This Sunday, Feb. 24, all of the past and present poet laureates for the City of Albuquerque will perform their work at Bookworks (4022 Rio Grande Blvd. NW) in support of local high school students participating in the national Poetry Out Loud Recitation Contest. The poet laureates are Michelle Otero, Manuel González, Jessica Helen Lopez and Hakim Bellamy.
The Poetry Out Loud contest begins at the school level, with students moving on to the state, regional and national levels. It is fiercely competitive, with the top winner in the nation winning $20,000. The second- and third-place winners receive $10,000 and $5,000 each, respectively. Regional finalists (three from each of the three regions) will get $1,000 apiece.
Poetry Out Loud is a national program developed by the National Poetry Foundation and administered in each state by that state’s Department of Cultural Affairs. All of the funding comes from the National Endowment for the Arts. In New Mexico, the program is headed by Phyllis Kennedy of New Mexico Arts, a division of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs.
“The prizes are significant,” Kennedy said in an interview with Weekly Alibi. “This is on par with science fair money. It’s an exciting time for young poets. We just want to keep growing this program.”
This year, only four high schools in Albuquerque have opted to participate. They are Volcano Vista High School, La Cueva High School, Bosque School and Native American Community Academy. Each school held (or will hold) a school-wide competition, with the winner advancing to the state championship round to be held March 10 at St. Francis Auditorium in the Museum of Art in Santa Fe.
Unlike slam poetry, Poetry Out Loud asks students to select existing works from an anthology of 900 poems edited by The Poetry Foundation. The focus of the competition is performance, not composition, and the students perform works by famous poets rather than their own work. For this reason, it is not just young poets who compete, but also students involved with drama or speech and debate.
Three of the four local participating schools have already held their school-wide competitions and selected winners. Those winners have been invited to perform at the Bookworks event Sunday, too. They are Neil Katzman from Bosque School, who was the runner up last year; Abigail Escarzaga of Volcano Vista; and Raina Bemis of La Cueva. Native American Community Academy has yet to hold its competition; the school was the statewide winner last year, under the tutelage of former Albuquerque poet laureate Jessica Helen Lopez.
In addition to the poets laureate and the student performers, Warehouse 508 Poetry Outreach Coordinator Mercedez Holtry, who works closely with youth poets and performers in several area schools, will also perform Sunday.
The event at Bookworks is not part of the competition itself, but rather is designed as a fundraiser and public-awareness raiser for Poetry Out Loud and its Albuquerque participants. Kennedy said that in spite of her office’s constant outreach to teachers and schools, there has not been as much participation locally as she would like.
Copies of a poster designed for this year’s statewide contest by artist Deco will be available for purchase at Bookworks, to help cover the costs of sending New Mexico’s winner to the national finals in Washington, D.C. The poster features the 39 poets in the anthology who have some connection to New Mexico.
Students and schools who are interested in joining this competition for next year must register by October. For more information, please visit the New Mexico Arts website at nmarts.org.