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Pay attention: In a time of pandemic, a poet finds added meaning in the things around us

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — One reason Michelle Otero chose “Bosque” as the title for her debut poetry collection was the “Walking With Poets” project she organized when she was Albuquerque Poet Laureate.

“I’d invite a local poet to co-host a walk in the bosque. They’d pick a trail and a poet whose work they want to celebrate. We’d stop along the walk to hear a poem and write,” Otero said in an email.

Michelle Otero

Those walks were open to the public. Usually, a dozen or more people attended. Some poems in Otero’s recently published collection started as prompts from those monthly walks. “The bosque invites you to pay attention. Poetry does the same thing. So there’s a natural connection,” she said.

One poem in the collection is “Bosque Walk, Groundhog Day.” In the third stanza, the poem addresses the link to the mortality of all living things: “I look at everything/like it’s going to die.” The poem’s last stanza declares, “Bosque, like poetry, says pay attention. Woodpecker/taps a trunk. Pill bug turns leaf/to lace.” That poem Otero wrote on the Feb. 2, 2019 walk co-hosted by poet/birder Janet Ruth, according a note at the back of the book. Otero was Albuquerque Poet Laureate from mid-2018 to mid-2020.

In a virtual event at 3 p.m. today, Michelle Otero will read from “Bosque” and be in conversation with Valerie Martinez, director of history and literary arts at the National Hispanic Cultural Center. To register for the Zoom event, visit bkwrks.com/michelle-otero.

Raised in Deming, she has degrees from Harvard University and Vermont College. She worked in Belize as part of Jesuit Volunteers International and in Oaxaca, Mexico she was on a Fulbright teaching creative writing workshops for women survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Otero refers to herself as “an accidental poet. I’ve always loved language and sound and words. The rhythm, the music of it. … Even before I started writing poetry I’d read my prose out loud to myself.”

In 2006, resettled to Albuquerque, Otero got invited to poetry readings. “So I read my prose. Why do people call me a poet? Then I started intentionally writing poetry,” she said.

Otero thinks of poetry and fiction as tools for writing. If she has a dream, say, maybe she’ll play around with it.

“Just to have access to poetry in this time (of the pandemic) has been such a gift. … No one knows what it’s like to live in a time like this. What I appreciate about poetry is how you distill something to its essence – an image, a line, a syllable,” she said.

A number of poems in the collection Otero wrote for local events. “To Grow a Child in New Mexico” was written for the Seventh Annual Kids Count Conference in June 2019. Another, “Because the Kitchen,” was written and presented at the opening of Three Sisters Kitchen, a nonprofit community food space, in August 2018. Some poems in the collection are specific expressions of gratitude. In “Ode to the Art-Makers,” Otero applauds the resumption of the Creative Bravos Awards and the artistry of people she knows: “Praise Montgomery! Your art is action. You are poet and clown, sculptor and singer, dancer and scholar … Praise Sarita – mujercita, burqueñita, hija del sol y mucho más … .”

Otero said she’s especially thankful for Shelle Sanchez, director of the city’s Cultural Services Department, for having the vision for a poetry series by Albuquerque Poet Laureates. Otero’s book is first in the series. UNM Press and Cultural Services are co-publishers.

Everything she wrote as poet laureate, Otero said, are her offerings back to Albuquerque to show her gratitude for her two years in that post. That appreciation, she added, extends to all of New Mexico and its people.

Otero is the author of the 2006 book of essays “Malinche’s Daughter.” A memoir is due out later this year.

She has a consulting practice called Artesana; the name, and the practice, combines the Spanish words for art and healing. Otero is also a member of Macondo Writers Workshop, founded by famed Chicana poet-writer-artist Sandra Cisneros.

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