Gwendolyn Zepeda was already a very busy poet and novelist, but a few weeks back, things became even busier for the Houston native. In April, she was named the city’s first-ever poet laureate, a two-year gig paying $5,000 annually, requiring the 41-year-old to, among other things, write two poems about the Bayou City. This did not seem to faze Zepeda.
“I already write about Houston, because I live here,” she said. “You could say everything not about sex is about Houston.”
We smiled and scanned the Jimmy’s Ice House crowd, wondering if any neighboring picnic tables had heard her, but nobody was paying a lick of attention to the poet laureate in their midst. Zepeda took a swig from her St. Arnold Santo and looked off in the direction of BB’s, where her husband, Dat Lam, had gone for po’boys.
“I’m always scared of places like this,” she confided. “But the older I get, I realize you walk into these places and they’re chill.” Still, at some other establishments in town, she and Lam, an interracial couple, have gotten funny looks, had trouble getting served, and randomly received separate checks.
Jimmy’s was rather sparsely populated by the after-work crowd on this drizzly evening, which only gave Zepeda’s personality, already on the large side, further room to expand.
“A lot of the stuff”—her poetry, that is—“ten years ago, I never would have shown anybody, but now it’s not so bad because I’m old,” said the author of three novels and a book of short stories, whose first book of poetry (working title: Falling in Love with Fellow Prisoners) is slated for publication by the University of Houston’s Arte Público Press this fall. “I had these people I wanted to have sex with, and I wrote about it.” We looked around, still nothing. “Now I can’t even remember who it was. At the time I was like, ‘I will die.’”
The Houston Public Library decided to start the city’s poet-laureate program after the mayor, herself a poet, approached them with the idea. We wondered how dramatically Zepeda’s life would change in the face of this appointment. (Do poets-laureate take out the trash? It seemed unlikely.) And so we called up Dave Parsons, a former poet-laureate of Texas. “She’ll always be the 2013 Houston poet laureate, and it will be with her for life,” he told us. “It won’t expire.” Still, there are indeed downsides to the job. Parsons said the multitude of speaking engagements can dramatically cut into a poet-laureate’s time for actual poeticizing. Once more, Zepeda appeared unfazed.
“I’m not trying to have a pissing contest with anybody,” she said, “but if I can have a day job and have three kids and still write novels on the side, I think I am going to be fine.”
Parsons assured us he’d heard great things about Zepeda, but did add, “I do hope that the next time, they pick one of those poets that’s been around 30 years writing poetry in Houston. I do have that prejudice.” We repeated that to Zepeda.
“I’m 41 years old,” she fired back. “I’ve been writing poetry since third grade. How old do I have to be?”
In this day and age, if you have the temerity to call yourself a poet, you likely have developed a thick skin, and Zepeda is no exception. She does have a vulnerable side, however. At Jimmy’s she admitted to being both excited and scared by her new post, as well as the upcoming book. “I’m already being called the people’s poet instead of a poet’s poet,” she said. “Even though I’m not an academic, I really respect academics a lot. I’m scared for them to think that because I’m the people’s poet, my stuff isn’t good.”
Lam returned with the po’boys. We decided to have another round, and Zepeda declared Jimmy’s her new favorite bar.
“It’s like Numbers for old people,” she announced. “Everyone’s welcome.”