Depending on whom you talk to, Houston’s either a literary mecca or a literary desert. Yes, the grass can seem greener in Austin, which boasts the annual Texas Book Festival, beloved independent bookstores like Book People, and the University of Texas. But don’t sell the Bayou City short. After all, we’ve got UH’s top-ranked Creative Writing Program, the Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series, and a homegrown literary heritage that includes Donald Barthelme, Larry McMurtry, and Chitra Divakurani. Still, Houston’s reputation lags well behind smaller cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland. When most people think of Houston, they don’t think of a great literary scene.
But that’s their loss, because Houston has reading series just as exciting as you’ll find in New York or Chicago. No matter where you live in this sprawling megalopolis, there's a series for you. Here are a few of my favorites:
You can’t even think of a list like this without Poison Pen, the monthly reading series held at Montrose’s Poison Girl. Can’t conceive it. Because it's the prototype, as far as I’m concerned. They’re the smoky bar scene in that author headshot. They’re the night writers clear when they’re marking their calendars. And in the eight years they’ve been around, they’ve brought in the best and brightest local literary talent. Once a month, 12 times a year. The founders are choosy about who they invite on stage, making all decision by committee. And regardless of when you go, the effort truly shows: regular speakers have included Lacy Johnson, Tony Hoagland, Mat Johnson, Terrence Hayes, Dean Young, Jemeelah Lang, and Victor Lavalle. And if these names mean nothing to you, that’s even more reason to attend the series.
Nuestra Palabra (“Our Word,” for gringos) was created by Houston author Tony Diaz. After being rejected by publishers countless times because “Latinos don’t read,” Diaz took it upon himself to prove that assertion false. And he truly outdid himself: NP’s been featured both locally and nationally, attracting critically acclaimed cartoonists, nods from the Huffington Post, and “Best Of” shout-outs from publications around the region. The lovely thing about the series is how it serves to the community, giving new authors the chance to try out their stuff on a stage, and introducing Houston youth who may have bypassed literature to the joys of reading. From meet-and-greets, to readings, to talks and events (they’ve even got their own radio station), Nuestra Palabra gives the city a group of writers to look up to. And if you listen to Diaz, that’s what it’s all about. He said he started the festival “so that someday soon, across Tejas, then across the nation, all of [our] young will thrive on art.”
Sometimes all you want is a straight-up, sit-down reading. A low-key night at the pub with some friends you know, some folks you don’t, and an MFA student looking to be your next favorite author. Which is where the UH literary journal Gulf Coast comes in, along with their monthly readings at Rudyard’s. Gulf Coast’s readers are sometimes published and sometimes not, and you never know when you’re going to discover the next big thing. The series is run by different grad students each year, with Adrienne Perry, Carlos Hernandez, and Martin Rock as this season’s handlers.
Founded by Fran Sanders in 2011, this Houston Public Library–sponsored series hosts monthly reading by local poets at branch libraries all over the city, with over 100 poets having already appeared on the bill. They also offer a monthly poetry reading group, Ex Libris, in which poets lead live, online discussions of the month’s selection. All you need is an Internet connection.
But There’s More!
And that’s just a taste of the city’s many excellent reading series. Brazos Bookstore, Murder by the Book, Blue Willow Bookshop, and Katy Budget Books all host regular readings, and Kaboom Books, arguably Houston’s greatest hidden gem, occasionally hosts students on its patio. There’s just something about watching an author get up on stage and deliver a reading. Front and center. Giving the audience something to believe in.