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.

3.23.20

Michigan has implemented social distancing for just over a week now, meaning many of us are doing our best to self-isolate. What better to do with this time than blow the dust off of the bookshelf and dive in? For today’s post I’d like to do a quick reflection on a poetry collection by one of my favorite writers, and a past mentor of mine, Aricka Foreman.

Dream With a Glass Chamber is Aricka’s chapbook published by YesYes Books in 2016. Her imagery is prominent and haunting throughout, allowing the reader to grasp dreams, memories, and grief with lines like:

“...find us making promise, find us clutching the static / of a wormhole where we settled into disappointment”

Place and time play a role in these poems moving us from Detroit in the eighties to the month of September in New York and back again, evaluating different losses along the way. Emotional complexities that shift from platonic to romantic flow seamlessly throughout, introducing close and distant characters that carry the collection from beginning to end. One of my favorite lines in the entire book is:

“Numb, I’ve run out of wicks and / your songs pour thick in my ears, love.”

It seems as if every word written is a part of Aricka’s many nuanced ways of grieving while her reality acts as the glass chamber, where both she and the reader watch these concepts unfold. I think this is best captured in her poem “dream in which you survive and in the morning things are back to normal,” a very fitting title for a poem that questions reality after waking from a dream. Throughout the entire collection, we are reminded to continue evaluating the fine line between dream and reality, and how grief exists on each side of that line.

Aricka Foreman, author of Dream With a Glass Chamber.
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
3.18.20

As I type these words the case count of residents in Louisiana who have tested positive for coronavirus is 196. The total number of cases in Orleans Parish in New Orleans is 136.

On Sunday, New Orleans mayor LaToya Cantrell announced that the city enforced a ban on large gatherings and the Tennessee Williams Festival, the New Orleans Book Festival, and the New Orleans Poetry Festival have been canceled.

I will do my best to share resources and ways to support local authors and bookstores through my Twitter feed, @NOLApworg.

The coronavirus will be a blow to our city in many ways. New Orleans is a city that heavily depends on tourism. We are a port city and a large event destination city. We are the city of Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest. Many local writers have had readings canceled or postponed. Local bookstores are impacted, too. While I’m sure this narrative is nationwide, the uncertainty and rising deaths in our state underscore the trauma experienced from a lack of federal response during Hurricane Katrina fifteen years ago.

In some ways we are prepared and know how to hunker down. We know how to find small moments of joy. So to everyone near and far, I say to you, we will get through this because one of the things New Orleans has taught the world is how to survive.

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
3.17.20

As I mentioned last week, many of us were not able to attend the AWP conference earlier this month, but it did create some special moments, not only in San Antonio but in other cities and online. Although we are in a time when many events are being canceled or postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, I wanted to continue to highlight some great literary festivals and conferences we can look forward to that take place in Houston. So far, I have already covered Sin Muros: A Latinx Theater Festival and Comicpalooza, and today I want to feature Fade to Black.

Fade to Black is Houston’s first national play festival to showcase the new works of African American playwrights. It’s a brilliant lineup of national, regional, and local playwrights displaying their craft. The summer festival is jam-pack with play readings and performances read and produced by African American writers and actors, many of which are from here in Houston.

This past year’s festival celebrated their seventh season and was held last June at the Midtown Arts and Theater Center Houston (MATCH). Festival goers come in from all over the state of Texas and the country. The plays of ten finalists from a national competition are produced and performed, and there are writing workshops and playwright panels that are all part of the three-day festival. If you are a writer thinking about how to step out from behind the desk or want to engage in something performative, then this is just the ticket. In addition, the organizers have added in a Fade to Black reading series with live readings of even more plays. There is so much inspiration from this playwriting community!

Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
3.16.20

Michigan saw its first coronavirus (COVID-19) case early last week. In an effort to be preventative, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency last Tuesday. Organizations across Detroit have closed offices and asked team members to work from home. Detroit Public Schools Community District and surrounding districts have been ordered to close their buildings to students through April 6. Whitmer also ordered an official ban that prohibits gatherings of over 250 people, and recommended gatherings of over 100 people to be canceled or postponed, and reminded the public to wash hands frequently, stay home if sick, and to check in on family and friends.

I find it important to look at each of the ways we are responding to best understand the enormous circumstance that has been placed upon those who don’t have the resources to simply stay home and be safe. Students being out of school doesn’t mean that their parents have the same luxury of staying home, and lack of food security could put many families in crisis. Several literary events have been cancelled thus drying up the main source of income for many full-time artists. These are just a few ways that the coronavirus outbreak puts people at risk beyond just exposure to illness, and it will get worse before it gets better.

With that said, resources are popping up left and right within the community to help get us through the next few weeks. For parents looking to make sure their young ones are able to keep up academically, a Google Doc has been created that lists free educational resources. In addition, Kekere Emergency Childcare Collective is forming mutual aid childcare for families with an online sign-up sheet for those who can help with childcare, transportation, supplies, and food. I am keeping an eye out for resources for artists who are losing funds due to canceled readings or their own canceled event series. Many writers are taking to Twitter for ways to support working artists by buying books, merch, or making other financial contributions. Keep up with my findings on Twitter, @Detroitpworg, and stay safe! 

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

 

3.11.20

It’s Women’s History Month and I wanted to take a moment to shout-out ten women writers living in New Orleans that you should know about and can follow on Twitter. These are just a few of many amazing women who live in this thriving literary city doing phenomenal work.

Bernice L. McFadden
@queenazsa
McFadden is the author of the novel The Book of Harlan (Akashic Books, 2016), winner of the 2017 American Book Award. Her latest novel, Praise Song for the Butterflies (Akashic Books, 2018), was longlisted for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Cate Root
@cateroot
Root is a poet who helps run a monthly literary salon called Dogfish, which invites the public to a free poetry reading set in a living room. She also has a very active Twitter feed and you can subscribe to her love letters.

Andy Young
@andimuse
Young is a poet and teaches in the creative writing department at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.

Dr. Mona Lisa Saloy
@redbeansista

Dr. Saloy is a scholar, author, and active member of the Louisiana Folklore Society. Her latest book, Second Line Home: New Orleans Poems (Truman State University Press, 2014), is a collection of poems that celebrates the language and people of New Orleans.

Stephanie Grace
@stephgracela
Grace is a political columnist for the New Orleans Advocate, our local newspaper.

Fatima Shaik
@FShaik1
Shaik is a native of New Orleans and the author of adult and children’s books, including What Went Missing and What Got Found (Xavier Review Press, 2015), a short story collection depicting life before and after Hurricane Katrina.

Megan Burns
@bloodjetpoetry
Burns is a poet, publisher of Trembling Pillow Press, and cofounder of the New Orleans Poetry Festival.

M. M. Kaufman
@mm_kaufman
Kaufman is a writer and alumni of the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans, and the publicist for the Tennessee Williams & New Orleans Literary Festival.

Kristina Kay Robinson
@_Kristina_Kay
Robinson is a writer and New Orleans editor at large at Burnaway, a nonprofit magazine about contemporary art from Atlanta and the American South.

Jami Attenberg
@jamiattenberg
Attenberg is the author of seven books of fiction including her latest novel, All This Could Be Yours (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019). You can read more about her writing process in her installment of Poets & Writers’ Ten Questions.

What women writers influence your work? Tell us by using #WomenWritersTaughtMe and tagging @nolapworg on Twitter.

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

Pages