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.

3.10.20

Although Poets & Writers was not able to attend the AWP conference in San Antonio last week and the literary outreach coordinators could not have our panel discussion, it was good to see Instagram photos, tweets, and videos online of many writers I admire enjoying the conference. Thanks to those Houston writers, poets, playwrights, and publishers that made their way after the AWP Board of Directors announced that the conference would continue despite concern about the coronavirus. I was happy to see Houston gente representing at AWP—shout-out to Bloomsday Literary, Defunkt Magazine, Glass Mountain, and Writespace, as well as writers Daniel Peña, Reyes Ramirez, and Icess Fernandez Rojas!

From all the posts and messages I came across, I know three things:

1. AWP 2020 was all about engagement. There might have been fewer people and fewer panels, but all the readings and events were packed.

2. This was the birth of the #AWPVirtualBookFair—publishing houses and literary magazines that were not able to attend AWP engaged online through a community Google Doc and on Twitter and it paid off. Folks supported writers and works from publishers big and small.

3. Texas-based writers came out in full force, especially Latinx writers. I saw posts from every corner of the state in ways I hadn’t seen before at any other AWP conference. And it was glorious.

I hope this momentum continues next year for #AWP21 in Kansas City, Missouri!

Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
3.9.20

This past Friday’s event “A Very Last-Second Poetry Reading” turned out to be a huge success packing the Room Project with eager listeners, book buyers, and writers. Although it was planned in just a few short hours in response to the many canceled events due to health concerns at the AWP conference in San Antonio, things were flawless. It was a fantastic opportunity to catch up with Detroit writers like Nandi Comer and Tommye Blount, as well as out-of-town favs like Rachel McKibbens. We opened the night with an opportunity to mingle and view the “tiny book fair,” which was facilitated by Tariq Luthun and included books by some of the readers, then shifted into readings of poetry and fiction.

This reading was a strong representation of what I was hoping to experience at AWP last week. I saw new and old faces—all of whom were glad to see mine. We shared space, books, and words in a safe environment. I left feeling recharged and acquired a couple new reads. Detroit’s literary community absolutely grew stronger through this event, and its success opens a new world of ways that conferences with a national draw can become active in individual communities. It also broadens the definition of community in each of our very small portions of the country by introducing AWP, books, and writers to audiences who are not engaged on the national level, or have not had the resources or opportunities to attend the AWP conference.

I am impressed with everyone who put energy into this—from the organizers to those who simply showed up to support. None of us could have seen this health crisis coming, but I know that everyone who was at Room Project on Friday will remember at least one good thing about last week.

A Very Last-Second Poetry Reading at Room Project in Detroit. (Credit: Tariq Luthun)
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
3.5.20

I was looking forward to meeting up with the literary outreach coordinators, Justin Rogers from Detroit and Lupe Mendez from Houston, and staff members from Poets & Writers at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference in San Antonio, Texas this week, but safety first. Due to the concern about the coronavirus in San Antonio, we decided not to attend and sadly had to cancel the wonderful panel planned on Saturday to discuss our respective literary communities in New Orleans, Detroit, and Houston.

Nevertheless, people in New Orleans are taking all the news in stride. Some local writers who were planning to attend the AWP conference stayed in New Orleans, others went ahead to San Antonio.

The good thing is, we still have lots of great literary events to look forward to in New Orleans:

The New Orleans Book Festival at Tulane University is March 19­–21.

The Tennessee Williams & New Orleans Literary Festival is March 25–29.

The New Orleans Poetry Festival will be in April during National Poetry Month.

Join us in 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.
3.4.20

It’s been a hard week for many of us who were and are considering attending the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference in San Antonio, Texas. Although the AWP Board of Directors announced its decision to move forward with the conference despite concern about the coronavirus in San Antonio, Poets & Writers has made the difficult decision not to attend, and I will also not be attending. Over a hundred panels and events have been canceled leaving many writers across the country seeking alternatives, leaving it up to us writers to find a way to hold community.

In the past couple days, the literary community on Twitter was left hanging in anxious suspense as we awaited a statement from AWP, and word from one another about individual decisions. In that time frame, #AWPVirtualBookFair was created along with a community Google Doc that lists presses and the discounts they are offering for books that were to be sold at the conference—it’s a digital book fair!

In addition, on Tuesday afternoon, I got word from Tariq Luthun that he is working with Christin Lee at Room Project to put on what is being called “A Very Last-Second Poetry Reading and Tiny Book Fair.” We are calling this an “offsite” AWP reading and it will feature Brittany Rogers, Rachel McKibbens, and many more. The event will be held on Friday, March 6 at 7:00 PM at Room Project. If you are in Detroit, come by!

And if you are traveling to AWP, please be safe and take every precaution.

Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
2.26.20

To conclude my Black History Month themed posts, I interviewed poet Sunni Patterson. Patterson was instrumental in giving voice to New Orleans through her poetry after Hurricane Katrina. The performance of her poem “We Made It” on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam has over six hundred thousand views on YouTube. In many ways Patterson has become the face of New Orleans spoken word.

