Poet francine j. harris becomes tenured professor at UH, Kevin Powell named Writer-In-Residence at Prairie View A&M

francine j. harris / Courtesy of University of Houston

Award-winning poet francine j. harris has been promoted to full professor with tenure at the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, Department of English at the University of Houston.

Professorship and tenure are “remarkable achievements on their own accord and rarely granted in unison,” according to UH.

Harris, who joined the UH Creative Writing Program as an Associate Professor in 2019, becomes the first Black woman professor in that program to receive tenure, as harris announced on social media and as confirmed by UH CWP.

This comes at a time when only about 2% of tenured associate and full professors at U.S. universities and colleges are Black women, as harris also noted, according to 2019 data by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Harris won the 2021 National Book Critics Circle Award, considered among the most prestigious literary awards, for her third collection Here is the Sweet Hand. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Cave Canem, and MacDowell Colony, and her work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, Lambda Literary Award, and an Audre Lorde Award.

In an interview with the University of Houston’s Jillian Holden, harris said: “I think a lot about nuance and subtlety. Poetry is the one place I have felt like I have the room just to suggest things … I can digress, tangent and drift off … If more people understood that poetry gives you this kind of freedom, maybe more people would tap in.”

Kevin Powell / Courtesy of Prairie View A&M University

This week, Prairie View A&M University announced poet, journalist, author, cultural critic, and activist Kevin Powell as the second writer-in-residence of the Toni Morrison Writing Program.

Powell succeeds Nikki Giovanni, who served as the program’s inaugural writer-in-residence last academic year. His term began on September 1, 2022, with his first public lecture to be scheduled later this month, according to a press release.

Author of 15 books, including the essay collection When We Free The World, Powell has worked as senior writer at Vibe Magazine, and he has written for The New York Times, CNN.com, The Nation, NPR, ESPN, Essence, Esquire, Ebony, The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, and Rolling Stone, among others.

Following his appearance on The Real World: New York, the first season of the seminal MTV reality television series, Powell wrote Keepin’ It Real: Post-MTV Reflections On Race, Sex, and Politics.

His new poetry collection, Grocery Shopping with My Mother, will published by Soft Skull/Penguin Random House in December 2022.

Powell studies; Powell thinks deeply. He takes a stance on a cornucopia of issues, including, but not limited to, social justice, interpersonal relationships, hip hop culture, and environmentalism, you name it. He challenges a multi-generational audience and issues to them a call to action. Given today’s socio-political climate, nothing could be more timely, especially for HBCU college students for whom the college years are an apprenticeship for thoughtful, meaningful, intentional participation in the change they wish to see.

Provost Emerita Emma Joahanne Thomas-Smith, Director of the Toni Morrison Writing Program

The Toni Morrison Writing Program was established in March 2021 with a gift from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, a former student of Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Toni Morrison. Scott donated $50 million to the University in October 2020, with $3 million of her gift to endow the new program.

The writing program also partners with the Ruth J. Simmons Center for Race and Justice and aims to foster an “exploration of social justice from the perspective of literature, public policy, entertainment, environmental science, athletics, health, and other areas,” according to its website.

Inprint adds newly-named U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón to its 2022-23 season

Ada Limón will be the 24th U.S. Poet Laureate / Courtesy of Inprint

As organizers at Inprint were finalizing the details of the upcoming 42nd season of its Margarett Root Brown Reading Series, one slot in the line-up was still open.

Then, Ada Limón was awarded the country’s highest honor in the field of poetry – the position of U.S. Poet Laureate – as announced on July 12 by the Library of Congress.

Acting quickly, Inprint reached out to Limón to invite her to come to Houston next season, adding her to the 2022-23 roster, which also includes six award-winning novelists and current U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo.

“We were thinking of including Ada in the upcoming season since her fantastic new collection The Hurting Kind was released in May – and I was just about to invite her, when we received the news,” said Rich Levy, Inprint’s Executive Director.

“All the joy in the community about her appointment sealed the deal! We were lucky she was available. A brief email exchange, and we were set,” he said.

Days later, Inprint announced its 2022-23 season – its first full, in person season since the pandemic – with Limón scheduled to appear in a poetry reading and on-stage interview on March 6, 2023, the venue still to be determined at this time.

