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.

2.12.20

What’s the history of poets laureate in your state or city? New Orleans doesn’t have a poet laureate but the state of Louisiana makes an appointment every two years. For Black History Month, I’m highlighting the past and present African American poets laureate of Louisiana. Through their poetry and service, these poets have led the way for the next generation of New Orleans writers and beyond.

Pinkie Gordon Lane (1989-1992)
I did not have the opportunity to meet Pinkie Gordon Lane before she died in 2008, but I have great admiration for her. Lane was the first African American poet laureate of Louisiana. Born in Philadelphia, Lane moved to Baton Rouge in the 1950s and became chair of the English Department at Southern University. Lane was also the director of an annual Black poetry festival in the 1970s that was a destination for writers such as Toni Morrison and Nikki Giovanni. Lane’s second book of poetry, The Mystic Female (1978), was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1979. Her influence on New Orleans writers is unmeasurable.

Brenda Marie Osbey (2005-2007)
Of this short list, Brenda Marie Osbey is the only New Orleans native. I’ve met Osbey and heard her read several times in town. She captures New Orleans history with detailed precision in her writing. Summoning Our Saints: The Poetry and Prose of Brenda Marie Osbey (Lexington Books, 2019) is a new book of essays about her work and career edited by John Wharton Lowe. In-depth analysis of Black writers is not always readily available, and the essays in this collection thoroughly examine Osbey’s place in African American and Southern writing.

John Warner Smith (2019-2021)
John Warner Smith is a Cave Canem fellow, as am I, but we didn’t meet until we were both featured readers at the state’s library a few years ago during National Poetry Month. Smith is the first African American man to be appointed Louisiana poet laureate and I interviewed him last fall for this blog shortly after the announcement. His latest book, Our Shut Eyes: New and Selected Poems on Race in America, was published by MadHat Press last year and he currently teaches English at Southern University. Smith has only been the poet laureate for a few months, but I look forward to seeing how he’ll utilize the position to implement poetry throughout the state.

Let’s keep the conversation going: What should the role of a poet laureate be? Find me on Twitter, @NOLApworg.

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
2.11.20

Hey gente, I hope the first month of the new year has been good to you. I just finished a series of posts about a variety of ways to take part in the literary scene in Houston that are different from attending a reading or participating in a writing workshop. Today’s post will give us a little break from events and outlets. I am going to be a little selfish and share some things that I have been reading, listening to, and watching. It’s a busy life, so sometimes you just have to dig in and enjoy things in the comfort of your own home. Don’t worry—these are all still things definitely Houston and entirely literary that offer a taste of the city and new voices. Hope you enjoy!

Lupe’s “Take a Break” List (counting down from five):

5. A video of Fady Joudah and Carmen Giménez Smith reading for the 2018/2019 Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series.

4. An interview with Houston author Bryan Washington for the Guardian.

3. An interview in Houstonia with Houston’s fourth poet laureate, Leslie Contreras Schwartz.

2. “Not-So-Subtle Asian Traits” by Houston writer Joshua Nguyen posted on Medium.

1. A video of the Houston finalists for the 2018 Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival.

You can keep up with literary news at Poets & Writers Magazine’s Daily News, and check out more videos of readings and author interviews in the Poets & Writers Theater.

Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
2.10.20

Last week, I was invited by poet, professor, and event organizer M. L. Liebler to take part in his reading series known as Poets & Pies. As the title suggests, this literary showcase brings together a mix of writers and delicious pie! While the series is held at various locations around Metro Detroit, the February 5 event took place at the Main Branch of the Detroit Public Library.

The Main Library is a historical building listed in the National Register of Historic Places that is part of the city’s Cultural Center Historic District in the Midtown area. It is home to various spaces that are open to public use. For Poets & Pies, we found ourselves in the Explorers Room, a basement-level performance space complete with a stage, piano, and private bathrooms.

I shared the stage with Lori Tucker-Sullivan and Ruben Guevara. Lori is a Detroit-based writer whose poems, essays, stories, and reviews have appeared in various magazines and journals. Her essay “Detroit, 2015,” which explores her decision to return to Detroit after the death of her husband, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Midwestern Gothic and received a notable selection in Best American Essays 2015. Ruben is best known as the front man of the 1970s experimental rock band Ruben and the Jets and shared his history with the band and other encounters in the world of rock music. He also read a couple poems.

This event was funded in part by a Poets & Writers mini-grant. We enjoyed poetry, pie, and hilarious reflections on the life of a rocker. I think that Poets & Pies is a perfect example of how to curate a literary event that serves Detroiters of all artistic backgrounds while keeping things fresh and exciting. Their upcoming events will be held at the Hannan Center every month beginning on May 4. Check it out if you’re in town!

Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
2.5.20

For Black History Month, I will be writing about Black writers and institutions that have contributed to the Black literary experience in New Orleans. This first post is dedicated to Community Book Center.

