Poet Breaks from UT to Write New Lines at University of Houston

‘I think I got a gene for literature and writing,’ said Martha Serpas, Associate Professor of English, referring to her love of literature.

A professor for 10 years, her voice brims with zest whenever she discusses writing; her energy is infectious.

With a soft spot for ‘Harold and Maude,’ Ecclesiastes, Elizabeth Bishop and the ‘screamy, three-chord, white boy music’ she grew up with in Galliano, La., Serpas is a cherished member of UT’s English and Writing department.

However, this will be her last semester at UT. This fall she will teach undergraduate and graduate poetry writing at the University of Houston.

One reason is to focus on her own writing, but, more importantly family health concerns swayed Serpas.

‘My mother…I need to be in the vicinity of my mother and sister to provide health care for my mother and that’s gonna be easier for me from Texas,’ she said.

Red sunglasses propped up, she smiled while we discussed her childhood infatuation with poetry, influenced by her mother’s 30-year career as a high school English teacher.

‘As a kid I think I saw the figure of the poet as a romantic, iconoclastic figure. I read Dylan Thomas because Jim Morrison of The Doors read Dylan Thomas, and I loved The Doors and pretty soon after Thomas I was reading Yeats. And my 11th grade English teacher said: Why don’t you look into the Lost Generation? Hmm, Lost Generation that sounds like me. Turns out that was Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Hemmingway.’

Ending her science studies her first year at Louisiana State University, Serpas tried creative writing.
‘After my first poetry writing workshop, I knew I never wanted to sit a class of 300 again, in the sciences, with a final exam of 10 questions. I was too lazy for that,’ she said.

Her teaching job at UT was her first after graduating with her Ph.D.’ She felt like she ‘won the lottery,’ and her friendships with her academic peers enriched her time at UT.

Working as co-poetry editor on the ‘Tampa Review’ since 2000, faculty poets Richard Mathews, Kathryn VanSpanckeren and Donald Morrill welcomed her.’ Close friend and colleague Elizabeth Winston proved an invaluable editor of Serpas’s work. She published two volumes of poetry, ‘Cote Blanche’ in 2002 and ‘The Dirty Side of the Storm’ in 2006.
Despite her love of the department, she laments the lack of diversity, which creates a dearth of life experiences to share with students, and regrets not working harder to improve it.
‘Lack of diversity isn’t a problem; it’s what keeps us from solving a lot of our problems.’
Still, when you sweep away labels like poet and professor, Serpas is a small town Louisiana woman with strong roots to her land, a bitter irony considering her hometown Galliano’mdash;and much of southern Louisiana’mdash;suffers from rapid coastal erosion.

‘The main roads of my hometown border a bayou and right now it just looks like a nerve from an emptying limb; there’s water all around it and one little ribbon of land.’ And on that little ribbon of land, I grew up where people would trawl and serve the oil industry with fly boats and crew boats, and there aren’t many communities in the U.S…with their own language, architecture, dance, music, cuisine, utterly unique’hellip;You know, the next…certainly the grand children of my peers won’t have that land.’

Though she sweetens the sorrow with Biblical humor, ‘And like the Israelites you can’t separate the people from the land.

‘I’ve lived here than I’ve lived anywhere else except Galliano.’ This is my first job out of grad school; these folks, I mean my colleagues that I love, raised me as an academic.’ It’s like leaving the nest.’ I’ll never have a more beautiful house.’

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