Houston poets are recognized by the Texas Institute of Letters 2023 Literary Awards

Jasminne Mendez, winner of the Texas Institute of Letters’ 2023 Helen C. Smith Memorial Award for Best Book of Poetry / Courtesy of JasminneMendez.com

The Texas Institute of Letters recently announced the winners of its annual Literary Awards – writers whose works represent “the best of Texas literature,” as described by the organization’s president Diana López.

“Each year, the TIL recognizes the best of Texas writing in a variety of genres that includes fiction, poetry, nonfiction, scholarly writing, design, and short form works. Many thanks to our judges for carefully considering the entries,” said López in a statement. “This year’s winners demonstrate the wonderful talent and diversity of writers with Texas roots.”

Eligibility for the 2023 awards required that “the author was born in Texas or has lived in Texas for at least five consecutive years at some time. A work with subject matter that substantially concerns Texas is also eligible,” according to online guidelines. The work must have been published in 2022.

Winners will collectively receive more than $27,000 in prizes, to be presented at the Texas Institute of Letters Awards Ceremony in Corpus Christi on April 29, 2023.

Jasminne Mendez, a multigenre writer and translator based in Houston, is the winner of the 2023 TIL Award for Best Book of Poetry for City Without Altar (Noemi Press).

City Without Altar is a poetry collection and play in verse that explores what it means to live, love, heal and experience violence as a Black person in the world. The titular play in verse that sits at the center of the book seeks to amplify the voices and experiences of victims, survivors and living ancestors of the 1937 Haitian Massacre that occurred along the northwest Dominican/Haitian border during the Trujillo Era. Between the scenes of the play are “interludes” that explore a different kind of “cutting” and what it means to feel othered because of illness, disability and blackness.

Noemi Press
Courtesy of Noemi Press

Mendez was also named a finalist for the 2023 TIL Best Young Adult Book Award for Islands Apart: Becoming Dominican American (Piñata Books), a memoir of her coming-of-age experiences in the United States as an Afro-Latina. A winner of Arte Público Press’ 2021 Salinas de Alba Award for her debut children’s book Josefina’s Habichuelas (Arte Público Press), Mendez also recently published her first middle grade novel in verse, Aniana del Mar Jumps In, released on March 14, 2023.

Acclaimed Houston poet Ayokunle Falomo was recognized as a finalist in the 2023 TIL Best Book of Poetry category for his collection, AfricanAmeriCan’t (Flowersong Press).

Ayokunle Falomo, finalist in the 2023 TIL Literary Awards

“In AfricanAmeriCan’t, Falomo tenderly traces his body on the American political map. The exciting inventiveness of language wills Diasporic histories into poetic form,” said poet and filmmaker Loyce Gayo, in a statement on the book. “This feat of a project gives those of us tussling with the many failures of nation permission to own and fully embrace a boundless grief, a righteous rage, and bountiful stillness.”

A recipient of fellowships from Vermont Studio Center, MacDowell, and the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program, Falomo has been anthologized and published by Houston Public Media, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Texas Review, New England Review, Write About Now, and others.

Houston writer J. Estanislao Lopez was named a finalist in the 2023 TIL Award for First Book of Poetry for We Borrowed Gentleness (J. Alice James Books) – praised as a “compelling debut collection” that contains an “unsentimental directness,” in a review by David Woo.

J. Estanislao Lopez, finalist in the 2023 TIL Literary Awards

“[Lopez] knows that words, however meager, help to counter life’s irremediable violence,” wrote Woo in his review. “For Lopez, the details begin in Texas, with a father who crossed the river from Nuevo Laredo …”

Lopez’s poetry has been published in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, The Rumpus, and Poetry Magazine, and he earned an MFA from Warren Wilson Program for Writers.

