When I asked Michelle Otero about what poetry can do to shape civic life, she described a poem by New York writer Martín Espada, “Alabanza.” It was written for the hundreds of immigrant hotel and restaurant employees working at the Windows of the World restaurant on the top floor of the World Trade Center on 9/11. “Alabanza is a word of praise,” Otero explained and in the poem, Espada imagines the smallest details of these peoples' lives, who had found themselves at the top of the world. Through Espada's words, readers are edified like this, “Alabanza. Praise the kitchen radio, dial clicked/ even before the dial on the oven, so that music/ rose before the bread. Praise the bread. Alabanza.” Otero—Albuquerque's newest poet laureate—used Espada's work as an example of poetry's power to illumine the lives of others. “I think poetry, and art in general, humanizes people. We need more of that in our civic life.”
She went on to crib a metaphor her husband uses often—as she steps into this role as poet laureate, she imagines herself as something like an acequia—she might have the platform, but she wants to use it to the benefit of all. “Poetry is for everyone,” she explained, “I think a good poem should do what an anthem does—it is appealing to something that is not in the brain, but in the heart. I'm gushy, I cry a lot. I'm just going to say it—I think if we were all more in touch with our emotions, the vulnerable ones, we would have a healthier, better society. I want to open up more space for that.”
Otero also believes that in New Mexico—home to the longest expanse of Cottonwood forest in the world—we all access the ambient power of poetry just by being here. “I think all of us here, even if we don't grow up among artists, there's something about the way we speak here—the connection to the land, the attention to detail, the quality of light—that is very poetic. It seeps into us even if we're not formally practiced,” she said. Her conviction in the twin powers of the bosque and of poetry have driven Otero to create a monthly series called Walking with Poets, each hosted by a different poet, celebrating the work of another writer (the next one will be hosted by Yasmeen Najmi on Aug. 23, from 6 to 7:30pm). Also growing out of her two-year term as Poet Laureate will be a collection of bosque poems illustrated by artists Andrew Fearnside, and another monthly series, Alone, Together, which invites artists who often work in isolation to bring their work to a designated location, to work quietly with other creatives.
Otero is no stranger to this level of facilitation. Even though she didn't begin to strongly identify as a writer or poet until her 30s, she received a Fulbright Scholarship while in the midst of her MFA and hosted a series of creative writing workshops in Oaxaca City for women survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. “My whole emphasis,” she explained, “was on process. Each and every one of you has a story to tell—let's create ways for you to tell it.” Whether that means penning your magnum opus or writing in your journal (which Otero wonderfully described as a “mirror where you can stick your stomach all the way out and nobody's going to criticize you.”).
“I've made a conscious effort in the last several years,” she continued, “to go deeper and deeper. … I remember getting the Fulbright and going to Oaxaca and having this feeling like—there's this big life that has been waiting for me. I'd been waiting, because I felt I didn't deserve it or maybe I wasn't ready. I didn't know what was going to happen, but I needed to take a step in that direction, knowing that it was going to meet me where I am.”
Otero is candid about feelings of self-doubt and the specters of depression, and has been working on a memoir about this “inheritance,” as she put it. “The inheritance isn't always jewels or stocks and bonds—it's mentally carrying stuff that your family couldn't. I think about who my grandparents would have been had they had more support or if there hadn't been racism or poverty.” At the same time, she described not being able to imagine a life, “where I had grown up really wealthy or in another city or hadn't been raised by people who always reminded me, 'yeah, but can you make tortillas?' ”
Tucked above the screen of her laptop, Otero described a little sticker waiting for her each time she flips it open to write. It says, “It's OK, mija.” “I'd love for someone to open up a book of mine and to hear, “It's OK, mija, or it's OK, mijo,” she said.
Look for Alone, Together and Walking with Poets events throughout the year and catch Otero reading at Sunday Chatter on Sunday, Aug. 19 at Las Puertas at 10:30am or at Jules Playhouse that same day at 7pm. Find more about the poet on her website, michelleotero.wordpress.com.