Poems For Houston NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro talks to Gwendolyn Zepeda, Houston's first poet laureate, about the spotlight on the city during Hurricane Harvey.

Poems For Houston

Poems For Houston

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NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro talks to Gwendolyn Zepeda, Houston's first poet laureate, about the spotlight on the city during Hurricane Harvey.


Houston is beginning the long road to recovery after an historic flooding. And residents are just beginning to come to terms with the damage. Among those residents are the first responders, the reporters, the doctors but also the artists and the writers that form the cultural lifeblood of any city. We invited author Gwendolyn Zepeda to talk about her experience with Houston. She's a native Houstonian and was the city's first poet laureate. She joins us now via Skype. Welcome to the program.

GWENDOLYN ZEPEDA: Hey, Lulu. Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: First of all, how did you weather this storm?

ZEPEDA: We, thank Godfully, (ph) did really well. Our house stayed dry. You know, we spent two nights awake waiting to see if our house would stay dry. But we did great. So I can't complain.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know there's been a huge spotlight on Houston during the hurricane and now in its aftermath. Do you feel like Houston's been characterized properly? What are we missing from the story of Houston and the city that you know?

ZEPEDA: I feel like it's being mischaracterized very strongly in a number of different ways. I felt like, you know, almost before the storm even ended, there were comments online about how we're all conservative, white, redneck people. And, therefore, we deserve this, which is, I mean, not true if you know anything about Houston. We've had Democratic mayors at least since the '80s. And this is actually the most diverse city in the United States. So it was interesting to see that people still had those really old stereotypes that we're a bunch of, you know, cowboys who hate everyone.

There were things about religion - that we are part of the Bible Belt. And, therefore, none of us believe in climate change. And we all expected God to save us from the hurricane. It's like we're in a bubble where we're all trying to be as optimistic as we can and trying to help each other. So seeing the way we look to outsiders - it really did shock me a lot.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you want outsiders to know about Houston? What keeps you there?

ZEPEDA: (Laughter) Sometimes, I feel like I - it's OK for them to not know the truth about why I love Houston because we have too many people here, obviously. That's why they keep building things, and that's why we keep flooding. But to me, I always come back to Houston's diversity probably because I'm the child of an interethnic marriage. And I'm married to someone who is not the same ethnicity as me. I'm always really fascinated by the ethnic diversity here and the fact that this is a city that has always been welcoming to not only immigrants from all over the world but refugees. People can just come here and just always find the food that your people eat. Wherever you came from, we have your food here. We have your religion. And just come here and make a life for yourself. And that's what I love about it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You wrote a poem called "After The Hurricane." It's not specifically, obviously, about Hurricane Harvey, as it was written after Tropical Storm Allison hit Houston in 2001. Tell us a little bit about that poem and its message.

ZEPEDA: So I was trying to write a poem that expressed my thoughts about Houston. And Allison was not a hurricane. But I lived through a couple of other hurricanes. And I felt like there was one particular day right after the floods of Allison that just sort of encapsulated how I see our city.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In the poem there's a scene of everyone standing near the freeway. People are selling corn and tacos from carts. And people are already making plans. What does that say to you about, maybe, what we can expect from Houstonians after this terrible event?

ZEPEDA: Well, to me, the thing about the poem - it's not only people are making tacos and selling them. But everyone who didn't make food to sell is thinking, oh, man, next hurricane, I'm totally going to buy some food and be ready to sell food. Like, everything's an opportunity here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Gwendolyn Zepeda is the author of "Houston, We Have A Problema" and the city's first poet laureate. Thank you very much.

ZEPEDA: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

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