Founded in 1936, the Texas Institute of Letters is a nonprofit honor society that aims to celebrate Texas writers, as well as literary works with ties to the Lone Star State. According to a press release, its elected members include Texas-based writers who have won the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, PEN/Faulkner Award, Man Booker Prize, Academy Award, International Latino Book Award, Americas Award, Lambda Literary Award, MacArthur Fellowship, and Guggenheim Fellowship.

TIL’s long history of supporting and honoring Texas literature through various author awards can be traced to 1939, as archived on its website.

A complete list of 2023 TIL Literary Award winners can be found here.

Houston Youth Poet Laureate Ariana Lee’s new poem responds to the Monterey Park shooting

Ariana Lee, 2022-2023 Houston Youth Poet Laureate / Courtesy of Ariana Lee

When Ariana Lee heard about the recent mass shooting in Monterey Park, California, she said she felt deeply saddened and wanted to write a poem to help process her thoughts.

On January 21, a gunman killed 11 people as they rang in the Lunar New Year at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio, before he was later disarmed by a 26-year old man named Brandon Tsay, who prevented the gunman from carrying out a second nearby attack.

“A large memorial is seen outside the Star Dance Studio in Monterey Park, Calif., about a week after a mass shooting at the ballroom studio killed 11 people and wounded 10 others.” / Credit: Jane Hahn for NPR

Lee, a high school senior at St. John’s School, was appointed the 2022-2023 Houston Youth Poet Laureate last November. And now, only a few months into her term, she found herself writing an elegy about a mass shooting – one that felt especially personal because of its intersection with two holidays: Lunar New Year and her 18th birthday.

Remembering that her predecessor Avalon Hogans had written a poem after the Uvalde tragedy for March for Our Lives Houston, Lee decided to contact that organization to offer to write a poem, to be shared in collaboration on social media. The result was “Morning, America,” written in response to the Monterey Park shooting. 

Watch Ariana Lee perform her poem below.  Houston Arts Journal also reached out to Lee for an interview and permission to reprint her poem, which follows.

Morning, America

Today, I am eighteen years old.

At age seventeen,
yesterday, and the day
before, and the day
before, I woke up
to mourning.

I woke up to mourn
what was before me.

When there have been more mass shootings
in the year than there have been days,
and when there are more guns
in the US than there are people,
you wonder if eighteen—the legal age
to buy a gun—is worth celebrating.

Lunar New Year always occurs
around my birthday. We wear red
for good luck and eat
long noodles for longevity.
Put your hands together like a prayer—
新年快乐,身体健康,恭喜发财,吉祥如意.

But now we pray. You would think
the gun industry had joined us
in our spring cleaning, the way our deaths
are so easily swept under the rug. We set off
firecrackers to ward off evil, but I hear
gunshots. Maybe if I wear enough red,
bullets will stop wearing holes in our communities.

My culture is my inheritance, and the biggest
evil is how inherent gun violence has become to our culture.

We’ve crossed into the Year of the Rabbit.
I think we’ve had enough time to learn
this lesson: Look from one end
of the barrel, and it’s easy to see prey.

It should not be this easy to turn
sacred into scared. We wish: 新年快乐,
但是我们的乐真的很快.
Can our happiness only
be fleeting? And fleeing,
our best method to avoid death?

It’s been eighteen years
since my birth. I’ve celebrated
eighteen Lunar New Years.

This holiday means sleeping with a 红包
under my pillow for fifteen days. It means waking.
I wake up. Wake up—it’s beyond time
to make a good morning.

Ariana Lee

How did this poem come to you? What were you feeling or thinking when you sat down to write it? Would you like to say a little about your writing process?

When I know what I want to say, I tend to write poems pretty quickly. This poem came from letting my emotions guide my writing. I was inspired by characteristics of Lunar New Year such as the color red, spring cleaning, and the 红包 (red envelope). 

How did you learn of the shooting and how did it affect you?  The poem seems to imply that it was on your birthday, as well as Lunar New Year – is that right? If so, how did the fact that it happened on or around those holidays affect you?