Levy says he is “thrilled and delighted” at Limón’s new national role.

“Personally, I am a great admirer of Ada’s work – “The Raincoat,” from The Carrying, is I think one of the most moving and concise tributes to the unselfish energy and love of mothers that I have ever read,” said Levy.

Limón begins her term as U.S. Poet Laureate on September 29, succeeding Harjo, who will appear on Inprint’s upcoming season on November 14, 2022 at Rice University’s Brockman Hall for Opera.

“I really truly believe with my whole body in the power of poetry and in the power of poetry to heal and bring together communities and celebrate the interconnectedness that we all have with each other,” said Limón in an interview with the Library of Congress. “And I think this is a huge opportunity to really honor those beliefs.”

Organizers at Inprint say that they loved the idea of presenting both the 23rd and 24th U.S. Poet Laureates in the same season, as part of their mission of championing poetry and nurturing writers everywhere – but also at this moment when poetry may be on the rise.

“It seems in the U.S. and elsewhere that more and more people are reading poetry, and feel empowered to write poetry. And if the pandemic has introduced some folks to the joys of poetry, then I am grateful for that salubrious effect,” said Levy.

“For too long, poetry was an elitist enterprise. I think both Joy and Ada are part of the trend among our Poet Laureates and in general to enlarge and enrich the canon and the field,” he said.

Complete information about Inprint’s season, which includes virtual options, is available here.

Since 1980, the Inprint Brown Reading Series has featured more than 400 award-winning writers of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry from 37 countries, including 19 U.S. Poet Laureates. Limón previously appeared in a joint reading with Pultizer Prize-winning poet Gregory Pardlo in 2017.

Houston’s Youth Poet Laureate writes a poem after Uvalde, speaks out against gun violence

Houston Youth Poet Laureate Avalon Hogans speaks with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, March for Our Lives Houston, June 11 / Courtesy of Avalon Hogans

In the wake of the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, March for Our Lives Houston organized a rally at Downtown’s City Hall on June 11.

Among the approximately 600 people participating was Houston Youth Poet Laureate Avalon Hogans, who was appointed the city’s sixth youth poet laureate last fall. The writer, activist, and recent graduate of Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts performed her poem “A Lesson on the Intruder Drill Alphabet” at the event.

March for Our Lives Houston outside Houston City Hall, June 11 / Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, Twitter

Since the Uvalde school shooting on May 24, there have been multiple mass shootings in the U.S., including one that killed 7 and injured dozens at a July 4th parade in Highland Park, Illinois. According to the Gun Violence Archive, 320 mass shootings have taken place nationally so far in 2022, and Everytown for Gun Safety reports 95 incidents of gunfire on U.S. school grounds this year, with 9 of those in Texas.

Houston Arts Journal reached out to Avalon Hogans for the following interview and permission to reprint her poem written for March for Our Lives Houston. Note: Hogans is now publishing under the name Avalon Jaemes.

A Lesson on the Intruder Drill Alphabet

When I was a little kid,
I knew my ABCs
A, as in apple, the red fruit we eat.
A, as in ant, the small bugs by your feet.
A, as in alarm, the one booming through the intercom,
as you hear the principal yelling, “Intruder alert! Intruder alert!”

B is for be, and
C is for calm.
Be calm,
because if you B as in breathe too loudly, then the B as in bad guy will find you.
So, be calm, and do so with C as in caution.
D is for drill,
as in, “It’s okay sweetie, it’s just a drill,
and when it’s all over you have that math test still.”

E is for eggs, elephant, elbow, and
“Everybody get down!”
F is for fear.
G is for “Get away from the windows and door!”
H is for how and happen.
How could anyone let this happen?
Because I, J, K,
I’m just a kid.

L is for look.
Like don’t look through the window, just look down.
M is for mommy,
who you miss and wish you were with, instead of here where
N, nobody is telling you what’s going on.
Except to say it’s going to be
O-kay.
But you know it’s not, so you ask your teacher if you can
P, please go home.
You’re shushed and told to just be
Q, quiet.

