- Associated Press - Sunday, June 14, 2015

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - Maeva Ordaz brought one dress with her when she flew to Washington, D.C., in April to compete in the national Poetry Out Loud Competition.

“I didn’t think I’d need a second one,” she said. “I never thought I’d make it to the finals.”

The West High School senior was representing Alaska in the competition for the second time. During her first trip in 2014, she hadn’t advanced beyond the preliminary rounds. This year she went back more determined than ever, and became the first Alaskan to win the national championship.

The Alaska State Council on the Arts will hold a public reception celebrating her achievement on Monday at the Anchorage Museum. But when it comes to Ordaz’s lifetime achievements, reciting poetry is just the tip of the iceberg.

A long journey

The poem Ordaz read in the final round, “Zacuanpapalotls” by Brenda Cárdenas, mentions monarch butterflies, which make a multigenerational migration from Mexico to Canada and back. Ordaz said the metaphor reminded her of her parents’ journey from Mexico to Alaska.

Francisco Ordaz came from Oaxaca. Yolanda de la Cruz lived in a small village in the vicinity of Mexico City. “They had very traditional backgrounds,” Ordaz said. “There was a lot of poverty. They weren’t able to complete high school in Mexico, but they always tried.”

They didn’t know each other when they first met while working at a cannery in Dutch Harbor, in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. By chance they met again in California, got married and decided to return to Alaska to build their future. Their daughters Maeva and Azabel were born in Anchorage. Yolanda works as a caregiver. Francisco works for Alaska Airlines.

“There was never any question but that my sister and I were going to college,” Ordaz said. “My parents were like: We’ve done our part in coming here. Now it’s up to you.”

Ordaz has done her part as well, throwing herself into her studies, honors programs and extracurricular activities. Anchorage School Board member Tam Agosti-Gisler is the East Anchorage Rotary Club’s liaison to the Interact service club at West and East high schools. She has observed and mentored Ordaz for the past two years.

“Maeva always seizes opportunities that present themselves,” Agosti-Gisler said. “She is ambitious and not afraid of hard work. I fully expect to see her in a leadership position here in Alaska in the near future.”

Passion for words

Words are Ordaz’s particular passion. “I’m very active in English class, always talking about writing,” she said. “It’s almost a joke among my friends. They say, ‘Need someone to edit your essay? Ask Maeva.’ I love writing.”

In 2013 Ordaz won the Editor’s Choice award in the UAA/ADN Creative Writing Competition with a short story about her mother’s hometown, “That Mountain Village.” Winning the statewide contest gave her the confidence to sign up for the Poetry Out Loud competition sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, she said.

“Poetry is such a dense style of writing,” she said. “A lot of students get bored with it because it’s hard. Everyone nowadays looks to social media for entertainment. I was lucky to have teachers who showed us techniques for analyzing poets. And Poetry Out Loud is an excellent program. Once a student has participated in Poetry Out Loud, they continue to read poetry.”

Her favorites run the gamut from John Keats (she has his long “Ode on a Grecian Urn” memorized) to modern poets like Wallace Stevens and contemporary poets like Cárdenas.

To prepare, she practiced for hours at a time, using her sister as coach and critic. It was a big commitment; contest rules require each contestant to have several poems, short and long, old and new, down pat.

“(Azabel) heard the poems so many times she probably knows them better than I do at this point,” Ordaz said. “She helped me work in the gestures. You don’t just recite the words. You have to think about nuance, tone, moves. They’re different for every poem.”

Plans for the future

“Zacuanpapalotls” is a fairly short piece; it takes about 90 seconds to read out loud. The poems read by the other final-round contestants in the big hall at Georgetown University were much longer and by better-known authors. When the recitations were finished, Ordaz joined the other two finalists in the wings and waited for the judges to make their decision.

“They had like 20 minutes of music while we sat there, silent, looking at each other. It was tense. Then they made the announcement. When I realized I’d won it was surreal.”

In a phone call to Alaska Dispatch News minutes after her win, she revealed how she planned to use the $20,000 first-place prize. “I’m going to buy a new laptop for myself and one for my sister and the rest to help my parents with the mortgage.”

She doesn’t need it to attend Columbia University, where costs range upward of $70,000 a year; she already has a full four-year scholarship to that institution. And if she decides to pursue graduate school, she’s the recipient of a Gates Millennium Scholarship, which covers those costs.

The Gates scholarship, given to 1,000 minority students from a pool of 54,000 applicants each year, is awarded on the basis of series of eight essays. With Ordaz’s interest in writing, those were a snap for her. Nonetheless, when the acceptance package arrived in the mail, it was another experience she described as “surreal.”

She hasn’t yet decided on a major, she said. Computer science is a possibility, but she’s keeping her options open.

“My family never had the money to go out of state,” she said. “I’ve had 18 years in Anchorage. Now I’m going to explore New York: the museums, the art scene, the cafes. I’m going to all the Broadway musicals. Columbia has a good deal on discounted student tickets.”

As Poetry Out Loud champion, she’ll attend the National Book Festival and writing conferences across the country for the next year. In the long term, she said, she’d like to “give back.”

“I’ve had an incredible public school education. When I started high school I didn’t think I’d be anywhere near where I am. Now I realize how many doors have been opened to me. I want to mentor other students, help underserved students better their socioeconomic status.”


Amid all the excitement of the past few weeks, one moment stands out. Shortly after Ordaz won the competition she received an email from Cárdenas, an associate professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“I’m just delighted for you, Maeva, and so honored that you chose to recite my poem,” Cárdenas wrote. “It breathes such life into my work to think that the next generation is out there putting their hearts and souls into reciting it aloud.”

In an email to Alaska Dispatch News, Cárdenas said “Zacuanpapalotls” was inspired, in part, by the confluence of indigenous, African, Spanish, Mexican and North American heritages that mix in Chicano culture. “A kind of biculturalism or transnationalism,” she said. “That’s why I use the refrain ‘We are a space in between’ in the poem.

“When cultures mix, each influences the other, and we get something new. I feel that these spaces of confluence are often very powerful, inventive spaces and allow for the transformation of our spirits and selves.

“Monarchs, like all butterflies, seem to embody the notion of transformation.”

Ordaz has used the poem three times in Poetry Out Loud contests. It’s one of her favorites and the poem she used when she won the Alaska state championship.

“It spoke to me about the blending of cultures,” she said. “A space where people like me find themselves.

“And it’s about rebirth and change. My parents changed their lives by coming here. Their big dream was for my sister and me to get a college education. They worked really hard - and they achieved their American dream.”

Ordaz will be honored by the Alaska State Council on the Arts at an event at 6 p.m. on Monday, June 8, in the atrium of the Anchorage Museum. The event is free, but people planning to attend are asked to RSVP at https://bit.ly/POL-reception.


Information from: Alaska Dispatch News, https://www.adn.com

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