10/20/2014 11:53 am ET Updated Dec 20, 2014

The First-Ever Houston Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Zepeda Talks About Poetry in a City of Great Diversity

On April 9, 2013, Houston Mayor Annise D. Parker announced Gwendolyn Zepeda as the first-ever Houston poet laureate. Zepeda is now well into her two-year term, and I thought it would be a good time to ask her about her experiences so far.

Zepeda was born in Houston, Texas in 1971 and attended the University of Texas at Austin. She was the first Latina blogger and began her writing career on the Web in 1997 as one of the founding writers of entertainment site Television Without Pity. Since that time, Zepeda has published three critically acclaimed novels through Hachette, four award-winning children's books through Arte Publico Press, a short-story collection, and a book of poems. Her first poetry collection, Falling in Love with Fellow Prisoners, was published by Arte Publico Press in 2013. Her second, Monsters, Zombies and Addicts, will be published in Spring 2015. Zepeda lives in Houston with her family and pets.

Shivani: What has the post of Houston poet laureate meant to you? What have you learned about the community, and how has it enriched your own artistic growth?

Zepeda: Being poet laureate has been fun and it's added a sense of responsibility to my work that I typically don't feel unless I'm writing for children. Regarding our community, I've learned that people are more willing to embrace poetry than I would've imagined. The Houstonians I've worked with really want to read and understand poetry, and they aren't at all afraid to try writing their own. They're emotionally brave, I guess you could say. As part of my duties, I worked really hard to create workshops that would quickly inspire everyday citizens, and then help them quickly come up with work that has meaning for them. In doing so, it helped me become less angsty about my own work. It really is okay to think of an idea, spur of the moment, and see where it takes you. Quality work doesn't have to be agonized over from the start. I learned that from watching the workshop participants write astonishing pieces within a few hours of consideration.

Shivani: What are some of the things that happened to you that you didn't expect? People who surprised you, or events that didn't turn out the way you thought they would?

Zepeda: Fran Sanders of Public Poetry (a non-profit umbrella'ed by the Houston Public Library) wanted to make a film in which I accosted people downtown and read poetry to them. At first I was very afraid to do that, so we set up little "flash readings" instead in various places along the Underground tunnel system and office plazas. That didn't go over so well with the security guards, so we ended up having to do it her way--approaching individuals downtown, asking their permission to film, and reading my work to them.

I think I expected people to resent the interruption of their lunch hours or, at best, that they would smile, frozen, into our camera as I read. Instead, the majority of them listened thoughtfully to the poems and provided candid reactions and analysis. They seemed to treat it as a real exchange of ideas and emotions. Fran had me ask them if they'd try writing their own poems as a result of this experience, and many of them said they would. We talked about giving poems to people as gifts and you could tell that they were able to envision a positive reaction to such a personal gift, based on the transaction we'd just had.

It was more of a two-way experience than I'd expected, and I was glad I'd overcome my fear and tried it.

Shivani: Where did you grow up, and how does your sense of place or personal experience inform your poetry? How have you brought these experiences to your poet laureateship?

Zepeda: I grew up in Houston's 6th Ward, which is a very expensive neighborhood now, but used to be a poor Mexican-American barrio when I lived there. It wasn't the kind of place where people discussed putting away money for college or potential career paths. But I had a lot of family and friends in that neighborhood and a lot of life-shaping experiences.

Although it would be easy to write poetry and fiction only for college graduates or people who buy hardbacks in airports, I always try to imagine what my 6th Ward friends and family would think of my work, and keep them in mind as I write, even if I don't think they'll ever read what I'm working on. I guess you could say my upbringing keeps me accountable in certain ways that others maybe aren't.

This constant awareness of different perspectives has helped me carry out part of the Houston poet laureate mission: to bring poetry to underserved audiences. I am very aware of the educational disparities between people who can study poetry at a post-graduate level and people who are working jobs that have nothing to do with their Bachelor's, or people who are trying to ensure they have enough money to last until next payday. I have to think of ways to engage all these types of Houstonians, or I'm not doing my job.

Shivani: We function now in a hypercapitalist world, with established rules of discourse and exchange. Personal relationships are sharply defined by such unspoken guidelines. In these conditions, how can poetry contribute to social change, a movement toward justice and fairness?

Zepeda: I think poetry is one of the few remaining mediums where you're allowed to scream your feelings plainly, maybe because it's not commercially valued and yet it's a very quick contact with the reader. Poems are like soundbites without sponsors. People expect them to elicit emotion or to expose the poet's vulnerability. And you can't argue with a feeling. You can argue all day about politics or etiquette, but you can't tell someone they don't feel the way they feel.

For me, personally...I often write about feelings I have as a woman (which makes sense because I am a woman). And I've had men tell me "Now I understand how that must feel" and that they're resolving to treat women differently--not because I successfully argued them toward my feminist ideals, but because I successfully conveyed how it feels to be catcalled or called a secretary. Or whatever. That feels like power, to me.

Shivani: What is the ideal education for a poet?

Zepeda: I don't know. It could be anything. A poet has to read poetry, first, to understand what he does and doesn't like, and to glean techniques he wouldn't think of on his own. Some people get that in school, and some get it from reading on their own. And then a poet would need something to write about, and that could come from anywhere. He could have really trenchant observations and passionate feelings about his world travels, or the changing of the seasons, or the MFA program he's been in for the past few years. I'm not picky about how a poet learns to write, if his writing can affect me in some way.

Shivani: You write in different genres. Why is this important? Should more writers do this?

Zepeda: It's important to me because I get bored easily and like to try new things, but I don't know that it's important for anyone else. I think it's definitely a useful exercise to try different genres, whether or not you end up publishing in them. It adds to your toolbox. For me, some subjects are better suited for genres other than poetry. I like having the option to switch to a more suitable medium. No one's keeping writers from making that choice, so why limit yourself?

Shivani: Houston is becoming rapidly transforming as it becomes a more cosmopolitan but at the same time a more overtly capitalist city, more than ever tied into global influences and exchanges. Is there an essential spirit of Houston--or Texas in general--that personally appeals to you, and that people should know more about? Can a city change so much and yet retain its native qualities?

Zepeda: This is going to sound more terrible than I mean it, but I think Houston's essential spirit is the ability to take advantage of anything or anyone. There's this constant influx of different types of people, because of Oil and Gas or our proximity to Mexico or the railroads we used to build. The people who are best suited to living here are the ones who examine the influx and think "What can I get from them?" Do they have good food? Are they looking to buy property? Would they vote for me? Are they attractive and willing to mingle?

The people who cannot do that--who fear the constant influx and hate change--eventually leave. The people who stay breed a population that welcomes fresh influx and change.

I think that's always going to be the case in a port town. I would only ever live in a port town. I like the combos Houston has going on now, and the ones that look likely to emerge.

Anis Shivani's next book of poetry is Soraya: Sonnets (forthcoming, 2015). Other books forthcoming in 2015 include Karachi Raj: A Novel and Literature in an Age of Globalization. Recent books include My Tranquil War and Other Poems, The Fifth Lash and Other Stories, and Anatolia and Other Stories. Books in progress include the novels Abruzzi, 1936 and An Idiot's Guide to America. Anis is possibly an honorary Houstonian, having lived here for close to twenty years.