An Open Letter to the Houston Poetry Scene


Mi gente, 

                I hope this letter finds you in good spirits and writing and reading or doing the things you love. I write this letter as a way to voice a bit of frustration with you, and maybe more so, to voice frustration with myself.  I will be honest. I am feeling a bit lost with you, a bit defeated too. As the new year has already started, there are already some shifts happening. We lost Zin.  NotsuoH's had its last show in the last few weeks. It was a staple of your scene. And I? Well,  I am leaving the Word Around Town Poetry Tour.  

               I leave the planning, organizing and curating of the tour to focus on archiving what has been achieved in 10 years:  a solidarity that branched out and helped some poets find commonality across the city. I will work with the Houston Metropolitan Research Center to archive the work of this bad ass movement. After that, I will say adios to the planning and organizing. 

           I would stay longer, but its not my baby.  I did not birth this concept and I can not in good conscience make it move forward without its founders.  It breaks my heart to leave it.  The work is amazing, the production is one of the best in the city and I will defend it as such.  I know. I helped move this thing to where it is now.  We went from asking poets to be a part of it and getting the response " Word around wha?" to,  in later years, getting screamed at with "Why the F**K am I not on this tour?" 

                 But something jarred me the last two - three years of the tour - it began actually at the end of the tour two years ago.  Trademark, an amazing poet in her own right, made a statement to Stephen Gros "the tour doesn't have enough black poets".  Stephen, stunned,  with Trademark in hand asked her to tell me what she said to him. She did.  No one laughed. We took it seriously. I respected her comment and stated that in actuality, the tour started very Latino heavy from day one and the diversity of the tour grew.  Joe B overheard the conversation and pulled Trademark over to him and explained to her the history of the tour up until her inclusion in the tour line-up.  Lots of love and head nodding that night. An error corrected and we celebrated year 8.  But it made me realize one thing.  We didn't have a lot of Latino/Brown/Indigenous poets that auditioned for that year. We had one.  The next year, for year 9, we didn't have any.  For year 10, we had 3 Latino poets draft and only one of them made the tour.  

              But the question sprang up -  Where are all the brown poets at?  I know a few in the Galveston-Houston area.  I read with many of them. I know the ones who are out and about. Those that are performance ready and those that are published. I know those that are degreed and those who edit. I know the professional and the hustler.  I know the traditional and the curator. I know the DJ and the B-Boy. I know the advocate and the activista.  I know the younger ones and the older ones.  In all, I wracked my brain and I came up with a list of the ones I know that if I called up today to do a damn good show, they would come running (mostly).  These are the ones I know: 

22 poets.  

            That's it. And we've never all been in the same room. Mas triste. Why?  Because as big as Houston is, and for having lived in this town for over 20 years, I can only count 22 brown poets.  There should be more. 

    I know the work that my wife, Jasminne is doing, though WITS and Alley Theatre along with Marlon Lizama and his work with Iconoclast. They help to cultivate the younger breed of poet - the ones that can and might become our future poets, but in truth, I can't expect those kids to stay.  They are high schoolers and I would expect for them to leave town in search of an education, in search of a job and in search for new muses.  So my question still remains:  WHERE THE HELL ARE ALL THE BROWN POETS?   

           I am frustrated with you poetry scene. When the Word Around Town Poetry Tour started, it was for survival.  It was 10 poets who were tired of all the cliques and the segregation that was rampant in the scene.  There were few spots to read back then. The Mausoleum (where NotsuoH's was originally),  The Inprint House (FIrst Friday readings) and Mahogany Cafe.  Not many poets branched out from their comfort zones.   But for the roughly 10 of us who did, we got lots of stank face, lots of side eye for entering these space. We were bold, we surprised audiences and readers.  We didn't care. We wanted to see what was happening with poetry in OUR city. 

And now 10 years later it feels like we are right back to this. Minus one space. (HINT: we haven't had a stable Nuestra Palabra Showcase in a while and the reason?  We started putting the biggest book festivals in Texas, then Librotraficante Nation building by actively fighting against oppressive government laws that would tear down Ethnic Studies teaching in the U.S. Southwest.. and if you didn't know - we got a 15 year old radio show on KPFT.  Wacha got?)

           Thank you to Stephen Gros, Joe B and Zelene Pineda for doing the damn thing - for creating the Word Around Town Poetry Tour.  This survival tactic, this  "fuck your" statement was brilliant. But I must push back from the table. I have work to do.  

          I see that all the work done by Houston VIPWrite About Now, First Friday's, Poetry Lounge and Write Space is important.  It is broad work.  But I must question you. (And I already know two spots that will say yes). Do you make it a point to support each other's venues?  Do you make it a point to ask poets/audience members to check out these other spaces?  Do you even announce when another space is hosting a reading or when a writer is coming to town? Do you as hosts, as poets, as artists take the time to go and hear/read other poets from this city? I know some of you don't. You are ok with staying in your comfort zone. You don't give a shit and I can respect that. But what I won't forgive is the ignorance.  Don't tout yourself or your space as the best if you haven't opened up to share words or nights with other writers you barely know. 

        For a decade, I have worked to break that up. I've worked to show the city, the writers, the writing programs that all its writing artists can be unified.  But I can't any more.  On my watch, I have let my own community down.  I don't know who the younger writers are.  I don't know where Latinos in the city read. I know we don't have a space of our own.  I get phone calls from folks asking me about where there are Latino based readings and I have to wince.  I've even been called the expert in Latino Poetry in Houston.  I am humbled... and alarmed.  I can't be the guru.  I am still a growing poet. 

       But I know what I have to do now.  I have to take a step back and create the spaces that don't exist. This is my survival tactic.  I will find a way to provide for space to write, to workshop and to speak words.  It was the basis of the old Nuestra Palabra Showcases - to place both new writers and established writers on the same stage.   

        I know how to put workshops and lit events together.  I can do this for a Latino community.  I can provide a space that allows all the city's writers to come on up and read, come and write. I can help provide the space for folks who don't fit the Slam or the Traditional settings.   We need a bilingual/bicultural space.  I have the blessing of many of the poets and writers I respect to do this.  So be ready.  Be on guard, because I will keep asking these questions of you.  

 WriteSpace, I am also looking at you as well.  You put on a writing festival, but you didn't bother to ask any of the hosts of venues, any of the many writers of color of this city to collaborate with you. You didn't reach out to Nuestra Palabra, you didn't reach out to Write About Now, to Houston VIP to create your sessions.  You only worked to create something for the publishing world, as if it is the only place that counts.  I know you just started. I congratulate you on the work, but be ready.  I expect answers.  I demand to be heard and for you to see the poets and the writers of this city the way I do. 

In the meantime, I'll work to create a new space. A space for people akin to my poetics and asethics.  I tried this before with several other writers and it didn't work out to well.  BUT I don't take no for answer.   

Be ready Houston,  Tintero Projects will come along soon. Ponte ropa buena, agarra algo para escribir. ¡Listo! 

If you read this and don't recognize the poets in the photo, if you got offended at my questions, and if you only go to one venue and no other, then you need to come talk to me.  I might not be an expert, but I sure as hell want to learn with you and from you.   Adelante, mi gente.  

See you soon.

Lupe Mendez