Houston’s oldest poetry reading series, First Fridays, relaunches post-pandemic

First Fridays at Inprint, in a photo from Dec. 7, 2019 / Courtesy of First Fridays Facebook page

When poet Chris Wise moved to Houston about 20 years ago, he searched for open mics where he could perform his poetry.  That’s when he discovered First Fridays—and he’s a better writer for it, he says.

“What I liked about it was that it was free, which is a beautiful comment on who may participate. I was very broke back then,” said Wise. “The range of skill level and notoriety of the readers spanned the spectrum—so there really was a space for everyone. I became friends with the writers I admired, and in turn I learned from them.”

There have been other local poetry readings and open mics that he’s attended over the years, he added, but some are gone or now rebooted under different concepts by different people.

“First Fridays has been consistent and under one person, Robert Clark,” Wise said.

Robert Clark, founder of First Fridays, in a photo from January, 2020 / Courtesy of First Fridays Facebook page

Clark, a longtime Houston-based poet, educator, and director of the Houston Poetry Festival, established First Fridays in 1975. He coordinated and hosted it without interruption until March 2020 when it was indefinitely suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Determined to bring it out of its hiatus and to continue Clark’s vision, a group of 20 local poets and First Friday regulars organized and rallied this past winter, and came up with a plan to revive the series.

“[Robert] has been hoping that someone would pick up his love and passion for his First Friday Reading Series for him,” said Richard Gamez, Clark’s longtime partner. Clark has been struggling with health issues recently, leading loved ones to establish a GoFund Me campaign on his behalf.

First Fridays COVID-19 shutdown notice from 2020 / Courtesy of Chris Wise

First Fridays is now set to relaunch over the next 12 months at Inprint, resuming for the first time since the pandemic. Four local poets (Kelly Anne Ellis, Angelique Jamail, Yolanda Movsessian, and Chris Wise) will rotate as hosts. Each event is free and includes a reading by a featured poet, followed by an open mic for anyone to perform their work.

Wise shared with Houston Arts Journal the First Fridays 2023-2024 season schedule:

April 7, 2023Chris WiseMarlon Lizama
May 5, 2023Kelly Anne EllisJohn Gorman
June 2, 2023Yolanda MovsessianAnthony Sutton
July 7, 2023Yolanda MovsessianRebecca Danelly
August 4, 2023Kelly Anne EllisTina Cardona
September 1, 2023Kelly Anne EllisMaha Abdel Wahab
October 6, 2023Yolanda MovsessianAyokunle Falomo
November 3, 2023Angelique JamailCharlie Scott
December 1, 2023Chris WiseAmir Safi
January 5, 2024Angelique JamailChrista Forster
February 2, 2024Angelique JamailPaige Poe
March 1, 2024Chris WiseBlacksnow

The inaugural post-pandemic reading is Friday, April 7, 2023 at 8pm at Inprint. Doors open at 7:30pm. Chris Wise hosts poet-activist Marlon Lizama, author of My Spanglish Hip Hop Story.

A piece of Houston’s literary history

During its 45 years, from 1975-2020, First Fridays grew into a series beloved by local poets.

“I always have a great time when I am able to go and look forward to getting to hear a variety of poets, those that I have known for years and new friends I’m meeting for the first time,” wrote Lupe Mendez, 2022-2023 Texas Poet Laureate, in an article for Poets & Writers.

Stories of its venue changes have taken on the quality of folklore, according to poet and original attendee R.T. Castleberry.

Castleberry recalls First Fridays’ early years, when the open mics and readings were held at locations like an auction house, the Orange Show, a café, and music clubs and bars—including Hard Thymes, a former folk music venue once located on Bissonnet.

“Hard Thymes was split between a bar area and a performance/eating area complete with an elevated stage. In the five or so years First Friday was held there, it became notorious for the rowdy behavior of both performers and audiences. As mentioned, it had a bar area,” said Castleberry.

After Hard Thymes closed, the series moved to the former Firehouse Gallery on Westheimer.

“The Firehouse featured a large, brick porch for performers and audiences to relax and visit on, a tiny kitchen area behind the performance area where the cool kids hung out drinking beer and double glass doors in the street level performance area,” recalled Castleberry.

“In the days when the Westheimer Weekend Crawl was in its heyday, the poets read with their backs to the street—and the street traffic. The Firehouse also continued in the First Friday reputation for unruliness,” he said.

Scenes from First Fridays at Inprint / Courtesy of First Fridays Facebook page

First Fridays eventually settled down its roots at Inprint, which has provided a home for the series for the past 20-plus years.

“[Robert Clark] wanted there to be a space for local poets to share their work with the public and each other. He was committed to always highlighting a featured writer, followed by an open mic, so that less established writers could share a poem or two,” said Krupa Parikh, Inprint’s Associate Director.

Parikh says that some of the memorable and distinguished local poets, who have performed on the series over the years, include current and former Houston Poet Laureates Emanuelee “Outspoken” Bean, Robin Davidson, Deborah D.E.E.P Mouton, Leslie Contreras Schwartz, and others.

“Our former Houston Mayor Annise Parker was once an open mic poet,” Parikh added.

Legacy as Houston’s “oldest”

First Fridays has often been called Houston’s “oldest poetry reading series”—a distinction based on a general consensus among local poets.

Houston Arts Journal also reviewed the timeline of several local reading series. Inprint’s own Margarett Root Brown Reading Series, now in its 42nd season, is a close second oldest (and features both poetry and fiction). In addition, Houston has plenty of other well-established literary series that have formed in the past two-to-three decades and in recent years, including Gulf Coast, Nuestra Palabra, Poison Pen, Public Poetry, Write About Now, and Tintero Projects. Together, they provide an overlapping network of poets, writers, and lovers of the written and spoken word, forming the fabric of the city’s literary scene.

Parikh believes that First Fridays has had a “tremendous impact” on the local poetry community.

“It has given established and emerging poets a platform to share their work and helped many local poets connect with each other. It has also helped encourage many to keep writing poetry and keep nurturing a love of it,” she said.

Poet Chris Wise / Courtesy of chris-wise.com

Poet Chris Wise also notes that the series’ supportive and welcoming atmosphere creates a space not only to enjoy poetry—but to learn, collaborate, receive feedback, and share opportunities on a more level playing field.

“The collection of word artists who come to First Fridays range from unpublished to widely published,” he said. “First Fridays has always bridged the gap between street poets and academic poets, between the beats and the elites.”

Parikh says that part of what makes First Fridays unique is “a very community-based feel, thanks to the way Robert ran it”—a spirit that organizers have aimed to recreate in their grassroots efforts behind First Fridays’ relaunch, keeping it independent from any institution.

“While Inprint is proud to be host of the series and provide support, the curation, logistical planning, and organizing of First Fridays today is led by community members,” said Parikh. “We are thrilled to see the way these community members are coming together to reignite the series and carry on Robert’s legacy.”

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