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.
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?
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.
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.
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 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.
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 calledEscritores 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.”
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.
“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.
When the Sin Muros Teatro Festivalbegan in 2018, actor and writer Jasminne Mendez called it “groundbreaking”– the first of its kind in Houston to center several days of performances on the stories and voices of Latinx playwrights and actors.
A festival co-founder, Mendez continues to serve on the task force of writers, performers, and scholars that organizes Sin Muros each year, along with her husband Lupe Mendez, 2022 Texas Poet Laureate and this year’s festival coordinator.
Now in its 5th year, Sin Muros has grown to encompass the largest number of Latinx theater-makers in its history – more than 30, including playwrights, directors, cast, crew, and stage managers from local colleges and universities.
“On behalf of the Sin Muros Teatro Festival – we welcome you back to the magic making – al puro son del corazón! Come see what all the buzz is about, come see cutting edge work from every kind of thing that is Tejano.”
The festival also honors Ruby Rivera, Artistic Director for the Texas Salsa Congress and a leading female Salsa organizer on the national scene. Rivera will be presented with the 2022 Premio Puenta, an award bestowed by festival organizers on “an individual or organization who has demonstrated great skill, talent, drive, or care in serving the Latinx art community in the Houston area.”
The festival schedule, with play descriptions, can be found here.
Houston Arts Journal reached out to Lupe Mendez for the following interview:
Why is this festival needed?
Though there are some really good spaces and people creating Latinx theater, we don’t have one space to call our own. From Gente de Teatro to Teatrx, there are no (to my knowledge) full-on theater spaces dedicated to Latinx theater.
It’s been a problem for a long time. The spaces that should have it, that you would expect for it to exist in, can’t afford it. It’s part of the institutional racism legacy of major cities – we know who has the dollars to invest in the arts, and it is always the case that artists and theater-makers of color have to jockey for space and money. This festival is necessary because it provides a space to celebrate, to honor, to catch a spark of Latinx playwrights and build connections to hopefully one day see these amazing works in full productions.
Any thoughts on how it reflects – or maybe even leads the way – in what is happening nationally in theater and efforts towards diversity?
Oh yes, I feel that when spaces like Stages are willing to open their doors and do so with care, with a “Hey look, we got this space and we got these resources, tell us what to do” attitude, you are literally inviting in a community to make a new home and it becomes a moment where everyone benefits. They listen. They ask questions. They trust, and I want other communities to find this kind of support. It is out there. You don’t have a space of your own? I am hoping you can find it in theater-making spaces who will trust you and open doors.
What are the goals of the festival?
The goals of the festival are to highlight the work of Texas-rooted Latinx playwrights with play-readings still in the developmental process. We are now moving into the next phase of the festival – finding ways to ensure that one play moves on to be a part of Stages’ regular season, thus creating a pipeline and launching pad for Latinx playwrights. Can you imagine?
How have you seen the festival impact the community and artists over the past four years?
LEGACY. I am serious. I had posted on Facebook that 20+ years ago, when I was a younger actor, I had a hard time getting cast in shows (we know why) and I gave up my acting dreams and focused on poetry. And now, as the Festival Coordinator for Sin Muros, I am in a different position to help provide space for some of the actors I used to work with. Some of the actors that have come to Sin Muros love it so much, they came back as Assistant Directors and now, Directors.
We are helping build resumes and artistic CVs. Hell, we are creating work worthy of archival acknowledgment. I told that to the artists who are a part of this year’s Sin Muros: “Be aware that you are making history. You are a part of a larger plan, a larger momentum. Stages holds its archives at Rice University and this whole program goes there.”
We make history every day we move forward. We are worthy of being spoken about, of being researched because this work is vital, it is necessary, it is grand. So yeah, study us, you future academics looking into what makes up Latinx theater. This is a part of your knowledge base. See how we build dreams.
In 2020, according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, only 228 (or 7%) of 3,299 published children’s books were written by Latinos and only 200 (or 6%) centered Latino characters.
Arte Público Press – the nation’s oldest and largest Hispanic publisher in the U.S. based at the University of Houston – is launching a new $5,000 award that aims to inspire and support more first-time Latino authors of books for children and teens.
