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.

9.23.20

As we near the end of September, temperatures in Detroit are falling with leaves highlighting the end of the summer season. Safety concerns regarding COVID-19 are still lingering, meaning beloved and well-known Detroit festivals such as the annual African World Festival and Dally in the Alley have been canceled. These festivals are networking hubs for local writers and artists alike so it is unfortunate that they can’t be held this year. Despite these cancellations, writers are still documenting this ever-changing new era with their words and sharing work through virtual events like the ninth annual Detroit Lit Walk hosted by M. L. Liebler and Jenifer DeBellis, which provided a daylong literary experience.

There is also a buzz among the writers and organizers of literary events who have been applying for Poets & Writers’ Project Grants available for BIPOC writers in Detroit, Houston, and New Orleans—applications are due by September 30! The grants provide funding for one-, two-, or three-session projects and can be used to cover any cost associated with your project. Read more about the guidelines and apply here!

As we move into October and look for ways to help writers stay connected, I am excited to be hosting Writing in Detroit, a virtual reading on October 23 sponsored by Poets & Writers. Writing in Detroit will feature Christiana Castillo, Devin Samuels, and Scheherazade Washington Parish. Each writer will share original work and say a few words about how living in Detroit has influenced their writing. I believe these three writers will offer a unique insight into how our city’s culture finds its way into our words. Register for your virtual seat and tune in on October 23 at 4:00 PM EST.

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

Photo: Writing in Detroit Virtual Reading flyer.
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
9.16.20

On August 26, I curated a virtual reading highlighting New Orleans writers to remember, as I said at the event, all the people, all the cultural places, all the businesses, all the family artifacts, all the schools, all the neighborhoods, and the ways of being that were lost physically and dismantled systematically by Hurricane Katrina. It is hard to believe, but August 29 marked the day the levees broke in New Orleans fifteen years ago.

To commemorate the occasion, Dr. Mona Lisa Saloy, Tom Piazza, Alison Pelegrin, José Torres Tama, Lolis Elie, and Asia Rainey read from their work and shared their experiences. Fourteen-year-old New Orleans saxophonist Akeel Salah Muhammad Haroon treated us with a performance to close the evening.

Readings & Workshops program coordinator Ricardo Hernandez, who helped with tech support, said of the event: “The featured readers were all incredible. I was especially moved to hear Lolis Elie read from “The Whys” and I looked up the piece so I could quote it accurately: ‘Some of us came back because we didn’t believe that the insurance company that we’d dutifully paid for decades would cheat us in our hour of gravest need. (If Dante Alighieri had endured the inferno of our flood, he would have kindled a special fire for insurance companies!)’”

Curating this event was fun but challenging, especially with the added pressure of doing this virtually and praying for no tech hiccups. Luckily it all worked out and our virtual audience was pleased. My goal was to highlight all the ways Hurricane Katrina impacted the city’s writers. It was hard to curate because so much is at stake with a reading that represents the loss and trauma of an entire city. I was happy that each writer brought a different voice and perspective to the reading.

Thank you to all of those who joined us on Facebook for the live event. If you missed the reading, you can watch it here. There is also a wonderful piece written by Joshua Barajas for PBS NewsHour about our event.

Writing about Katrina can be painful, but mostly it is a celebration of what makes New Orleans so special. As Saloy says in the PBS NewsHour piece, “We’re not just authors. We are the carriers of our culture.”

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
9.9.20

This COVID Vivid blog series has been a real treat to work on these last couple months, and so, what was supposed to be only five entries will now be extended for a few more. So far, you have heard from Katherine Hoerth, Daniel Peña, Melissa Studdard, and Jonathan Moody. And now I will spin the question on to myself:

What have you been doing since the pandemic started?

“I have been trying to keep it together. I’ll be honest: I’ve been praying. I’ve been cooking. I’ve started three little gardens and built things for my kid. I’ve been playing with my two year old and trying my damnedest not to go down the rabbit hole of what-ifs when it comes to reading about the pandemic on social media.

I’ve also spent a little bit of time trying to write, but sometimes, I just stare at my screen. I’ve been buying useless things and binge-watching shows, and fighting and then making up with my wife, and trying to lose myself in good music. I was lucky enough to get the month of June off (I am an eleven-month contract employee in my local school district) and as of this writing, I am knee-deep in creating updated lesson plans for teachers in my district as well as creating two sets of digital lessons for students under the scenario that they won’t have access to their teachers online. It is tough trying to plan for teachers and students in a situation where we are totally blind as to what might happen next. If you haven’t seen how Texas is handling COVID-19, it’s not pretty.

I am entirely in alert mode. I am in hurricane warning mode. It’s like I stay up at night listening to the house, listening to my daughter sleep, maybe writing late into the night or working on curriculum, but I am lucky if I get a full night’s sleep. I am working on trying to build routines to take better care of myself, but honestly I have always sucked at it. It is easier for me to tend to other people. I probably look a wreck. I know I look a wreck. But everything is a slow movement. I am learning every day to take better care of myself. I am reading more. That’s where I begin.”

And speaking of reading, if you don’t already have your copy of the September/October 2020 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, check out the piece published online about Spanish-language and bilingual creative writing programs, “Writing in Spanish Elevates Academia” by Enma K. Elias.

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

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