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Word perfect: Jessica Helen Lopez embraces her role as Albuquerque’s poet laureate

One year into her two-year term as Albuquerque’s poet laureate, Jessica Helen Lopez says she’s looking to discover every nook and cranny of the city and pour that into a poem. “I always loved to write the cityscape,” she says. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

One year into her two-year term as Albuquerque’s poet laureate, Jessica Helen Lopez says she’s looking to discover every nook and cranny of the city and pour that into a poem. “I always loved to write the cityscape,” she says. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Jessica Helen Lopez sits before a dusty blue Smith Corona typewriter at the Albuquerque Museum and asks the audience for three words.

“Give me three words, abstract or concrete,” she says, “that describe how you feel today.”

Clack clack, clack clack, and poetry spills out on ink and paper.

As Albuquerque’s poet laureate, the scene Lopez describes is her job: Be a voice for a city. Visit the museum on a performance poetry day, and you leave with an improv poem, customized to you, whether you came from Ohio or Barelas.

One year in, Lopez sees her assignment as an invitation to discover every nook and cranny of the city and pour that into a poem. “I always loved to write the cityscape,” she says.

Listening for that voice

She names Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago” as one of her favorite poems of all time because it epitomizes that city. He knows the city “like a family member or a lover,” she says. “That always kind of echoes with me.”

Whether poet laureate or teacher, Lopez is always seeking “the intersectionality of cultures.” She teaches sixth-grade humanities at Native American Community Academy, a charter school, and Chicano studies at the University of New Mexico. Often she takes her college students out into the city to write, to “get all five senses” on it.

She’s still exploring, too. Lopez was born in California and came to New Mexico in her early teens. She’s raising her 13-year-old daughter here and definitely claims burqueña as her identity.

But as a non-native, she’s always listening for the city’s indigenous voice. “In that way, I’m developing my own interpretation of Albuquerque.”

New territory

Lopez came up through the poetry slam community – a place she describes as a working classroom and something of a sanctuary.

Now, she’s delving into the history of the Tin Lizzie for a commissioned piece and boning up on the advent of the zeppelin and hot air balloons to write poems that accompanied the recent Rad Gadget exhibit at the museum.

She’s taken the cathartic, confessional style of her slam poetry into the persona poem, poems in the voice of another person.

Persona poems have exploded into workshops, which are in high demand, taking her to Colorado last month and to Kentucky in September.

Defining self

As a teacher of sixth-graders, she’s very tuned in to the messages young women receive about who they are supposed to be, what they are supposed to look like and how they are supposed to act.

“I remember what it felt like growing into puberty and adolescence,” she says. “I remember feeling immobilized.”

“La Palabra: The Word is a Woman,” is a compilation of women’s poetry about body image and reclamation, “taking back what is considered beautiful,” she says, “the nude female body as topography.”

Another volume of “La Palabra: Mothers and Daughters” followed.

“I’m a feminist,” she says. “So there’s that.”

Finding her way

It took many years for Lopez to find her place in the world as she worked serving tables, supporting her daughter and chipping away at a college degree. She originally wanted to go into broadcast journalism, but one day in 2005, she read about the Albuquerque poetry slam team in the national competition – the day after it happened.

By 2006, she was on the city slam team. The first experience on stage was like an electrical current, she says. “I made that happen.”

In 2008, she won a national championship as a member of the UNM Lobo Slam Team.

She won ABQ Women of the World poetry slams in 2012 and 2014. She’s been on the Albuquerque Slam Team four times and now coaches the team.

A turning point came with the publication in fall 2011 of her first poetry collection, “Always Messing with Them Boys.” After that came a book tour, and ambition kicked in.

Albuquerque’s first poet laureate, Hakim Bellamy, became an ally. He had a child, and Lopez had a toddler, so poetry events became “bring your 2-year-old, bring your dog if you have to.”

Her daughter has come up through the poetry world, which Lopez says she hopes is mostly a good thing. “She’s seen me always being able to adapt,” Lopez says. “It’s been wonderful to have her around all these aware artists all these years.”

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