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.

11.5.19

Hey mi gente! This week, I am highlighting a unique literary event in Houston, Plus Fest: The Everything Plus Poetry Festival, and its mini-fest events known as Pass It On.

Three years ago, poet Emanuelee Outspoken Bean created Plus Fest, a one-day event to celebrate and highlight raw, innovative spoken word poetry. In addition to poetry slams, the interactive literary experience includes poetic photo booths, art installations, and speed-writing buskers. The number of artists on hand is massive and the bridges built between poetry and other art mediums is impressive.

Pass It On is a secondary, smaller event series created, and often hosted, by Bean that serves to give people a taste of what they will get at the larger festival. It’s a smart undertaking and gives more poets opportunities to perform and share their work.

I was able to attend a Pass It On event in October that featured local poet Xach Blunt and music from DJ Elevated, another local, who set the mood. Xach was on hand with his latest chapbook, Misfits & Bangers, and four guest poets shared work. There was also a culinary twist, as a local up-and-coming chef sold gumbo throughout the event. It was a thrilling night with a great vibe, all about building community and enjoying beautiful poetry.

Emanuelee Outspoken Bean, founder of Plus Fest: The Everything Plus Poetry Festival in Houston.
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
11.4.19

On October 25, the Slam at the Cube series invited twelve women poets from the city to fill the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. This was the second installment of this new poetry slam series. LaShaun “Phoenix” Kotaran, the event curator and host, took special care to ensure that each poet brought a different style to the stage, making for a dynamic show. After three rounds of poetry—covering topics such as police brutality, motherhood, and mental health—Brittany Rogers came out as the winner.

Brittany is a native Detroiter, public school teacher, and poet. Her work has been published widely and she is a poetry reader for Muzzle magazine. It just so happens that she is also my wife!

I asked Brittany what she feels is most worthwhile about participating in poetry slams. “I feel like the satisfaction of sharing something that is meaningful to me, in a space that is designed for me to be listened to, is most important,” she says. “I find that same satisfaction in publishing—any platform to elevate the work.”

I am excited about the ongoing growth of this series. Keep an eye on our Literary Events Calendar, or download the Poets & Writers Local app, to follow this series and more.

Slam at the Cube at Detroit Symphony Orchestra. (Credit: Justin Rogers)
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
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.
10.29.19

This week I want to introduce you to Ink Well, a Houston-based podcast that I cohost which interviews established and emerging writers from across the United States. Presented by Tintero Projects and Inprint, the two organizations collaborate to make suggestions for writers to interview, Inprint provides the recording space and the producer, Tintero Projects founders Jasminne and yours truly cohost and interview guests, and ta-da, you get a podcast series, which is currently in its third year.

With the series, we hope to find ways to showcase international, national, and regional voices talking about the writing landscape. We especially want to feature writers of color and Southern voices from the Gulf Coast to offer them an opportunity to share their work and thoughts on writing.

Our inaugural episode welcomed poet Analicia Sotelo, whose debut poetry collection, Virgin, was selected by Ross Gay as the first winner of the Jake Adam York Prize. Since then guests have included Ching-In Chen, Rigoberto González, Daniel Peña, Samanta Schweblin, and Carmen Giménez Smith.

If you’re looking for something to occupy you on a long commute and want to hear brilliant voices talking about all things literary, give Ink Well a listen. I hope you’ll be introduced to some new inspiring voices.

Ink Well podcast cohosts Jasminne and Lupe Mendez.
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
10.28.19

This week I had the opportunity to speak with Jassmine Parks, a native Detroit writer and slam poetry champion who found a home in the city’s creative community and has since gone on to perform her work nationally. Her introduction to the literary world came from a beloved venue, Artist Village Detroit.

“My altar call to the lit scene in Detroit occurred at an open mic at Artist Village,” says Jassmine. “At the time I was writing poetry just to heal from generations of trauma and my therapist suggested that I attend and possibly perform at an open mic.”

Artist Village is also the venue where I attended my first writing workshop and fell in love with poetry. My writing was heavily influenced by the poets, musicians, and painters that I met there.