I learned a lot about the shooting in part because I serve as a co-president of my school’s East Asian Affinity Group and on the leadership board of our Unity Council. We extensively researched it for a joint forum to inform students and give them time and space to process what had happened. 

In my personal life, Monterey Park struck a chord because of how culturally important Lunar New Year is to my family. It should be a time of celebration. The holiday occurs on a different day every year because it follows the lunar calendar, but it typically occurs a few days before or after my birthday (January 25th). One year it was even the same day. Growing up, I saw Lunar New Year and my birthday as a package deal. This year, they were marked by tragedy—a preventable one. Learning about Monterey Park has motivated me to be active in gun violence prevention.

In your social media post, you wrote: “Thinking of Fort Pierce, Baton Rouge, Half Moon Bay, and Des Moines. Thinking of all the poets who’ve written this poem before. Thinking of my grandparents.”  Can you say more about what you mean by that?   And, in particular, can you tell me a little about your grandparents, and how you were thinking of them?

After Monterey Park, mass shootings occurred in Baton Rouge and Half Moon Bay. There have also been shootings in Fort Pierce and Des Moines. So many in such a short time. I wanted to acknowledge that, even though my poem was written in response to Monterey Park, it’s really for each community affected by gun violence. 

The second sentence refers to the fact that many brilliant poets before me have written poems in response to senseless, unnecessary violence. Specific poems that inspired me are “not an elegy for Mike Brown” by Danez Smith and “what the dead know by heart” by Donte Collins

The victims of the Monterey Park shooting are around the same age as my grandparents. When I read about them—Xiujuan Yu, Hongying Jian, Lilian Li, Wen Yu, My Nhan, Muoi Ung, Valentino Alvero, Diana Tom, Yu Kao, Ming Wei Ma, Chia Yau—I couldn’t help but see my Laolao and Yeye in them. 

What do you believe is the role of poetry (or art, in general) in times of crisis or profound loss?

For me, art is healing and inspiration. Art can connect with people in a way that the plain, straight facts can’t. When crises challenge society, I believe poetry’s role is to bring people together and give them words to meditate over when they are at a loss of words themselves. 

***

Translations for “Morning, America”:
新年快乐 = Happy New Year
身体健康 = Wishing you good health
恭喜发财 = Wishing you prosperity
吉祥如意 = Wishing you good luck
但是我们的乐真的很快 = but our happiness really is fleeting
红包 = red envelope

Houston Poet Laureate Outspoken Bean rounds out his tenure with projects that honor Black history and stories of Houstonians

Emanuelee “Outspoken” Bean / Photo courtesy of the artist

Emanuelee “Outspoken” Bean is a poet and more.  He is a poetic “producer of experiences,” as he calls it – from his artistry as a champion slam poet to his roles as festival producer, creator of Five-Minute Poems (in which he creates custom poems on-the-spot), collaborator with Houston Ballet, and mentor to the next generation of performance poets by coaching the Meta-Four Houston Youth Poetry Slam Team.

Since April 2021, Outspoken Bean has served as Houston’s Fifth Poet Laureate, a cultural ambassador position that aims to foster appreciation of poetry and expression through words among Houston residents. The role was created by former Houston Mayor Annise Parker in 2013 and is coordinated by the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs and Houston Public Library.

A performance by Outspoken Bean in response to Ganzeer’s “It Takes A Village,” an installation at Rice University’s Moody Center for the Arts, June 2020 / Produced by Brandon Martin, Rice University

Houston has one of the longest-running poet laureate programs among the five largest cities in the U.S. (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Phoenix). Chicago will inaugurate a Poet Laureate this year, while New York City does not have a Poet Laureate for the city as a whole – though four of its five boroughs have individual poet laureates, with the oldest program established in Brooklyn in 1979. Phoenix began appointing a Poet Laureate in 2016, and Los Angeles started its program in 2012.

