Collaboration as Activism: En/Gulf at Brazos Bookstore

Article by annalia

When I call her at the beginning of March to ask her about En/Gulf—what does it mean?—the first thing poet and University of Houston professor Martha Serpas does is ask me if she can grind some coffee beans. “We have to have coffee,” she says, and I don’t argue. That is an easy thing to understand—everyone has their rituals. Hers, though, has been disrupted. She is speaking to me from Florida, about to head off to a residency in Ireland. Returning to the idea of the Gulf, the inspiring though preposterous proposal to take her graduate creative writing students there, Serpas says, “This is home to me. Everything I understand about ecology, about politics, about theology, I understand through the marsh.”

She tells me about her hometown in southern Louisiana, eighty miles south of New Orleans, how it is a town losing itself to the ocean. It is no longer a question of if, but a matter of when, as illustrated in Zack Godshall’s documentary Water Like Stone. Soon, Leeville, Louisiana, will be something remembered on maps and in objects only. It is not a place that Serpas can take her students. Instead, they trek to Galveston Bay.

Six times a semester, Serpas immerses her poets in what she calls “my landscape” and asks them to “experience the marsh directly.” Various projects have included kayaking, restoration (planting grass), and trawling. The first year at the Gulf, Serpas also invited a photographer, an artist outside of the University of Houston, as “an experiment to see how we could collaborate.” This year, Lacy M. Johnson, Interdisciplinary Art Director at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, arranged the collaboration, pairing the graduate poetry students with undergraduate graphic designers. Johnson also made the initial contact for the En/Gulf event, allowing students the opportunity to showcase their work off-campus.

“[Johnson] started to play matchmaker,” says UH art professor Cheryl Beckett, leader of the designers. An easy match, Beckett was delighted to put her students in new territory, both in the literal and figurative sense. “Being in the situation where they’re looking at ecology and looking at Houston not from a commercial direction is critical for them,” she says. Not only because it makes for “more empathetic, conscientious” designers, but because “design is about communication.” As the “conduit of transmitting thoughts and ideas,” designers need to “be aware that those projects are out there” and their role in “the way they project other people’s words and ideas.”

For the upcoming event on Fiday, April 15 at Brazos, the poets and designers collaborated to create limited edition broadsides featuring poems inspired by their time at Galveston Bay. Printed here in Houston with Workhorse Printmakers, the students will present “books” of poems they have made. Each book contains nine letter press poems, with 350 copies of each poem in all. This public exhibition will be a follow-up to their visual art display at the Mitchell Center back in December. There, the students presented nearly one hundred jars of found material, plus videos of footage taken at the marsh.

And why do this at all? Why all the mud and the hooplah? “Because seeing something on the web, that’s not wading through the marsh,” Serpas says. “That’s just not the same.”

Annalia Luna is currently the marketing assistant at Brazos Bookstore in Houston, TX. She earned her B.A. in Music and Literature from Butler University. Her work has also been published in Ploughshares and is forthcoming at The Rumpus.

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