When I walk into Community Book Center, I feel like I am stepping into my grandmother’s house. I’m usually greeted by the straight talk of Mama Jen (Jennifer). “Where yo ass been?” is usually her first question to me followed by, of course, a hug. It is the balance of realness and love that makes this place so special, not only for me but for so many Black writers in the city.

If you are a Black writer in New Orleans, it’s likely not every literary door is open to your work. At Community Book Center, the emphasis on community allows Black writers of all levels and genres an opportunity to promote and sell their books, and discover authors that make you feel represented and invited in.

Community Book Center is owned by Vera Warren Williams and is currently the only Black-owned bookstore left in New Orleans, to my knowledge. It has thrived for more than thirty years and survived Katrina, gentrification, and the ever-changing publishing industry.

Whenever I’m there, I feel a sense of pride because I don’t have to look for the African American section like in other bookstores—the entire store ignores the white gaze that Toni Morrison often spoke about. When I browse the shelves and see all the books for children, women, parents, and families that span the Black and African experience, I know that I am home. Thank you, Community Book Center!

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
2.4.20

This will be the last in my series of posts exploring the unique platforms that contribute to the literary community in Houston, which have included Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say, the blogs and podcasts Dear Reader and Bootleg Like Jazz, and the ekphrastic series Words & Art. Today I want to let you know about the Afrofuturism Book Club.

Educator and Detroit native Jaison Oliver founded the Afrofuturism Book Club in 2016 with the hope of building community around a shared interest for fantasy and science and speculative fiction written from a Black perspective. The format is real chill. The group meets monthly to read and discuss short stories by authors like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Octavia Butler, and Samuel Delany, as well as comic books, films, and television series. I haven’t had a chance to attend a meeting yet, but I know they are happening, because every time I see Jaison post about the book club, I want to kick myself for not attending.

I know from the last invitation I saw online, the book club covered the new HBO television series adaptation of Watchmen for their January meeting. Every month is something new to enjoy! Meetings are usually held at a cozy, local coffee shop and you can sign up to find out more.

Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
2.3.20

It’s time to take another look at Detroit’s literary friendly venues. I hope that these recent discoveries of mine are useful to you, and be sure to check out their upcoming events.

ZAB Cultural Collective is a community-driven coworking space on Detroit’s East Side. ZAB is a cozy, artistic space that has hosted writing workshops and performances, and has open mic nights on the first Saturday of every month at 7:00 PM. They offer Wi-Fi, tables, and free coffee and tea for working writers and artists. The space doubles as a retail contemporary art gallery featuring a wide range of local and traveling artists.

Motown Museum in Detroit’s New Center area has been home to Motown Mic: The Spoken Word, a poetry slam series dedicated to the Motown legacy and the next generation of creative artists, for the past four years. The museum recently hosted a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day tribute performance by recent winners of the slam. In addition to the historic building, the museum is undergoing an expansion that will undoubtedly include additional performance space. Keep your eye out for this gem!

Eastern Market Brewing Co. is a craft brewery that opens its doors to an event called First Draughts every third Tuesday of the month, which is organized by Writing Workshops Detroit. The mission of First Draughts is to “bring writers out of the wilderness and into the community.” Writers meet other writers, talk literature, and share work. This is a great low stakes way to get involved with a tight-knit literary community.

If you find yourself at any of these venues, I would love to hear about your experience! You can also help spread good news about venues and literary events by tagging me on Twitter, @Detroitpworg, or listing them on our 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.

 

1.29.20

Many writers know me in New Orleans. I’ve served on literary boards and coordinated festival events, and now I am a Poets & Writers Literary Outreach Coordinator. So, what’s that? Through a grant from the Hearst Foundations, Poets & Writers launched a pilot initiative in 2019 called the United States of Writing in three cities: Detroit, Houston, and New Orleans. Each city has a literary outreach coordinator to help spread the word to writers about the resources Poets & Writers has to offer and to contribute to and strengthen our literary community.

Although my job is less than part-time, I am very busy trying to encourage writers to apply for Readings & Workshops mini-grants, which provide funds for literary events in New Orleans (as well as in Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Seattle, Tucson, Washington, D.C., all of California, and New York State). I try to attend as many literary events around the city as possible. Sometimes I make myself known, other times I’m in the back enjoying the event quietly. When I can’t get to an event, I try to make sure I tweet about it on Twitter, @NOLApworg, or post events on P&W’s Literary Events Calendar.

I enjoy reporting about literary events in New Orleans to the P&W staff and to you all through this blog. One thing is for sure: Literary scenes are not one-size-fits-all. Regional culture influences local literary scenes in cities across the country. Detroit is not Houston. Houston is not New Orleans—and you know what? That’s a good thing! Every city contributes to the national literary landscape, and I am committed to working in a way that is authentic to New Orleans.