Houston’s long-standing tradition of Poet Laureates, as well as Youth Poet Laureates, points to the city as a literary hub – supported by other enduring literary institutions, such as Inprint, now in its 42nd season of literary readings, and Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

Houston’s Former Poet Laureates, L-R: Robin Davidson (2015-2017), Deborah “D.E.E.P.” Mouton (2017-2019), Leslie Contreras Schwartz (2019-2021), and Gwen Zepeda (2013-2015) / Photo by Pin Lim

As the City of Houston begins its search for the next Poet Laureate (to be announced in April 2023), Outspoken Bean culminates his two-year tenure with a community outreach project called Space City Story Tape, described in a press release as “a mixture of spoken word narratives of Houston residents set to music by [Houston composer-producer] Russell Guess.”

Bean’s Space City Story Tape will debut at an official Release Party on February 13 at Assembly HTX, free and open to the public.

In another form of community outreach, Bean will also produce the Woodson Black Fest on February 2 at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, in celebration of Black History Month. The free festival will showcase spoken word, film, music, fashion, and a panel discussion.

“This is the second year of the partnership between Outspoken Bean and CAMH that brings together different art disciplines for a social night of community connection,” said Michael Robinson, Marketing and Communications Manager at CAMH.

Woodson Black Fest takes its name from the “father of Black history,” historian, journalist, and scholar Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950) – who, among many groundbreaking advancements, created Negro History Week in February 1926, which inspired and evolved to Black History Month by 1970.

According to the article “How Negro History Week Became Black History Month and Why It Matters Now” by Veronica Chambers in the New York Times, “Dr. Woodson and his colleagues set an ambitious agenda for Negro History Week. They provided a K-12 teaching curriculum with photos, lesson plans and posters with important dates and biographical information … He and his colleagues also engaged the community at large with historical performances, banquets, lectures, breakfasts, beauty pageants and parades.”

Houston Arts Journal reached out to Outspoken Bean to learn more about his culminating projects as Houston Poet Laureate. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve described the Woodson Black Fest as “a small festival about enlightenment, creativity, and innovation, which celebrates Black artists and artisans’ contributions.”  Why did you think Houston needed a festival like this?  How were you inspired to start it?

Houston needs a festival like this because there’s always an opportunity to showcase Black art and Black artists in their many forms. I feel that our intelligence and creativity should be broadcasted and amplified. I was inspired because the CAMH came to me with an amazing offer to build a festival, and I thought of my former creation, Plus Fest, and made it Black-focused.

The festival is named after American historian, author, journalist, and intellectual Carter G. Woodson. Can you say a little a bit about what he means to you?

Well, originally, I was going to call the festival Douglass Black Fest. And I was talking with my friend Candice D’Meza about the idea of the festival and where I wanted to go and whom I wanted it to honor. And I learned through that conversation from Candice that there is a misconception of Black History Month. What’s usually shared is February is Black History Month because Frederick Douglass’ and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays are in February, and also that Frederick Douglass came up with the idea of Negro Week at the time. Which is not true. What’s true is that it was Woodson’s idea. And I think that there is a sense of sharing and informing and reminding that comes with this festival. Also, it gives an opportunity to spread Carter G. Woodson’s name and to give him proper credit for what we know as Black History Month.

What will be taking place at the festival on Feb. 2?  I’m also curious what the panel discussion will be about.

We will have performance by Houston Poet Laureate Emeritus Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton and a performance by me as the current Houston Poet Laureate. We will be showcasing Marlon Hall’s Visual Poems Series, entitled Folklore Films, through a video montage, and hearing him speak on his inspirations for his storytelling medium. And the panel discussion, which will be led by Danielle Fanfair, will conduct moving conversations with Black style icons who are the based here in Houston, Texas. The beauty of their fashion genius is that they get their works and inspirations out to the world, out to the public via social media, podcasting, pop-up events, what have you. So this panel discussion will give a lot of insight into Black, creative fashion forces.

