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.

5.12.20

First off, I’d like to share some cheer with a belated Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms of the world. You change the world, moms—don’t ever forget it.

As we all continue to adjust to life in the COVID-19 era, I wanted to include in this blog some of the ways Houston has been rising to the occasion to work its literary magic. This month, I will be writing about three different spaces and organizations that have been adapting their programs and events for the virtual world.

Today I’ll focus on the University of Houston’s CoogSlam—the name is a nod to the university mascot, the cougar, and slam poetry. The group is less than three years old and has already garnered national attention with its slam team for the collegiate competition known as CUPSI, the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational.

Before the University of Houston made the decision to keep its doors closed for the rest of the spring semester, CoogSlam was hosting writing workshops and a weekly slam and now, they have seamlessly adapted to the virtual world and continued their work. CoogSlam offers writing workshops on Wednesdays and has an open mic on Saturdays, all online. Writers and spectators can join from a link to a Google form available on their Instagram page, @uhcoogslam. The rest is a purely, magical experience. Just this past week, CoogSlam hosted an open mic featuring the talented Ryan McMasters, and from what I have heard it was stupendous. I can’t wait to see who is featured next.

You can also follow CoogSlam on Twitter, @uhcoogslam, for their latest news and events. They are doing big things and representing the city in such a humble and honest way. It is a delight to see what they do.

Participants in a recent online CoogSlam writing workshop.
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
5.11.20

The Louder Than a Bomb Michigan Youth Poetry Festival has been one of the annual highlights of my work with InsideOut Literary Arts, so I was naturally disappointed when COVID-19 rendered such a gathering unsafe. Behind the scenes I worked with festival coordinator Rose Gorman and our go-to host LaShaun Phoenix Moore, and we made the decision to quickly pivot to an online version of the festival: Louder Than a Bomb (LTAB) Essential Words. This version of the festival turned the two-day in-person festival into a weeklong digital engagement for youth and the adults and artists that support these talented youth writers.

On Thursday, April 30, LTAB opened the festival with virtual workshops and small open mics. On Saturday, May 2, we went live across multiple platforms with DJ Stayce J to offer high school students a digital prom dance party. The week culminated to an event on May 7 that we chose to name “Final Stage,” which featured 2019 Ann Arbor youth poet laureate Na Faaris, T. Miller, Darius Parker, and other stellar readers. The best part was getting festival participants to come together in one digital space to feel the energy from each of our individual spaces. Everything throughout this week of creative, community-based programming brought hope for what events might look like this summer, and what digital spaces will continue to provide after things begin to open up safely as we deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

On May 7, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer announced an extension of the state’s stay-at-home order until May 28. While we are all eager to get out and hug one another, everyone who made it to LTAB Essential Words will have this week that embraced them. In addition, there is a suite of workshops available now through InsideOut for those who want and need to keep writing.

Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
5.6.20

For ten years the State Library of Louisiana has celebrated poetry during the month of April for National Poetry Month with a myriad of reading events. This year, the library adjusted their plans due to COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders and continued with their programming virtually.

On Thursday, April 30, the Louisiana Center for the Book in the State Library of Louisiana closed out the month with an online reading as part of their annual “Just Listen to Yourself” event. Louisiana poet laureate John Warner Smith invited six poets from across the state to read their work. Participating poets included Liz Adair, Katie Bickham, David Havird, Brad Richard, Donney Rose, and I was also happy to be asked to join the reading.

The event is typically held at the state’s library in Baton Rogue, but the opportunity to showcase poets from across the state virtually allowed for a wider audience to watch and get to know us.

“The richness of Louisiana poetry can give us solace during these challenging days,” said Louisiana lieutenant governor Billy Nungesser in a press release about the event.

Although Covid-19 poses several challenges for writers, I believe this virtual reading will be an artifact in Louisiana literary history.

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
5.5.20

As we enter into a new month of the coronavirus pandemic, we are in a new phase of transition as some states are reopening businesses and outdoor spaces. In Houston, there are some restaurants open with limited capacity and the Galleria mall even opened with limited hours. All this change can leave us feeling turned around and unsure. But one thing is for sure, the literary community is here for us and there are plenty of things to do online to keep us busy and provide some calm in these times.

Here is my countdown of five Houston-based virtual literary activities for you:

5. Feel like listening to a literary podcast? No sweat. Ink Well: A Tintero Projects & Inprint Podcast just released three new episodes (one with Carolyn Forché), all recorded just before the lockdown.

4. Have kids at home and you want them to get into some writing? Check out Writers In the Schools’ website for Quick WITS, fifteen-minute mini-workshops for K-5 grade students.

3. Want to check out some readings by some of your favorite authors? Head over to Inprint where they keep a full collection of readings from both the Margarett Root Brown and Cool Brains! Inprint Readings for Young People series.

