The Poison Pen Reading Series at the Montrose bar Poison Girl, now in its sixth year, is one of Houston's most successful literary events, packing the bar's back patio with a standing room-only crowd nearly every month. It's also been named Best Local Reading Series in our 2008 Houston Press Best Of Awards.
What He does: Greg Oaks teaches English and Creative Writing at Lone Star College--University Park. He's also one of the four original founders of the Poison Pen reading series. After graduating with an English degree, he tried his hand at law school but found it wasn't a good fit. Then he joined the Master of Fine Arts program at Texas State University, where as a TA he discovered a love for teaching. He later went on to get a Ph.D in Creative Writing from the University of Houston.
He and a few friends from the UH Creative Writing Program also quickly became regulars at what was then an upstart bar in the Montrose, off Westheimer at Dunlavy. It was there the idea for Poison Pen was born.
"The first day Poison Girl was open, I heard they were empty, so I went in to hang out. There I met Scott (Repass, owner of Poison Girl, Antidote Coffee, Black Hole Cafe and now co-owner of the OKRA Charity Bar Downtown). Scott said he wanted to start a reading series."
So the two teamed up with Casey Fleming, who has an MFA in Creative Writing from UH, and David Maclean, a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from UH, to start the series. But Oaks swears it was Repass's idea originally, and that it took some convincing.
"Scott had to pester us for a few months," he said. "In the beginning, we just invited our friends. I read the first month. But now writers are flying in for this."
A few years ago, Maclean moved to Chicago, so author and UH graduate faculty Mat Johnson, the subject of a Creative write-up earlier this summer, joined the Poison Pen planning team. Maclean is still considered a part of the group -- all five communicate via e-mail to coordinate the readings.
"A good way of describing our teamwork, if one of us had been missing, this reading series wouldn't have lasted as long as it has," Oaks said. "Each person on our committee has been a vital part of the process."
Why He likes it: Having a reading in a bar presents certain challenges, Oaks said. Each month, a few hours before the Thursday night reading starts, audience members show up to the bar early to stake their seat outside. Many of them spend this time with a cocktail in hand. Then there are the regulars who have been at the bar since much earlier. This can make for a rough crowd.
"The readers know they have to bring their id," he said. "When Katherine Center read from her first novel, a chapter about a new mother whose breast milk had not come in yet, she read about her nipple pain and her anxiety and the descriptions of her baby. I looked out at the audience and it was a particularly rough crowd that night, a lot of tattoos, some big, burly guys, a few drunks who'd been out there before we set up. And ALL of them were enrapt, had this look on their faces of sadness and yearning," he said. "At the end of the chapter, when the milk finally came in, applause and cheers broke out in the audience. A few guys were wiping their eyes."
"Another reader, Andrew Porter, read such a great moving story that when it started to drizzle, no one went inside."
What Inspires Him: Each Poison Pen reading features three writers, typically an established voice, an up-and-coming writer and what Oaks calls a "wild card," usually an author the organizers don't know much about. Sometimes the synergy that comes from these pairings leads to something really special. Other times...not so much. But the unpredictability can be part of the fun.
"We've had readers we wanted to pull off stage, but we didn't," he said. "With the wild card, we don't know what to expect. One reader, Eric Dominguez, took off all his clothes during a reading and had swim trunks on underneath."
"At the reading with Tony Hoagland and Terrence Hayes, Tony brought a friend. Hayes (who was a National Book Award winner in 2010 for poetry) started reading these poems, and Hoagland's friend was so inspired he jumped up and started reading, too. They kept going back and forth. They went long, too, and no one left."
If Not This, Then What? "I have a fantasy of being a therapist," Oaks said. He's particularly interested in cognitive therapy, and thinks a lot of writers are drawn to it, because in some ways writing is a similar method of working out one's issues.
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If Not Here, Then Where? "I'd probably live somewhere in New Mexico, assuming I could get a teaching job there, but I don't think Poison Pen could move," Oaks said. "First, a few of our committee members have deep Houston roots, but really, I see Poison Pen as deeply suited to Houston, partly from the UH Creative Writing Program but also the city's wildcatter, zydeco history. This is the city of the Art Car Parade and the Orange Show. What better city for sweaty, beer-filtered, id-based art?"
What's Next: Oaks will have a short story coming out soon in the Texas Review. And the next few months of Poison Pen will be pretty interesting. On September 27, short fiction writer ZZ Packer will read. In October, Cheryl Strayed is a guest. Her book Wild is the first selection for the "new" Oprah Book Club. And in November, the Poison Pen team will hand things over to the editorial staff at Gulf Coast, UH's literary journal.
"Each editor reads for three minutes. It's like a slam reading, but it's actually good," he said.
More Creatives for 2012 (In order of most recently published; click here for the full page). Oliver Halkowich, Dancer and Performer Lupe Mendez, poet and poem pusher Jason Nodler, artistic director, playwright, director Ana Treviño-Godfrey, musician Matthew Detrick, classical musician Travis Ammons, filmmaker Florence Garvey, actress Julia Gabriel, artist, designer and backpack maker Rebecca French, choreographer and FrenetiCore co-founder Kiki Neumann, found object folk artist Flynn Prejean, Poster Artist JoDee Engle, dancer David Rainey, actor, artistic director and teacher Geoff Hippenstiel, painter, art instructor Jessica Janes, actress and musician Dennis Draper, actor and director Mat Johnson, novelist and tweeter Orna Feinstein, printmaker and installation artist Adriana Soto, jewelry designer Domokos Benczédi, Noise and Collage Artist Robert Boswell, Book Author, UH Prof Patrick Turk, visual artist Elizabeth Keel, playwright Bob Martin, designer Mary Lampe, short film promoter and developer Nisha Gosar, Indian classical dancer Jeremy Wells, painter George Brock, theater teacher Radu Runcanu, painter Ariane Roesch, Mixed-Media Sandie Zilker, art jewelry maker Philip Hayes, actor Patrick Palmer, painter Ana Mae Holmes, Jewelry Designer John Tyson, actor Jerry Ochoa, violinist and filmmaker Raul Gonzalez, painter, sculptor, photographer Roy Williams, DJ of medieval music Laura Burlton, photographer David Peck, fashion designer Rebecca Udden, theater director Donae Cangelosi Chramosta, vintage designer handbag dealer Paul Fredric, author John Sparagana, photographer Damon Smith, musician and visual artist Geoff Winningham, photographer Johnathon Michael Espinoza, visual artist Jaemi Blair Loeb, conductor Katya Horner, photographer Johnathan Felton, artist Nicoletta Maranos, cosplayer Carol Simmons, hair stylist Joseph "JoeP" Palmore, actor, poet Greg Carter, director Kenn McLaughlin, theater director Justin Whitney, musician Antone Pham, tattoo artist Susie Silbert, crafts Lauralee Capelo, hair designer Marisol Monasterio, flamenco dancer Carmina Bell, promoter and DJ ReShonda Tate Billingsley, writer Kiki Lucas, choreographer and director J.J. Johnston, theater director Mary Margaret Hansen, artist Richard Tallent, photographer Viswa Subbaraman, opera director Emily Sloan, sculptor and performance artist Sonja Roesch, gallery owner Enrique Carreón-Robledo, conductor Sandy Ewen, musician Camella Clements, puppeteer Wade Wilson, gallery owner Magid Salmi, photographer Carl Williams, playwright