love to Casa Ramirez Folkart Gallery.

I’ve mentioned Casa Ramirez before which makes them being on this list maybe a little overindulgent but if you are like me, you celebrate your elders when they keep things fresh. Casa Ramirez is doing just that. For the most part, Casa Ramirez is like any staple small business here in Houston, but what makes this space unique is that the couple in charge, Macario Ramirez and Chrissie Dickerson Ramirez, are good luck charms for every Latino in the city.

If you are an artist or writer, fan or hobbyist, Casa Ramirez is like a shrine. If you have a literary event there, having your book in their shop makes it destined for success. I have seen it with my own two eyes. It might be a “folk art” gallery, but don’t let the Ramirezes fool you—they are book lovers and carry an extensive bookstore inside the shop with all the texts to build up an ethnic studies library in Latinx lit.

That said, the stay-at-home orders in Houston have been devastating to businesses and now that Texas has chosen to slowly open up this month, so has Casa Ramirez—but with new safety measures. The shop has created a “retail-to-go” shopping experience: Patrons get to peruse all the art and books with a “curator” by their side to answer questions and make recommendations. Only one person, one couple, or one family is allowed in the shop at a time and you must wear a mask (employees also wear masks). You have access to the whole bookstore and gallery area for thirty to forty minutes, buy what you want and then, boom, you are out the door. The shop has limited hours from noon to 4:00 PM every day.

From what I have heard, they’ve had a line a block long every day. Leave it to Casa Ramirez to lead the way. Check out their Facebook page and their Instagram, @casaramirezfolkartgallery, to see what they have going on.

Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
5.18.20

On May 9, I had the pleasure of joining End Prejudice, a diverse Metro Detroit collective united by a common dream of a future without prejudice, as the featured poet for their virtual series Slam at Home. This series is hosted by LaShaun Phoenix Moore and features one poet and one musical artist each week.

Prior to Michigan’s stay-at-home order, End Prejudice put on several events such as the Storytellers Slam that took place this past winter. Phoenix told me a bit about how End Prejudice had to shift gears for their 2020 programming due to the pandemic: “Once the pandemic hit, we had a team call in late March to determine what we should do, now that much of our programming would be suspended. H. (the founder) decided that we should follow suit with a lot of other folks in the country and do Instagram Live events.” The group has been hosting virtual events for nearly two months and do their best to get their featured artists paid by offering donations directly to the artists. They’ve supported fourteen Detroit artists so far.

You can follow @endprejudice on Instagram and tune in to their Slam at Home live events at 8:00 PM on Saturdays. End Prejudice also provides more information on their blog about what they do. This collective has a clear, dedicated focus to not only address prejudice, but also support local artists and their community.

End Prejudice’s Slam at Home poster.
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
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.
5.12.20

First off, I’d like to share some cheer with a belated Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms of the world. You change the world, moms—don’t ever forget it.

As we all continue to adjust to life in the COVID-19 era, I wanted to include in this blog some of the ways Houston has been rising to the occasion to work its literary magic. This month, I will be writing about three different spaces and organizations that have been adapting their programs and events for the virtual world.

Today I’ll focus on the University of Houston’s CoogSlam—the name is a nod to the university mascot, the cougar, and slam poetry. The group is less than three years old and has already garnered national attention with its slam team for the collegiate competition known as CUPSI, the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational.

Before the University of Houston made the decision to keep its doors closed for the rest of the spring semester, CoogSlam was hosting writing workshops and a weekly slam and now, they have seamlessly adapted to the virtual world and continued their work. CoogSlam offers writing workshops on Wednesdays and has an open mic on Saturdays, all online. Writers and spectators can join from a link to a Google form available on their Instagram page, @uhcoogslam. The rest is a purely, magical experience. Just this past week, CoogSlam hosted an open mic featuring the talented Ryan McMasters, and from what I have heard it was stupendous. I can’t wait to see who is featured next.

You can also follow CoogSlam on Twitter, @uhcoogslam, for their latest news and events. They are doing big things and representing the city in such a humble and honest way. It is a delight to see what they do.

Participants in a recent online CoogSlam writing workshop.
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
5.11.20

The Louder Than a Bomb Michigan Youth Poetry Festival has been one of the annual highlights of my work with InsideOut Literary Arts, so I was naturally disappointed when COVID-19 rendered such a gathering unsafe. Behind the scenes I worked with festival coordinator Rose Gorman and our go-to host LaShaun Phoenix Moore, and we made the decision to quickly pivot to an online version of the festival: Louder Than a Bomb (LTAB) Essential Words. This version of the festival turned the two-day in-person festival into a weeklong digital engagement for youth and the adults and artists that support these talented youth writers.