R is for rabbit, rocketship, rainbow, and
reform, a word you’re still too young to know
but will learn to advocate for as you grow,
because the S, silence is
T, too loud.
And twelve years later, when you’re older,
U as in Uvalde will be
V, very deeply grieving in that sound.

So child, I know you’re scared that you can’t even so much as
W, whisper,
ask questions, or even look around,
let alone X, the second letter in explain, how you’re feeling now.

Y is for you.
You will be okay because this is just a drill.
You are one of the lucky ones.

Z is for zebra, zucchini, and zoo.
You made it to the end of the lesson today, school is over,
how blessed are you.

Avalon Jaemes

Can you tell me a little bit about the process of writing this poem? What “inspired” it and its form? What were you thinking and feeling as you wrote it?

The form of this poem was inspired by the alphabet. I chose this as inspiration because growing up, I learned how to recite my ABCs around the same time I learned how to hide from an intruder at school, much like most children in America did. As I was writing this, I was thinking about what it was like to be a child learning how to read, write, and speak, but still not knowing the words to describe how fearful and wrong it is that they must have frequent drills for a possible school shooting.

The school shooting in Uvalde came less than 2 weeks after a horrific racially motivated shooting in Buffalo (and since then there have been more). Would you share how you felt during those days, how you processed the news?

During those days, I felt completely anchored by grief. As a poet and activist, it’s my job to write and speak. But some days it’s impossible to verbalize the magnitude of such tragedies. My heart truly goes out to all the families and friends of the lives we lost. May we continue to fight for this overdue justice.

Houston Youth Poet Laureate Avalon Hogans performs in front of Houston City Hall, March for Our Lives Houston, June 11 / Courtesy of Avalon Hogans

What has it been like for you to grow up during this “era” of school shootings? How has it shaped or impacted your school experience?

Growing up in an era of school shootings has definitely impacted my school experience. It has made me feel very anxious and cautious at times as a student. 

Amanda Gorman and other Houston poets have also written poems in response to Uvalde in its aftermath.  While many people have connected profoundly with those poems on social media, others express skepticism of the importance of poetry during times of crisis. How do you respond to that – why write poetry when poetry alone cannot literally “fix” something?

Poetry may not be a tangible solution to any social issues, but it serves as a megaphone to these issues. Poetry is a form of spreading awareness. Words hold power. Words are not actions. Words command actions. Poetry is important during these times because it connects people together, verbalizes problems and goals, and inspires others to use their own voices.

What are your college and future writing plans? And in the short term, what else is on your plate – and your goals – for the remainder of your term as HYLP through fall 2022?

I’m very happy to announce that I will be attending Rice University in the fall. I plan on majoring in English with a concentration in Creative Writing and minoring in African American Studies. I hosted my Poet Laureate service project in mid-June at Black is Primary, a Juneteenth event curated by [Houston Poet Laureate] Outspoken Bean at Post HTX, where I read poetry, donated books to kids, and hosted a drive where I gathered hundreds of other books to donate to local schools. As for my goals, I want to continue pursuing writing. Earlier this summer, I had my first live spoken word set in a major city outside of Houston, so I am hoping to continue expanding my audiences. And as always, I plan on continuing to use my voice and spark change.

Houston poets respond to the Uvalde school shooting

A woman and girl embrace at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas / Photo by Billy Calzada, San Antonio Express-News

In the wake of yesterday’s horrific shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, in which an 18-year-old gunman killed 19 children and 2 teachers, poet and activist Amanda Gorman responded with a short verse that trails off, capturing a feeling of uncertainty and anxiety:

Gorman, a former National Youth Poet Laureate known for writing and performing President Biden’s Inauguration Poem, also condemned gun violence in a series of tweets and urged the public on Instagram to take action toward greater gun safety.

Amidst national mourning as the names of victims were released into the night, Houston poets began writing and sharing poems on social media to process their anger and grief, to reach out to the community, and to create conversation or prompt action.

Bruno Ríos, an educator, Latin American literature scholar, and founder of Books & Bikes, wrote the poem “RUN. HIDE. FIGHT”:

Ebony Stewart, an international performance artist, activist, and author of BloodFresh and Home.Girl.Hood, shared her poem-in-progress, “Untitled in 4 Parts”:

Aris Kian, 2022 winner of the Inprint Marion Barthelme Prize in Creative Writing, tweeted her poem “In Texas We Pop Prayers Like Pills”:

2022 Texas State Poet Laureate Lupe Mendez shared a poem that he wrote in the aftermath of the Santa Fe High School shooting, “When I Hear That They Want To Let Teachers Carry Guns”:

Information on fundraisers and blood drives to help the Uvalde community is available here and here.

