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.

12.3.19

I would like to take time to focus some attention on a few of the literary organizations helping Houston shine bright. Houston VIP Slam, currently led by Houston’s poet laureate Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton, is a slam team that provides community for writers who want to take their stories to the stage. Houston VIP has just celebrated ten years of their program and they show no signs of stopping.

I have been a big fan of their work and dedication for quite a while and the format for their monthly slam is so inclusive and so necessary for community building. Each slam is scheduled for the last Saturday of the month and begins with a writing workshop, a unique structure that provides time and inspiration for new work to be created. Local poets and anyone in attendance for the slam are invited to participate in a series of writing exercises led by the night’s emcee. The workshop usually takes place between 7:00 PM and 8:00 PM.  The slam begins at 8:00 PM and concludes with a featured poet taking the stage to wow the crowd. 

Houston VIP holds twelve slam events for the year, with one poet winning each slam. The winning twelve poets then move on to compete in the Grand Slam at the end of the season for a spot on the Houston VIP National Poetry Slam Team. The top five poets from the Grand Slam represent Houston at the annual National Poetry Slam.

The next workshop and slam will be on December 14 featuring Rudy Francisco. If you’re in the Houston area and looking for something to do on a Saturday night, go by. It is truly a beautiful experience. 

The 2018 Houston VIP National Poetry Slam Team. (Credit: Christy Lee)
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.

12.2.19

Lia Greenwell is a poet and essayist currently living in Detroit. We work together at InsideOut where Lia is the operations coordinator. Recently I was able to speak with Lia, who offered fresh insight on how Southeast Michigan has influenced her writing.

Originally from Adrian, Michigan, Lia first discovered the magic of writing in The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, which she describes as full of “colorful, lyrical prose.” Although the novel was assigned for school, it felt different from the other books she had been reading. “I had never seen language used like that before, especially in something that I was reading for school. Cisneros’s prose took away the idea that books all had to look and feel the same.”

Although Lia began writing as a poet, she says, “poetry felt like I had to fit my writing into too small of a format—it felt strict. Prose allowed my writing to be weird.” I personally found this very relatable as someone who started out writing (very bad) fan fiction, and thought my path in writing would be confined to novels. Much like Lia, the discovery of a new genre (for me it was poetry) allowed me to go in new directions.

Lia is a graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina and worked with youth writers through the Girls Write Now program in New York City. When asked about how leaving and returning to Michigan has affected her as a writer, Lia says, “I had to leave and come back to see what the landscape meant to me.” Lia has lived in Detroit for over three years, but still feels like a newcomer and enjoys discovering local venues and writers. “I think of places like Room Project. I feel like there is always something new being revealed there.”

I enjoyed the opportunity to speak with Lia and discuss the long-term transitions that a writer goes through to find their niche and community. It was encouraging and made me think of how writers often feel isolated on the journey to find their place in the literary world. In Detroit, there is a home for writers.

Lia Greenwell. (Credit: Tyler Klifman)
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
11.27.19

In New Orleans, you don’t have to be an adult to hone your skills and find a literary community. Youth writers are thriving and preparing to lead the next generation of New Orleans writers.

Here are a few places where young writers can find resources and adults can hear some amazing youth writers share their work:

N.O.Y.O.M.: The New Orleans Youth Open Mic was started in the spring of 2014. N.O.Y.O.M. is open to seventh through twelfth grade students in the Greater New Orleans area and provides a stage and space for young people to explore themselves and share their experiences with their peers through writing. N.O.Y.O.M. partners with the Ashé Cultural Arts Center, which hosts their shows on the third Wednesday of the month, and the New Orleans Public Library is often on-site proving free books and additional resources for all students in attendance.

826 New Orleans: I served on the board in the early days when it was called Big Class. The 826 New Orleans Youth Writing Center has after-school programming, workshops, and field trips for young writers aged six to eighteen. It’s a beautiful space on St. Bernard Avenue with a shop full of books, including student publications, 826 T-shirts, and more.

NOCCA: New Orleans Center for Creative Arts is the local school of the arts that offers intensive instruction in culinary arts, dance, media arts, music, theatre arts, visual arts, and creative writing. Their creative writing program is robust and rigorous. I’ve taught classes there on several occasions and students are reared to enter creative writing programs in the future.

Scholastic Art & Writing Awards: The Greater New Orleans Writing Project is an affiliate sponsor that administers the Scholastic Writing Awards for Southeast Louisiana. The competition provides awards to writers in grades seventh through twelfth in our region in writing categories that include flash fiction, novel writing, personal essay and memoir, and poetry.

Can you imagine having all these resources as a writer in high school? Amazing!

Young writers at 826 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.
11.26.19

Hey mi gente! This week I wanted to spend a little time putting a spotlight on what community building through writing can look like. Here in Houston, we have writing groups that focus on poetry or fiction, and those are excellent workspaces being put together, but there is a need for information about the world around writing and publishing for writers of color. Enter the Colony Summit—a space and group designed to be a resource for writers of color in the Houston area.

