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.

4.15.20

During this pandemic, as many of us are quarantined in our homes, we may be looking for ways to find a silver lining in all of this. Might I suggest more reading? In honor of National Poetry Month, I wanted to share a few poetry books written by New Orleans authors to remind us about this beloved city. I hope you’ll enjoy some poems from this list of books (I’ve included links to their listings in the New Orleans Public Library), and maybe it will inspire you to make your own list of poetry books about the cities you love.

1. From a Bend in the River: 100 New Orleans Poets (Runagate Press, 1998) edited by Kalamu ya Salaam. This classic anthology gives voice to a diverse group of poets, and includes poetry from both established and emerging writers.

2. Hearing Sappho in New Orleans: The Call of Poetry From Congo Square to the Ninth Ward (Louisiana State University Press, 2012) by Ruth Salvaggio. In this book Salvaggio, inspired by a volume of Sappho’s poetry she finds while going through her belongings just after Hurricane Katrina, explores the history of lyric poetry in New Orleans.

3. My Name Is New Orleans: 40 Years of Poetry & Other Jazz (Margaret Media, Inc., 2009) by Arthur Pfister. This collection of poetry captures the sounds and smells and culture of New Orleans from a native who was a fixture of the poetry scene in the city for decades.

4. Geometry of the Heart (Portals Press, 2007) by Valentine Pierce. Ms Valentine, as I affectionately call her, is a veteran to the New Orleans poetry scene. Her work showcases years of knowledge and wisdom.

5. Red Beans and Ricely Yours (Truman State University Press, 2005) by Mona Lisa Saloy. This is a classic book of Southern poetry—and a winner of the PEN Oakland-Josephine Miles Literary Award for poetry—from one of our city’s beloved folklorists.

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
4.14.20

Last week I started highlighting the publishing houses here in Houston by looking at Arte Público Press. Today I want to write about Mutabilis Press. This nonprofit literary press is all about supporting the poetry world, especially poets in the greater Houston area.

The press was founded in 2003 by poet and artist Carolyn Tourney Florek and is a great source of literary work, including first books from some of the best poets that Houston has to offer. I personally own Why Me? (Mutabilis Press, 2009), the debut collection of poetry by Inprint founder Rich Levy, and it’s a great collection. Mutabilis also publishes poetry anthologies and makes it a point to find ways to gather as many Houston area poets as possible to write on a variety of themes. Their latest anthology, Enchantment of the Ordinary, edited by Galveston poet and dear friend of mine John Gorman, collects poems from Houston area authors with a connection to the state of Texas. I love the idea behind this anthology.

It is a blessing to be able to thumb through the anthologies and poetry collections published by Mutabilis and find the names and words of poets who I call friend. If you have the means to support this wonderful press, please take a look at their catalog and order books from them directly or from your local independent bookstore. Either way your purchase helps keep the lights on for these publishing houses.

Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
4.13.20

Temperatures are rising in the Midwest in these first weeks of a long-awaited spring as we continue to track whether COVID-19 cases are reducing. Michigan is still under a stay-at-home order, which makes it difficult to enjoy the warm weather but perfect for sitting down and reading some more books by Detroit authors.

For the Love of Boys by Imani Nichele is a collection of poetry written during her term as the 2018 Detroit youth poet laureate. The chapbook opens with a thoughtful preface that helps frame the book for the reader: “When you approach this body of work, I ask that you come knowing this is not heartbreak or about bitterness or a bite back at love gone sour. This within itself is not a cry for a father. It is coming of age. It is my capacity to hold men broadening, within and through different relationships.” She further describes this collection as an examination of how when boys transition into men, they are allowed space to still operate in boyhood. This touches on her thoughts of linear time being meaningless when becoming an adult in these lines:

“All of the clocks are broken here / in a tight room / Only enough space for our bodies to be pendulum”

I love the images associated with the body in this collection as exemplified in these lines:

“I imagine my father is a bloodless boy, with running feet / split-chested & / picking everything broken from inside of him”

Nichele further makes efforts to better understand her body and standing in the world with two poetic definitions of disambiguation that split the collection into thirds. In these, Nichele sees her body as a weapon and “full of answers and opinions and dying things.”

I am so proud of this young voice! Nichele has since sold out of her chapbook, but has announced that her first full-length manuscript, If You Must Know, is coming soon. I look forward to the release of this collection and will share it with you once it is out!

Imani Nichele, author of the chapbook For the Love of Boys.
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
4.8.20

As we celebrate National Poetry Month, I wanted to pause for a moment in the blog to talk about how writers in New Orleans are adjusting to the COVID-19 restrictions.

Like in many cities, writers in New Orleans are adapting to stay-at-home orders by hosting readings and other literary events virtually. Whether you were ready to leap into the virtual world and take on technology or not, we have suddenly become each other’s online audience.

Although I miss browsing my local bookstores and bumping into writers while attending events, this online surge of literary events has offered me the opportunity to hear and see more local writers without having to pick and choose what I can attend due to a busy schedule. Quarantine means I am able to experience hearing more from local and national writers from the comfort of my couch.