“There just are not enough writers producing works for and about Latino children. In particular, the Reyes-Olivas Award is squarely targeting those who have written for adults to encourage them to write for young adults and children,” said Dr. Nicolás Kanellos, founder and director of Arte Público Press.
“Latino kids need to see themselves and their families in books, which will contribute to positive feelings about their identity,” said Dr. Kanellos. “Reading books by Hispanic authors will help kids believe they are important—in school and society—and will hopefully lead to increased educational achievement.”
The Reyes-Olivas Award for Best First Book of Latino Children’s and Young Adult Literature will be given annually, starting in the fall of 2022. In addition to the prize money, the award includes publication of the book, an advance, and future royalties.
In an email to Houston Arts Journal, Arte Público Press described the selection process:
“We’ll send calls for submission multiple times throughout the year … we are looking for books that authentically represent the lives of Hispanic children. So we’re not looking for re-tellings of Grimms fairy tales or books about life in Argentina or Spain. We want our books to speak to Hispanic kids living here, which means we might publish books about migration from Central America (given the influx of children and families from the region and the issue of unaccompanied minors, etc.), for instance. Our award committee will review appropriate submissions year-round and will make a decision by August for publication later in the year.”
The award is named for Dr. Augustina “Tina” Reyes and Dr. Michael Olivas, both retired University of Houston professors, who donated $80,000 to create an endowment for the prize.
“At a time when politics have brought libraries and teachers under fire, it is more important than ever to step in and encourage support for reading education, including the wide array of children’s literature by and from our community,” Reyes and Olivas said in a statement.
The couple say they plan to raise an additional $45,000 to ensure that the $5,000 award can be given each year using endowment interest.
The Reyes-Olivas Award is among the latest Houston-based efforts to support writers of color, including a new BIPOC Book Fest set to take place this spring.
The grants range from $5,000 to $50,000 for 59 artist collectives and 61 arts organizations – with support from the Ford Foundation, Houston Endowment, The Brown Foundation, Inc., The Cullen Foundation, Kinder Foundation, and The Powell Foundation.
“This is a moving moment because there are many grantees who are being funded for the first time, despite having a strong and lengthy track record of work in their communities,” said Marissa Castillo, co-founder of TEATRX, in a press release. The Latinx theater company is the recipient of a $7,500 BANF grant.
“This grant helps TEATRX advance our mission of making Latinx performance arts a vital and prominent part of the artistic identity of Houston by representing and supporting the Latinx community, its artists, and its stories,” Castillo said.
While Houston is the most racially and ethnically diverse city in an increasingly diverse country, 90% of local arts philanthropy goes to 27 mostly white-led organizations, according to a 2017 study by Houston Endowment.
BANF was launched in September 2021 to address these inequities locally. The multi-year initiative aims to support BIPOC-led nonprofits that provide arts and culture programming, as well as fiscally-sponsored artist collectives, across the nine counties of Greater Houston (Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, Liberty, Montgomery, and Waller counties).
The groundwork for the effort was laid by the Ford Foundation’s America’s Cultural Treasures initiative, which in September 2020 committed an unprecedented $156 million to support BIPOC arts communities nationwide in response to the devastating economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Of that amount, $5 million was invested in the Greater Houston region and combined with contributions from local foundations to create BANF.
“We took the opportunity to prioritize learning and abundance and to de-emphasize competition in our grantmaking process,” said Sixto Wagan, BANF Project Director, in a statement.
“We saw this as an opportunity to learn from the written and spoken words of applicants what our communities’ strengths and challenges are as they face the current economic, social, and health realities of today,” Wagan said.
Organizers say that this community-learning approach that centers BIPOC voices will continue to guide BANF as it develops ways to assist artists beyond financial investment – such as by “broadening networks or expanding development opportunities.”
In this coming year, the initiative will host a series of information sessions with grantees and the arts community at large to identify how BIPOC arts organizations and artists want to be supported specifically to meet challenges and needs.
“These National Endowment for the Arts grants underscore the resilience of our nation’s artists and arts organizations, will support efforts to provide access to the arts, and rebuild the creative economy,” said Ann Eilers, NEA Acting Chair, in a press release.
