I honestly don't know if I would've started Car Window Poetry if it wasn't for Jessica Helen Lopez, the former City of Albuquerque (NM) Poet Laureate, 2012 TED Talk speaker, and current Poet-in-Residence for the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History.
Back in July, nearly two months after moving to Colorado Springs, I attended my first-ever Hear Here poetry event. If you're unfamiliar with Hear Here, it's a non-profit organization in Colorado Springs that seeks to affirm each individual voice and amplify the sounds of the silenced through poetry. The event was a poetry slam, and Jessica was the keynote poet that night.
To kick off the slam, they held a poetry workshop a few hours before led by Jessica. Having arrived early due to me not knowing what I was doing, I got shuffled into the workshop. And I'm so glad I did because hearing Jessica's poetry and getting to share a poem of my own really opened my mind to the fact that words really are the most powerful force on this planet.
A month later when I found myself wondering what I could create to make the world a better place, that sentiment about the power of words stayed with me and gave way to Car Window Poetry.
I recently spoke with Jessica about her poetry journey, the influence of slam poetry on her writing, and the importance of craft in making hard topics accessible through poetry.
How did you get started writing poetry?
It really starts with me just being an avid reader. It's something that just happened natural for me, thank God. I always think of it as a blessing that I fell in love with books, and it was a form of escapism because I did not grow up in a peaceful environment. There was just a lot of violence. I was very much surrounded by domestic violence, so reading was my form of escapism.
I think I always secretly harbored a desire to be a writer one day – a writer of stories. I didn't think poetry at that time. But then, as you grow older, your dreams change. I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to be a supermodel. I wanted to be an actress. I think it's maybe because I always wanted to be a performer as well, which led me eventually in the direction of spoken word artistry.
I didn't really become a poet until late in life. It was after I had my daughter. I was 23 at the time, and I returned to college because I had dropped out twice unfortunately but having my daughter really helped me buckle down. I was a journalism major at the time, so still once again I was in the realm of writing. But I took this intro to poetry class and there was this badass feminist teacher Merimee Moffitt, who's still my friend and mentor, who was teaching it and it was unlike any poetry I had ever read before.
It was poetry of the people. I was reading Jimmy Santiago Baca. I was reading Nikki Giovanni. I was reading Lorna Dee Cervantes. It really fired me up. And a requirement for that class was that you also had to write original work, but we had to go out into the community and do a live reading. So I did that. I found an open mic. I was really nervous as all hell, my papers shaking in front of my face, but I still felt really at home reading.
My first three poems I had ever written felt good, and I was invited by the Slam Master of Albuquerque at the time, Don McIver, to come out to their next slam. It was called Poetry and Beer. And of course, I was like, "Yes, beer!" So I went. It was in this smoky bar, and it was exactly what you think would be this really cool dive bar with a poetry slam. I still didn't know too much about slam poetry other than what I'd seen on Def Poetry Jam, but I had read about it in the newspaper.
In 2005, Albuquerque hosted the National Poetry Slam competition, and I read about it in the Albuquerque Journal. I was a waitress at the time, single mom, going to college. But I thought, Man, I wish I would've known about that! Lo and behold, I ended up meeting all of those people who hosted that event. The community was very welcoming, and that was it – I was hooked.
Every week, I went back. I started writing more poetry. I was exposed to other poets, not just reading them on paper but now I was hearing live art. I was speaking to the poets after they were on stage. It was all very exciting for me. Then, I made the slam team three months later. They called me the "Dark Horse." There were like, Who is this newbie? Then, I was ushered into this world of competitive poetry and my teammates were very experienced poets. I learned a lot.
Since then, I've been on lots of slam teams, written a lot of work – individual and collaborative, learned a lot from poets from across the country, but I continue to read poets because I'm a firm believer that, in order to create quality poetry, you have to read poetry. My interest is primarily live poetry that is a combination of art and activism. That's where I'm at right now as a teacher and a writer and an activist.
Having come up in the poetry slam community, how would you describe slam poetry?