Just last month, playwrights and theater companies across the country, including Houston-based Mildred’s Umbrella Theater, also rallied together in an effort to raise awareness about gun violence through #ENOUGH: Plays to End Gun Violence, a national reading of plays by high school students.

A free performance series encourages COVID-19 vaccine awareness through the arts

L-R: Donald Rabin (“Come Together Houston” project manager), Dr. Courntey Crappell (Director of the Moores School of Music, University of Houston), and artist GONZO247 at the Lyons Avenue Festival, April 9, 2022 / Photo by Donald Rabin

At the height of the omicron variant surge in January, the CDC Foundation awarded $2.5 million in funding to 30 organizations across the U.S. to create arts and culture-based approaches to promote vaccine education and acceptance.

Among the grant recipients was Dr. Courtney Crappell, Director of the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston. 

The arts and culture can be crucial tools in public health communication. Because local artists have long served as trusted messengers and translators of vital information in their communities, they can support vaccine education and acceptance in ways that cut through cultural barriers, skepticism and misinformation.

CDC Foundation

Dr. Crappell and colleagues at the UH McGovern College of the Arts, in collaboration with Houston Methodist Hospital, used the grant to develop Come Together Houston: A Community Arts and Health Partnership – a series of free performances this spring/summer that also brings free vaccinations to underserved and immunization-hesitant communities.

Neighborhoods include Third Ward, where the percentage of vaccinated individuals is lower in comparison to other parts of Houston, said Donald Rabin, the series’ project manager.

Outspoken Bean / Photo by Donald Rabin

Performances will feature four Houston artists: GONZO247, a graffiti muralist; Mariachi Pumas, the UH Mariachi ensemble; Outspoken Bean, Houston Poet Laureate; and Urban Souls, a contemporary dance company.

The first event took place at Lyons Avenue Festival on April 9, and the series continues May through July:

  • May 6, 5:30 – 8pm, Outspoken Bean at MECA Dow Campus (Multicultural Education & Counseling through the Arts) 1900 Kane St, Houston, 77007
  • May 21, 12 – 2pm, Outspoken Bean at Trinity Houston United Methodist Church, 2600 Holman St., Houston, 77004
  • May 27, 5:30 – 8pm, Mariachi Pumas at MECA Dow Campus (Multicultural Education & Counseling through the Arts) 1900 Kane St, Houston, 77007 
  • July 23, 4 – 7pm, GONZO247, Mariachi Pumas, Urban Souls & Outspoken Bean at Discovery Green, 1500 McKinney St., Houston, 77010

During the events, a team from the Moores School of Music will record stories from audience members, reflecting on their COVID experience. Individuals who wish to participate will answer prompts, such as “How did COVID affect you using one word?” and “What did you learn from COVID so far?”

Organizers say the answers will be used to inspire the performances, in an effort to raise awareness of the benefit of vaccines. Digital stories may also be featured on the Come Together Houston website and shared with the CDC Foundation.

Most of the events will have access to free vaccinations, and brochures with information on vaccines and vaccine hesitancy will also be distributed.

Currently, the percentage of fully vaccinated individuals (ages 5 and older) in Harris County is 67%, compared to the national rate of 70%.

Organizers say the series uses the arts not only to encourage vaccination but also to bring the community back together from the pandemic.

Mariachi Pumas at the Lyons Avenue Festival / Photo by Dr. Courtney Crappell

Houston’s literary scene shows signs of surviving – and thriving post-pandemic

BIPOC Book Festival founders Brooke Lewis, Jaundrea Clay, and Brittany Britto; Houston Poet Laureate Emanuelee “Outspoken” Bean; and Houston Poet Laureate Emeritus Deborah “D.E.E.P.” Mouton at Kindred Stories Bookstore / Photo by J. Vince

From national grants to the new BIPOC Book Fest and the return of Writefest, recent developments suggest that Houston’s literary scene is recovering, returning, and growing as we emerge from the pandemic.

