Heavy Bored: On the Gulf Coast Reading Series

Article by ben

Okay, bear with me for a second while I write something that just occurred to me—but maybe the literary arts scene in any city is sort of like a living, breathing literary magazine. I mean, look around at Houston: at the various reading series; at the plethora of terrific poetry, fiction, and nonfiction; at the panels and workshops; at the literary discussions being murmured in every corner. A good literary journal should be something similar—an entity that collects vital work and puts it out for the public, a venue for the kind of critical discourse that you can point to whenever somebody bemoans the death of literary life in America. And of course, as a thriving literary scene always invites in new talent, there always seems to be a new “issue” of Houston.

Does this sound like a stretch? Maybe—like I say, it just occurred to me, so I haven’t quite worked it through. But all I’m getting at is that the notion of “literary magazine” is an increasingly porous thing, perhaps necessarily. Consider Gulf Coast, the publication housed within the University of Houston’s English Department. Since its inception in 1982 (initially under a different name), it has been a nationally renowned spot for what, in literary journal parlance, usually gets called “new and established voices.” (Years ago, when I—an avowed and unapologetic moron—took over my own graduate program’s literary journal, University of Arizona’s Sonora Review, I immediately wrote to Gulf Coast for advice.) But the journal has evolved into something more than a mere biannual; instead, it has grown across the sprawling metropolis of Houston, becoming a vital place of community beyond the page.

One of the major ways Gulf Coast has managed this task is through various community events: MenilFest, a series dedicated to inter-textuality called “Ligatures,” and, in particular, its Gulf Coast Reading Series, which happens each month in various locations (one of which is, yes, in the interest of full disclosure, Brazos Bookstore). Originally, the series focused on current students in the University of Houston Creative Writing Program, but in the last couple years, more attention has been given to bringing in “featured readers” to share the stage with students. The featured readers are established writers with national reputations, often whose work has also appeared in Gulf Coast, which helps draw out the point that the magazine serves a national community, not just a local one. Last year, the series featured a slew of emerging young writers from elsewhere, including Sarah Gerard, Janaka Stucky, Wendy S. Walters, and Colin Winnette.

A big force behind the Gulf Coast Reading Series’ transformation has been Erika Jo Brown, a current poetry Ph.D. candidate, and the author of one of my favorite recent poetry collections, I’M YOUR HUCKLEBERRY. She works to curate the readings along with fellow editor Martin Rock. When I call Brown, she begins by echoing some of what I already know: “It used to be a student reading series, and then I came on with my big mouth.” Then, groggily, she adds, “Man, I’m so post-nap right now!”

Brown speaks quickly and happily, her words overlapping in what seems to be a constant conversation with herself. The reading series has advanced through firmer community partnerships with spots like Rudyard’s (the Montrose pub) and Asia Society Texas, where its next event will happen on Friday, January 22. They’ve also begun hosting what Brown calls “pop-up events” at places like Brazos. Last year, when we were bringing in the aforementioned Gerard and Winnette, Gulf Coast came on as a partner, adding a student reader of its own and getting the word out. The result was a blowout event—“super successful,” Brown says, “because [the Houston literary community] learned about a new press [Two Dollar Radio], and got exposed to new work.” For Brown, it’s all about building audience.

“I’ve run a reading series in every city I’ve lived,” Brown tells me, “which has been four: New York, Iowa City, Savannah, and now Houston. They’re such different communities, and it’s fun to cater to what different places have.” For her, the key to a reading series in massive, desultory Houston is keeping in mind what she calls “cross-pollination.” “There’s so much out there that I don’t know about,” she says, citing the various readings in bookstores, bars, galleries, and nonprofit spaces. “Everyone I’ve approached about our events has been open to it,” she tells me.

For her, designing a reading series gives her a mission statement—a way for her to work through her interest in marginalized communities, and also the notion of gender parity. (She happily tells me that she worked out her VIDA count for the reading series: “It’s more than fifty percent women!”) But she has a personal interest in partnering with other organizations, and it’s a simple one that more writers should perhaps heed: she just wants to get out of the house. “John Berryman wrote that line about how he has no inner resources because he’s ‘heavy bored,’ and so am I! Writing is a solitary thing, and I’m super into making it less so. I think you get a lot of inspiration from being out, engaging with new ideas, new writing styles.”

So maybe at the beginning of this piece, I had it exactly backwards: maybe a good city isn’t like a literary journal; maybe a good literary journal is like a city. That’s certainly what Gulf Coast seems to do, as both a publication and an events programming entity. And as Brown and I talk about the various literary threads in Houston, I ask her whether she feels like part of her job is to weave them all together. In response to this, she laughs. “I haven’t gotten that card yet in Magic,” she says. “Master weaver.”

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