The festival is also described as “a family reunion for Black artists” – can you say little bit about that idea of “family reunion” and why that matters? Is this something you want both the artists involved and the audience to feel?

Last year was the first year we had the Woodson Black Fest. And the goal was to make sure that the festival happened. There was no theme for the festival. So this year I wanted to have a theme that is steeped in Black American culture. And that will be changing from year to year, so this year the themes is Black Family Reunion, hence why the family tree, the style of font, and muted color palette. And just like a family union, we want everyone to come and have a good time.

Another project you have as you wrap up your term as Houston Poet Laureate is the Space City Story Tape.  Back in 2021, you described the project to me as “a community spoken word album,” which would feature stories collected from everyday Houstonians – kind of like “mini-memoirs” set to music.  Can you describe how the project turned out?

Yes! The Space City Story Tape is complete. February 13 at Assembly HTX at 6 PM, I will be hosting a mixtape release party in celebration of my city-sponsored Poet Laureate project. Russell Guess and I have been working relentlessly in the studio producing, mixing, writing poems, and listening to the stories to bring Houstonians a unique audio experience.

I couldn’t use all of the stories because I got so many, but a story that is on the project that I am moved by is about the Black Panther Party in Third Ward and how it has shaped the Third Ward today.

L-R: Russell Guess and Outspoken Bean / Courtesy of Outspoken Bean

What will take place at the Release Party?  How can people access the Tape?

Everyone who comes will scan the QR code so they can download the album or listen to it on any streaming device that they choose. Then there will be refreshments and a performance by me and a talkback with myself and Russell Guess. It’s going to be a good time. I invite you all to come. The Tape will be available on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube music, Youtube, etc.  It will be available everywhere.

What did you learn from being Houston Poet Laureate?  What would you like to say about your experience?

The amount of people, who take up the well-deserved space that they take in Space City, is really miraculous. I also got a chance to hear so many stories through the Houston Public Library and MOCA (Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs) when it came to getting prepared for this project and learning about what this role could be, and can be, and how to improve it for the next Poet Laureate.

Applications to be the 2023-2025 Houston Poet Laureate will be accepted through Sunday, January 29, with more information available here.

Teen spoken word artist Ariana Lee is Houston’s new Youth Poet Laureate

Ariana Lee / Photo courtesy of aripurplecrayon.com

Selected through a citywide application process, Ariana Lee was recently named 2022-2023 Houston Youth Poet Laureate

The Houston-area high school senior is a member of Meta-Four Houston, the city’s official youth slam poetry team, and the winner of a National YoungArts Foundation 2023 Writing Award for Spoken Word.

Lee’s poetry has been published in Defunkt Magazine (“Homeward Bound”) and featured by One Breath Partnership (“Through the Eye”). She wrote and performed “Stars of Space City” in honor of the 2022 Word Series Champions Houston Astros:

“I’m H-Town born and raised and am so proud to represent this community,” wrote Lee in a social media post. “I’m honored to be receiving the torch from 2022 HYPL Avalon and to be holding this position after so many talented poets.”

Succeeding Avalon Hogans, Lee is the 7th teen to serve as Houston Youth Poet Laureate, which is a joint initiative of Writers in the Schools, the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, and the Houston Public Library. The program aims to identity young writers to serve as leaders and cultural ambassadors through poetry, performance, and civic and community engagement.

Established in 2016, Houston’s youth poet laureate program is among the long-running in Texas, where Austin and Dallas recently inaugurated youth poet laureate positions.

There are over 60 youth poet laureate programs in the U.S., supported by Urban Word – the literary organization that also launched the National Youth Poet Laureate program, whose inaugural laureate was Amanda Gorman in 2017, with Alyssa Gaines currently serving in that role.

The city is currently searching for its next Houston Poet Laureate – the adult counterpart position, now in its 10th year – with applications due by January 29 and a new laureate to be announced in April.

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.

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.