Five Houston literary groups will receive aid from the Literary Emergency Fund, which announced last week $4.3 million in funding to support 313 literary nonprofits and publishers across the U.S. – as these groups experience continued financial losses due to COVID-19 and as literary magazines struggle to stay afloat.

The 2022 Houston recipients are:

Launched in 2020, the Literary Emergency Fund is administered by the Academy of American Poets, the Community of Literary Magazines & Presses, and the National Book Foundation, with a grant from the Mellon Foundation.

“In some ways, this year was even more challenging than last year for literary organizations and publishers, as there were fewer opportunities to receive emergency funding but also increased costs including producing hybrid events,” said Ruth Dickey, Executive Director of the National Book Foundation, in a statement.

The emergency funding helps these organizations continue to serve readers, writers, students, and teachers, who “rely on our country’s vibrant ecosystem of literary magazines, presses, and organizations — one that reveals the power and the possibility of the literary arts to the broader public,” according to Elizabeth Alexander, President of the Mellon Foundation.

With plans first announced last fall, Houston’s inaugural BIPOC Book Fest is coming to fruition and takes place this weekend, April 23 – 24.

While the city has seen other notable efforts to support writers of color, the festival is the first of its kind in Houston centered on literary works by and about Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, who are underrepresented in U.S. publishing.

An analysis of children’s books in 2020 shows that only 8% were written by Black authors and 12% centered Black characters, while 7% were by Latinx authors and 6% were about Latinx characters – with those percentages changing little in 2021.

Founded by Houston journalists Brittany Britto GarleyJaundrea Clay, and Brooke Lewis, who grew up with a love of school book fairs, the festival aims to encourage reading through representation, inclusion, and dialogue.

It kicks off on Saturday, April 23 at Buffalo Soldiers Museum with a book fair for adults and teens. The day also includes panels on book banning, the state of Latino literature and publishing, contemporary voices of the Asian diaspora, and comic books, as well as a poetry showcase featuring Texas Poet Laureate Lupe Mendez and Houston Youth Poet Laureate Avalon Hogans. Tickets and a full schedule are available here.

The festival continues on Sunday, April 24 at Smither Park with the Little BIPOC Book Fest, a free children’s event aimed at developing and empowering young readers.

This comes at a time when Houston-area schools are seeing a widening gap in student reading levels due to the pandemic.

The Little BIPOC Book Fest will feature book giveaways, writing workshops, crafts, and storytime with award-winning authors, including Jasminne Mendez and Alda P. Hobbs. Free tickets can be reserved here.

The indie writers’ festival, Writefest, is back after a two-year hiatus.

Founded in 2016 by the Houston grassroots literary nonprofit Writespace, the festival grew from a desire to help local writers not only improve their craft but also connect them with agents, teach them about the industry, and build community.

“The last Writefest was planned for 2020. We already had our keynote selected (poet Jericho Brown, who won the Pulitzer Prize that year), and we were forced to cancel,” said Holly Lyn Walrath, the festival’s coordinator and a board member of Writespace, in an email.

“In 2021, Writespace underwent a shift in board management, and we felt it wasn’t yet safe for all of our writers to hold an in-person event,” she said.

This year, the festival made the decision to go virtual, April 29 – 30.

Nearly 50 editors and writers – many Houston- and Texas-based, as well as those from around the country – will present online writing workshops and panels on topics like submissions, podcasting, publishing, slam poetry, horror fiction, writing for young writers, inclusivity and representation, writing sexuality and gender, and writing through trauma.

There will be two in-person events – a free open mic on April 29 at The Orange Show and a Writefest Social on April 30 at City Orchard Cidery.

A complete schedule and registration details are available here.

“We’ve made this year’s festival more intimate and virtual, so while there are fewer panels than in the past, I think the events will serve our diverse literary community in new ways,” said Walrath. “Writers are starved for engagement.”

No more ‘SPA’ – The organization soon becomes ‘Performing Arts Houston’

Winners and performers of the 2021 Houston Artist Commissioning Project with Mayor Sylvester Turner / Asaeda Badat Photography

After 55 years, Society for the Performing Arts is changing its name to Performing Arts Houston.

