Alibi V.29 No.12 • March 19-25, 2020 

Arts Interview

New Mexico’s First State Poet Laureate

A conversation with Levi Romero

Levi Romero
Levi Romero
photo by Clarke Condé

Levi Romero is a natural choice as the state of New Mexico’s first poet laureate. His poetry details New Mexico. It speaks to the people and the place. It is steeped in the culture. And, obviously, you would want your New Mexico poet laureate to seek out the writers, poets and storytellers throughout The Land of Enchantment while tooling around behind the wheel of his ’58 Impala. Romero is the right guy for the job.

Romero is a laid-back UNM professor in the Chicana and Chicano Studies program. His work has focused on the cultural landscapes of his native New Mexico. It’s a three-year appointment that comes with a desk at the state library, a paycheck and a slew of ideas about how he should spend his three years. It is his hope that this new role will help him to further amplify the voices of the people of this state. His experience with film and architecture should come in handy as he begins to define a role he sees as not limited to just writers and books. Romero will not only set the bar high for this new position, but will likely be called on to find something comforting to say as we move though what is shaping up to be a very difficult time.

Weekly Alibi sat down with Romero to talk about the people of New Mexico, what makes this place endure and the plans he has for his tenure as the state’s first poet laureate. The following is an edited version of that conversation.

Weekly Alibi: How would you describe New Mexico to someone who has never been here?

Levi Romero: Without trying to come across with a generic answer or something that you would find in a New Mexico True brochure, New Mexico is really unique and special because it allows the individual to flourish in an environment like this, as it has for centuries. What brought them here was one thing, what kept them here was another thing. I think those kinds of things are still what keeps people here. Even in spite of the economy, the crime and all those other negative aspects, there is a sense of community. People recognize it. They want to nurture it. They want to cultivate it. Whether it's on a big scale, like Albuquerque, or a smaller scale, like a village where I’m from, like Embudo.

People have been here for centuries. What has endured?

What's endured is this idea of communion; the spiritual communion with the land, the spiritual communion with one another. Aside from that, what do you have? It's not a place where you come to make money, right? If you do, you're in the wrong place.

What makes New Mexico different from other places in the country?

I think the people make the place different. The landscape to some degree is different, too. When you're driving from Arizona, you begin to see the landscape, the geography beginning to change. You know when you've crossed that state line and when you're in New Mexico. The landscape reads differently. The hills are at a different scale, a different proportion, the color of the light. The color of the sky, that blue-newness of the sky. Those kinds of things still permeate through our physical senses.

I teach a class called Mi Querencia: A Connection Between Place and Identity. One of the first questions posed in the class is, “When you’re away and you’re coming back, when do you realize that you’re near home?” For me, it's when I get to the top of the hill outside of Santa Fe, and I'm looking north right before you get to the opera, right at the top, over the hill there. I see that landscape. I see the mountains. I see the valleys. I see the arroyos. I see the vegetation. I know that from that point on, if I had to crawl home, I could.

We're in the middle of a lot of fear right now. How can words heal and protect?

In the same way that they've been used forever. Once we open up a conversation and a dialogue and are receptive to each other, the healing can begin. When you tell me, “Hey man, I'm kind of worried about this.” That’s what poetry does. Workshops do that. We can conquer that fear by opening ourselves up. You have to create that atmosphere of trust and comfort. Then the question is, “How do you do that?” How you do that is by opening yourself up first and becoming vulnerable.

What are your plans as Poet Laureate?

To get through it.

To endure?

To endure. In many ways, it's not anything different than what I've already been doing since the 1990s when I first really started coming onto the poetry scene. But now it’s got a title and has got obligations and it’s got responsibilities. It's got the trust and the blessings of the people. The state Poet Laureate Program has got some initiatives. One of them is to produce some podcasts based on conversations that I have as I go around the state. What we want to do is not just interview poets but [also] storytellers. Sometimes the most poetic people are the people who don't even have books or read, but they are these amazing storytellers and they exist in our families, in our communities. They are neighbors across the street and nobody is listening to them. Once they start talking and you start listening, they're amazing. I want to create podcasts around the ordinary, everyday spoken word in addition to the written poets.