Houston native and University of Texas Longhorn Gwendolyn Zepeda began her writing career on the web in 1997 as the first Latina blogger. Since that time, Zepeda has published three critically-acclaimed novels through Hachette and four award-winning children’s books, a short story collection, and two volumes of poetry through Arte Publico Press. She is Houston’s first poet laureate. Zepeda blogs about her P&W–supported University of Houston reading this past fall for Arte Publico Press.
A year and a half into my term as Houston’s first poet laureate, I’d been invited to give plenty of presentations about “being Houston’s first poet laureate.” For a recent reading at the University of Houston’s Honors College, however, the marketing department of Arte Publico Press asked me to put a new spin on it. They suggested I talk about growing up in the Sixth Ward (which was an impoverished area not known for producing novelists or poets), and then explain how I became a writer.
You know how, when figuring out how to explain your life to a stranger, you see your life from new angles? That was what happened to me as I prepared for this reading, several hours before it began. I typed an outline about my relatives who didn’t go to college but constantly read and told stories, the epistolary notes I passed in class, and the coveted bail bond office typewriter on which I typed my first poems. It occurred to me that art was the most exalted thing in my family, whether or not we all realized it.
You know how you worry, before each reading, whether anyone will actually attend? I always think of the Onion headline: "Author Promoting Book Gives It Her All Whether It's Just 3 People Or A Crowd Of 9 People." Happily, this reading was almost full in a room that seated fifty. There was a mix of people: students, professors, elderly alumni, a few of my friends. I was introduced to a dean and a women’s club.
You know how, with some audiences, you have immediate good chemistry? They’re in the mood to listen and there are good acoustics in the room, and you find yourself making eye contact with various faces, and it encourages you to be bold and witty and maybe read the piece you hadn’t planned on? That happened to me at this reading. There was a smiling, nodding young man who seemed to have grown up in a family similar to mine. There was a woman with shining eyes who seemed to be a writer herself. There were twentysomethings in the back who were obviously there for class credit, but who seemed pleasantly surprised. There was the dean, whose eyebrows rose at certain words and egged me on.
Afterwards, I signed books for readers, two of whom said they’d been following my work since I was only a blogger. I posed for photos with people who asked, holding my book so they’d later remember who I was. After that, I walked alongside my Arte Publico Press comrades as they rolled their equipment to the parking lot.
And after that, in my car, I reflected on the reading, my writing career so far, and my life in general. They were good thoughts. I was happy.
Photo: Gwendolyn Zepeda. Credit: Aleksander Micovic.
Support for Readings & Workshops events in Houston is provided by an endowment established with generous contributions from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.