Great writers are often devoted drinkers. To paraphrase Cursive, all art is hard, but there is something exceptionally grueling about sitting alone in a room, scavenging for the right words in a minefield of wrong ones. The utter trapped-in-your-headness of writing has to be a form of psychosis. No one else can get away with spending their days talking to themselves and making imaginary people talk to each other, without having a room in a psych ward leased out to them. But, of course, sometimes great writers do become temporary residents at mental institutions, and usually an alcohol addiction has something to do with it.
Anyways, the whole deranged alcoholic writer thing is overdone, and in truth, most writers are normal enough folks who probably just want to share their work with others and vent about the frustrations of their trade over a few pints like any other class of creatives.
For years, the Poison Pen Reading Series has been providing a space for writers to do just that. Since its inception, Poison Pen has become a fixture in Houston’s vibrant literary community, winning awards and drawing a respectable crowd at each monthly reading.
But the success of Poison Pen is a little surprising to Casey Flemming, one of the writers who helped start the series. Flemming recalls that she and the other founders thought, “it would just be us and a few friends at first.” But it didn’t take long for Poison Pen to grow, perhaps because the series was and still is the only one of its kind in Houston.
Although Houston bookstores and libraries have been offering impressive reading series for some time, the city was lacking one that allowed writers to share their work in a more casual setting. When Scott Repass, the owner of Poison Girl, suggested to Flemming and two of her friends that they start a reading series at his establishment, the trio envisioned one that would bring together acclaimed authors and rising literary talent in the bar’s less-than-conventional environment. They began scouting for great writers who were also great readers of their own work.
Reading aloud is a performing art of sorts, and as such, it seems contrary to popular images of writers: the guy or girl hacking away furiously at a typewriter for hours on end, purging themselves of the stories they must tell, slurping black coffee from the pot or upending a handle of Evan Williams (since they can’t afford Jack Daniels), and stubbing out half-smoked cigarettes in an ash tray spilling over with half-smoked cigarettes. Maybe they’ll pop a few stimulants to keep up with their runaway genius. (Trumbo is probably the latest Hollywood movie to exploit and perpetuate this stereotype.)
With all the myths about writers and writing life, it’s easy to forget that when writers read their work to us, they are resurrecting a little piece of our childhood. Parents read bedtime stories to their kids, and elementary teachers read to their students. As children, most of us listened with rapt curiosity, waiting to hear what would happen next or enjoying the musicality of language. As Flemming states, “the effect of words read aloud is powerful, just ask any toddler.” Readings series like Poison Pen help us reconnect with this sense of wonder.