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Reagan HS grad becomes Houston’s first poet laureate

2013 May 9
by HISD Communications

In this week’s I am HISD, which features district students, graduates, employees, and other team members, we talk to Gwendolyn Zepeda, the City of Houston’s first poet laureate. She attended Dow ES, Roosevelt ES, Hamilton MS, Reagan HS, and the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. She talks about the influence HISD teachers had on her decision to become a professional writer.  

When did you first become interested in poetry? 

When I was a child, in third grade (at Roosevelt ES), we had a little poetry contest. I didn’t win and I was jealous of the attention (the winner) got. She wrote a good poem and I was impressed by it as a child. 

Were there any teachers who inspired you?

A lot of them. Pretty much everybody at Roosevelt was a really good teacher. My third-grade teacher, Mrs. Dorothea Terry, was really funny. We did literary criticism in class. In sixth grade, Ms. Helen Filenko, she did a creative writing elective for us. She was funny because she was very strict in our criticism. In eighth grade, I had Ms. Grace Poole – I will never forget her. I held back on a paper and she really critiqued it. She said she saw me cutting up in class and didn’t know why I didn’t put that humor into my paper. That’s when I saw teachers were human beings and they wanted to read something interesting. My grades improved and I became a better writer. In 10th grade at Reagan High School, in Serena Roberts’ class, we did a unit on poetry. Her teaching assistant showed me a poem she had published in a poetry journal and I read it. She was very touched.

How did you become Houston’s poet laureate? What are your duties?

You can apply yourself. You have to turn in 15 pages of your work, a CV and a community outreach plan. Twenty-one people applied, there were six finalists and two ultra finalists. The mayor picked me. I was pretty surprised. I honestly didn’t think I would win. I also write novels and kids’ books, and I’m primarily known for that, so I thought they would want someone more poetry-focused.  At the bare minimum, I need to write two poems for the city and do eight community outreach visits, like workshops, at library branches throughout the city.

You have a full-time job, have published several books, and serve as the city’s poet laureate. Do you ever sleep?

I sleep. I always tell people I don’t clean my house. You can hire somebody.  We have books, musical instruments, and paint everywhere. You can tell artists live there. I’m always working on my next book. I have sold nine books so far. I have three novels and one short story collection for grown-ups and four for children. My poetry book is coming out in October and I’m working on a young adult novel.

If a child told you they were interested in poetry but didn’t know where to start, what would you tell them?

Writers in the Schools is a good place to start. I visit a lot of schools and I’m always telling students that if they have an interest they should tell their teacher. They became teachers because they want to help children.

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