“The supported projects demonstrate how the arts are a source of strength and well-being for communities and individuals, and can open doors to conversations that address complex issues of our time,” Eilers said.
Among local grantees, Young Audiences of Houston will receive $50,000 for its Neighborhoods, Identity, and Diversity Project, which aims to increase arts access and equity. By providing free programs across 10 communities, the project works to amplify youth voices, infuse local cultures and traditions into arts-based learning, and collaborate with teaching artists and schools.
“We look forward to sharing over the next year the progress of this exciting project, unique to Houston and the communities that create our region’s vibrancy,” said Mary Mettenbrink, Young Audiences of Houston’s Executive Director, in a statement. “This project will support Acres Homes, Alief-Westwood, Fort Bend Houston, Gulfton, Kashmere Gardens, Magnolia-Park Manchester, Near Northside, Second Ward, Sunnyside, and Third Ward.”
Houston’s Discovery Green Conservancy will receive a $15,000 NEA grant in support of its project, Tejas Got Soul: Celebrating Houston’s Tejano Roots Music Legacy.
Initiated by East End residents Pat Jasper, Nick Gaitan, Isaac Rodriguez, Robert Rodriguez, and Angel Quesada, the project includes 3 free concerts in fall 2022 that feature traditional music genres popular in the Chicano community, from orquesta to conjunto and Tejano to Brown-Eyed Soul. There will also be panel discussions about the history of the local Chicano music scene and a social media campaign to add historical and cultural context about the music, musicians, and the community.
“Part of Discovery Green Conservancy’s mission is to shine a light on the diversity of traditions that exist in Houston,” said Barry Mandel, Discovery Green Conservancy President, in a statement. “The Conservancy is very proud to work with talented Houstonians to present these concerts and is very grateful for the National Endowment of Arts support.”
A full state-by-state listing of grants is available here.
Writer, activist, and senior at Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Avalon Hogans was recently appointed Houston’s sixth Youth Poet Laureate. She will serve from fall 2021 – fall 2022 and receive a $1000 scholarship.
During her tenure, Hogans will create and implement a civic engagement project. Past youth poet laureate projects have included reading series, workshops, book drives, and podcasts. Hogans will work with Houston Poet Laureate Emanuelee “Outspoken” Bean to develop her own project to serve the community. The position also aims to empower young people and to address a social issue through poetry.
Houston Arts Journal reached out to Avalon Hogans for the following interview and permission to print her poem “Big Red Road.”
When, and how, did you fall in love with poetry?
I fell in love with poetry in middle school. Back then, I would use poetry as an outlet for my angsty emotions. I remember in eighth grade, I got really into reading verse novels like Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson and Solo by Kwame Alexander. But it was The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo that I was truly in love with. At 14 years old, that novel heavily influenced my writing style and my love for writing.
I remember I started writing poems inspired by Acevedo’s, and I would share them on my Instagram at the time. My friends would reshare my poems and give me positive feedback. It was such an amazing and affirming feeling as a young aspiring poet to evoke feelings from others using my writing, even if it was just on a small scale.
How would you describe the kind of poems you write and themes you’re interested in?
I would describe the kind of poems I write as authoritative, identity-based, and charged. Most of the poetry I choose to share and/or perform center themes of Black pride, womanism, anti-racism, and social change.
How does a poem begin for you? Do you have any writing rituals?
I don’t have any specific writing rituals. My poems typically begin with a brain dump on a blank Google Docs page or in my notebook. I prefer to write a poem all at once with minimal distractions. Usually, I have Thesaurus.com and my Kendrick Lamar playlist on deck in case I’m needing some extra inspiration.
What are your plans as Houston Youth Poet Laureate? Will you have a specific project?
As Houston Youth Poet Laureate, I’m currently in the running for Regional Youth Poet Laureate and I’m planning out my service project. So yes, I will have a project. I’m very excited to work on it. I plan on centering it around teaching anti-bias and anti-racist practices. I love teaching. I’ve taught middle schoolers and elementary students creative writing and artivism through volunteer programs at my school, and it has always left me feeling fulfilled. I just want to be able to give as many people as possible the resources, awareness, and courage it takes to be an artist, ally and/or activist.