Slam poetry is a competitive act. It's like a sport. You write original work, and you perform your original work within the bounds of the rules. You can go to local, regional, or national events and compete. You can win certain accolades, like being on a team or being the City Champion. But the sport of it is really what bring everybody together.
I wonder if slam poetry wouldn't be such a movement if it didn't have the element of sport, but I'm okay with that because I do think it's a healthy competition. Also, it teaches people, especially youth, how to come together and coordinate an event. You can't have a slam with just one person. You need an audience, you need a host, you need judges, you need people to promote it, you need a venue, and that just brings community together.
Then, slam poetry creates a platform for freedom of speech because it's not censored. Slam poetry has taken the nation by storm, but it's also in other parts of the world like Mexico and France and Canada. So it connects these poets, these storytellers, through this artform. Slam poetry is a powerful force.
How has slam poetry impacted your writing now?
Slam poetry has inspired me to take a lot more risks in my writing. It has brought me out of my shell and made me feel a lot more comfortable pairing body movements with my writing. I'm very much a page and a stage poet. There's this argument that you're either one or the other, that you can't be both, and I totally disagree with that.
I believe that you can sell your story on stage just as much as you can sell it on a page. I want to read something where I'm like, Damn! I dig those line breaks. The imagery really pops, while also trying to see how it would translate to the stage.
I'm always trying to maintain that balance. Slam poetry has influenced my writing in the fact that I'll get on stage and I'll sell it, but I also want to be able to give the readers a certain experience when myself or the given poet is not in the room.
You are someone who reads and writes poetry with a lot of power in your words. What power do you believe words hold?
The power that words hold can either be prayers or curses. They can be mantras or chants. They have great ability to manifest both positive and negative actions, or elicit both positive and negative emotions within a person. Sometimes when we think about negativity, we think being sad is negative or being angry is negative, but sometimes anger or even sadness mobilizes an individual or a collective movement.
Words have all these powers in inciting people to act, or people to feel for better or for worse. Like, just right now I was on University of New Mexico's campus and there was a letter that was written and 1,000 people signed it. These are words on paper calling for sanctuary, calling for nonviolence, calling for humanity, and people signed it. Then, we came together and we marched it over to the University President's office and that brought all these people from different departments, speaking all different languages, from all these various backgrounds together because we agreed upon these words. These words represented what we wanted for our community.
As far as poetry, words can start bending physics if you ask me. I love imagery in poetry where a fork can fly off the table and sprout wings. If you can make shit like that happen in your poem, it's awesome. It doesn't really happen in real life, but in a poem it does and it feels real. As an avid reader when I was a child, those things really spoke to me. Anything can happen in the realm of writing. What do you want to make happen as the writer? There's a lot of beautiful power in that.
You see your core values in writing as craft, social justice, mental health, and celebration of diversity. Through these values, what story are you seeking to tell?
For a while, I was writing persona poems but there are some ethical ramifications in persona poems. Speaking for others, you want to make sure you are as accurate as possible but not speaking for others and silencing them. Then, you also want to make sure you're telling stories that might not otherwise be heard.
Let's say for example, you're writing about the woman, man, and child crossing the Sonoran Desert from Mexico and perishing in the desert or perhaps being targeted by militia and being murdered. Their stories are lost because they didn't exist, and that's not okay.
There's a piece I do about the Women of Juárez. Maybe not often, people on this side of the border, especially as we get further away from the border, think about those factory workers, those women who make their clothes that they're wearing who are also going disappeared. So I think within the idea of social justice and using your craft to the best of your abilities, you can get people to listen.
If you have those storytelling techniques, some poetic elements and devices that will capture your audience, that will capture your readership and make them think about it, then you're doing your duty as a poet. That's not to say a poet who writes about the beautiful landscape of the Sandia Mountains isn't doing revolutionary work either because to recognize beauty in this world is revolutionary in itself.
When I'm talking about social justice, it may be the poet's job to try to create this idea of tolerance and empathy and compassion and passion and then, therefore, action. But you're a writer. You still have to write well. That's always a goal for me. How can I make this better? What's not working with this? What's being lost and therefore what part of my message is being lost?
