Arts & Culture

Houston’s First Poet Laureate Reflects On Experience

April may just be starting, but Houston is expected to announce its second poet laureate by the end of the month. Gwendolyn Zepeda takes some time with Amy Bishop to reflect on her experience holding the inaugural position.

 

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Gwendolyn Zepeda, Houston’s first poet laureate, wraps up her two-year term this month. Photo credit: Aleksander Micovic.

If you ask Houston author Gwendolyn Zepeda about her proudest experience as Houston’s first poet laureate, she’ll probably tell you about the time she cried.

In a good way.

“We did a four-week workshop here at the downtown central library and at the end of it, one person told me that she had taken a lot of poetry classes in her life and that mine was the first one where she actually felt that she had learned something and she felt that she could go forward and write poetry on her own,” Zepeda said. “And that kind of made me cry.”

Zepeda wraps up her two-year term as poet laureate when the name of the city’s second poet laureate is announced in April.

“You know, this is going to sound weird, because I have no idea who it’s going to be. But I would say that you really need to put your ego and your work and your brand aside,” Zepeda said. “This is really a job that’s about service and you’re going to have to work with a lot of people you’ve never met. And you’re representing the city, not yourself.”

The poet laureate grew up in Houston’s Sixth Ward during the 1970s and 80s (she endearingly calls it “the barrio”). A lot of her characters are based on actual people from the neighborhood. She describes it as a closely-knit community where she was surrounded by storytellers, including members of her own family. 

“I guess I could say I became a practiced storyteller because I lived in a community that valued that skill,” Zepeda said.

When she left to go to college at the University of Texas in Austin, Zepeda didn’t do what many students do when they become “Austinite” transplants — she didn’t stay there.

“I think the difference is if you grew up in the suburbs of Houston or Dallas, naturally you’re going to think Austin around UT is better,” Zepeda said. “I was the kind of person that, every day that I walked outside in Austin, people from Austin would look at me and say, ‘You must be from Houston.’ And I don’t know if it was because of like, my glitter nail polish, or my purse with the metal and the snakeskin, but they knew I was from Houston. And I was like, ‘Fine, I’ll go back.’”

She said her life in Austin had kind of “played out” when she decided to move back to Houston, which would obviously prove to be rewarding. Over the course of her career as a writer, she’s gone from being an author to being an award-winning one, gaining even more recognition after becoming poet laureate two years ago.

“I have to say that since I’ve been in this program, I’ve been exposed to so many new people,” she said. “And of course, you complete the mission, which is to bring poetry to underserved audiences — meaning audiences who don’t work in a career or work for a non-profit for the arts where they’re not exposed to poetry and they don’t have a reason to read poetry. So, it was way more horizon-broadening that I was expecting.”

Zepeda’s latest book of poetry, Monsters, Zombies and Addicts, was just released by Arte Publico Press.

 

Listen to Gwendolyn Zepeda read After the Hurricane

Her poem, After the Hurricane, was written shortly after being named poet laureate.

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