On Thursday, April 30, LTAB opened the festival with virtual workshops and small open mics. On Saturday, May 2, we went live across multiple platforms with DJ Stayce J to offer high school students a digital prom dance party. The week culminated to an event on May 7 that we chose to name “Final Stage,” which featured 2019 Ann Arbor youth poet laureate Na Faaris, T. Miller, Darius Parker, and other stellar readers. The best part was getting festival participants to come together in one digital space to feel the energy from each of our individual spaces. Everything throughout this week of creative, community-based programming brought hope for what events might look like this summer, and what digital spaces will continue to provide after things begin to open up safely as we deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

On May 7, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer announced an extension of the state’s stay-at-home order until May 28. While we are all eager to get out and hug one another, everyone who made it to LTAB Essential Words will have this week that embraced them. In addition, there is a suite of workshops available now through InsideOut for those who want and need to keep writing.

Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
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.
5.5.20

As we enter into a new month of the coronavirus pandemic, we are in a new phase of transition as some states are reopening businesses and outdoor spaces. In Houston, there are some restaurants open with limited capacity and the Galleria mall even opened with limited hours. All this change can leave us feeling turned around and unsure. But one thing is for sure, the literary community is here for us and there are plenty of things to do online to keep us busy and provide some calm in these times.

Here is my countdown of five Houston-based virtual literary activities for you:

5. Feel like listening to a literary podcast? No sweat. Ink Well: A Tintero Projects & Inprint Podcast just released three new episodes (one with Carolyn Forché), all recorded just before the lockdown.

4. Have kids at home and you want them to get into some writing? Check out Writers In the Schools’ website for Quick WITS, fifteen-minute mini-workshops for K-5 grade students.

3. Want to check out some readings by some of your favorite authors? Head over to Inprint where they keep a full collection of readings from both the Margarett Root Brown and Cool Brains! Inprint Readings for Young People series.

2. Do you want to hear from authors in Spanish? Then check out Literal magazine’s YouTube channel, where they keep a series of interviews with writers from Mexico, Central America, and South America.

1. Lastly, make sure you register for Glass Mountain’s Strikethrough, a four-day virtual writing workshop for emerging writers from May 25 to 28, which is in lieu of their annual Boldface writing conference.

Enjoy and let me know what caught your attention. Hit me up on Twitter, @houstonpworg.

Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
5.4.20

This week I am continuing to write about Mahalia Frost’s collection, Soft Animal Wounds. As each poem pulls at my skin with uncomfortable, sometimes bloody, images, I am increasingly impressed with the consistency and continuity of the writing and themes introduced in this book. Frost’s collection is a healthy fifty-eight pages split into four parts titled “Sleep,” “Gleam,” “Thrash,” and “Bite.” Each part is introduced by a thought-provoking illustration. For example, “Sleep” opens with an image of a human head presenting a dissatisfied facial expression on top of the body of what seems to be a serpent—plus angel wings! Each part includes an odd yet fitting variation of this illustration.

What’s more is that these images are the artwork of Frost—helping us readers understand not only the imagery from what’s written in these poems, but also from what she sees when creating. I can’t say enough about the complexity being offered by this young writer. I am especially fond of the first poem titled “Birdheart” in the “Bite” portion of the book. This poem uses an extended metaphor to describe the heart as a bird:

“its feathers clump together with scabs / sticky in your ooze”

“Bite” also gives my absolute favorite ending to a yet another poem that makes me reflect on myself:

“how could it know of anything / beyond the hollow between your ribs? / how could it want?”

If you can’t tell by now, I highly recommend this collection. InsideOut Literary Arts hosted the book release for Soft Animal Wounds in late February, a few short weeks before social distancing and stay-at-home orders were enforced in Michigan. Because of this, distribution of this collection is currently limited. If you’re interested in getting your hands on this book, reach out to me: Justin@insideoutdetroit.org.

InsideOut is also hosting a digital literary festival called Essential Words: InsideOut’s Louder Than a Bomb Youth Poetry Festival. The virtual events began on April 30 and run through May 7. Hosted by poet LaShaun Phoenix Moore, events include discussions, workshops, and more. Check out the website for more, and follow the activity on Instagram, @LTAB_Essential. I can’t wait to report back on our digital experience next week!

Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
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.
4.28.20

Hey, mi gente. I want to get right to the point and keep up the flow of discussion on the publishing houses here in Houston. Throughout the month I’ve written about Arte Público Press, Mutabilis Press, and Bloomsday Literary, so I’ll keep it going today and introduce you to Calypso Editions.

Calypso Editions is the city’s main publishing house focused on translation—getting books written by foreign authors into English. In addition, they publish books of poetry and fiction written in English and are committed to “providing a space for talented, new voices.” One of the main things that has always caught my attention about Calypso Editions is that it is a cooperative! That’s right—it is a nonprofit press that is artist-run, which makes their publishing choices all the more engaging and remarkable.

They are also a community-oriented publishing house. Back in 2017, when PEN America planned out the Writers Resist reading in New York City, Calypso Editions was one of the first organizations that was willing to stand with Houston writers as we planned our own Writers Resist events.

On May 1, Calypso Editions will release The Child Who, a book by Jeanne Benameur, translated from the French by Bill Johnston. This work of poetic prose explores the worlds of a young boy whose mother has disappeared, his father, and the boy’s grandmother. As always, Calypso Editions hopes to introduce yet another wonderful voice to a new audience of English-language readers.

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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