I have already joined a newly formed New Orleans poetry series Facebook Group, watched a fiction reading, and peeked in on a Zoom workshop of local writers. And I’m sure there’s more I’m forgetting to mention.

If you are organizing virtual literary events in New Orleans, reach out me at NOLA@pw.org. The Readings & Workshops program has recently updated its mini-grants to accommodate virtual literary programming and applications are open now. You can also view and list online events on the Literary Events Calendar. Enjoy online and stay safe.

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
4.7.20

It gives me great pleasure to highlight the many aspects of the literary world that exist here in the Houston area through this blog. I feel it is important to keep this work going, especially now during this global crisis, to provide a sense of community as well as a little break from the news.

Starting this month, I’ll be writing about some of the publishing houses here in Houston, including Arte Público Press. Founded in 1979 by Nicolas Kanellos, Arte Público Press is the largest and most established publisher of Latino literature in the United States. Housed at the University of Houston, where Kanellos is a professor of Hispanic Studies, the press has helped launch the careers of notable authors like Sandra Cisneros, whose debut novel, The House on Mango Street, was published by the press; Miguel Piñero, who cofounded the Nuyorican Poets Café in New York City; and Obie Award–winning playwright Luis Valdez.

The press also launched the Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage Program to catalog lost Latinx writings from the American colonial period through 1960. They then branched out into bilingual books for children and young adults with their imprint Piñata Books.

Arte Público Press continues their mission to bring Hispanic literature to more audiences through their programs and books. They publish thirty books a year, so if you got the time, take a look at their massive catalog and consider ordering some of these wonderful books (including the recent release of Richard Z. Santos’s debut novel). Trust me, it’ll be worth your while.

Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
4.6.20

Last week, I introduced the first half of my reading of How the Water Holds Me by Detroit poet Tariq Luthun. I am more than happy to say that I remained locked in as a reader all the way through and finished reading the collection. More memories pour out of this book from one poem to the next, and as I continued to read I began to notice the significance of parental figures. In reflection, this collection mentions the word “father” more times than any other collection I’ve read. The second half of this book is also where I felt I learned something about Luthun’s mother, who I found mentioned far less than his father.

“...she raises / her eyes from the dishes, / her hands up from the bath, / and gives / a gentle laugh, / a sigh, we make / du’a, we pray...

I think this realization is very important to the entire collection and the concept of being “held” by water. It begs the question, “What is the water?” I am inclined to wonder if the water Luthun speaks of, in addition to the physical waters between Detroit and Palestine, are his family.

“I fear what becomes / of the family that feasts on pain.”

I highly recommend Luthun’s collection, which is forthcoming this month from Bull City Press and is currently available for pre-order. This has been a fantastic read to keep me company as the state of Michigan remains under a stay-at-home order.

If you are missing the sounds of live poetry, I am hosting a weekly virtual open mic for Citywide Poets on Instagram Live every Saturday at 3:00 PM EDT! Follow @citywidepoets to tune in or participate with a poem. Our Citywide Poets program focuses on teen writers, but we welcome adults to join in to share as we get through this pandemic together. Stay safe.

Citywide Poets Instagram Live Saturday Share Open Mic poster.
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
4.1.20

As we remain at home and do our part to stop the spread of the coronavirus, I wanted to share a short interview I did with poet and performance artist José Torres-Tama who I met a few years ago when we read along with other featured New Orleans poets at a venue off of St. Claude. I remember his chant of “no guacamole for immigrant haters” vividly. Torres-Tama has been touring his solo show Aliens, Immigrants & Other Evildoers across the country for almost ten years. The multimedia and bilingual show, which he describes as a “sci-fi Latino noir,” is updated regularly to reflect current events and is based on interviews Torres-Tama conducts with undocumented immigrants who share their courageous stories. The Readings & Workshops program cosponsored a powerful performance of the show this past September at the Alvar Branch of the New Orleans Public Library. I was able to speak with him about his work, his life in New Orleans, and the importance of giving voice to the immigrant experience.

How has Aliens, Immigrants & Other Evildoers evolved over the years?
Aliens, Immigrants & Other Evildoers premiered in 2010 at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans. In August 2019, we restaged the show for sold-out houses back at the Ashé to kick off a national tour. The show is about the hypocrisy of a country that exploits immigrant labor while criminalizing them. My comic battle cry is, “No guacamole for immigrant haters!” My 2020 tour opened in Mexico City and celebrated Glossolalia, a bilingual poetry book edited by iconic poet Guillermo Gómez-Peña that includes poems from Aliens, Immigrants & Other Evildoers.

Why does New Orleans feel like home to you?
I’m an Ecuadorian immigrant and naturalized U.S. citizen, and immigrant rights is the thematic platform for my poems. New Orleans is the northernmost point of the Caribbean with an often forgotten Latin legacy, and since the 1980s, I proudly call these swamplands home because I’ve cultivated my voice as a poet and performance artist here.

What do you feel is your contribution to the New Orleans literary scene?
I’m one of few Latin American poets here speaking to the immigrant experience. I believe my work is vital to a poetry scene that’s often stuck in a white and black binary quagmire. We need more Latinx voices to claim our rightful place in a city whose post-Katrina resurrection owes much to Latin American immigrant reconstruction workers who gave their blood, labor, and love to our rebirth.

