Hannah Laga Abram took a moment to comb through the memory of her metaphors. Like the other five finalists vying to be the city of Santa Fe’s first youth poet laureate, the 18-year-old saw her penchant for rhythm and rhyme as an innate skill instead of one that had been consciously developed.
Still, what was the first poem she wrote?
“I love words, but I don’t think I remember my very first poem. Wait yes, yes, yes I do,” Laga Abram said. “It was third grade. Or fourth grade? It was about a tree. That’s what I remember. It was about a tree and fall and color of the leaves.”
From the color of Santa Fe’s leaves she wrote about in the elementary school poem to the personal “Ode to Home by a Teenager Dreaming of College” she created this year as a high school senior at the Santa Fe Waldorf School, Laga Abram said she has grown up experiencing Northern New Mexico through poetry.
At a reception Thursday evening in the Community Gallery at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center, she was named the city’s inaugural youth poet laureate by a panel of judges organized by the Santa Fe-based Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry.
The contest was open to poets between the ages of 13 and 18, and 27 students from 12 schools across Santa Fe applied by submitting five poems each. Judges said they were pleased and even pleasantly surprised to see the roster of young poetic talent here.
“When I was young, I wrote a lot of poetry,” said one judge, Elena Ortiz, an Ohkay Owingeh writer and poet who grew up in Santa Fe. “But I didn’t have an iPad, an iPhone or a computer, and most of it was written in pencil.
“Life was slower then,” she said. “I’m grateful to see that the speed of life hasn’t stopped young people from pausing and writing poetry.”
Laga Abram, who is a member of the Generation Next staff of teen writers at The New Mexican, is now one of 42 youth poet laureates around the country who will participate in regional and national competitions hosted by Urban Word NYC. The nonprofit provides platforms for youth to develop writing skills and perform their works.
As Santa Fe’s representative in the national network, Laga Abram will receive $1,000 from the Witter Bynner Foundation, have five poems published in the National Youth Poet Laureate annual anthology by Penmanship Books and attend speaking and reading engagements around Santa Fe.
“I’ve been in this really strange emotional place — how to balance this excitement to leave and get out of this place and start my life, and this intense love for home and for this place that is so artsy and has so much personality,” said Laga Abram, who has narrowed her choice of which college to attend in the fall to three out-of-state schools.
“This honor feels like a beautiful, special thing to take with me, that I have that bit of home,” she added.
Each of the six finalists in the local competition — along with Laga Abram there were Myriah Duda, a recent New Mexico School for the Arts graduate and freshman at the University of New Mexico; Nefi Guevara of Monte del Sol Charter School; Bella Moses and Artemisio Romero Y Carver of NMSA; and Aviva Nathan of Santa Fe High — read one of their submissions at the Thursday event.
In tackling common themes of change brought by growing up, relationships and New Mexico’s natural landscapes, judges said the contestants complicated their task of selecting one winner.
“I did my top 10, and then changed the ratings like five times because it was so close,” said former Newsweek magazine editor and screenwriter Bill Broyles. “They were all so different, but I looked for clarity and expression. Clarity of emotion is so important because you want to be left with a feeling that you’ve seen the world or felt an emotion in a new way.”
In addition to Broyles and Ortiz, the other judges were anthropologist and Santa Fe Arts Commission member Adelma Aurora Hnasko, Chicana feminist poet Mercedez Holtryand Institute of American Indian Arts professor emeritus and poet Arthur Sze.
Witter Bynner Foundation Executive Director Kelsey Brown, who organized the youth poet laureate program, said she hopes to expand the second edition of the contest to more students from more schools next year.
Laga Abram said she was happy to be the first of many.
“I’m psyched about future kids in Santa Fe to keep writing poetry and having opportunities like this one,” she said. “It’s something that belongs in our town.”