2. Do you want to hear from authors in Spanish? Then check out Literal magazine’s YouTube channel, where they keep a series of interviews with writers from Mexico, Central America, and South America.

1. Lastly, make sure you register for Glass Mountain’s Strikethrough, a four-day virtual writing workshop for emerging writers from May 25 to 28, which is in lieu of their annual Boldface writing conference.

Enjoy and let me know what caught your attention. Hit me up on Twitter, @houstonpworg.

Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
5.4.20

This week I am continuing to write about Mahalia Frost’s collection, Soft Animal Wounds. As each poem pulls at my skin with uncomfortable, sometimes bloody, images, I am increasingly impressed with the consistency and continuity of the writing and themes introduced in this book. Frost’s collection is a healthy fifty-eight pages split into four parts titled “Sleep,” “Gleam,” “Thrash,” and “Bite.” Each part is introduced by a thought-provoking illustration. For example, “Sleep” opens with an image of a human head presenting a dissatisfied facial expression on top of the body of what seems to be a serpent—plus angel wings! Each part includes an odd yet fitting variation of this illustration.

What’s more is that these images are the artwork of Frost—helping us readers understand not only the imagery from what’s written in these poems, but also from what she sees when creating. I can’t say enough about the complexity being offered by this young writer. I am especially fond of the first poem titled “Birdheart” in the “Bite” portion of the book. This poem uses an extended metaphor to describe the heart as a bird:

“its feathers clump together with scabs / sticky in your ooze”

“Bite” also gives my absolute favorite ending to a yet another poem that makes me reflect on myself:

“how could it know of anything / beyond the hollow between your ribs? / how could it want?”

If you can’t tell by now, I highly recommend this collection. InsideOut Literary Arts hosted the book release for Soft Animal Wounds in late February, a few short weeks before social distancing and stay-at-home orders were enforced in Michigan. Because of this, distribution of this collection is currently limited. If you’re interested in getting your hands on this book, reach out to me: Justin@insideoutdetroit.org.

InsideOut is also hosting a digital literary festival called Essential Words: InsideOut’s Louder Than a Bomb Youth Poetry Festival. The virtual events began on April 30 and run through May 7. Hosted by poet LaShaun Phoenix Moore, events include discussions, workshops, and more. Check out the website for more, and follow the activity on Instagram, @LTAB_Essential. I can’t wait to report back on our digital experience next week!

Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
4.29.20

There are only a couple days left for this year’s National Poetry Month and I wanted to celebrate by highlighting some New Orleans poets and their recorded readings. Some have been created during the COVID-19 quarantine and others showcase the venues we miss visiting. If you’re looking for virtual readings to watch from home, check out the online events in the Literary Events Calendar and follow me on Twitter, @nolapworg.

1. Jessica Kinnison, cofounder of the Dogfish reading series, reads poems for the Virtual New Orleans Poetry Festival 2020.

2. Sunni Patterson reads a poem with musical accompaniment for the Letters From the Porch video series, which brings musicians and performers together to offer gratitude to the medical community.

3. Slam New Orleans member FreeQuency reads her poem “Lessons on Being an African Immigrant in America” at the 2014 National Poetry Slam Finals.

4. Brad Richard reads from his collection Parasite Kingdom (The Word Works, 2019). Richard codirects the LGBTIQ reading series the Waves with poet Elizabeth Gross.

5. New Orleans poet Skye Jackson reads from her chapbook, A Faster Grave (Antenna Press, 2019), for a book launch reading at Malvern Books.

6. Justin Lamb, a former Slam New Orleans member and the program director at Bard Early College in New Orleans, performs “The Friend Zone.”

7. Megan Burns, cofounder of the New Orleans Poetry Festival and Trembling Pillow Press publisher, reads for the Unlikely Salons reading series at the Zeitgeist Theatre and Lounge in Arabi, Louisiana.

8. Gina Ferrara, host of the Poetry Buffet series, reads her poem “The Religion Once But No Longer Shared” at Cafe Istanbul in New Orleans.

Bonus: 826 New Orleans program director Kyley Pulphus offers an online writing workshop for their #agoodtimetowrite series.

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
4.28.20

Hey, mi gente. I want to get right to the point and keep up the flow of discussion on the publishing houses here in Houston. Throughout the month I’ve written about Arte Público Press, Mutabilis Press, and Bloomsday Literary, so I’ll keep it going today and introduce you to Calypso Editions.

Calypso Editions is the city’s main publishing house focused on translation—getting books written by foreign authors into English. In addition, they publish books of poetry and fiction written in English and are committed to “providing a space for talented, new voices.” One of the main things that has always caught my attention about Calypso Editions is that it is a cooperative! That’s right—it is a nonprofit press that is artist-run, which makes their publishing choices all the more engaging and remarkable.

