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.

2.26.20

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.
2.25.20

As we prepare for our participation in the annual AWP Conference & Bookfair in March in San Antonio, I thought I’d share some of the literary festivals and conferences that Houston hosts. Last week, I wrote about Sin Muros: A Latinx Theater Festival, and today I want to tell you about Comicpalooza.

First, I have a confession: I am a comic book nerd. There, I said it. Some of you might read this and judge me and that’s okay. The real shameful thing is that I have never been to Comicpalooza and it looks exciting as hell!

This festival is now in its fifth year and boasts a thorough showing of comic fandom, appreciation, and literary craft. There is a slew of programming for every kind of audience, from cosplay to craft writing workshops on fantasy and noir, to open mics and DIY workshops on storyboarding for graphic novels. The festival even includes a Literature Conference with author panels, critique sessions with fellow writers, and fan roundtable discussions. The three-day event is Texas’s largest comic convention and what I love is that it’s all about community. If you’re interested, you can participate—that’s right, submissions are currently open for panel discussions and workshops. This year, Comicpalooza will be held over Memorial Day weekend, May 22–24 at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Downtown Houston. So if you happen to be in town, I hope to see you there!

Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
2.24.20

Tuxedo Project resident fellow Rose Gorman has been working in conjunction with the Center for Detroit Arts and Culture at Marygrove College to help organize this year’s Contemporary American Authors Lecture Series. The series, which began in 1989, invites a nationally-known author to the campus for a lecture and reading that’s free and open to the public. There is also programming surrounding the event throughout the city that introduces Detroiters to the work of the featured author. Last year the series brought Elizabeth Acevado, a Dominican American poet and the author of The Poet X and With the Fire on High, to Detroit. I had the honor of sharing the stage with Acevado at Marygrove for the reading. Witnessing so many people there to hear Acevado’s words after weeks of diving into her work was moving to say the least.

On April 2, Roxane Gay will be featured and at the center of attention for this year’s event. Leading up to the date, numerous literary workshops, readings, and other activities will take place in the city to absorb Gay’s published works. According to Gorman, they are expecting to have programming happening every day of the week for the entire month of March! You will be able to find one-off events as well as weekly workshops encouraging participants to sit with a single text for more than one meeting. These will be hosted at locations such as the Room Project and Tuxedo Project.

Events begin this week and on Sunday, March 1 at ZAB Cultural Collective, a special five-week program will allow participants to enjoy a discussion group for Gay’s memoir, Hunger, that explores the text through the creation of visual art. These sessions will be led by Rose Gorman and artist Amanda Koss. “People can dive into emotions that they feel through color and shape,” says Gorman about the program. “The meaning is unique to the artist.” Read more about this program and register for events here.

Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
2.19.20

My New Orleans Black History Month series of posts continues today with the NOMMO Literary Society. It’s impossible to talk about New Orleans Black literary history without talking about Kalamu ya Salaam and the NOMMO Literary Society.

Many of you may not know that NOMMO was founded by Salaam in New Orleans in 1995, a rare Black writers workshop established a year before Cave Canem. That summer, Salaam had led a writing workshop for male students on the invitation of Tommye Myrick at Southern University New Orleans. Poet Ayo Fayemi-Robinson (formerly known as Kysha Brown Robinson) then questioned Salaam about the exclusion of women writers in the workshop and from that encounter, NOMMO was born and had its first meeting that fall.

The workshop consisted of three parts: a selected reading, a “housekeeping” to share information about upcoming literary events and resources, and giving and receiving feedback on original compositions. The physical space of NOMMO had shelves full of books and CDs of music by Black artists, and there was a monthly reading held at Community Book Center.

The name NOMMO has two origins. First is the central African concept of NOMMO being the power of the spoken word. Second is from Salaam’s sarcastic quip that it was time for the elevation of the Black vernacular and “no more of that literary shit.” The workshop met weekly and hosted several prominent writers, such as Amiri Baraka, Staceyann Chin, Toi Derricotte, Terrance Hayes, Major Jackson, E. Ethelbert Miller, and Sonia Sanchez.