My job is also to find out what I don’t know. So if you have a question, an event, or a recommendation, or if you want to organize a gathering in New Orleans, let me know. I’m here for you, 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.
1.28.20

This month I have been featuring a variety of platforms that contribute to the literary community, including the work of Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say, and blogs and podcasts such as Icess Fernandez Rojas’s Dear Reader and Terrell Quillin’s Bootleg Like Jazz.

Today I want to shout-out the work of Mary Wimple and her workshop and reading series Words & Art. I’ve known Mary and her partner Chuck Wimple for more than ten years and have had the pleasure of seeing Mary kick major can as a poet performing her work all over town. Mary is soft-spoken, so when you get a chance to see her in action, it’s dynamite. Her energy carries over to Words & Art. The series is all about community and is accessible for any writer with a passion for the arts.

The format for these events is so inviting: Mary will host a writing workshop of sorts, really it’s an art appreciation field trip to a local gallery or museum. Participants will discuss the artwork, work on writing prompts, and discuss the effect of the art on the writing. From there, Mary will set up a future date for a reading that features poetry and prose pieces based on the artwork from the exhibit that was visited. Anyone interested in reading (even if you didn’t attend the workshop) just needs to check out the submission guidelines and submit work to Words & Art by the deadline to be considered. Selected readers will be notified about a week before the event and the public is invited to attend. I attended one of these events a while back and it is powerful work. If you love art and writing, then this is a space for you.

The next deadline for submissions is February 1 and the reading will be held on February 13 at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.

Chuck Wimple reads for the Words & Art reading series.
 
Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
1.27.20

As a Detroiter who lives in the world of poetry, I see an abundance of poetry workshops, open mics, and other events that come about regularly, and there are even more happening as we approach National Poetry Month in April. As I learn more about the poets in this city, I also learn more about where writers of other creative writing genres thrive. I want to take this opportunity to highlight two spaces—one that makes room specifically for storytellers and another that has been home to a variety of artists.

The Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers was founded in 2012 by Satori Shakoor, and the monthly series features one of the oldest literary art forms: the oral tradition of storytelling. I find myself impressed each time I attend an event. From the smooth production to the storytellers that I am introduced to, I always know I will be served up a unique offering of creativity. I highly recommend their events for novice writers and seasoned writers alike. You can see their next event on February 14 at 8:00 PM at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. 

The Scarab Club is neatly tucked between the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Wright Museum in Midtown Detroit. The over one hundred-year-old building is home to visual arts in the form of paintings, tapestries, and mosaics built directly into its walls. You can also enjoy the visual, literary, and performing arts of local artists through their eclectic programming. Recent events have featured poet Naomi Long Madgett, comics artist and journalist Laura Kenins, and author and editor Maya Schenwar. The exhibitions and events of this historic space are always inspiring.

Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
1.22.20

There’s nothing like living in New Orleans, especially during Mardi Gras. You’ll see the wacky, the tacky, and everything in between. The school band around the corner from my house practices their songs and steps for one of the many parades happening during the season. As students make the block, neighbors and I often rush out the door to catch a glimpse of them polishing their moves and sound. If you haven’t been to New Orleans during Mardi Gras season, what are you waiting for?

Before you catch those beads, catch these reads and prepare yourself for all that is Mardi Gras. And if you can’t make it to the streets in February, these books can offer you a true taste of the celebration. As it’s often said in New Orleans, “laissez les bon temps rouler” or “let the good times roll!”

Cherchez la Femme: New Orleans Women (University Press of Mississippi, 2019) by Cheryl Gerber. Cherchez la femme is a French phrase which literally means “look for the woman.” This book, which was just released in time for this year’s Mardi Gras, captures the essence of what it means to be a woman in New Orleans culture. There are amazing photos and essays written by women about women including musicians and second-liners, and local favorites like Leah Chase and Irma Thomas.

New Orleans Carnival Krewes: The History, Spirit & Secrets of Mardi Gras (The History Press, 2014) by Jennifer Atkins. Can you say pomp and circumstance? New Orleans does it better than any other American city. Balls. Gowns. Masks. Parades. Parties. Learn about the traditions and history of the carnival krewes behind the celebrations with this book.

Lords of Misrule: Mardi Gras and the Politics of Race in New Orleans (University Press of Mississippi, 1997) by James Gill. If you want some tea on Mardi Gras, this is a good start. There are no traditions without politics. Read about the history, codes, and racism intertwined with Mardi Gras. Find out what’s really behind some of those masks.

From the Kingdom of Kongo to Congo Square: Kongo Dances and the Origins of the Mardi Gras Indians (University of Louisiana at Lafayette, 2017) by Jeroen Dewulf. This is my favorite book on this list and traces the history of Black Indian masking to its African roots. This is a must-read that explores the connection between Black Indians in New Orleans and Native American culture.

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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