Heart racing, hands pumped, head spinning, Tucson high school student Edgardo Aguilar was crowned a state champ in Phoenix last month.
It had nothing to do with sports, although he did practice a lot. It wasn’t an academic decathlon, but Edgardo put in lot of hours of study.
Edgardo, an 18-year-old senior at Desert View High School on Tucson’s far south side, won the state’s Poetry Out Loud recitation contest.
He earned a trip to Washington, D.C., where he’ll represent Arizona in the national contest sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation. Not bad for someone who placed sixth in his class contest earlier this year.
“I think he understands poetry as a poet,” said Teresa Driver, Edgardo’s English literature teacher. “He doesn’t talk about it a lot, but he writes a lot of poetry.”
Edgardo’s entryway to poetry was through rap music.
When he listened to his favorite artists, the pulsating raps began to lure him into poetic comfort with the rhythm and rhyme of the words. He would dabble in some of his own poetic verses as a way to communicate to close friends at school. It was his way of saying thank you for their friendships.
Edgardo, somewhat shy, he said, found he had a knack for poetry.
“I was just writing my emotions,” he said.
But the more he wrote, the deeper he delved into inner exploration. Or as he put it, he went off into a different zone.
“It’s an outlet,” he said. “It’s an honest outlet.”
So when it came time to participate in a poetry recitation contest in his Advanced Placement literature class early in the semester, Edgardo was in.
Students selected two poems each. Edgardo found his: “It Would Be Neat if With the New Year,” by Jimmy Santiago Baca, and “Nude Descending a Staircase,” by X.J. Kennedy. The second one was short and somewhat whimsical; the first had meaning for him.
“I could feel the words,” he said. Reading to himself, he’d gotten into that zone. He knew he had to read it aloud. And he had the perfect pair of boots to wear while reciting Baca’s words about boots: “But my happiness depends so much on wearing those boots.”
But the power of the boots didn’t help. Edgardo placed sixth in his classroom. He knew he could have performed better. He wanted another chance. And in the school-wide contest, he came out on top.
His next stop was the regional contest at the University of Arizona Poetry Center in February. He was on a mission.
“Once I got up ... I was cool,” remembered Edgardo, who will attend the UA in the fall. “I got to bring it home.”
Driver, who has been teaching at Desert View for eight years and has Edgardo in two other classes — college-prep AVID and writing center — said Edgardo’s strength for poetry recitation is enhanced by his ability to take the perspective of another person. He takes on another persona.
“It’s almost like theater. It’s just him and his voice,” she said.
As the names were read off leading to the first runner-up and winner at the Poetry Center, Edgardo’s emotions were ricocheting. “At this point I didn’t know what to feel and what to think.” He was satisfied knowing he did his best.
And he did. Doing his best earned him second place and the opportunity to compete at the statewide contest last month.
He would recite the same two poems and added a third, “A Song: Lying is an Occupation,” by 18th century poet Laetitia Pilkington. “I’m going to go with what I got,” he recalled thinking.
Now, don’t think that Edgardo, who splits his time between the homes of his divorced parents, spends all his free time practicing his poems, fretting over his performances, envisioning how he would approach his next competition. He’s still a teen with teenage habits and interests.
He plays video games. “Grand Theft Auto” is one of his faves. He also likes to lounge around and strum his guitar. He took a class last year, but mainly teaches himself chords and songs. He said the first song he learned was Chris Stapleton’s “Tennessee Whiskey.”
And then there are the tomahawks and knives that he throws in the backyard, an activity that relaxes him.
And he’ll attend his school’s prom.
Driver said that beyond Edgardo’s interest in poetry is his interest in being a better person, “a better version of himself.”
“He has this sense that humanity is not living up to its possibility. He wants to be part of the solution,” Driver said.
But before that, he has set his sights on his immediate task for the national finals, April 30 to May 1.
And to do his best.