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.

2.4.20

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.
1.21.20

This week I want to spotlight the amazing work done by the podcast Bootleg Like Jazz. It’s funny because everyone seems to have ties to Nuestra Palabra—Icess Fernandez Rojas, featured in last week’s post, is a member of the group as am I, and the creator of Bootleg Like Jazz, Terrell Quillin, better known as Q, is the Nuestra Palabra Radio Show’s producer! I have been following the work of Bootleg Like Jazz, aka #bllj, and I love the format and energy behind the podcasting. It’s an interview style format where Q focuses on the Black Diaspora, Afro-Latinidad, and Latinx culture. #bllj covers the arts, music, travel, and books.

I was lucky enough to be tapped for an interview and it was great experience. Q asks all the important questions with a great balance of information about who the artists are and what’s behind the work they are creating. Q has interviewed local writers like Deborah D.E.E.P Mouton and Leslie Contreras Schwartz, Houston’s former and current poets laureate, respectively, and writers outside of Houston like Roberto Carlos Garcia, a New York City poet and author of the collection black / Maybe (Willow Books, 2018).

The podcast started last year and puts out episodes every month. If you are looking for a fresh take on the literary world, then look no further than Bootleg Like Jazz.

Lupe Mendez is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Houston. Contact him at Houston@pw.org or on Twitter, @houstonpworg.
1.20.20

Looking ahead to what to expect from me in 2020, I am excited to continue offering installments of the Detroit Writers Circle (DWC), a gathering of literary minds with an aim to build community. Each gathering includes an information session and discussion, and ends with a writing workshop and informal open mic. The first DWC was held last August at Tuxedo Project, and was followed by a second gathering at ArtBlock in October. Both were welcomed opportunities to bring people together and produced strong conversations about what a sustainable literary event circuit would look like in Detroit.

Local writer Cheryl L. attended the first DWC and informed us of a hashtag she began on Facebook to help find literary events in Detroit: #2019StandingRoomOnly. This year look out for #2020StandingRoomOnly for future events. Cheryl was passionate about the literary talent in the city and impressed with their ability to completely pack Detroit’s poetry venues. Adding this hashtag when posting upcoming events has made finding new events far easier. As I mentioned in my last post, word of mouth and social media are the primary means for circulating information about literary events—especially poetry events—in Detroit. This simple hashtag has already led me to numerous events.

The opportunity to learn more about what is happening in the city through conversation is absolutely my favorite part of the Detroit Writers Circle. Our first gathering of the year will be held at Pages Bookshop on February 8, from 3:00 PM to 5:30 PM. We will have a featured performing artist, LaShaun Phoenix Moore, joining us! For more information, RSVP on our Facebook event page or reach out to me at Detroit@pw.org.

Detroit Writers Circle featuring LaShaun Phoenix Moore.
 
Justin Rogers is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in Detroit. Contact him at Detroit@pw.org or on Twitter, @Detroitpworg.
1.15.20

One Book One New Orleans is a campaign for literacy and community where New Orleans residents share the experience of reading the same book at the same time. The city has many great writers but its adult illiteracy rates are troubling. I had an opportunity to speak with One Book One New Orleans’s executive director Megan Holt and ask a few questions about the organization’s mission and how reading books together can build community. Megan and I have worked together at the Words & Music Festival for the last two years but most importantly, we are friends that share a love for motherhood and literacy.

Can you tell us a little bit about the mission of One Book One New Orleans?
One Book One New Orleans selects one book each year for New Orleans residents to read. We make an extra effort to ensure that our selected book is accessible to all adults. Through a network of community partners, we get the book, as well as a curriculum for the book, into adult education classes, adult ESL classes, HiSET classes, educational programs in juvenile justice centers, and prisons. We also arrange for the book to be recorded and broadcast for the blind community. Finally, we host a series of free, family-friendly events inspired by the book.

Why is it so important to get the whole city of New Orleans reading?
Often it feels that New Orleans is a city divided—by education level, by socioeconomic class, by neighborhood, by race. Bringing people from different walks of life together through a shared reading experience can be the first step to realizing that we have more in common with one another than we thought.

How can reading as a city transform New Orleans?
Increased adult literacy is linked to lower poverty rates, lower crime rates, lower domestic violence rates, better chances of securing a job that pays a living wage, better health care outcomes, and increased participation in the democratic process. These effects then get passed on to the next generation. While it would be overly simplistic to say that reading together as a city is a magic cure-all for some of the struggles our city faces, coming together certainly can serve as a catalyst for change.

What are some of the books the city has read together in the past?
Our first book in 2004 was A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines. The last few years we’ve included titles such as Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans by Louis Armstrong, Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas by Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker, and Counting Descent by Clint Smith.

What’s the book for 2020?
New Orleans Griot: The Tom Dent Reader
edited by Kalamu ya Salaam.

One Book One New Orleans executive director Megan Holt. (Credit: Paula Burch-Celentano)
 
Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.
1.14.20

Last week, I highlighted the work of Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say, and their long-running radio show. Today, I want to spotlight local writer Icess Fernandez Rojas, a member of Nuestra Palabra. Rojas is a masterful writer and blogger who focuses her efforts on all things fiction, in particular mystery and noir. A former journalist, she is a graduate of Goddard College’s MFA program and currently teaches in the English Department at Lone Star College-Kingwood.

Over ten years ago, Rojas created the blog Dear Reader, where she offers tips to fellow writers and welcomes them into her writing life. Recently, she expanded her blog into a weekly podcast of the same name. The podcast, hosted by Rojas, focuses on mental health and the writing life and acts as a guide to “help you write your best life.” Take some time, folks, to read and listen to what Rojas puts out. She is an unsung hero in our writing community.

Dear Reader: Mental Health and the Writing Life, a podcast hosted by Icess Fernandez Rojas.
 
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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