How has New Orleans shaped your poetry?
When you’re born and raised in New Orleans, you can’t help but have poetry in your bones. Even if you don’t know what it is, or what to call it, it’s there. From the way a story is told, the sayings, the anecdotes—all of it shapes my artistry. I know the music, air, culture, thickness of the city contributes to the sound of my poems.

Take us back to your appearance on Def Poetry Jam in 2007, what was that moment like for you?
I was asked to do it years before that performance. For some reason, I didn’t want to do it. Fast forward to after Hurricane Katrina. I’d just finished speaking at the University of Houston when I got the call from producers. I agreed immediately! I knew my voice and point of view about Hurricane Katrina and its impact on the city and residents needed to be heard.

I had no clothes after Katrina. A box of clothing from a church in Houston was sent to me. Most of the things I didn’t keep. I kept a crop top. I already had some denim material I wanted to use. I was leaving the next day, I called Mama Rukiya, she sewed something quickly with mudcloth and made detachable sleeves. Chile, I was sewing myself into the dress until it was time to go on stage! The needle and thread were still in the seams. It was a great experience.

Who are some of your poetry influences?
Ayi Kwei Armah, Lucille Clifton, Jayne Cortez, Neville Goddard, Zora Neale Hurston, Acklyn Lynch, Brenda Marie Osbey, Arturo Pfister, Rumi, Kalamu ya Salaam, Mona Lisa Saloy, and Sonia Sanchez.

What message do you have for the future writers of New Orleans?
My hope for the next generation of writers is to have hope. To hold the light. To honor the ancestors, elders, culture, children, and spirit of the city, but most importantly, to do the ugly, yet necessary, work of the heart. Those are the things that’ll keep them and us alive.

Sunni Patterson. (Credit: Gus Bennett, Jr. / 2016 New Orleans People Project)
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
2.25.20

As we prepare for our participation in the annual AWP Conference & Bookfair in March in San Antonio, I thought I’d share some of the literary festivals and conferences that Houston hosts. Last week, I wrote about Sin Muros: A Latinx Theater Festival, and today I want to tell you about Comicpalooza.

First, I have a confession: I am a comic book nerd. There, I said it. Some of you might read this and judge me and that’s okay. The real shameful thing is that I have never been to Comicpalooza and it looks exciting as hell!

This festival is now in its fifth year and boasts a thorough showing of comic fandom, appreciation, and literary craft. There is a slew of programming for every kind of audience, from cosplay to craft writing workshops on fantasy and noir, to open mics and DIY workshops on storyboarding for graphic novels. The festival even includes a Literature Conference with author panels, critique sessions with fellow writers, and fan roundtable discussions. The three-day event is Texas’s largest comic convention and what I love is that it’s all about community. If you’re interested, you can participate—that’s right, submissions are currently open for panel discussions and workshops. This year, Comicpalooza will be held over Memorial Day weekend, May 22–24 at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Downtown Houston. So if you happen to be in town, I hope to see you there!

Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
2.24.20

Tuxedo Project resident fellow Rose Gorman has been working in conjunction with the Center for Detroit Arts and Culture at Marygrove College to help organize this year’s Contemporary American Authors Lecture Series. The series, which began in 1989, invites a nationally-known author to the campus for a lecture and reading that’s free and open to the public. There is also programming surrounding the event throughout the city that introduces Detroiters to the work of the featured author. Last year the series brought Elizabeth Acevado, a Dominican American poet and the author of The Poet X and With the Fire on High, to Detroit. I had the honor of sharing the stage with Acevado at Marygrove for the reading. Witnessing so many people there to hear Acevado’s words after weeks of diving into her work was moving to say the least.

On April 2, Roxane Gay will be featured and at the center of attention for this year’s event. Leading up to the date, numerous literary workshops, readings, and other activities will take place in the city to absorb Gay’s published works. According to Gorman, they are expecting to have programming happening every day of the week for the entire month of March! You will be able to find one-off events as well as weekly workshops encouraging participants to sit with a single text for more than one meeting. These will be hosted at locations such as the Room Project and Tuxedo Project.

Events begin this week and on Sunday, March 1 at ZAB Cultural Collective, a special five-week program will allow participants to enjoy a discussion group for Gay’s memoir, Hunger, that explores the text through the creation of visual art. These sessions will be led by Rose Gorman and artist Amanda Koss. “People can dive into emotions that they feel through color and shape,” says Gorman about the program. “The meaning is unique to the artist.” Read more about this program and register for events here.

Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
2.19.20

My New Orleans Black History Month series of posts continues today with the NOMMO Literary Society. It’s impossible to talk about New Orleans Black literary history without talking about Kalamu ya Salaam and the NOMMO Literary Society.

