Professor shares poetry passion
A wetlands preservation map of southeast Louisiana stretches across the wall of UH associate creative writing professor Martha Serpas’ office.
Serpas, a native of Galliano, La., settled in by having the shelves lined with her books and article features, and the room decorated with numerous degree placards.
Serpas, who received a doctoral degree in creative writing from UH in 1998, found herself ready to come closer to home after spending 10 years as an associate professor at the University of Tampa.
“I was ready to come back to writing poems. I had a great time here at UH and got an excellent education. They were very supportive of my interest in biblical literature,” said Serpas, who received a master’s of divinity from Yale Divinity School in 1994.
After earning a doctorate, Serpas settled in Houston and joined the program’s faculty.
“What distinguishes UH’s creative writing program is the extensive literature studies that we get from the English department’s faculty members,” she said.
Serpas has written two books of poetry, which are Cote Blanche and The Dirty Side of the Storm: Poems.
People often assume from her second book’s title that it was written about Hurricane Katrina, but that is not the case.
“Only the last poem in the book was written after the hurricane, which was my anti-Bush piece. I had the finished manuscript by December 2005,” Serpas said.
She initially didn’t recognize how much the erosion problem of Louisiana was starting to show in her poetry.
“I realized I was starting to engage the land loss as a spiritual metaphor in Cote Blanche, and it ended up dominating The Dirty Side of The Storm,” Serpas said.
She is passionate about the wetland preservation of her home state, the loss of which she described as a destruction of the entire Cajun culture.
A conflict that shows in her writing is that she advocated for the land, yet wrote elegies for it as if it’s dead. The poetry shows the struggle of being dedicated to saving the land despite it already being destroyed.
“It is a central paradox in life — the land and my relationship with it. Every day, things die so other things can live, and every day that we live we are in the process of dying,” Serpas said.
Serpas’s work has been published twice in The New Yorker. The first was in the Katrina issue, which featured three of her poems from The Dirty Side of The Storm. The other contained a poem that was inspired by her previous work as a chaplain at Tampa General Hospital.
“I was torn because it was a wonderful publication. Grateful people were going to read about the situation of Louisiana, because it didn’t just start with Katrina,” Serpas said. “I also felt guilty because this horrible thing had happened to people and this wonderful thing was happening to me out of it.”
Her copy of the issue was tucked away in a file cabinet. The event was a bittersweet moment for Serpas, who said she cried when she saw the issue.
“I don’t think I ever framed it because it was too sad,” Serpas said.
She has learned much from the creative writing students since teaching at UH.
Serpas said that the more one’s writing process is valued by others, the more one can bring to them.
“That’s why those of us who graduate from this program have done so well, because we have a great understanding of the poet-mentor relationship,” Serpas said.
Serpas currently works with the Barataria Terrebonne National Estuary Program, a non-profit organization supported by a group of universities to protect the Estuarine land between the Atchafalaya and Mississippi Rivers.
Serpas is participating in the documentary Veins in the Gulf, which tracks the history behind the inevitable environmental crisis of the wetlands. She also serves at Memorial Herman, doing additional chaplain work for trauma patients.