The major nonprofit arts presenter publicly announced the new name on April 5 in a newsletter to patrons and on social media.

The new name goes into effect on April 12, along with a new website, new branding, and a new membership program. That same day, Performing Arts Houston will also announce its 2022-2023 season and open applications for its 2nd annual Houston Artist Commissioning Project.

“Dropping the word ‘Society’ from the name helps us welcome everyone to the performing arts. This is an experience for all Houstonians,” said the organization in a statement.

The shorter new name is intended to celebrate the connection to local communities, while capturing the depth of arts presented.

“It also lets us lose the acronym SPA,” stated the organization, adding cheekily: “As therapeutic as the performing arts may be, we are not a spa.”

We’ve presented Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for over 50 years. We’ve brought Marcel Marceaux, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Yo-Yo Ma, Martha Graham Dance Company, Lang Lang, STOMP, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Spalding Gray, American Ballet Theatre, and hundreds more world class artists to our city. Parallel to what you see on stage, our education and community programs create and inspire arts engagement to the wider community. We’re proud to continue that work as Performing Arts Houston.

Society for the Performing Arts, April Newsletter

The new name was first revealed to attendees of its April 2 gala, The Kaleidoscope Ball, which raised nearly $600,000 is support of the organization’s presentations and education and community engagement programs.

Houston Poet Laureate Outspoken Bean writes a poem for Ukraine

Emanuelee “Outspoken” Bean, Houston’s fifth Poet Laureate / Photo by Lynn Lane

Following the February 24th Russian invasion of Ukraine, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner condemned the attacks:

“In Houston, we stand for freedom; for democracy; and for the safety and security of all our residents. We join with cities and countries around the world calling for an immediate end to the violence, to protect human rights, and for the return of peace in Europe.”

Sylvester Turner, Mayor of Houston

The city’s buildings have also been lit in the colors of Ukraine’s flag as a symbol of solidarity with the Ukrainian people in Houston:

Local artists – like Dominika Dancewicz, Axiom Quartet, the Russian Cultural Center, and Holly Lyn Walrath – have responded to the war through their art or through fundraising efforts, as have national artists, like poet Ilya Kaminisky.

Emanuelee “Outspoken” Bean, Houston’s fifth Poet Laureate / Photo by Lynn Lane

Houston Arts Journal invited Houston Poet Laureate Emanualee “Outspoken” Bean to write a poem in response to the Russia-Ukraine war. His poem “lower cased shells at the capital” is published below.

A nationally recognized performance poet and educator, Bean was appointed in April 2021 to serve a two-year term as the city’s fifth poet laureate.

He says he believes in the “transformative” power of poetry to create self-reflection, connection, and empathy.

“Outspoken Bean will demonstrate to the state of Texas and the nation that Houston is resilient, and that arts and culture are part of the strength of our resilience,” said Mayor Turner in a statement last April.

Just as poetry has helped Houstonians through the COVID-19 pandemic, now –in this time of heightened international strife – poetry may play another role in offering hope, healing, and strength.

Mural by artist Shelbi Nicole. Located 112 Travis Street, Houston / Photo by Catherine Lu

lower cased shells at the capital
by Outspoken Bean, Houston’s Poet Laureate 

lower cased shells
scattered across
Ukraine’s capital. 
bruised broken skin
only braises Ukrainians’ spirit 
lighting ragged 
russian vodka bottles
burned when 
there is 
only round tables 
no position is turned 
strength is found 
through vantage 
surviving a home invasion 
creates new adages
to share 
which is the receipt of 
the living.

heroic to leave 
courageous to stay 
cowardice took trains 
from moscow to Ukraine 
bordered door 
as war knocks
to answer
           is with molotov cocktails 
to answer 
            is with dismantling street signs 
to answer 
            is to court your home’s advantage 
to take it here 
when it was brought 
from there 
if resistance finds comfort
reject its advances. 

the language of collision 
is comedic but not comical 
it’s Kyiv slapstick, rocks, and slingshot 
starving out goliath tanks 
the gigantic are hearts wrapped in 
blue and yellow 
and
the tongue of strength says 
“I’m not hiding.”
so that their people can.  