Who are some local poets on your radar that we should look out for?
Two poets to watch in New Orleans are Linett Luna Tovar, a fierce Mexican wordsmith, and José Fermin Ceballos, an Afro-Dominican singer and poet.

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
3.31.20

Now that we are being asked to stay at home to help slow the spread of the coronavirus and adjusting to this new terrain, most literary events have been canceled or postponed. Knowing this, I thought maybe I shouldn’t be writing about literary festivals and conferences, but I wanted to add a little hope for the future and highlight some great events we can look forward to that take place in Houston. It has also been wonderful to see some events and conferences, like TeenBookCon, adjusting to the current state of things and finding ways to have virtual events via social media platforms. To wrap up this series of posts, I want to tell you all about Zine Fest Houston.

Zine Fest Houston has been around since 1993, first as a small gathering in a local park in Houston where zine creators came together to share their latest issues. Since then, they have grown each year but the annual festival has always been about DIY creations. This is a space for brilliant creators to showcase and share self-published works or small print runs of literary works. Everything presented, shared, and worked on is unique and unconventional and that is the main draw to the festival. According to their website, the event promotes “zines, mini-comics, and other forms of small press, alternative, underground, DIY media and art.” The registration is free and the event is for all ages. There are tables and tables of artists and zines, panels and talks, and even zine-making workshops.

I actually sighed in relief after thinking this would be another festival that had to be canceled and seeing that, as of their announcement on Twitter in early March, the event scheduled for November 7 is still a go! This year’s theme celebrates all things transit-related and the ways transportation has influenced Houston’s culture.

Zine Fest Houston has also just organized a “Cyber Mall: Texas Zinesters & Comic Creators Directory” as a community Google sheet to support those who have lost income and opportunities to sell at festivals and events. Keep up with their news on Twitter, @ZineFestHouston.

Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
3.30.20

It has been about a week since Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer announced a stay-at-home order to all residents as a measure to slow the spread of the coronavirus. In these sheltered times, I am reflecting on the moment and finding solace in books of poetry. Although just a few poems in, I am excited to say a few words about How the Water Holds Me by Palestinian American poet and Detroit local Tariq Luthun, which is forthcoming from Bull City Press in April.

In the introductory poems, we learn about Luthun’s background and family with subtle hints about the significance of place. As a reader, I found my curiosity building line by line as I gained snapshots of Tariq’s memories while sharing desires such as:

“I haven’t forgotten that / everyone needs a place on this planet. / And I, / I prefer to live where I can leave / the doors unlocked...”

Midway through this collection, I am beginning to better understand the title of the book as the poems “dive in” (pun intended) to how water plays a role in Luthun’s life and family. His words invite me to consider the distance over water between Detroit and Palestine. Luthun writes:

“Earth, / itself, I realize, is just a body / of waters.”

Luthun’s poems pull readers’ minds in and ask us to consider what displacement, home, ancestry, and identity mean to each of us. I am thinking about how I can connect more with my own family and history. I look forward to my journey through the rest of these poems, and highly recommend reading this collection.

Tariq Luthun, author of How the Water Holds Me (Bull City Press, 2020).
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
3.25.20

This week I’m continuing to highlight New Orleans women writers to celebrate Women’s History Month. Gina Ferrara was born and raised in New Orleans and is the author of the poetry collection, The Weight of the Ripened, out this week from Dos Madres Press. Ferrara teaches English and writing at Delgado Community College as an associate professor. Since 2007, she has curated the Poetry Buffet, a monthly reading series sponsored by the New Orleans Public Library, and she gave me my first opportunity to be a featured poet for one of their readings. I was able to sit down with Ferrara to talk about her work with the reading series and her new book.

You have worked at building an inclusive poetry community with the Poetry Buffet series for many years. Why is this so important to you?
Prior to Hurricane Katrina, I was in a group called the Women’s Poetry Conspiracy. The group formed in 2002 or 2003. Latter Library was one of our venues for reading events. The group dissolved after Katrina, but the head librarian Missy Abbott saw a need to bring poetry to the library again and invited me to start a new series.

I think of the Poetry Buffet series as something distinctively New Orleans, as we read on St. Charles Avenue, surrounded by canopies of live oaks and crape myrtles, and the streetcar passes on the tracks with its bell while poets share their work in a historic mansion, which is now a library. It’s my honor to curate this series.

Who has Delgado Community College recently invited to their growing reading series?
Our English department has a bevy of writers that drive our reading series. We bring in readers who are able to connect with our students. We recently featured Malaika Favorite, an African American visual artist and poet. Another writer we invited was J. Bruce Fuller, who actually began his academic career as a Delgado student and went on to become a Stegner Fellow.

What inspired your new book, Weight of the Ripened?
Like its title indicates, the poems are dense and distinctive with a lyrical specificity. The poems span from 2013 until early 2019, and although I didn’t set out with the purpose of writing poems about women, in retrospect, quite a few of the poems are investigations about them.

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

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