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Powerful Poet: A Burlington Teen Uses Words to Question the World 

click to enlarge Alexandra Contreras-Montesano - COURTESY OF SHANNON FINNEY
  • Courtesy of Shannon Finney
  • Alexandra Contreras-Montesano

Name: Alexandra Contreras-Montesano
Age: 18
Town: Burlington

Anyone who thinks teens and poetry aren't a natural fit hasn't met Burlington High School senior Alex Contreras-Montesano. A 2018 National Student Poet, she emanates a mixture of modesty and articulate poise. When asked about receiving the nation's most prestigious youth poetry honor, she says in a soft-spoken voice, "I'm very, very grateful for it."

The National Student Poets Program — a joint endeavor between the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers — chooses five high school poets from different regions of the country to serve as literary ambassadors each year. The appointment also includes a $5,000 academic award, which Alex — the Northeast ambassador — has earmarked for college tuition.

Competition is fierce. Thousands of poems were submitted to the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. From that pool, 450 young poets won National Gold and Silver Medals, qualifying them for the National Student Poets Program. Of these, 35 semifinalists were asked to send additional poetry and performance videos. Judges included celebrated poet Edward Hirsch and Damian Woetzel, president of the Juilliard School.

In August, Alex and her fellow honorees accepted their year-long appointments at a ceremony held in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Alex's highlight of the literary fête was a three-hour meeting with current US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith. "She has a way of making everyone comfortable immediately," says Alex. "She's very knowledgeable, very educated ... and a really amazing person to talk to about poetry."

Alex has her own unique story to tell. Born in Oregon, she spent much of her early childhood in Puebla, Mexico, then moved to Burlington as a kindergartener. She lives with her 10-year-old sister, Scarlett, and her mother, Rachael Montesano, a senior lecturer of Spanish at the University of Vermont. Alex has been writing poetry everywhere since she was a young child, her mother says, from Bananagrams tiles to the fogged-up bathroom mirror.

At home, Alex speaks both English and Spanish. The experience of growing up bilingual, with exposure to two different cultures, has "definitely given me a unique perspective," says Alex. "I love Burlington and think that a lot of people in Burlington go through similar things. We have a really large refugee population, and I think there is a pressure ... to put American culture first and foremost ... I'm very thankful for also having the Mexican experience, because it also gives me a different lens to look through."

That lens was focused, in part, by support from the Young Writers Project, a Vermont-based writing forum that Alex joined in fourth grade. Susan Reid, the project's executive director, describes Alex as "a natural storyteller and a keen observer of life, unafraid to confront difficult issues and to speak out." Alex has grown into a leader at Young Writers Project, Reid says, "always applauding her peers and encouraging them to reach higher."

As a literary ambassador, Alex's mandate is to promote literacy and poetry in the community. While detailed plans aren't solidified, she intends to visit juvenile detention centers and create "poetry workshops that are based on restorative practices and the idea of healing through stories ... basically, gathering youth voice that's often not heard." Her long-term career goals include working in education policy and juvenile justice reform.

The young poet sees herself as part of a politically aware youth movement and cites the four Burlington and South Burlington poets of Muslim Girls Making Change as personal mentors. "Their writing has made such change and highlighted so many things in the community that are broken," she says. "I see writing and reading your work aloud ... as a really peaceful channel that can be used to change the world."

i am English

A poem by Alexandra Contreras-Montesano

it hurts when i hear Spanish,
real Spanish.
not the kind they try to teach you in high school
or shove down your throat in college.

i could never love anyone who speaks Spanish.
love demands that you keep your eyes open when you kiss
and your ears open when they talk.

i used to have friends but then I threw them all away
thinking that it would make me feel better.
they were never beat up by the words that came out
of their own mouths.
they didn't understand why i cringed when a transfer sat down
and told me that the teacher said i spoke Spanish too.

"i don't speak Spanish" i would hiss.

i feel it.
every day and in every ligament of my life.
i turned away from him because i'm selfish.

he would learn to hate Spanish soon enough.

my cousins down in mexico try to get me to be like them
but they don't understand that i killed that part of myself
when i moved to the states and they started asking me
who I was.

"hello bella" i would say.
"I am alex."

"hello Spanish" she would say.
"i am bella."

i suffocated my rolled r's and
all of the extra letters I had learned because of bella.

i learned to hate my caramel skin
so i bleached it with words like
"i was born in the US"
and
"columbus is my hero."

i hurt myself because on applications and
standardized tests the question
please check off what race you are
makes me want to vomit up
all of my hard work.

it took me years to act like English
to talk like English.
to read like English.
to want like English.
to hate like English.

all it cost me was my Spanish.

Alex leads a teen poetry workshop as part of the Young Writers Project's Writing on the Roof series, Saturday, February 23, 10-11:30 a.m., Karma Bird House, Burlington. Preregistration required.

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