You also spend a lot of time writing poetry with kids. What do you see in them and their writing that grownups have lost?
Sometimes kids are a little tough to get at first because they're so saturated with the public education system and this automaton style of being a student and the way teachers have been forced to teach, but, when you bring poetry into the classroom – tangible, relevant poetry – and ask students to write about themselves, once they start it's a wellspring.
As adults, we've learned to live in our little bubbles, our little cloistered bubbles. We don't like to feel insecure. We don't like to feel uncomfortable. We don't like to sometimes show these emotions or share with other people that we have these emotions. It's easier not to. We're guarded. But with children, once they start writing, they won't stop and they want to share. Even the shy ones, they want to share. And once they do, you can see how it's transformative for them.
Somebody wants to hear what I have to write? I did this okay? I can compare sitting in my desk to sitting chained up to a chair? I can really write that, Mrs. Lopez?
I also think that, once they get started and see that people are listening, they are empowered because of it. They feel like, "Yes, I can do that" because it's so hard for us to adopt new identities even though it's within us. We're like, Are we that person? Are we a poet? Are we a writer? Can I do that?
But kids are still fearless. They really are. It's just, through socializing, it gets lost. But poetry has a way of keeping that vessel open, of keeping alive their creativity and imaginations, of allowing them to remain unfiltered.
Then, also, I've seen a lot of students who need the poetry, where it becomes a mental health tool for them. Instead of cutting, instead of attempting suicide, instead of doing other self-destructive things in their lives, they'll journal. They'll write. They'll get on stage. They'll read their poetry out loud. And I've also seen students support each other pretty immediately. There are a lot of adults who capture this too, but not in the way that I've seen with younger kids.
What are you consuming right now that you love?
I just read and I've been reading this wonderful article by Adriana E. Ramirez. She is a Chicana poet and scholar out of Pittsburgh. The title is What Does It Mean to be a Poet in the Face of Violence? so basically, how do poets respond to violence in this country? Why are we necessary? Why does poetry need to keep happening even when there isn't a lot of value in it by mainstream population? How do poets still poet in the face of violence, such as black bodies being murdered, brown bodies being murdered, Trump winning the fucking presidency and perpetuating hate and racism and misogyny? What do poets do?
So that's something I've been reading and then I actually turned it into curriculum for my students at UNM. We responded to her essay, so it was very meta – we were poets responding to violence responding to the essay about poets responding to violence. And then we created a body of work with 14 of my students and I said, "Now it's time to go out and read it immediately. Let's just do it" – so two nights ago, we gathered and we read it at the Chicana/o Studies Student Organization Poet Night.
Also, I just finished reading this crazy novel that I love called The Swan Thieves, and it's about painters. I love painting. If I wasn't a poet and I could have any talent, I would totally be a painter. But painting and poetry are so similar because of the imagery that's crafted. Our paintings as poets are in our brains. It's our job to paint pictures with our words so others can see their interpretation of those paintings we are writing about.
I'm always a reading a bunch of books all at once, including a chapbook by Benedicto Figueroa. He was just in Albuquerque and we were hosting him. He's the Jersey City Poet Laureate, and he's a cool-ass vato. He gave me his chapbook, so I've been reading that. Then, I've also been watching Project Runway just because I like fashion.
Car Window Poetry invites you to bring light into the lives of unsuspecting people by sharing poems of encouragement on car windows. What words of light would you like to bring into someone's life today?
Remember to breathe.
Remember to smile at somebody today.
Remember to remember.
Because it's so easy to forget how to take care of ourselves.
I have to remind myself every day to take care of myself because it's so easy to forget. I'm like a goldfish where, from tens second to the next, my mood swings and some small, inconsequential thing can upset me to no end. I have to remember that, in the grand scheme of things, it's not worth my mental health and my emotional and spiritual wealth.
To learn more about Jessica, you can check out her blog here. It features a collection of her print publications, video performances, and information on how you can book her for your next poetry event!