Arts & Culture

Houston Is Looking For Its Next Poet Laureate

Local writers can now apply to be city’s literary arts ambassador – a role that aims to celebrate Houston’s diversity and resilience in these challenging times.

Houston’s Fourth Poet Laureate Leslie Contreras Schwartz, reading at Mayor Sylvester Turner’s inauguration, January 2020.

The city of Houston is looking for a local poet, writer or spoken-word artist to serve as its fifth poet laureate in a two-year term that includes a $20,000 honorarium.

Houston’s Fourth Poet Laureate Leslie Contreras Schwartz, reading at a reception for Hispanic Heritage Month at The Rice Hotel in 2019

Houston's next poet laureate will serve from April 2021 to April 2023, and duties include developing a community outreach project that engages nontraditional or otherwise underserved audiences, creating written works, conducting public poetry workshops and mentoring the Houston Youth Poet Laureate, while adhering to COVID-19 safety precautions.

By using the genre of poetry, the role aims to bring the community together – a need that may be more deeply felt during the pandemic, said Leslie Contreras Schwartz, the city's current poet laureate.

"We need that touchstone of art and imagination, especially when we're confined physically either by wearing a mask or by staying at home, being socially distant," Contreras Schwartz said. "Our spirit and our natural tendency to want community and physically be near other people – art can help in a lot of ways because we can connect deeply to other people through art."

Launched in 2013 by former Mayor Annise Parker, the poet laureate program — from the Mayor's Office of Cultural Affairs and Houston Public Library — is funded through the Hotel Occupancy Tax that is dedicated to the arts.

During 2020, Contreras Schwartz's term was impacted by the pandemic, which will continue to affect her successor's term – with vaccinations, safety measures and other challenges expected well into 2021.

The pandemic forced at least one of her projects to go virtual. Bayou City Broadsides, intended to be a series of posters displayed across Houston, were instead collected online.

As part of the project, she collected poetry by everyday Houstonians, including health care workers who wrote poems that were "full of anxiety, like being in a race," while others described firsthand experiences of COVID-19. The goal is to print out and post the poems across the city once it’s safer to do so.

She also created a postcard campaign to send poems of inspiration to local nurses and doctors. Contreras Schwartz herself contracted COVID-19 and wrote a collection of pandemic poems.

A poem by frontline worker Stacy Nigliazzo, featured in the Bayou City Broadsides series organized by Houston Poet Laureate Leslie Contreras Schwartz

Amid the economic downturn of the pandemic that has affected the arts world, the poet laureate position is at the same time an opportunity for a local writer to support and further their livelihood, said Carmen Peña Abrego, Houston Public Library's coordinator of systemwide programs and a member of the poet laureate selection committee.

"We want to encourage artists, poets to apply for this position," Abrego said. "It has the potential to change the life of the poet because it's a position that gives them that platform to reach the community, but also to make connections, to work."

Abrego added that poetry can help people process a year like 2020, defined by a global pandemic and a tumultuous sociopolitical climate.

"It is definitely, I think, poetry that helps people to really convey their feelings," Abrego said. "I think it's been very important over the past – I want to say the past year, but it will continue to be that way. So, what a year for us to be looking for the fifth poet laureate. I think that's also very significant for the City of Houston."

Deborah DEEP Mouton, Houston’s Third Poet Laureate 2017-2019

The deadline to apply is Feb. 25. The application and requirements can be found here.

Mayor Sylvester Turner will select the winner from the finalists, to be announced in April during National Poetry Month.

Listen to the complete interview with Leslie Contreras Schwartz, and read one of her poems below:

Fever-Tree

By Leslie Contreras Schwartz (2021)

A mouthful, polite, tidy fed
in pills: circle or square,
blessed and cadaver white

and pale baby blues,
the circus purple,
florescent gelled candy.

They hang from a tree
its boughs dressed for going out—
lights and sparkle, earrings, chain—all that.

I pluck and swallow
under this makeup smeared sky.
The thing assuaged, lest it chew and bite.

My body glistens like a downed branch,
or sharp, a weapon slick with oil.

The fever all night
again, grows
roots and limbs.

Near daybreak, there's the hand tool made of bone and carpal:
dull-edged and exact. I'm choking for air and need the damn thing.

Suck in, suck in, little roots to the bottom of the lungs,
its tiny pathways. I would use a knife or a chisel to reach breath,
I'll cleave in two—

The vials are empty.

The giant roots break open.

The hospitals are full.

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Catherine Lu

Catherine Lu

Content Producer & Announcer

While growing up in Chicago and Houston, Catherine’s love for art, music and creative writing was influenced by her teachers and parents. She was once concertmaster of the Clear Lake High School Orchestra and a four-time violinist of the Texas All-State Symphony. A graduate of the University of Chicago, Catherine...

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