The three winners of the 2022 McKinnon Poetry Contest hail from different hometowns and academic disciplines, but their poems all explore personal origins and their impact. The contest was coordinated by department head Diane Thiel, and winning poems were selected by faculty judges.
In first place was senior Benjamin Tabáček with “Homesick;” second, freshman Ariel Menendez with “La Chicana;” and third, senior Indica Simpson with “Résumé.”
The McKinnon Poetry Contest is an annual event involving cash prizes, which are awarded thanks to an $100,000 endowment from UNM alumna Karen McKinnon. Thiel praised her giving nature in an email.
“Karen was generous not only in her significant endowment for the department but also generous in her spirit and her way of seeing the world,” Thiel wrote.
Thiel also said McKinnon’s own poetry came from a deep sense of place, and that she encouraged students to keep writing. The 2022 winners expressed a newfound self-assurance upon receiving their awards and an interest in writing further.
For the poets, the contest represents both ends and beginnings. Tabáček, who has submitted poems to the contest for four years, sees first place as a final highlight of his academic career at the University of New Mexico. He cites the honesty and emotionality of his piece “Homesick” as elements of its success.
“It’s very raw; I tried to keep it very raw and as sensory as I could. I tried to lean into all the things I was feeling and experiencing at the time the poem takes place,” Tabáček said.
For Simpson, the contest marks the first time she’s ever fully fleshed out a poem and sent something out for publication, she said. Second-place winner Menendez is a first-year student who is double majoring in Chicana and Chicano studies and English, with many more years to explore creative writing at UNM. She said that her major has taught her things she didn’t get the chance to learn growing up.
Menendez sees her poem “La Chicana” as an embodiment of her community and a way to honor the women around her.
“At the end of the day, it’s me trying to give homage to the women within my community and even the women in my family,” Menendez said.
Tabáček’s piece, which he says takes a fluid approach to genre, also echoes with connections to family and origins. “Homesick” was written after a summer trip to the South, where Tabáček visited his hometown of Athens, Georgia and St. Simon’s Island, near where his dad grew up. Tabáček moved to New Mexico at the age of five, leading to his heart residing in both locations, he explained.
“Regionally, that trip especially impacted a lot of my writing from then until now,” Tabáček said.
Simpson’s work inhabits two regions as well. Originally from Fallon, Nevada, a town an hour east of Reno with only a few thousand residents, she started studying the Middle East at the University of New Mexico in 2018. She described the comforting effect of Albuquerque’s artistic mien.
“Something I love about Albuquerque, and New Mexico in general (is) I feel like there’s art everywhere. The back of a building isn’t just the back of a building, it’s a whole mural,” Simpson said.
Despite the positive aspects Simpson mentioned about Albuquerque, her poem “Résumé” describes instances of objectification and fetishization that happened on UNM’s campus as well as in her religious hometown, alluding to the fact that sexism occurs everywhere, according to Simpson. In her poem, she also explores gendered labor and the concept of “women’s work” through four jobs she has held: a hotel maid, a shoe salesperson, a library aide and a preschool teacher.
Similar to the content of Simpson’s poem, Menendez mentioned stereotypes that affect Chicanas, like oversexualization and the caricature of the nurturing mother. She believes her poem offers an acknowledgement of the individuality and struggles of the women in her community.
“We see you, and your beauty and your pain is also seen, and we are here for you no matter what,” Menendez said.
“It gave me this new sense of confidence. I was so appreciative and so grateful because I pay for college on my own … Just for my experience to be validated, and then to be paid for it, was really exciting,” Simpson said.
Winning poems are not published online by the English Department in the event that poets want to pursue publication elsewhere. A slightly altered version of “Homesick” is published in UNM literary arts magazine “Scribendi” and can be read at scribendi.unm.edu.
Nell Johnson is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached on Twitter @peachnells or at firstname.lastname@example.org