Hard work does pay off.
In Michelle Otero’s case, the long hours studying at Deming High School were impressive enough for Harvard University.
While on the East Coast, she overcame many obstacles, and after graduation, she spent two years volunteering in Belize.
Years passed, and she continued to put in the effort.
She was a Fulbright Scholar in 2004-06 in Oaxaca, Mexico, where she came into her own as a writer and poet.
The New Mexican continues to write about all the things that inspire her.
On June 16, Otero was named Albuquerque’s poet laureate – the fourth in the program. She broadcast the ceremony to her family in Deming on Facebook Live.
She follows in the footsteps of Hakim Bellamy, Jessica Helen Lopez and Manuel González – a group she knows well.
“I had been nominated every year and never applied,” she says softly. “Each year, I told myself I just wasn’t ready. During the last cycle for the position, I was writing a recommendation for someone else. As the time passed, I realized I just needed that time to feel ready for this position; one that I could take on, practically speaking, because I like to do a good job.”
With that time, Otero was ready, and she’s hitting the ground running.
The Duke City is one of many cities – including Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Santa Fe – with poets laureate.
Forty-two states, including New Mexico, have state-level poets laureate.
Shelle Sanchez, director of cultural services for the city of Albuquerque, is looking forward to seeing Otero in the position.
“I was excited to see Michelle was chosen by the city, and I happen to enjoy her writing and how she writes and what she writes about,” Sanchez says. “More importantly for me is that Michelle is invested in community and interested in helping people explore their own writing. I see the poet laureate as an ambassador for writing and literacy. It’s about connecting with the beauty of poetry, and Michelle can do it.”
Sanchez says an organizing committee and a selection committee are involved in selecting the poet laureate.
“This is a really beautiful model of public-private and a community-driven process, and the city endorses and runs with it,” Sanchez says.
Otero is looking forward to beginning her two-year term. She receives a $5,000-a-year contract for the term.
In fact, she performed an unofficial duty recently at the Prado in the Plaza exhibit in Downtown Albuquerque.
She, along with other poets, was asked to write a poem about one of the pieces of art on display as part of the traveling exhibit.
“I wrote about ‘The Spinners’ by Diego Velázquez, and it’s based on the fable ‘Arachne,’ ” Otero says. “I got to speak to little kids who aren’t into art at all. Then I explained to them the painting was based on the story and Arachne was turned into a spider. They were interested in that.”
Otero has some of her own ideas for the job.
The first program is “Alone, Together.”
It will be an open space for people to come together and work on their art. The three-month series kicks off on the fourth Saturday of the month beginning in October and running until October. The first gathering will be from 10 a.m.-12 p.m. on Aug. 25 at the Albuquerque Botanical Garden.
“Most of the time when I’m writing, I’m sitting in my house,” Otero says. “There’s a way when you’re creative or you have a creative practice that you want solitude. Yet we’re also social beings. I want to create a space where people can come together and paint or write.”
The other project is about the bosque.
Every day traveling back to her South Valley home, Otero says, she passes through the sacred space.
“Here we have the world’s longest cottonwood forest, and it’s right here in the heart of the city,” Otero says. “It’s really beautiful. I think about the way New York City needs Central Park. We need the bosque. We’re so lucky to have that close by. When I’m walking near it or coming home, I see how dry the river is, and the best way to protect something is to make sure that a lot of people care about it.”
Her planned project is to get people into the bosque and reflect those feelings through writing.
“Walking with Poets” will be held the fourth Thursday of each month from July through October. The first walk will take place from 6-7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 26. It will be hosted by Otero and will celebrate the work of Alfonsina Storni. The meeting point is at the southeast corner of Central and Sunset.
“I’d like to edit a collection of poems about the bosque,” Otero says. “I want to invite other Albuquerque poets to lead walks through the bosque. I’ve done one before that was called ‘Walking With Pablo Neruda.’ It was a collaboration with Women in Creativity. We walked through the bosque, I read a poem, and then the group was able to reflect on the experience.”
Otero also has written about violence against women.
She lets every emotion out when writing and hopes to inspire others.
And she sees the role as a way of helping reflect beauty back to ourselves.
“It’s about being able to say to Albuquerque, ‘I see you, and I love you,’ ” Otero says. “It’s a deep genuine love where you can see flaws and accept them and support the city in facing those flaws in an honest and genuine way. I’m excited to be the first poet laureate in this administration. I’m excited about Tim Keller is the mayor and talking about #onealbuquerque. He is recognizing how hard it is, and I appreciate that. That’s the first step into reflecting the beauty back to ourselves.”