Houston poet Holly Lyn Walrath writes a poem for Ukraine

Photo by Max Andrey from Pexels

When poet Holly Lyn Walrath tweeted, “In the face of war, write love poems,Houston Arts Journal invited her to write a poem in response to the Russia-Ukraine war.

Walrath created an erasure poem, which she considers a “form of resistance.” The poem emerges from the words that remain on the page, after portions of a found text have been obscured.

“Literature for Ukraine” by Holly Lyn Walrath

Walrath started with text from the Encyclopedia Brittanica entry on Russian Literature.

“I drew flowers over the dictionary page and hand-painted over them, leaving the words of the poem to read,” she said. “The paint is acrylic, but I watered it down to achieve a stained-glass effect.”

Walrath also shared her thoughts on poetry and war in the following interview:

What inspired this poem?

I kept thinking about the video of the Ukrainian woman, who told Russian soldiers to put sunflower seeds in their pockets so when they die on Ukrainian soil, a flower will grow. “Put the sunflower seeds in your pockets, please. You will die down here with the seeds. You came to my land. Do you understand? You are occupiers. You are enemies.”

I think this woman struck me and many others as very brave. But the idea of sunflowers – the national flower of Ukraine – growing from the corpses of soldiers is a complex and heartbreaking image. War obliterates both sides, on a human level. 

Art by Kiki Neumann, a Houston folk artist. Made from recycled sign letters, metal sunflowers & paint / Photo courtesy of Kiki Neumann Creations

What is an erasure poem?

Erasure or blackout poetry is the act of erasing certain words on the page. The words that remain become the poem. It can be done in lots of different ways, but the most common form is to “black out” with a black marker the lines on the page.

This technique mirrors censorship in most government “censured” documents, which use tape or black marker to remove sensitive information. Other techniques include digital erasures, which use font/color to erase words, visual erasures using images or collage, and cut-out forms. 

What draws you to this form? What are you trying to achieve each time you create one?

In many ways, erasure is a form of resistance. By literally erasing someone’s words, you are removing the power of those words. For example, I recently did a series erasing Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s order on trans children. 

A friend commented that the erasure put into words what she had been struggling to say about the order. This kind of engagement helps me process world events.

You recently tweeted: “In the face of war, write love poems.” What do you mean by that? Do you consider this poem a love poem?

I think all poems are love poems, ha. All poetry is about love – whether it’s about grief or the body or nature. To write a poem about something is to love it, I think. Because something has to bury itself deep in your creative consciousness in order for you to want to write about it. I like to say, “write what you love, love what you write.” 

What are your thoughts on the purpose of art and poetry during times of war and crisis?

I am struck by the story that Ilya Kaminsky, a Ukrainian-American poet, told on Twitter. He said he reached out to Ukraine to a publisher to ask if they needed anything – how he could help. They told him to send poems.

At face value, Ilya is a popular and successful poet. So publishing his work would boost the publisher. But on a deeper level, I think people crave art in troubling times. We cling to things we love and that spark joy for us. We watch movies, TV, read books and comics to process the world. There is so much we don’t have control over. It’s terrifying. But in the end, I do believe poetry matters. I do think the Ukrainian poets who are writing during a war matter.

In a tweet following up with the publisher, the man said, “I need nothing. I feel I am a witness to a catastrophe, but I need to live through it like everyone – and together with everyone.” Poetry is a way of living through something.

Would you like to share any personal thoughts on how the war in Ukraine has affected you?

From a very young age, I declared myself to be a pacifist. I think any death is a catastrophe, and perhaps that makes me naive. Call me Pollyanna, I’d rather be full of hope than full of hate. While I am not directly impacted by the war right now, the entire world is and will be impacted by this situation for years to come. We don’t know still what is to come. Writers and artists need to be witnesses to this disaster, and we also need to balance that with activism to force our leaders to stand up for displaced people worldwide. 

Houston’s only Spanish literary series complements other local efforts to showcase diverse Latinx writers

Colombian writer Margarita García Robayo will be featured on Inprint’s “Escritores en la casa” series on March 3 / Courtesy of Inprint

Close to 40% of Houston’s population is Spanish speaking, and the city is a geographic and cultural pathway to Latin America.

