The three winners of the 2022 edition McKinnon Poetry Contest come from different hometowns and academic disciplines, but their poems all explore personal origins and impact. The competition was coordinated by Department Head Diane Thiel and the winning poems were selected by faculty judges.
In first place, Benjamin Tabáček senior with “Homesick”; second, freshman Ariel Menendez with “La Chicana”; and third, Indica Simpson senior with “Summary”.
The McKinnon Poetry Contest is an annual event involving cash prizes, which are awarded thanks to a $100,000 endowment from UNM alumnus Karen McKinnon. Thiel praised her for giving nature in an email.
“Karen has been 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 belonging and encouraged students to keep writing. The 2022 winners expressed newfound self-confidence after receiving their awards and an interest in writing more.
For poets, the competition represents both an end and a beginning. Tabáček, who has submitted poems to the competition for four years, considers first place the final high point of his college career at the University of New Mexico. He cites the honesty and emotionality of his play “Homesick” as elements of his success.
“It’s very raw; I tried to keep it very raw and as sensory as possible. I tried to lean into all the things I was feeling and experiencing as the poem unfolds,” Tabáček said.
For Simpson, the contest marks the first time she has fully fleshed out a poem and sent something for publication, she said. Second-place winner Menendez is a freshman majoring in Chicana and Chicano Studies and English, with many more years to explore creative writing at UNM. She said her major taught her things she didn’t have 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 honor the women in my community and even the women in my family,” Menendez said.
Tabáček’s piece, which he says takes a fluid approach to gender, also echoes ties to family and origins. “Homesick” was written after a summer trip south, where Tabáček visited his hometown of Athens, Georgia, and St. Simon’s Island, near where his father grew up. Tabáček moved to New Mexico when he was five years old, which led his heart to reside in both places, he explained.
“Regionally, this trip had a particular impact on a lot of my writing from then until now,” Tabáček said.
Simpson’s work also inhabits two regions. Originally from Fallon, Nevada, a town an hour east of Reno with only a few thousand residents, she began studying the Middle East at the University of New Mexico in 2018. She described the comforting effect of Albuquerque’s artistic allure.
“What I love about Albuquerque, and New Mexico in general, is that I feel like there’s art everywhere. The back of a building isn’t just the back of a building is a whole mural,” Simpson said.
Despite the positive aspects mentioned by Simpson about Albuquerque, his poem “Summary” describes instances of objectification and fetishization that occurred on the UNM campus as well as in his religious hometown, alluding to the fact that sexism happens everywhere, according to Simpson. In her poem, she also explores gendered work and the concept of “women’s work” through four jobs she has had: hotel maid, shoe saleswoman, library helper, and preschool teacher. .
Similar to the content of Simpson’s poem, Menendez mentioned stereotypes that affect Chicanas, such as oversexualization and the foster mother caricature. She believes her poem offers recognition of the individuality and struggles of women in her community.
“We see you, and your beauty and your pain are also seen, and we’re here for you no matter what,” Menendez said.
“It gave me this new sense of confidence. I was so thankful and so thankful because I’m paying for my education myself… Just to have my experience validated and then paid for it was really exciting,” said Simpson.
Winning poems are not published online by the English department in case the poets wish to pursue publication elsewhere. A slightly edited version of “Homesick” is published in UNM’s literary arts magazine “Scribendi” and can be read at scribendi.unm.edu.
Nell Johnson is a reporter for the Daily Lobo. She can be reached on Twitter @peachnells or at email@example.com