Embracing our new poet overlord
Houston's first poet laureate weighs in on the Astrodome, Television Without Pity and poetic freedom
Do the bluebonnets seem a deeper blue this spring, Houston? Are this year’s baby owls a tad more hootier? Is life just richer this May? Perhaps the reason is that Mayor Parker recently crowned the city’s first poet laureate to reign lyrically over us all.
Your new poetry overlord is the Houston-born and raised novelist, blogger, and yes, poet Gwendolyn Zepeda. CultureMap was recently granted an audience with our new poet laureate, so we can now answer some of the most urgent poetry questions Houstonians everywhere are asking.
Zepeda says it was her first paid writing job at Television Without Pity, where she recapped shows like Ally McBeal and 7th Heaven that truly toughened her as a writer.
Wait, our new Poet Laureate was already announced? Shouldn’t there have been a show where 12 Houston poets are forced to live together in the UH dorms, complete poetry tasks, like writing a Petrarchan sonnet about the Galleria without using the word “the," and then judged and eliminated weekly by Mayor Parker, Jeremy Lin and Tina Knowles?
Yes. There totally should have been that show, but instead Zepeda was selected by a committee of Houston educators and writers with the final decision coming from Mayor Parker, who is a poet herself, and Houston Public Library Director Dr. Rhea Brown Lawson.
As the well-known author of the novels Houston, We Have a Problema, and Better With You Here, does Zepeda have poetry experience?
Zepeda started writing as a poet, and calls poetry “a gateway drug because it’s short. You can write it quickly and read it out loud in public and go home.”
She later began writing and selling longer works, but she always comes home to poetry because the form “is much more intimate, personal, and intense. If I’m writing novels for a general audience, I’m not going to get crazy with my emotions, but in poetry I can, especially because I haven’t spent the last 10 years trying to sell my poetry. I can say whatever I want in it. I’m set free.”
Her poetry collection It’s Zepeda Not Zapata comes out next year.
Does Zepeda have enough writerly presence to preside over the creative chaos of H-Town?
Zepeda says it was her first paid writing job at Television Without Pity, where she recapped shows like Ally McBeal and 7th Heaven and moderated online discussion, that truly toughened her as a writer.
“The actual recapping of shows was hilarious and fun,” she describes. “What hardened and strengthened me as writer was hearing people’s bitching, the fans. Someone even made a forum just to hate on us, to call us bitches and idiots. Now I can look back and laugh, but sometimes back then I was like: I’m trying to be a writer guys; stop hurting me. Why are you hurting my feelings online?”
Television Without Pity pioneered the snarky recap format in the late '90s, a time when people had no qualms about looking up writers and calling them at work. “It was the wild west back then,” she said.
Now that Houston has a poet laureate, should I dial 311 for all my poetry emergencies?
No. Even though she’s now living large on a $5,000 annual honorarium, Zepeda is not quitting her day job at a subsidiary of AIG to devote the next two years to making us eloquent.
She will be writing poetry to be read at city events, maintaining the Poet Laureate Facebook page, and tweeting. She will also conduct poetry workshops, in an attempt to bring poetry into “every kind of community that Houston has.”
Part of her job description is to reach out to “underserved” communities. Zepeda has come to realize this can mean socioeconomic disadvantaged communities, but it can also mean businesses and corporations.
Some groups that already write poetry are very interested in workshops, and Zepeda would like their help to perhaps host workshops in their area. However, she’s also driven to “to reach out to community centers or businesses where they are not already writing poems every weekend.”
If you still need help for all your poetry problems, she is waiting to see if there will be funds for development of a phone app.
What’s the official Poet Laureate position on the Astrodome's future?
While we found Zepeda frank and forthcoming throughout our interview, this is one issue she side-steps like a true governmental official.
“I’ve been in a state of denial about that whole part of the city since before they tore down AstroWorld,” she admitted. “Once they tore down AstroWorld, I decided I had to stop caring about it or I would go insane. It’s too much emotion. I’m actually getting upset just thinking about. Does Kitty Wonderland still exist?”
She is hopeful that “people with the capital” and “people who have sentimental attachment to the Astrodome” will come together to find a solution. “I’m an optimist.”
In an intercity poetry slam, who would win, Houston or Austin?
Houston, no contest.
“No seriously Austin you need to calm down with the bragging and overrating yourself until you go live somewhere real for awhile,” said Zepeda, more than willing to start some poetry trash talk.
How will I recognize my poet laureate on the street, and how may I best pay tribute to her?
Zepeda is hoping the city gives her a laurel wreath to wear as identification, so maybe Starbucks will give her a discount. After our tangential discussion about local beauty pageant winners who rent themselves out as celebrity guests for 'tween birthday parties at cupcake shops, Zepeda allowed she might be willing to offer poetry advice in exchange for baked goods, but revealed, with the kind of foretelling only artists have, that the hippest dessert trend will soon be mini-Bundt cakes.
So if you see a woman wearing a crown of laurels on her head, please toss tiny Bundt cakes at her feet. Just don’t be cruel to our new laureate and tell her the fate of Kitty Wonderland.