Hannah Laga Abram knows that a good poem can transform an individual experience into a shared understanding of what it means to be human. As Santa Fe’s first youth poet laureate, she provides this connection with sensitivity and often an urgency befitting the times, whether heralding the beauty of nature or bemoaning its demise, celebrating the comfort of home or expressing angst on the threshold of goodbyes.
“In poetry, I like the containment of the form, but then the expansion of feelings that can come out of that,” she said. “I celebrate momentary feelings and invite readers to share them. In the space and ambiguity of the poem, they can fall in with their own imagination.”
Laga Abram, 18, opens that door with “a strong social consciousness and awareness,” said Adelma Aurora Hnasko, an anthropologist, Santa Fe arts commissioner, and one of five judges in the youth poet laureate competition. Elizabeth Jacobson, Santa Fe’s poet laureate, calls Laga Abram “a wisdom poet, a poet of ideas and the particularities of the human mind.”
A recent graduate of the Santa Fe Waldorf School, Laga Abram was among 27 local competitors for the youth poet laureate title. They were 13 to 18 years of age and represented 12 schools throughout Santa Fe. Their poems “underscored how Santa Fe youth are thinking about big, nuanced issues and express their wonder and complexity through the written word,” Hnasko said.
For Laga Abram, “poetry takes notice of little things” and leads to a larger point or realization. In “My Religion,” she wrote:
My body is place.
My grandma saw my short shorts the other day
Short-sighted – tight minded she said: Honey,
Stop begging for eyes, they’re dangerous.
Grandma, what if
All I want is to feel the sun on my skin –
The definition of sin in today’s world.
If I’m filled with sin I want more. Not to glorify it,
Just to love my humanity while there’s still an I in it
Competing students submitted five poems each and were asked to provide evidence of leadership beyond the classroom, a blend of creativity and civic activism that Laga Abram personifies. She served as editor of her high school’s literary journal, led organizations for social justice, served as student council president, wrote for the Gen Next section of the Santa Fe New Mexican, acted in student productions, tutored classmates, and competed in sports. She also plays the violin. As New Mexico lead for the U.S. Youth Climate Strike, she wrote an opinion piece published by The Guardian in March 2019, in which she concludes: “Most of all, I am angry.”
Laga Abram began writing poetry in the fourth grade, recognizing that “I did not have enough patience to write a really good full story. Instead, I was fascinated by the present moment in poetry,” an art form that reveals “the rawness and vulnerability of my voice,” she said. She has lived in Santa Fe since the age of 2, her mother a childhood nature educator and her father an author and lecturer on eco-philosophy. “Ecological issues have always been a large part of the conversation in my family.”
As youth poet laureate, Laga Abram has presented readings at city council meetings, mayoral events, and bookstore gatherings. She is collaborating with Jacobson on future programs to offer before her term ends in April 2020. She’ll continue to fulfill her duties while a first-year college student, offering readings and other programs in Santa Fe during school breaks. As one of 42 youth poet laureates throughout the country, she will have her poems published in a national anthology, and she’ll participate in the regional youth poet laureate competition in November. “I hope I can bring a bit of youthful energy into the mostly adult world of established poets in Santa Fe,” she said.
Her dedication to real-world involvement influenced her selection of Middlebury College, a private school in Vermont with 2,500 undergraduates that is among the top five liberal arts colleges of 2019, according to U.S. News & World Report. “It’s in the middle of nowhere,” she said, “but I found it to be at the center of discourse” on the larger world.
“The [other] colleges I visited were filled with brilliant people, but none of the conversations with the students there were about real issues. With everything that’s happening in our world, I thought, ‘I just can’t go into a bubble.’ College campuses are exactly where solutions need to come from.”
She plans to major in political science and international relations, leading to a career in negotiation, diplomacy, or investigative journalism.
She will continue to address political issues through her poetry. “It’s a powerful way to get a statement across, like other art. Art takes people on a journey through their thought processes until they arrive at a certain point, but they got there on their own. It’s a reawakening and re-enlivening of our language and gives words new meaning.”
Last year, as she prepared to take part in a local rally against gun violence, she pondered whether the protest would change the thought processes of anyone opposing stricter gun laws. She poured her uncertainty into writing, producing the poem, “Excuse Me, Sir,” a series of statements challenging common claims:
Right to bear arms means right to be safe, not right to sell a teenager a
machine made to kill.
Right to bear arms means right to be safe. Lock up the guns instead of the
Nurturing poets like Laga Abram is what the Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry envisioned in sponsoring the youth poet laureate program, working with Urban Word NYC as a national resource and the Santa Fe Arts Commission as the civic partner. A bequest from renowned poet Witter Bynner established the foundation to support individuals and organizations promoting poetry. When Bynner moved to Santa Fe in 1922, he became a cultural magnet, attracting artists such as Willa Cather, D. H. Lawrence, Robert Frost, and Georgia O’Keeffe for visits and creative sharing. He became known in particular for his encouragement of younger poets, said Kelsey Brown, executive director of the foundation. “I literally get tears because he would have been thrilled to know how he is supporting students in the arts today.”
To ensure that competitors were judged on qualifications alone, judges did not know the identities of those being evaluated. But “Hannah’s pieces stood out for their clarity of tone and message,” said Elena Ortiz, senior director of U.S. Southwest Programs, Witter Bynner Foundation board member, and a judge in the competition.
The youth poet laureate program “celebrates and brings attention to an art form that does not often take center stage,” Laga Abram said. “In this time especially, with all the craziness, we need to be listening to youth. Poetry is about taking care with your language. If we don’t have respect for the way we speak to each other, then we don’t speak to each other.”
At a Green New Deal town hall in April, Laga Abram revealed her strength as a speaker as well as a writer. As a leader of several environmental organizations, she facilitated the event, which attracted speakers of all ages along with local and state public officials. More than 400 participants filled two rooms of Santa Fe’s Center for Progress and Justice. Laga Abram took the stage like a seasoned moderator, navigating every topic with poise and humor, from enforcing speakers’ time limits to managing last-minute changes to the schedule. “This is Santa Fe, after all,” she joked. But then, a pause. With a rise of her voice, and with measured cadence, she set the agenda: “Now is the time for us to talk and for us to share how we really feel. For us to be scared together, to be angry together, to be heartbroken together, to mourn together, so that we can work together and act.”
As a college campus becomes the new venue for her listening, learning, and advocating, Laga Abram pays tribute to the roots of her creativity. “Santa Fe IS my poetry,” she said. “There is something about this place that is particularly conducive to art. The ambiance is so open to interpretation, so multifaceted.”
At an August poetry reading at op.cit bookstore in Santa Fe, Laga Abram bid a temporary farewell to her hometown, which she left on Aug. 31 for Vermont. She read from her “Ode to Home by a Teenager Dreaming of College,” concluding: “My turn now, to gift you with tears.” And she did. ◀