Jassmine spent two years as a member of the Detroit Poetry Slam Team and is now working with youth poets as a mentor for InsideOut’s Citywide Poets program. “I feel rejuvenated and inspired when creating new work,” she says. “The students I teach are resilient and have so much to say.”

Lastly, we spoke about what might be missing from Detroit’s literary world. “I would like to see a literary council in the city, something like a Justice League, a combination of multi-disciplined writers across generations and experiences that comes together to bridge the gap between opportunities and writers,” says Jassmine. “A hub to unify and mobilize the writers within the city of Detroit.”

As Poets & Writers’ first literary outreach coordinator in Detroit, I feel that we are beginning to address these needs. I, along with Lupe Mendez and Kelly Harris, the coordinators in Houston and New Orleans, are spreading the word about the resources P&W has to offer writers, and the Readings & Workshops mini-grants that are available. These efforts are all a way to bring writers a bit closer to each other and I am excited to be a part of this new initiative.

Jassmine Parks (Credit: Lebrun Jackson).
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
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.
10.22.19

Good day mi gente. October has been a busy month for Houston writers. I wanted to take a moment to give a shout-out to the Houston Poetry Fest. The thirty-fourth annual event was held at the University of Houston–Downtown campus over three days, from October 11–13, with readings, panel discussions, and lectures. Featured guest poets included Gayle Bell, Sharon Klander, Alex Lemon, Kevin Prufer, and Michael D. Snediker, who read from their work. Joining them at the readings were “juried poets,” who are selected by judges through a submission process.

In addition to the main event, satellite readings were also held before and after the festival dates in the city, offering writers and attendees more opportunities to participate in the literary festivities. The satellite readings included a “Salute to LGBTQ+ Poets,” a Sylvia Plath tribute, bilingual events, and a youth poetry slam. Although I wasn’t able to attend this year, it is great to see the Houston Poetry Fest expanding and still going strong.

Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
10.21.19

All Metro Detroit writers looking for a quiet space to write should be aware of Trinosophes. This spacious gallery and café is conveniently located just outside of the clatter of Downtown Detroit, and has been a haven for me, my friends, and a number of my mentors to write. Tuesday through Saturday the café offers a variety of vegan and gluten-free brunch options and good coffee. The art space has a gallery and an elevated stage equipped with a piano and more than enough space for a small band (or some poets eager to read their work!). Speaking of music, next door there is a record store for those interested in musical nostalgia. And across the street is the historic Eastern Market, which offers immediate access to local vendors, coffee shops, and more.

When it comes to literary events, Trinosophes is home to the Urban Echo Poetry Slam series and the Detroit Youth Poetry Slam series, and hosts book release parties (Franny Choi celebrated the release of her poetry collection Soft Science last April) and readings. On October 12 and 13, Trinosophes hosted the Detroit Art Book Fair, bringing together dozens of independent publishers, artists, writers, and collectors who presented their books, zines, and prints to the public. Whether you’re looking for a place to write, listen to poetry or live music, or get inspired by artwork, Trinosophes is a great place to visit.

The Detroit Art Book Fair at Trinosophes.
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
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.
10.15.19

This past September, the Writers for Migrant Justice campaign readings focused on raising funds for detained and formerly detained migrants on a national level. Here in Houston, we want to continue this effort on a local level. On October 3 the Houston Writers Coalition organized a second reading, Writers for Families Together. The goal was to raise money for two local organizations—Familias Immigrantes y Estudiantes en la Lucha (FIEL) and Kids in Need of Defense (KIND)—which both aid immigrant families facing human rights violations at the Texas–Mexico border.

There were over seventy people in attendance at the reading, which was held at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in the Museum District. It was a blessed evening as we got to hear from over thirty writers—including poet and teacher Natasha Carrizosa, translator and former Houston poet laureate Robin Davidson, slam poet Loyce Gayo, novelist Daniel Peña, and myself—reading in English and Spanish. It was a truly beautiful night and we hope to continue efforts to support and aid immigrant families in our community.

The flyer for the Writers for Families Together Houston reading.
 
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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