Hurricane Katrina ended NOMMO in 2005, but the legacy lives on through published books by alumni like Jericho Brown, Jarvis DeBerry, Freddi Williams Evans, and Keturah Kendrick.

New Orleans has a long literary history, including the 1845 publication of Les Cenelles, the first anthology of poetry by African Americans which featured the work of seventeen New Orleans poets. NOMMO was a continuation of this rich tradition of African American writing that lives on today.

NOMMO Literary Society reunion at Community Book Center in 2014. (Credit: NOMMO)
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
2.18.20

Last week we took a little break and I hope you enjoyed my list of things to check out. Beginning this week, I want to highlight the big events: conferences and festivals. As many of you know, we are gearing up for a massive conference, the annual AWP Conference & Bookfair, run by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, taking place in San Antonio, Texas in March. Poets & Writers and the literary outreach coordinators—Justin, Kelly, and I—will be there so come say hello if you’re at AWP!

Keeping that in mind, I’d like to dedicate some time in this blog to celebrate the literary festivals and conferences that take place here in Houston, including Sin Muros, Comicpalooza, Fade to Black Play Festival, and Zine Fest Houston.

First up, Sin Muros! Now in its third year, Sin Muros: A Latinx Theater Festival is a community-led playwriting festival focused on Texas-based Latinx voices and stories. The festival is put on by Stages, a nonprofit organization and historic theater in Houston, and offers a ton of access to literary craft for emerging artists. In Spanish, sin muros means “without walls” and the festival embodies this theme through its events.

Stages works with community leaders—playwrights, dramatists, poets, and activists—to put together a four-day festival for the public with many free events. Two plays (which are a part of Stages’s regular season) serve as anchors to a series of play readings and poetry readings; a generative, writing workshop (any genre is welcome); a professional development workshop for theater teachers; a children’s play; a town hall meeting focusing on issues Latinx artists face; and a poetry tent filled with booksellers, local literary organizations, and poets. Stages works with several literary and performance organizations to put the festival together, including Tintero Projects, Gente de Teatro, and TEATRX. Some of the work is in English. Some of the work is in Spanish. All of the work is Tejano.

This year’s festival over this past weekend was a great success. Every year it gets larger and larger, and I can’t wait for the next one.

Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
2.17.20

Grover Easterling is a poet, activist, and educator currently living in Detroit. Grover and I were both students in the after-school program Citywide Poets organized by InsideOut Literary Arts, so naturally we became friends and writing partners. After we graduated from the program, we attended classes together at Wayne State University and led a student organization called WayneSLAM (aka Wayne Student Literary Arts Movement). The organization offered a space for artists of different genres to showcase themselves in a monthly open mic. Grover and I led the series from 2013 to 2016. I had an opportunity to catch up with Grover last week and asked him a few questions about his experience with WayneSLAM and the literary scene in Detroit.

What impact did WayneSLAM have on you?
As an artist it gave me the opportunity to help other artists get paid to share their art, to put money on the table for young writers of color. The series also showed me many different styles of poetry and the varying levels of where folks are at in their art.

As a youth, your family settled down in Troy, Michigan. What differences did you notice when you sought out the literary scene in Detroit?
I wanted to invest in Black art and what made me feel seen, and that wasn’t present in Troy. When I visited Detroit, I was exposed to various cultures and their art scenes. In Detroit’s literary scene, people are more willing to be radical in their writing. People are more comfortable with their Blackness here.

How have Detroit’s artists and writers influenced you outside of your writing?
They help me stay innovative. Being around poets has given me tools to sharpen my skills as a political and environmental organizer.

Recently, Grover released a video titled “Change the Climate 2020” featuring newsclips mixed with a reading of his poem “All Be Green” in an effort to bring awareness to environmental issues in Michigan as the 2020 presidential election approaches.

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

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