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.

9.2.20

Leaves are flirting with fall colors all across Michigan as we walk into September. I am excited to see more virtual events being planned out in advance, and I hope a few of these that feature Detroit writers make it on to your calendar.

On September 2, PEN America is facilitating a panel discussion in collaboration with the Authors Guild and the NYC Literary Action Coalition to speak about how literary organizations are surviving and responding to COVID-19. Moderated by Cheryl Davis of the Authors Guild, Detroit’s own Nandi Comer of Allied Media Projects will be one of the panelists sharing their experiences. I think that this panel will be rich with tips and tools for anyone working within a nonprofit organization, literary or otherwise.

The Zell Visiting Writers Series presented by the Helen Zell Writers’ Program with support from the University of Michigan’s Department of English Language and Literature is going with a virtual platform on September 3 to offer a reading and Q&A with Kaveh Akbar. This is an opportunity not only for the Detroit community, but those who can access the event online worldwide to take part in this renowned reading series.

Pages Bookshop has steadily hosted their visiting artist series virtually this summer. There is an upcoming event scheduled for September 15 featuring novelist Sharon Harrigan in conversation with Kelly Fordon. In addition, Pages is still open for business online!

Finally, on September 20, M. L. Liebler and Jennifer DeBellis, in collaboration with the Detroit Writers’ Guild, will host the ninth annual Midtown Detroit Lit Walk via Facebook Live—although there won’t be any walking involved this year. The reading will feature Shonda Buchanon, Brian Gilmore, and Alison Swan, just to name a few.

For more upcoming events, check out the Literary Events Calendar.

Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
8.24.20

August 29 marks the day the levees broke in New Orleans fifteen years ago. To commemorate the occasion, I am curating a multi-genre reading to remember the lives that were lost and changed by Hurricane Katrina, and the city that was abandoned and continues to thrive. The writers invited for this reading represent the vast stories and experiences of the storm.

The featured readers for our virtual event include:

Lolis Eric Elie, New Orleans native and Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker, who most recently joined the writing staff of the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle and has written for the OWN series Greenleaf and HBO series Treme.

Alison Pelegrin, author of Waterlines (Louisiana State University Press, 2016) and professor in the English department at Southeastern Louisiana University.

Tom Piazza, author of the post-Katrina manifesto Why New Orleans Matters (Harper Perennial, 2008) and a principal writer for the HBO drama series Treme, which explores the aftereffects of Katrina in New Orleans.

Asia Rainey, New Orleans native and veteran artist with a resumé spanning twenty years in spoken word poetry, music, theater, television, visual arts, and film.

Dr. Mona Lisa Saloy, professor of English at Dillard University and author of Second Line Home (Truman State University Press, 2004) and Red Beans & Ricely Yours, which won the 2006 PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Prize and the 2005 T. S. Eliot Prize in poetry.

José Torres Tama, writer and poet exploring anti-immigrant hysteria in his written work and solo theater show Aliens, Immigrants & Other Evildoers.

We will also have music performed by fourteen-year-old New Orleans saxophonist Akeel Salah Muhammad Haroon.

The reading will be livestreamed on the Poets & Writers Facebook page on Wednesday, August 26 at 6:00 PM CDT. Hope to see you there!

Photo: Flyer for the Fifteenth Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina virtual reading.
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
8.19.20

If you are just jumping on to this blog, thank you for coming along for the ride. I have had the pleasure to speak with local Houston writers about how their lives have changed during the pandemic, in particular, how their writing lives have been altered. It has been a difficult time, to say the least, but there have been some new, positive aspects as far as accessibility and inclusion for literary events, and as you’ll see below, family time. For this series, I reached out to writers and posed one simple question:

What have you been doing since the pandemic started?

So far we have heard from Katie Hoerth, Daniel Peña, and Melissa Studdard, and this week I bring you, poet Jonathan Moody.

Jonathan Moody is a Cave Canem alum and received his MFA from the University of Pittsburgh. His poetry has appeared in African American Review, Borderlands, the Common, Crab Orchard Review, Harvard Review Online, and other publications. He is the author of The Doomy Poems (Six Gallery Press, 2012) and Olympic Butter Gold, which won the 2014 Cave Canem/Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize. For the upcoming school term, Jonathan will join the English department faculty at South Houston High School. He lives in Pearland, Texas with his wife and three sons.

Here is what Jonathan had to say:

“Before the Coronavirus pandemic, my gruesome teaching schedule didn’t permit me to hydrate as much as I should. I always knew water was essential for the kidneys, but I had no clue that it cushions the brain and the spinal cord. The headaches and lower back pain that caused me distress have now dissipated. I also start each day taking immune boosters: echinacea, elderberry, and Vitamin C. And I’ve stuck to a consistent workout regimen that includes wind sprints and knee taps, as well as calisthenic exercises like push-ups, plyometric push-ups, and chest dips. Now that I’m in much better shape, I’m less complacent when it comes to meal prepping and cooking creative dishes like feijoada, patatas bravas, and flan. One change that I’m most proud of is how Avery Langston, my six-year-old son, demands that I, my wife, and the Moody Twins—Aiden and Aristin—eat dinner together every night as a family.”

Photo: Jonathan Moody (Credit: Thu Nguyen)
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
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.

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