Why do you think poetry is important – why should people read or write it?
Poetry is important because it unifies people through emotion and experience. Spoken word poetry has the power to create change because it commands and demands ears. Written poetry has the power to create change because it requires patience and consideration. This art form makes people listen and think. People should read poetry to listen to new ideas, and people should write poetry to share their own.
Has the pandemic impacted you as poet?
The pandemic has taught me how to be patient and flexible with sharing my craft. While it was uncomfortable performing spoken word to a mass of silent, staring video squares, I was able to adapt. I collaborated with many local advocacy groups for virtual fundraisers, info sessions, and rallies. I taught writing skills to younger students virtually. I had more time to read. During the pandemic, I wrote a lot of poems that I couldn’t perform or workshop, but I believe that taught me the significance of self-critiquing, revision, and it gave me time to plan ahead for future live readings.
Regarding “Big Red Road,” could you tell me a little bit about what inspired this poem? If there is a story behind it, I’d love to hear.
I wrote “BIG RED ROAD” in June of 2020 during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. This was a time when George Floyd’s name was trending, and protests were occurring in most major cities. I felt compelled to write this piece as an attempt to express my feelings of grief and anger. A friend of mine helped me revise this, and I shared it on social media. I captioned this poem saying, “Red represents destruction, both good and bad. Because it takes destruction in order to rebuild. And we have a lot of rebuilding to do.”
BIG RED ROAD By Avalon Hogans
it’s taking no peace to know peace.
our lives are prizes for easy prices in their eyes.
but what they don’t know is, our Red is coming, and they won’t be able to catch us after the pride stampedes.
i see Red in their vile souls; i see Red in the streets. big Red road where the intersection meets.
big Red fire trucks, big Red graffiti. big Red anger marching through the city.
Red eyes over blue uniforms and the 99 sheep.
blood on my fallen brothers and sisters.
it’s taking no peace to know peace.
the power hungry can’t tell right from wrong; blinded by privilege and deaf to kendrick songs.
but only justice can relieve the Red away. ignore our voices, and Red is here to stay.
it’s taking no peace to know peace.
loud Red static all around the nation. take a step back, america, and look at your creation.
Scheduled for spring 2022, the festival is planned as a two-day event centered on writers of color and literary works that feature Black, Indigenous, People of Color, and members of other marginalized communities, according to its website.
Organizers will collaborate with writers and readers to curate artist talks, readings, vendors, and literary memorabilia, inspired by the spirit of book fairs.
“Houston is my hometown. It’s a city full of rich culture and diverse backgrounds that I love deeply,” said Brooke Lewis in a tweet. “Houston also represents the America of today. That’s why we know Houston is the perfect spot to host a festival that celebrates diversity in literature.”
While the BIPOC Book Fest will be the first of its kind in the city, Houston has seen notable efforts to support writers of color, locally and nationally – a testament to its diverse literary scene.
The University of Houston is home to Arte Público Press, the oldest and largest Hispanic publisher in the U.S., and the recently-established Puerto Rican Literature Project, which aims to be the most comprehensive digital archive of its kind when fully launched.
“I know how important it is to see books with characters that look like me in them,” Lewis said in a tweet. “Representation matters, and we hope all who come to this festival can leave seeing a piece of themselves, but also walk away with knowledge of other cultures and backgrounds.”
BIPOC Book Fest organizers see a link between representation in literature and literacy rates, citing studies that indicate that Black and Hispanic adults are more likely to have lower literacy skills and reading habits, along with an analysis of children’s books in 2020 that showed 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 literacy a key motivator behind the festival, organizers say they hope to make reading more inclusive, in an effort to impact local academic success, political engagement, and the economy.
In a ceremony on November 17 at Writers in the Schools, Avalon Hogans officially took the helm as Houston’s 2021-2022 Youth Poet Laureate.
Through a citywide application and interview process, the teen writer was selected for the position, which is a joint initiative of Writers in the Schools, the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, and Houston Public Library.
A senior at Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Hogans is a storyteller, artist, and civil rights activist. She also volunteers as a creative writing teacher for local elementary school students. Her poetry stems from a passion for social justice, and she is “determined to change the world through her talents,” as described in a press release.
