New Mexico's first poet laureate: Levi Romero depicts 'the loco to the sublime'

By Ariana Kramer
Posted 2/13/20

Levi Romero says he used to be a closet poet. Being a poet and a young Chicano male did not seem to go together. That is, until he recognized how much language and the love of stories lay at the heart of both his culture and the art of poetry.

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New Mexico's first poet laureate: Levi Romero depicts 'the loco to the sublime'

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Levi Romero says he used to be a closet poet. Being a poet and a young Chicano male did not seem to go together. That is, until he recognized how much language and the love of stories lay at the heart of both his culture and the art of poetry.

The acclaimed poet, teacher and cultural protector has since shown us how closely the two fit together in his remarkable poems that speak to the importance of land, culture and language. They read as love letters to our state. For these reasons, it seems immensely fitting that Romero has been chosen as New Mexico's first poet laureate.

Born and raised in Dixon, Romero has published two collections of poetry - "A Poetry of Remembrance: New and Rejected Works" and "In the Gathering of Silence." He also co-authored the book "Sagrado: A Photopoetics Across the Chicano Homeland," written with Spencer R. Herrera. Romero is the recipient of numerous awards and in 2012, he was named New Mexico's centennial poet.

"I am very excited about the selection of Levi Romero as New Mexico's first state poet laureate," said Senator Bill O'Neill of Albuquerque. "His poetry has won national recognition, and as a native New Mexican he has manifested his commitment to our state by his long teaching career."

O'Neill, who is a poet himself, sponsored the Senate Bill 536, which funded the poet laureate program. The bill was signed by Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham on April 5, 2019.

The New Mexico poet laureate is a three-year position that includes an annual stipend of $25,000, travel and printing expenses and part-time staff support, stated a press release from the Department of Cultural Affairs. "The position will support literacy and enhance education while promoting arts enrichment across the state. Through speaking engagements statewide and programs at schools and libraries, the poet will engage all New Mexicans with poetry. They will also document their travels via web journal and podcast," the statement continued.

New Mexico Arts and the New Mexico State Library, both divisions of the Department of Cultural Affairs, will be providing support to the poet laureate.

Michelle Laflamme-Childs, executive director of New Mexico Arts explained, "Generally speaking, we at New Mexico Arts serve as fiscal agent, poetry experts, liaison with other poetry and art organizations and statewide school programs (Poetry Out Loud, scholastic writing competition)."

Eli Guinnee, New Mexico state librarian, described the role of the library. "The state library is creating a New Mexico Poetry Center, which will house the poet's desk and a new collection of New Mexican poetry, and will be a place for the creation of new expression."

Guinnee elaborated on the "poet's desk," which he said will be both symbolic and practical.

"When in Santa Fe, Romero and future laureates will have a desk where they can write and receive visitors, but also get some paperwork done," said Guinnee.

The poet laureate nominations were reviewed by the state library and New Mexico Arts, and four nominees were forwarded on to the selection committee comprised of Valerie Martinez, poet and director of history and literary arts at the National Hispanic Cultural Center; Taos poet and artist Anne MacNaughton, co-founder of SOMOS, the Taos Poetry Circus and the Poet Education Project; and Eileen Sullivan, director of the Los Alamos Library. The three other final nominees considered for the position were Jimmy Santiago Baca, Lauren Camp and Manuel Gonzalez.

The selection committee considered "quality of poetry, language and oral facility, suitability of work for civic celebration, literary recognition, engagement in past projects that involve poetry, and other experiences related to poetry" in making its decision.

Romero says his earliest experiences of poetic expressions came from his own relatives - great uncles, great aunts, grandmothers, his father's friends.

"I think about the stories they told, and how they told stories, before the craziness of television and Facebook. It was just people telling stories, and I was really drawn to that. I was more of a listener than a storyteller. I think that was the key to things, developing an ear for language and the musicality that exists in language and the ways stories are told and the celebration of the story as a way to connect people together - of all backgrounds."

Romero said song also brought him to poetry.

"My cousin was a folk musician who introduced me to Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. I started composing my own rhymes and my own songs. I was coming from a background where the word poetry wasn't even spoken - that genre wasn't even taught. I was coming at it more from a songwriter's perspective, but it had all the elements of trying to make a statement through what I was writing because of that influence of the folk music and the songwriters of that time."

Romero says he met his first truly devoted fan in his high school English class. She was his teacher, Mrs. Rhutasel. We can all thank Mrs. Rhutasel for recognizing and encouraging the literary gifts of a young man. As author Rudolfo Anaya wrote in the preface to Romero's "A Poetry of Remembrance," "The spiritual essence of the Río Grande corridor and its tributaries shines in every poem. From the loco to the sublime, Levi's poems are a blessing on our heads."

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