The idea is super simple: Give writers of color a space to meet, provide some snacks, some ideas, some experts, and some resources and let these writers ask questions. Tintero Projects, a group I started for emerging Latinx writers, has a hand in organizing these events, along with support from VIP Arts Houston, Houston Public Library, My Brother’s Keeper, Houston Department of Health, and the Mayor’s Office of Education.

This project is still fairly new. So far it’s been a year of meetings. The Colony Summit meets quarterly and so the meetings are always packed. This all began as an idea batted around by Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton, the current poet laureate for Houston, and me about a year ago. We both felt more needed to be done to gather all the writers of color up in the city and get folks talking to one another about where they are in their writing and what ways we could provide support. For example, some writers don’t know about submissions to literary journals or how to create a Submittable account for submissions. Others want to know about fellowships and residencies, or are just searching for community.

Our last Colony Summit meeting was on November 9, but be on the lookout for the next one. If you are in the Houston area and want to check out a session, don’t hesitate. Look for @vipartshouston on Instagram for announcements and more information.

Writers at a recent Colony Summit meeting.
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
11.25.19

I love having an opportunity at the end of each week to reflect on the connections I have been able to make as a literary outreach coordinator. I want to take this opportunity to highlight venues in the city that have been getting more involved in the literary community through events, workshops, and books.

Spread Deli in Detroit’s Midtown area (formerly known as Cass Corridor) has a mission to “spread good vibes and great sandwiches.” On December 17, they will be opening their doors to host an open mic starting at 5:00 PM. This small but inviting space is also a fantastic choice for any writer who needs a place to write during the day.

Detroit Sip has been a supportive space for community activists and writers, and home to numerous workshops sponsored by Riverwise. Detroit Sip shares a building complex with Neighborhood HomeBase, a new community space that hosted this year’s Write-A-Thon Detroit. Located in the city’s University District, this is another small and welcoming space that remains rooted in its surrounding neighborhood.

Norwest Gallery of Art is a growing gallery in Detroit’s Rosedale community along the developing Grand River Creative Corridor, an art corridor and neighborhood revitalization project. The gallery is dedicated to contemporary arts with a curatorial focus on African and African American artists, and is open for rent to literary artists seeking event space. In fact, Riverwise writing workshops have been hosted here as well.

Norwest Gallery is directly next door to Pages Bookshop, which often hosts readings with authors of new books. Pages will be offering 10 percent off for teachers on Black Friday, and is an annual participant in Small Business Saturday. Another community-based bookstore to support is KAN Books (Know Allegiance Nation Books), which is dedicated to authors and artists of color in Michigan and beyond. Located in Detroit’s North End, the bookstore and co-op space hosts writing and self-publishing workshops and aims to bring communities together by inspiring the next generation of writers.

I hope that this list of Detroit venues encourages everyone to visit a new space and strengthen our literary community.

Readers at a KAN Books event.
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
11.20.19

“Are you in line?” asks a man wringing out the rain from his shirt behind me. He tells me he is there to see Ta-Nehisi Coates.

As I scan the line of people waiting to enter Temple Sinai on Saint Charles Avenue, I think to myself, I wonder if anyone would ever stand out in the rain to hear me speak.

On October 30, the rain didn’t stop New Orleans from packing the main floor and balcony of the temple to see Jesmyn Ward in conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates. Ward, an acclaimed novelist and professor at nearby Tulane University, asked Coates questions about his new book, The Water Dancer, and if it was difficult to transition from writing nonfiction to writing his first novel.

“In a novel you have to pay attention to details and almost obsess about them in ways you don’t have to in nonfiction,” said Coates. He gave an example of how in fiction, you have to include what kind of curtains are hanging when a character enters a room.

Coates was charismatic and blended his journalist instincts and oftentimes flipped the questions asked of him onto Ward, especially when asked the question she hates being asked, “What are you working on?” His reply, “I don’t know Jesymn, what are you working on?”

Ward acquiesced to the reply and talked about a new novel she’s working on that is set in New Orleans. In turn, Coates responded that he’s just touring for now, but projects are always in the works.

The event ended with questions from the audience ranging from the 2020 election to civil discourse. In a reply to a question about how to speak to people who don’t want to hear views different from their own, he told the audience that we can’t put too much stock in people whose minds are already set. “Life is short,” said Coates. “We got books to write.”

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
11.19.19

This week I wanted to spotlight a beautiful, new reading series that is run entirely in Spanish, known as Lecturas en Español de Comité Permanente (the Permanent Committee Readings). Comité Permanente is organized by the brilliant students currently studying in the PhD program in Spanish with a concentration in Creative Writing at the University of Houston, the first program of its kind in the United States.

A small group of students, many of whom are prize–winning authors from Latin America, got together to create some space for Spanish-language writing and reading outside of the confines of the program. Founding writers and organizers include Ana Emilia Felker, Mauricio Patrón Rivera, and Raquel Abend van Dalen. Officially this group is hard to find, outside of Facebook where members of the organizing committee post invites to readings and Instagram where you can find them @comitepermanente.