At a time when poetry has been on the rise nationally – with visits to Poets.org up by 30% during the pandemic, a spike in online poetry events, and the popularity of Gorman’s Presidential Inauguration poem, “The Hill We Climb” – the art form is also seeing increased interest in Texas. Both Austin and Dallas have launched youth poet laureate programs this year. Dallas has also announced a search for its first adult Dallas Poet Laureate.
During her one-year term, Hogans will work with Houston Poet Laureate, Emanuelee “Outspoken” Bean, to develop a civic engagement project to serve the community and address a social issue. Other duties include speaking and performing at city events.
Hogans will have the opportunity to apply to become National Youth Poet Laureate and to act as a youth poetry ambassador for the Southwest region. She receives a $1000 scholarship.
This summer, Mouton was selected from hundreds of applicants to be one of six resident artists – and one of only three librettists – in ALT’s Composer Librettist Development Program, said to be the only full-time training program for both composers and librettists in the U.S.
With simultaneous projects in the literary, classical music, and theater worlds, Mouton has also written a one-act play, The World’s Intermission, which has its World Premiere on November 12 and 13 at Jones Hall, as part of Society for the Performing Arts’ Houston Artist Commissioning Project.
Recently, I interviewed Deborah DEEP Mouton about:
Listen to our conversation (audio above) or read the transcript (below).
This interview took place in October, and a portion of it originally aired on Houston Matters. It has been edited for clarity and length.
CATHERINE LU: Deborah DEEP Mouton, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. Congratulations as well on your new residency, which we’ll be talking about – your residency in New York.
DEBORAH DEEP MOUTON: Thank you.
LU: You know, I want to start off with talking about your evolution as an artist because you have very strong roots in the performance poetry world – as a world champion slam poet, who then went on to become a Houston Poet Laureate.
You’re also an accomplished published poet. Your recent collection Newsworthy has received honors, and it was translated into German recently as well.
And in recent years, you’ve become a librettist. You’ve written two librettos for Houston Grand Opera, including Marian’s Song, which made a splash right before the pandemic as a world premiere. And then you’ve written a storybook opera called Lula, The Mighty Griot just last year.
So I want to say, because I have interviewed you and followed your career, this journey makes complete sense to me [laughs]. But I would love to hear you, you know, talk about it in your own terms. How did this evolution happen? And how do you sort of explain and understand your own journey thus far? How did you get interested in writing librettos?
MOUTON: Yeah, I think you may be the only person that this makes sense to you – I’m just saying [laughs]! You know, I see myself as a literary artist. And in the way that painters have paint and may have, you know, different kinds of paint, I think words are my medium. And so, I’ve really started to embrace that working across multiple genres is kind of what I was always made to do, you know.
I think from a very young age, I was always a storyteller. I would have crazy, little mini books that I would write in middle school that had like, clowns attacking people and all kinds of fictional things. So I think I always wanted to be a fiction writer. I then went into poetry, and that made total sense because it was kind of the same palette, but maybe a different – a different base. And so I really fell in love with poetry. And I think I stayed so tightly wound to poetry for so long because, you know, I kind of was getting praised in the way that people were really resonating with the work. And I found that it was also transforming me in a lot of ways, and making me very specific and very detailed, and think through the emotional timbre of the work more.
And so now I think that this next iteration – or this next experimentation in a new base – is leaning more towards stage work, you know. I was a young actress, you know, and worked in community theater for a while, and always kind of had an idea that some stories were just made to be told in the physical body as well. And I did play classical piano, and sang and traveled with a few gospel choirs and things. And so, I think that song has also been really heavy in my work and rhythm. So for me, opera kind of is the place where all of those things converge – where you can start thinking about the physicality of the work, as well as the, just, amazingness of the human voice and how it bends and moves and holds emotion.
And so I think I’m playing right now, you know. I have some straight theater coming out as well. I have a production going up at Jones Hall [on November 12 and 13] called The World’s Intermission. People can buy tickets if they’re interested on the [Society for the Performing Arts] website, SPAHouston.org. But for me, it’s really just thinking about, as I consider new stories, what do I feel like those stories want to be? How do they need to be told? I think some need to be told through movement, and some need to be told through a poem, and some need to be told through a song. And the more that I really listen to the work, the more that I’m able to really tap into what, you know, the broadness of maybe what my career will end up being.
