Albuquerque’s New Poet Laureate Is Radical

Zachary Kluckman
5 min read
AlbuquerqueÕs New Poet Laureate is Radical
Jessica Helen Lopez at Bookworks in April 2014 (Swimming with Elephants Publications)
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History, the backdrop against which most things are measured, tells us the first “modern” Poet Laureate was appointed in 1341—by himself! Petrarch, the (ahem) confident Grecian placed the laurel wreath on his own head, beginning a tradition that has spanned numerous centuries and nearly every continent.

Newly appointed Poet Laureate Jessica Helen Lopez became only the second Albuquerque poet to accept the proverbial crown on Saturday, April 26. Introduced to an enthusiastic audience by her former poetry teacher, Merimee Moffitt, a glowing Lopez was met with standing applause and hugs. Afterwards, Lopez read a love letter to the city written with the raw sincerity and love of storytelling that exemplifies her writing.

Although Santa Fe began appointing laureates in 2005, it was only two years ago that Albuquerque crowned its own inaugural Poet Laureate, Hakim Bellamy. Distinguished by an almost inhuman number of performances and events benefiting the community, Bellamy’s two-year term came to a bittersweet end with a final poem and heartfelt praise for his successor during a brief, poignant ceremony in the heart of the city.

A self-described radical Chicana feminist, Lopez quoted Gloria Anzaldúa’s call to action, “Do work that matters.
Vale la pena,” before responding, “Okay, Gloria. I’m listening.”

For the curious, the case for Lopez as a “radical” feminist can be made as easily as looking at her newest collection of poems, a little black book with the eye-catching, if unconventional title
Cunt. Bomb.

Published by Swimming With Elephants Publications, the book serves well as an example of the new laureate’s willingness to push poetry out beyond the general public’s comfort zone, advocating powerfully for equity and empowerment by reclaiming a word that makes many uncomfortable, regardless of gender. A short, fierce and surprisingly graceful collection, the poems elevate and celebrate womanhood while repudiating any form of marginalization.

“When I say I’m a feminist, I’m dropping an F bomb,” says Lopez. “I’m not the first feminist to serve. Hakim is a feminist, too, but I want to differentiate it a bit and say yes, I am a
radical feminist. It’s unfortunate but wearing those identities—Woman, Chicana, Feminist—very loudly, makes me a radical. Just like being queer in some communities might get you killed, being a woman in the wrong community can get you killed.”

Much like Rita Dove, generally considered the first activist Poet Laureate to serve at the national level due to her efforts to bring writers together in exploring the African diaspora, Lopez says that her commitment to the community will define her efforts to serve as an ambassador for poetry.

“I will be doing the work I would have done anyway, with or without the title, serving the community and the people of Albuquerque,” says Lopez humbly, who went home and did the dishes after being appointed as the new Laureate.

“I’m a slam poet and always will be, so a Poet Laureate who still slams is something I want to be,” Lopez says with a smile, referring to her near-decade in the community. “Slam is what introduced me to poetry in the jails, and the schools. I plan to still serve and honor those communities.”

Like her predecessor, Lopez is an artist who serves in many capacities, including teacher, parent and dedicated activist. An adjunct professor at the University of New Mexico, she teaches Borderland Poetics, one of the newest classes in the Chicano Studies department.

Lopez is a dedicated parent and teacher whose commitment to the youth extends to the entire community. “Working with the adults to honor the poetry of the youth in the city” is the first goal she intends to work towards, Lopez says. Just two days after her appointment, Lopez led a writing workshop for young writers in Denver, jumping into the role of ambassador with a fierce conviction.

For those who know her intimately, Lopez is a gentle person with an easy smile and a love of life and community who started writing news articles covering the events of her neighborhood as a child. “I have great storytellers in my family,” she explains her motivation. “When the other kids were running around, I was sitting at the table with an adult, listening. As soon as I could write my own stories I did.”

For the next two years, the much-lauded poet, who has represented the city at national poetry slams as a member of numerous teams and twice as the Women of the World representative, will continue traveling, leading workshops and creating safe spaces for the voices of Albuquerque poets regardless of age, gender or identity.

Albuquerque, meet your new Poet Laureate, the incomparable Jessica Helen Lopez. No doubt you will fall for her easy grace, disarming honesty and powerful, fearless storytelling. As ambassadors of the arts go, it’s hard to imagine anyone more qualified to continue the work of reminding us all that poetry may well be more relevant and necessary than ever.
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