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July 2018 - Extras: Michelle Otero

The poet laureate program in Albuquerque is now in its fourth year, and Michelle Otero has been awarded the coveted title for 2018. New Mexico Entertainment sat down with Michelle for a discussion on poetry, her love for New Mexico, the Bosque, and her plans for the future.

NME: Congratulations on being selected as the new poet laureate of Albuquerque! Can you tell our readers what the selection process entails? How does one become Poet Laureate?

M.O.: I joked that the interview process was like a gang initiation - write a haiku, a sestina, but it wasn’t like that. There is a written application on the Albuquerque Poet Laureate website. You can submit up to 10 poems, but it’s nice because there is no word or page limit. I have some very teeny, tiny short poems, but then I also have some epics that are very long. So, I did a combination of those. They then ask for a letter of intent, a project proposal and then some short answer questions, like 250 characters about “Why does poetry matter?” and “What can a poet laureate do for Albuquerque?” Lastly, they ask for about 5-10 bullet point ideas for what you plan on doing during your year. You take one of those and develop it and create a budget.

NME: What is your proposal? What is your big plan for the year?

M.O.: World domination through poetry (laughs). It’s very unassuming. It’s the way to do it. My project is about the Rio Grande Bosque. I think we are very lucky to have the world’s longest cottonwood forest here in Albuquerque. II think it’s something that makes us like no other place in the world and because of drought, development, and all the different ancillary issues that it involves, it has become endangered. I believe one of the best ways to protect things is by building relationships between those places and the people who love them. There are many people who love the Bosque and spend a lot of time there and then there are others who don’t have a relationship with it yet.

NME: They don’t know about it or…

M.O.: Yes, they don’t know. Maybe they live a couple of blocks away who have never been there. My goal is to host a series of poetry walks through the Bosque. It will be open to the public. There will be times where it will be a targeted audience, like a class and other times it will be an open walk where we will walk along, read poetry and then have an opportunity to write our own poetry. I would like the walks to be hosted by different Albuquerque poets and they would highlight the work of other poets. The first walk will be hosted by me and will feature the work of Alfonsina Storni, a South American poet who wrote in achingly beautiful ways about nature but there is a lot of emotion in her work. I am hoping these walks will be done on a monthly basis. My own personal work that will come out of this is working with a visual artist, Andrew Fearnside, to publish a book of poems and images based on the Bosque.

NME: Living in New Mexico inspires you as a writer. Can you discuss it further?

M.O.: There is so much here to write about. I grew up in Southern New Mexico, I grew up in Deming, so borders show up a lot in my work. Not just the physical border, but border as a metaphor and I think that is really timely, especially now. I think that we are unique in the United States as there are so many people who are connected to land. It’s funny because you will go to another state and they’ll be like “I’m a 3rd generation Californian” and you’re like “Oh. that’s cute that you think that’s a long time.” My dad’s side of the family, the Oteros have been in New Mexico since before it was New Mexico. We’ve been here for about 10 generations. Our complicated, complex, beautiful history shows up a lot in my work. This story, the romanticism of the three cultures. We have hispanics, Native Americans and anglos and we all get along and it’s harmonious. I like digging under that and finding where the tension is and how people still manage to find beauty and create relationships and alliances across those tensions. And, then of course there is the New Mexico landscape. Even if I’m not overtly writing about it, it’s always with me. The project I am working on now, it’s not a poetry project, it’s a memoir. Thirst is a big part of it. There’s lots of images of water contained or water controlled or lack of water and when there is water it’s gushing and sudden and fierce and violent. Lastly, the people here. I know exactly where I am when I hear people speak.

NME: If you were going to leave behind a legacy, what would you want that to be?

M.O.: A community of people with a relationship to each other and to the land… and I want a building named after me!

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