LU: I want to ask you specifically – I mean, we can go in so many different directions with your artwork and and your projects right now – but to focus specifically on your evolution toward libretto writing. You were recently selected for a two-year residency at the American Lyric Theater in New York City. This is kind of a prestigious incubator program, if you will. It’s called the Composer Librettist Development Program. So tell me what this residency, which has begun, what does it mean for you in this chapter of your journey as an artist?
MOUTON: Absolutely. You know, I think that as we play [as artists] there’s a tendency to kind of, like, be self-taught in a lot of ways. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I think a lot of my career has been self-taught. I mean, my first libretto was definitely taught from pulling libretti examples from Google, you know, and trying to learn the form. And so there’s nothing wrong with that. But as I really started to play more and more, I realized that there was a vernacular and a way to communicate with my composers that I was missing. And I really wanted to just take the time to dedicate to that …
I think what it means the most for me is just the time to focus fully, you know. Someone said to me one time that the root word of “amateur” is the same root word for the word “amour.” And the idea is that to be an amateur in something is to be in love with it all over again. And I think that I wanted to fall in love with opera in that way. I wanted to understand it in-and-out. I didn’t want to have happy accidents that were just successful, but I wanted to be intentional in what I was creating and putting on stage. And the only way for me to really be able to do that is to know what came before it, and what’s being worked on in the field and, you know, who are the people who are making noise – and how can I be one of those people that continues to kind of move the artform forward.
LU: You’ll be traveling back and forth between New York and Houston for this residency over the next couple of years. We’re talking on October 7th, so I know the residency has begun. The first part of it was in New York, and you just got back. Tell me a little bit about that experience – and what kind of creative juices and experiences are you already starting to have?
MOUTON: Yeah, I mean, it kind of was a whirlwind, to be honest with you. We landed one day, and then I think we were in class the next morning and kind of just ran it all the way to the last day. We had a nice option of things to do. We went and saw Come From Away on Broadway, which was nice. It was my first theater piece that I actually got to see on Broadway, even though I’ve seen some Broadway productions here in Houston when they traveled and toured. But just to be there on Broadway and be able to see that work was really inspiring, and kind of kicked up for me all kinds of things that I could even do as a director with limited space – and thinking about, you know, limited props, but how do I transition characters and things of that nature.
We also got to see Fire Shut Up in My Bones, which is historically the Met Opera’s first piece that’s been composed by a Black composer and Black librettist team. Terence Blanchard is the composer [and Kasi Lemmons is the librettist]. And just to be able to see that moment where Black people were standing on a stage that, you know, historically we wouldn’t have been able to enter the building. And we got to hold up two and a half hours of an audience’s attention. I think that showed me that there’s space in this world that’s moving forward at least, if temporary or not, you know, that’s allowing us to have permission to create things that show our lives and our stories on stages that are that large. So that was really huge.
LU: I want to get your thoughts on the future of opera – both as an art form but also as an industry, in terms of representation and inclusion. And you gave that sort of, you know, powerful memory of going to the Met – I mean the Met itself, finally in its history performing Fire Shut Up in My Bones, an opera by a Black composer for the first time.
I want to set up this question with even a little bit more context because, interestingly, with this residency that you’re in with the American Lyric Theatre, they themselves have changed a few things about this residency to make it more accessible and to reach out to a wider range of voices – by, this year, for the first time not requiring residency in New York City so that artists from all over the country can apply, as well as offering a $20,000 stipend for each year of the residency, again, to reduce barriers to the participation in the program.
And as a result, according to their press release, the applications increased by 53%. Fifty percent were women, 40% were BIPOC artists this year, applying for it … and that percentage doubled, in terms of BIPOC applicants. And of the six new artists selected, five are BIPOC artists and three are women.
Another sort of fun fact, if you will, that I’ll throw in is – here in Houston – Houston Grand Opera, just to give one local example, has announced a new general director, Khori Dastoor, the first person of color to lead that company in that particular position. So given these kinds of headlines and statistics – as an artist actually working in the field, how do you feel that is actually translating for change in the opera world? And what do you think is the future of opera in terms of diversity?