They are also a community-oriented publishing house. Back in 2017, when PEN America planned out the Writers Resist reading in New York City, Calypso Editions was one of the first organizations that was willing to stand with Houston writers as we planned our own Writers Resist events.

On May 1, Calypso Editions will release The Child Who, a book by Jeanne Benameur, translated from the French by Bill Johnston. This work of poetic prose explores the worlds of a young boy whose mother has disappeared, his father, and the boy’s grandmother. As always, Calypso Editions hopes to introduce yet another wonderful voice to a new audience of English-language readers.

Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
4.27.20

It has been my pleasure to dive into books from Detroit authors during quarantine days and I’m excited to share another book with you this week. Soft Animal Wounds is the first collection by 2019 Detroit Youth Poet Laureate Mahalia Frost. Since her appointment, Frost has become a prominent figure in the Detroit youth poetry community. I am proud of her growth and her work on this collection! Here, I will give you my reflections on the first half of this book.

Soft Animal Wounds dives deep into Frost’s imaginative mind with complex images that throw the reader curveball after curveball. Themes range from self-reflection to relationships with family and the surrounding world. Even when a question isn’t asked, the reader can find a question to explore between the lines. I found myself on my toes through one of my favorite poems early in the book “Ghazal With a Trace of Something Disappearing” with lines like:

“I run inside the crimson oceans of a song”

Frost’s open honesty is felt through many of the ways she chooses to build imagery. Some may find parts painful or grotesque, but Frost finds a way to make everything tie back to a larger meaning—often with commentary on her own relationships.

“...I remember her calling me wound / when we went to the doctors they said mother’s body / was trying to kill her & I sat there quiet like a good wound”

As I near the midpoint of this collection, I am further impressed by the poetic forms that are being explored by Frost. She seems to take a liking to the ghazal form and even has a poem that requires the reader to turn the book horizontally. Dialogue, footnotes, and other writing techniques truly show the growth and dedication of this young poet.

Soft Animal Wounds by Mahalia Frost.
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
4.22.20

To continue celebrating National Poetry Month, here is the second half of my recommended New Orleans book list to read during quarantine. I hope you enjoy and remember to support your local writers, small presses, and bookstores however you can as we all get through this difficult time together.

1. Poems Don’t Have to Be Perfect: 2019 Pizza Poetry Anthology by 826 New Orleans. The poems (some about pizza) from this anthology by young writers ages 6–18 are collected by the nonprofit 826 New Orleans at their annual Pizza Poetry event, which publishes student poems on the boxes of local pizza joints.

2. City Without People: The Katrina Poems (Black Widow Press, 2011) by Niyi Osundare. The Nigerian-born poet connects his roots with the African influences of New Orleans and recalls the people who helped him when he lost his home to Hurricane Katrina.

3. Louisiana Midrash (University of New Orleans Press, 2019) by Marian D. Moore. Moore writes about her African American Jewish experience in this wonderful collection of poetry.

4. Memory Wing (Black Widow Press, 2011) by Bill Lavender. Lavender has written more than ten books of poetry and is the publisher of the popular local press Lavender Ink. This collection reads like a memoir taking us deep into his family life and experiences in Arkansas and New Orleans.

5. Fractal Song (Black Widow Press, 2016) by Jerry Ward. Esteemed professor and scholar, Ward writes poems with imagery that bring the fractures of life together.

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
4.21.20

I keep reading about independent bookstores closing due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and I’ve also been thinking about the state of small presses during this time. With this in mind, I am glad to have the opportunity in this blog to present to you more of the publishing houses that make Houston tick.

I started the month by featuring Arte Público Press and Mutabilis Press, so I’ll keep it going and introduce you to the rookie on the block, Bloomsday Literary.

Bloomsday was established just about five years ago, and in that short time they have made a strong mark on the publishing world. Their latest publications include former Houston poet laureate Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton’s Newsworthy and Jabari Asim’s Stop & Frisk: American Poems, both hard-hitting books on contemporary themes that we need in this day and age.

On top of publishing amazing works of literature, Bloomsday hosts and runs F***ing Shakespeare, a podcast series where they talk all things literary with writers from all over the country. The podcast is a refreshing way to advocate for writing, interview authors, and highlight the work of wonderful writers like recent guests Jericho Brown, Edan Lepucki, and Phong Nguyen. I secretly want them to invite me to be a guest!

Coowners Kate Martin Williams and Jessica Cole, along with chief creative officer Phuc Luu run Bloomsday and they are delightful folks. They are always on the literary scene around these parts hunting around for the next writer to make shine bright.

Get your hands on their books and listen to their podcast interviews archived on their website.

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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