“We believe it’s important to present a literary series that reflects this,” said Krupa Parikh, Associate Director of Inprint – a literary nonprofit that has presented readings and programs in Houston for nearly four decades.

In 2018, Inprint founded Escritores en la casa, which remains the city’s only Spanish-language literary series. That distinction is based on Houston Arts Journal’s review of multiple local organizations and corroborated by sources in the writing community.

Conducted entirely in Spanish (besides a brief introduction in English at each event), the reading series –which is free – features acclaimed authors from Latin America, Spain, and the U.S. It is curated by literary experts with direct ties to the genre.

“We think it’s important to leave the curation of the series to those that have a deep and complex understanding of contemporary Spanish language literature and are publishing books in Spanish,” said Parikh, who forms Inprint’s leadership with Executive Director Rich Levy.

“Therefore, we are thrilled and grateful to be working with Bolivian novelist and Inprint Advisory Board Member Rodrigo Hasbún, as well as Cristina Rivera Garza,” she said. Rivera Garza is the Director of the University of Houston’s Spanish-language Creative Writing Ph.D. Program – the first of its kind in the U.S.

Similar to Inprint’s longtime Margaret Root Brown Reading Series, authors on the Escritores en la casa series read from their works and are interviewed by a local writer during each event. Spring 2022 readings include:

March 3: Colombian writer Margarita García Robayo, winner of the Casa de las Américas Prize and the English PEN Award, will be interviewed by Rose Mary Salum, founder and director of the bilingual magazine Literal, Latin American Voices and the publishing house Literal Publishing.

Alejandra Costamagna / Courtesy of Inprint

March 24: Chilean writer Alejandra Costamagna, winner of the Anna Seghers Prize for Literature in Germany and a finalist for the 2018 Herralde Prize, will be interviewed by Rodrigo Hasbún, novelist and Inprint Advisory Board Member.

Rodrigo Rey Rosa / Photo credit: sololiteatura.com

April 21: Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa, considered one of the most prominent writers on the Guatemalan literary scene, will be interviewed by Saúl Hernández-Vargas, an interdisciplinary artist, writer, and Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Houston.

Readings start at 7pm CT and are virtual this season. Free reservations can be made online.

While Inprint’s Escritores en la casa is the only series of its kind in Houston, there have been numerous efforts over the years to showcase the diverse stories, identities, and activities within the local Latinx literary landscape.

Parikh points out that one-off readings and other events take place around Houston, adding: “Literal by Rose Mary Salum does amazing work championing Spanish authors, and there is a group called Escritores Cronopios that gathers local Spanish writers in a sort of open mic. There is also an annual [international literature] festival by Casa Cultural de las Americas.”

Tintero Projects supports Gulf Coast-based Latinx writers through workshops and poetry readings, and it recently co-organized the 5th Annual Sin Muros: A Borderless Teatro Festival.

Lupe Mendez, Tintero’s co-founder, says that his organization is working to bring back its open mic, which has been slow to revitalize during the COVID-19 pandemic. Mendez is also in the process of planning projects and initiatives for his term as 2022 Texas Poet Laureate, which officially begins in May.

Writer-activist Tony Diaz founded Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say in 1998.

“It is a literary movement that began as a reading series featuring nationally published writers and new writers from the community in English, Spanish, and Spanglish,” said Diaz. “We have expanded to include multi-platform broadcasts from radio to social media.”

Though his organization has “curtailed in person events due to COVID-19,” Diaz continues to present Latinx writers on his radio show, which airs Tuesdays at 11am on KPFT.

He also says that Nuestra Palabra places a community representative in every Houston City Council District, in order to organize events in that district. And he is anticipating more activities next year for Nuestra Palabra’s 25th Anniversary.

Parikh says she thinks Inprint’s Escritores en la casa series complements the “awesome” and “important” work of these local organizations – many of whom have collaborated with Inprint or become friends through their shared love of the Houston literary scene.

For Mendez, the admiration is mutual.

“With such a diverse literary landscape for Latinx writers and Latin American writers, it is remarkable to have such a variety of offerings … Inprint and Escritores en La Casa contain such a beautiful moment of literary oro – gold and light everytime they open their doors,” said Mendez.