The brainchild of board members Casey Fleming, Greg Oaks, David MacLean, and Scott Repass, the Poison Pen Reading Series has been fulfilling Houston’s need for exceptional poetry in dark, smoky places since 2006. Inside the dim light of the Poison Girl bar, coolly decorated with femme fatales and pinball machines, the bartenders are ready to serve and the atmosphere is relaxed. Step through the back door and into the garden, and you’ll find yourself shoulder to shoulder with some of Houston’s literary magnets. Past readers have included Antonya Nelson, Mat Johnson, Matthew Zapruder, and a host of celebrated writers from the University of Houston community and beyond.
Thursday was no exception, featuring readers Frances Justine Post, Scott Blackwood, and of course, the inimitable Tony Hoagland. The variety in this night alone is testament to the magic Poison Pen has created.
Justine Post read from her new book of poetry, BEAST, a collection of progressively macabre poems detailing the complexities of love and self. Taking us backwards through the book, Post began with the darkest poems and worked her way into the light. Poems like “Hannibal,” seethe with both emotion and devastation. Imagery of a body broken into pieces for eating is juxtaposed with lines like “How does it feel to be an object?” The self-portrait series, of which there are twelve in the book, feature titles like “Self Portrait in the Shadow of a Volcano,” “Self Portrait in the Body of the Whale,” and the poem which features the title of her book, “Self Portrait as Beast.” Post is serene, poised, and has a sinister wit that saturates her work. A current PhD candidate at the University of Houston’s acclaimed writing program, she has served as former poetry editor of Gulf Coast and was recipient of the Inprint Paul Verlaine Prize in Poetry.
Author Scott Blackwood read from his novel, See How Small, the literary fiction version of a mystery thriller. The story is based on the Austin yogurt shop murders of 1991 and is told from different perspectives of each person involved in the story. Blackwood imagines the parents’ reactions, the thoughts of the firefighter entering the building, the murdered girls’ ghosts speaking of their deaths as a Greek chorus. Chilling and rooted in truth, Blackwood’s ability to enter the minds of each character comes across in his work. He reads quietly, and the audience leans forward a little in their seats to catch each word. Blackwood has published several novels, including In the Shadow of Our House and award-winning We Agreed to Meet Just Here. A former Dobie Paisano Fellow and long-time resident of Austin, Texas, Scott now lives in Chicago and teaches fiction writing in the MFA Creative Writing Program at Southern Illinois University.
And just to add a bit of brevity and a whole lot of laughter to the night, Tony Hoagland read a number of poems from his various works. There’s a reason Poison Pen host Greg Oaks introduces Hoagland as the greatest living poet in America. It isn’t hard to see why with lines like, “What grief it is to love some people like your own / blood, and then to see them simply disappear;” and “that's all of us; / dreaming we're alive, that we're in love.” Hoagland’s work is peppered with wit, the kind of raucous humor that comes when you start to tell the truth about the day-to-day weirdness that is America. It’s these absurdities that put Hoagland up there with the legends and have lead the New York Times to call him a “plain, unincorporated, free-range American poet.” Hoagland’s has been honored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. He has received the O.B. Hardison Prize for Poetry and Teaching from the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Poetry Foundation’s Mark Twain Award and the Jackson Poetry Prize from Poets & Writers. The man behind the myth however, is just as ordinary, mortal, and amiable as they come, a teacher at heart.
All in all the night left this voyeur with the need to curl up in bed with a notebook and write a poem. How did Post capture that dark inner conflict? What cult horror needs retelling in the soft and deadly vein of Blackwood? How, indeed, does one blend humor with beauty like the accomplished Hoagland? And you, what are you waiting for? Poison Pen is held the last Thursday of each month at Poison Girl bar. Get thee to a bar.