MOUTON: Yeah, I think, you know, the more that I learned, the more that I’m realizing that opera has had some really problematic roots, right? I mean, I think all of us kind of probably come to opera with an understanding – or an expectation more – that it has had, you know, a certain feeling of elitism, a certain feeling of classism and inaccessibility, especially when it comes to people who don’t make a certain amount of money.
And, you know, I think that opera really is on the cusp of a very large change or a very large decline. I think there really has been some genuine effort to figure out, how do we invest in the new generation of opera lovers? And for a lot of people that’s going to have to be including voices of people of color, of women, of LGBTQIA-identifying folks. You know, there’s going to have to be kind of a reckoning of their own in opera. And I think that’s really what we’re seeing, you know. A lot of ALT and the staff has said they feel like we’re at a point of a renaissance in opera where, you know, almost anything is possible now. We have to figure it out. There’s been a large thrust of new commissions that hasn’t happened in decades in opera … a lot more companies are actually commissioning brand new works that are more representative of the people who would be watching opera now.
So on the inside of it, I think that there’s always a push and pull between that. It’s always, you know, being grateful for opportunities opening, and grateful for new people letting you in and wanting to praise you and teach you and lead you. And in the same breath, it’s the skepticism that comes with being an artist of color on the back end of what happened last year, and really thinking about, you know, people’s intentions – and those are things that we can’t control, nor can we always understand. But I think, as an artist of color, when I walk into an opportunity, I’m always interested to find out how much of it is leaning towards using me as the face of a change that they don’t really want to have happen, but they know is trendy, and how much of it is real change.
And, you know, from what I’ve gleaned from American Lyric Theater, this has been a big step in the direction of real change. And for those of us who are willing to kind of walk those steps with them, and kind of push this in a new pioneering way to kind of reclaim opera for the people, I think that there is space for us. It just may take some resistance, and so we have to be ready for that.
I think another really great point about this residency is that, you know, even though they opened the field to the whole nation, three of the people they picked are from Texas. So I think that it also says something for Texans, right? That we are, you know, the home of major opera houses like HGO, which I think is the fifth largest opera house in the nation. And every major city in Texas has an opera house, which is not what can be said about everywhere. And so I think there are some roots here that, you know, Texans can kind of latch onto, that people of color can latch onto. It really is a great vehicle for storytelling. And I think that as we tap into it more and more, and as new audiences start to see new works come out that defy their expectations, I really do believe that opera is kind of perched to make a really big change and a really big statement when used right.
LU: And that potentially Texans and Houstonians are helping lead the way.
LU: The future is Texas [laughs].
MOUTON: Yeah, the future has always been Texas, right [laughs]?
LU: What kind of stories do you want to tell?
MOUTON: You know, it’s funny. I think that my answer to this has changed in the last week, so it’s interesting that you’re asking me this now.
I think a week ago I would have told you, definitely I just want to tell authentic Black stories. I think that’s true, but specifically in opera with some of the practices that have happened in the past – and for those who don’t know, there have been performers that have performed in blackface in opera, there’s been quite a bit of misogyny in some of the pieces – and so I think, you know, as a Black woman, I definitely have a heart to kind of right some of those wrongs in some of my writing.
I think right now I’m really addicted to the idea of Black joy and finding spaces where we get to be victorious and redeemable and valuable, you know. It is easier to write about Black trauma because I think sometimes that sadness is a more universal emotion than some others – or maybe more accessible than others, especially in times of trial. You know, we’ve had a few hard years, and I think everyone remembers sadness and despair a little bit more than we would like to, and it’s easy to write and stay there.
But I want to play with nostalgia, you know, I want to play with joy, I want to make you smile. And it’s okay to have a contrasting, sad moment. But I think I want pieces that live in the full spectrum of what it means to be Black. And that’s something I think I’m still striving to pin down exactly, but it’s something that I want to investigate.
LU: So what are your thoughts on the future of opera as an art form? And ask you that partly because I know that you, yourself, have combined spoken word with opera in Marian’s Song, for example. But how else do you see the art form evolving around you? And how are you, yourself, maybe experimenting and hope to shape it?