Comité Permanente provides a space to celebrate the writings of people in the UH program, but also invites Spanish-language writers and readers in Houston to enjoy good writing. They have even incorporated an open mic into their events to welcome writers of any age to share their work.

I was happy to inform them about the Readings & Workshops mini-grants, which have helped fund their readings. So far I have had the chance to check out two of their readings with open mics and am looking forward to what comes up next! If you are in the Houston area, and are looking to catch something new, please head into the Montrose area and check out the next Comité Permanente reading, which are currently held at Inprint.

Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
11.18.19

In 2016, Detroit became part of the National Youth Poet Laureate program, a joint initiative of Urban Word NYC and the InsideOut Literary Arts, Penmanship Books, the Academy of American Poets, Poetry Society of America, and Cave Canem. With over forty cities participating, the program now honors one youth poet laureate to be named the National Youth Poet Laureate. Each poet must submit writing and a community engagement idea for an opportunity to be chosen by a panel of esteemed judges, which has included former U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera and National Book Award winner Elizabeth Acevedo.

For the 2018 term, Detroit named Imani Nichele as our city’s youth poet laureate. Since spring of 2018, Imani has led workshops, written two books, and read and performed her work on many stages. I took a moment to speak with Imani about her development as a writer.

“My biggest writing influence has been my internal competition,” said Imani about what inspires her to keep writing. When we spoke about what her community can do to offer writers more support, Imani said, “I want the literary community to help by offering more spaces to meetup. I want to know who I can reach out to and how to find them.”

This reminded me of the work that numerous artistic organizers and I are aiming to do in order to build a more connected literary community in Detroit. It’s been motivating to begin making these connections in response to an ask for such community. Sharing information about our Readings & Workshops mini-grants and offering the Detroit Writers Circle workshops are just a couple ways we are aiming to address this need.

When I asked Imani what she thought her work would look like in twenty years, she wisely responded, “It’s impossible for me to know what my art will look like in twenty years—I don’t know who that woman is yet.”

I am excited about the seeds being planted that will blossom in the near and distant future. Imani has recently passed the torch to the 2019 Detroit Youth Poet Laureate, Mahalia Hill, who is continuing to forge this path for young Detroiters. 

Imani Nichele, the 2018 Detroit Youth Poet Laureate.
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
11.13.19

“I want you to show them the difference between what they think you are and what you can be.”
—Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

I met Ernest J. Gaines, who died on November 5 at the age of eighty-six, at the Louisiana Book Festival a couple of years ago. After a talk he gave from his wheelchair, I introduced myself and told him I was trying to be a writer. “Keep trying and reading,” he replied. It was said with the kindness and warning of an elder that knew trying (i.e. many bad drafts and rejections) is a precursor to being a writer.

Gaines represented a pride in the South and the African American experience of his rural Louisiana childhood through his writing. Born in Oscar, Louisiana, the son of sharecroppers, Gaines graduated from San Francisco State University and attended graduate school at Stanford University. He was the author of eight novels, including The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (Dial Press, 1971), A Gathering of Old Men (Knopf, 1983), and A Lesson Before Dying (Knopf, 1993), which received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 1993. In addition, Gaines was the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship and a MacArthur “Genius” grant.

If you’re ever in Louisiana and have some time on your hands, stop by the Ernest J. Gaines Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Gaines donated his early papers and manuscripts through 1983 there, and it is expected that the center will acquire the remainder of his papers.

Ernest J. Gaines.
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
11.12.19

Hey mi gente! This week I want to draw your attention to some indie bookstores here in Houston, the HOU.

Indie bookstores are independently operated as a small business and I am proud to say we have many in town that help build the literary fabric of the city. These spaces are important and special because they help bring authors into town and invite locals to see and hear new voices. Indie bookstores inform and build community with every reader that enters their doors.

Here are a few shops in town that I often frequent:

Brazos Bookstore is a solid space to find anything current and fresh, and the go-to spot for readings from local and national writers. They do an amazing job at keeping up with a special section for books by local writers.

Casa Ramirez is located in the heart of the Heights, in the Northside. Although it’s not technically a bookstore, Casa Ramirez Folkart Gallery has always served as a cultural pillar providing a space for community and art. Casa Ramirez houses folk art, pieces by local artists, Dia de los Muertos events, Mexican artisan work, and a large selection of books written by Latinx writers, from children’s books to short story anthologies. They also host poetry readings, author talks, and storytelling events.

Kaboom Books is a used bookstore in Woodland Heights just above Downtown Houston. I love this space because, although it focuses on used books, they have a great outside patio to host readings featuring writers with new work. Many local literary organizations have used the space for book launches and the shop owners are always all about it.

Murder By the Book is a beautiful, small shop that focuses on thriller, suspense, and mystery genres. They regularly host author readings and Akashic Books’ Houston Noir celebrated its launch party there this past May.

To find indie bookstores in your area, check out the Literary Places and Reading Venues databases.

Saeed Jones reads for a recent event at Brazos Bookstore.
 
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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