Before Edgardo Aguilar knew about the likes of William Yeats and Maya Angelou, he fell in love with the poetry of musical artists such as Tupac, Bob Dylan and Wu-Tang Clan.
Now, as he pens his own poetry, he draws inspiration from a diverse group of musicians and poets, from Johnny Cash to Pink Floyd and The Notorious B.I.G. to William Shakespeare.
"My interest in poetry really stems from hip-hop," said 18-year-old Aguilar. "I've always been very fond of hip-hop music and big lyricists, like Nas or Rakim – people that know how to put a spin on words. They're poets in their own way; the only difference is they write a beat on top of it."
Aguilar is Arizona's 2019 Poetry Out Loud champion, while led to him representing the state at the national finals of the poetry recitation competition in Washington, D.C., last spring.
This fall, he will enroll as a freshman at the University of Arizona, which is home to one of the nation's most extensive collections of contemporary poetry.
Aguilar was a senior at Desert View High School in Tucson when he first learned about Poetry Out Loud, a competition through the National Endowment for the Arts, the Poetry Foundation and state arts agencies that challenges high school students to memorize and recite their favorite poems. Participants are judged on memorization, stage presence, articulation and style, among other things.
Aguilar recited two poems for his schoolwide competition: "It Would be Nice if With the New Year," by Chicano-American poet Jimmy Santiago Baca; and "Nude Descending a Staircase," by American poet X. J. Kennedy. Aguilar took first place and advanced to the regional competition, held at the UA Poetry Center.
Although Aguilar lives near campus with his father, regionals marked his first visit to the award-winning UA Poetry Center – a place he imagines he'll return to as a student.
"I know if I need a spot to get my mind straight and get away from it all, it will probably be there," he said.
Aguilar placed second in regionals, where the first three finishers earned a spot in the state competition in Phoenix. There, he added a third poem to his repertoire – "A Song: Lying is an Occupation," by 18th-century Irish poet Laetitia Pilkington.
Aguilar beat out eight competitors to become the 2019 Arizona Poetry Out Loud champion and was invited to compete in the national finals in Washington, D.C.
His journey to the capital, which he made with his stepfather and Advanced Placement English teacher, was not without hiccups. Aguilar's bag didn't make it onto his connecting flight and arrived several hours after Aguilar did. And shortly before he took the stage to recite his first poem, he was hit with a vertigo spell; he's dealt with the periodic dizziness episodes for a few years now.
However, the good far outweighed any bad, and even though Aguilar was eliminated after the first of three rounds for memorization errors, the experience – which also included a tour of the U.S. Capitol and meeting Arizona Sens. Martha McSally and Kyrsten Sinema – is one he'll never forget.
"The best part of the competition was after the competition," he recalled. "That night, after the final round, we had an after-party, and after the after-party we went down to the basement of the hotel and we had our own poetry slam. All the competitors who were able to make it got into a circle and we all just kind of vibed. The energy from that was crazy. Midnight came around and we had to leave, but it didn’t end there. We went out into the hallway nearby and kept doing what we were doing until 5 o'clock in the morning."
Aguilar says that, to him, poetry is a way to make sense of chaos in the world. And as someone who was very shy as a child, it's also helped give him a voice.
"I needed to get involved in something to express myself in other ways, because it's hard for me to express myself just speaking," he said. "With poetry, you can express yourself freely, no judgment, and you can really reminisce and self-reflect."
Aguliar said that as a child he didn't expect to go to college, thinking he'd become a plumber like his father. The oldest of four siblings, he would be the first in his immediate family to earn a college degree.
Now, he looks forward to starting at the UA, and while he's not yet chosen a major, he's eager to enroll in creative writing and poetry classes when he can. In the meantime, he plans to continue writing poetry in his free time.
"I'm focusing on my general education now, and that will give me time to develop my tone and my style for my writing," he said. "It's really about finding myself."