MOUTON: Yeah, I think a lot of what is to come really was reflected last year [when] Opera America started articulating a new definition of opera, which was a narrative set to trained voices. And while that seems broad to some, I think that it really does shift what’s accessible, because those trained voices could sing jazz, right? Those train voices could be beat boxers. I think that there’s just so much room to play that some companies are really making room for us to just experiment and see how far we can push the envelope. And I’m sure that there will be some people who say that’s not opera. And that’s okay. They’re imagining some woman with a Viking hat on singing, you know, over Bugs Bunny or something.
But there really is a place to show authentic and beautiful stories in opera, and I’m kind of excited about that. And I think that’s what really draws me to the field is the fact that I don’t think that what I want to do has been done yet – and the fact that there is room for the musicality of the voice, even in spoken text. I think those things make me excited that this might be a space that I can do something revolutionary and something inventive, and blaze a new trail for people who are looking behind me.
And so, you know, when it comes to the future of opera, I think it’s bright. And I think it’s bright as long as we continue to move into the direction of progress. I think last year, at the end of the summer, we had a lot of companies making statements that were pro-Black and pro-AAPI and pro-insert other oppressed group that they felt was trendy enough to talk about. And I think that when those sentiments are really taken to heart and really chased after, then opera has a long life ahead of it. And so I’m hoping that those things are true. My inner optimist wants to believe that the world is changing, and I can’t wait to see how it changes even in opera.
LU: I want to end with this … I know that you have another dream, which is to get to Broadway someday.
LU: So, tell me a little bit about that dream, and what that would mean to you and how that fits in your journey that you’re in the midst of?
MOUTON: I love that you asked this question. Let’s go [laughs]!
So I’ll take you back a little bit. I think in my late 20s, I was a very big “list” person … of creating goals for myself that I wanted to accomplish. And I told myself by 40 I wanted to be the Poet Laureate of Houston, Texas. And at 32, I was the Poet Laureate of Houston, Texas! And I really kind of was at a point where I was very confused. I was very happy, but also I felt like this thing that I had been kind of chasing for the last five years of my life, it happened. And then what, right? There’s this thing when you when you reach your goals, it’s like, well, what do I do now?
And I started thinking about the things that I wanted even as a small child, and the things that I wanted to see, and falling in love with pieces like The Whiz … thinking about creating musicals or creating theater that lived in bigger spaces. And I think when all of us think of, you know, the epitome of theater, it’s Broadway in some sense.
And so for me, the older I’ve gotten, the more that I’ve realized that really is a goal that not only in some fantastical place in my mind I’m like, that might be amazing to do one day, but that it’s maybe closer than I imagined it is. Many operas actually had runs on Broadway, you know, earlier in the history of opera. And I think there is a place for work that’s so accessible that it can live there.
I also think, though, that it totally might not be an opera, right? It might be something that is just more of a theater piece that people really connect to, you know. I’m currently working on a choreopoem centered on the life of Lauren Anderson, the first Black prima ballerina of the Houston Ballet. And I think of pieces like that, I think about their universality and how people can take away things from them without ever needing to know Lauren personally but being able to feel her experience. And I think that’s something that I want to offer the world. And so, you know, where does it fall in my canon? You know, it falls wherever I get the opportunity.
I don’t think I’m so much of a stickler to goals as I was before, even though I may have them in my head. I think for me now, it’s a little bit more about enjoying the journey, you know. I’ve definitely crossed some things off of my literary bucket list of things that I wanted to accomplish. And now I really do feel like I’m living kind of in the sprinkles part of the sundae – where, you know, I kind of did the ice cream and I’m looking forward to all the extra flourishes that life gives me. And I’m kind of really hoping that Broadway is one of them.
LU: The cherry on top [laughs], to finish the metaphor .
MOUTON: Yeah [laughs].
LU: Well, Deborah DEEP Mouton, thank you so much for, you know, talking with me about your hopes and dreams, honestly, and art and opera and the future – the future of diversity and and art in this country as well. Thank you so much for talking with me.
MOUTON: No, thank you for having me. I always enjoy talking to you, Catherine.