Many of you may not know that NOMMO was founded by Salaam in New Orleans in 1995, a rare Black writers workshop established a year before Cave Canem. That summer, Salaam had led a writing workshop for male students on the invitation of Tommye Myrick at Southern University New Orleans. Poet Ayo Fayemi-Robinson (formerly known as Kysha Brown Robinson) then questioned Salaam about the exclusion of women writers in the workshop and from that encounter, NOMMO was born and had its first meeting that fall.

The workshop consisted of three parts: a selected reading, a “housekeeping” to share information about upcoming literary events and resources, and giving and receiving feedback on original compositions. The physical space of NOMMO had shelves full of books and CDs of music by Black artists, and there was a monthly reading held at Community Book Center.

The name NOMMO has two origins. First is the central African concept of NOMMO being the power of the spoken word. Second is from Salaam’s sarcastic quip that it was time for the elevation of the Black vernacular and “no more of that literary shit.” The workshop met weekly and hosted several prominent writers, such as Amiri Baraka, Staceyann Chin, Toi Derricotte, Terrance Hayes, Major Jackson, E. Ethelbert Miller, and Sonia Sanchez.

Hurricane Katrina ended NOMMO in 2005, but the legacy lives on through published books by alumni like Jericho Brown, Jarvis DeBerry, Freddi Williams Evans, and Keturah Kendrick.

New Orleans has a long literary history, including the 1845 publication of Les Cenelles, the first anthology of poetry by African Americans which featured the work of seventeen New Orleans poets. NOMMO was a continuation of this rich tradition of African American writing that lives on today.

NOMMO Literary Society reunion at Community Book Center in 2014. (Credit: NOMMO)
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
2.18.20

Last week we took a little break and I hope you enjoyed my list of things to check out. Beginning this week, I want to highlight the big events: conferences and festivals. As many of you know, we are gearing up for a massive conference, the annual AWP Conference & Bookfair, run by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, taking place in San Antonio, Texas in March. Poets & Writers and the literary outreach coordinators—Justin, Kelly, and I—will be there so come say hello if you’re at AWP!

Keeping that in mind, I’d like to dedicate some time in this blog to celebrate the literary festivals and conferences that take place here in Houston, including Sin Muros, Comicpalooza, Fade to Black Play Festival, and Zine Fest Houston.

First up, Sin Muros! Now in its third year, Sin Muros: A Latinx Theater Festival is a community-led playwriting festival focused on Texas-based Latinx voices and stories. The festival is put on by Stages, a nonprofit organization and historic theater in Houston, and offers a ton of access to literary craft for emerging artists. In Spanish, sin muros means “without walls” and the festival embodies this theme through its events.

Stages works with community leaders—playwrights, dramatists, poets, and activists—to put together a four-day festival for the public with many free events. Two plays (which are a part of Stages’s regular season) serve as anchors to a series of play readings and poetry readings; a generative, writing workshop (any genre is welcome); a professional development workshop for theater teachers; a children’s play; a town hall meeting focusing on issues Latinx artists face; and a poetry tent filled with booksellers, local literary organizations, and poets. Stages works with several literary and performance organizations to put the festival together, including Tintero Projects, Gente de Teatro, and TEATRX. Some of the work is in English. Some of the work is in Spanish. All of the work is Tejano.

This year’s festival over this past weekend was a great success. Every year it gets larger and larger, and I can’t wait for the next one.

Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
2.17.20

Grover Easterling is a poet, activist, and educator currently living in Detroit. Grover and I were both students in the after-school program Citywide Poets organized by InsideOut Literary Arts, so naturally we became friends and writing partners. After we graduated from the program, we attended classes together at Wayne State University and led a student organization called WayneSLAM (aka Wayne Student Literary Arts Movement). The organization offered a space for artists of different genres to showcase themselves in a monthly open mic. Grover and I led the series from 2013 to 2016. I had an opportunity to catch up with Grover last week and asked him a few questions about his experience with WayneSLAM and the literary scene in Detroit.

What impact did WayneSLAM have on you?
As an artist it gave me the opportunity to help other artists get paid to share their art, to put money on the table for young writers of color. The series also showed me many different styles of poetry and the varying levels of where folks are at in their art.

As a youth, your family settled down in Troy, Michigan. What differences did you notice when you sought out the literary scene in Detroit?
I wanted to invest in Black art and what made me feel seen, and that wasn’t present in Troy. When I visited Detroit, I was exposed to various cultures and their art scenes. In Detroit’s literary scene, people are more willing to be radical in their writing. People are more comfortable with their Blackness here.

How have Detroit’s artists and writers influenced you outside of your writing?
They help me stay innovative. Being around poets has given me tools to sharpen my skills as a political and environmental organizer.

Recently, Grover released a video titled “Change the Climate 2020” featuring newsclips mixed with a reading of his poem “All Be Green” in an effort to bring awareness to environmental issues in Michigan as the 2020 presidential election approaches.

Grover Easterling.
 
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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