Valley teens use poetry to tackle tough topics

Feb 21, 2017

Aspen Words' Program Coordinator Nicole Stanton congratulating student slam winner Eric Tinajero.
Credit Claire Woodcock/Aspen Public Radio News

On Friday night, dozens of area high school students took part in Aspen Words’ 4th annual Youth Poetry Slam in Carbondale.

After two weeks of work, students throughout the Roaring Fork Valley gave an auditorium full of adults a clue into their secret lives. There were 24 students who spoke with honest authority on topics that most teenagers keep to themselves. Topics like confidence and anxiety; puberty and relationships; drugs and alcohol; depression and suicide.

“The truth is, when I talk to people, I can’t breathe,” one student proclaimed.

 

“Snap my fingers for you, snap bones for you,” another expressed.

 

“Cigarette daydreams, the addiction I need,” a student admitted.

 

“...that it was her depression that made her choices for her,” a female student revealed.

 

Toluwanimi Obiwole, Denver’s inaugural youth poet laureate, also slammed. She spent the days leading up to the event advancing student prose alongside returning teacher poets.

 

“They say black girls are back. Like my body is in style again,” said Obiwole.

 

About a third of the performers described the difficulties of growing up Hispanic in America.

 

A handful of youth poets spoke out against the president’s rhetoric around immigration, like a local high school student who’s an undocumented resident. She was the first to slam on Friday.

 

“Dear Donald Trump, when I watched the election, I watched it with fear,” she said. “Because the thought of people not wanting me here hurt me more than words can explain.”

 

Teacher poet Logan Phillips has been returning to the valley for years. He said what brings him back every year is the need for more conversation between teenagers and adults. But this time is different. Phillips said that the caustic nature of recent politics is affecting these students, regardless of whether or not they’re eligible to vote.  

“Right now it’s more important than ever for folks who have become the target of some of this political speech to be able to have the space and time to stand up and make themselves heard,” said Phillips.

The same student who spoke about watching the election took that opportunity at a school assembly days before the slam.

“I hear racist jokes through the hallways as I walk to class,” she said. “How you think we don’t understand your language. But we grew up with the taste of our native language being imprinted into our tongues as well as yours because we just wanted to fit in.”

Before the slam, she explains how she sees herself fitting in here and pursuing her own version of the American Dream.

“My mom brought me here to study, to follow my dreams,” she said.

She’s already applied to 19 different colleges. She thinks she might want to be a lawyer. On the national “A Day Without Immigrants,” she didn’t go to school. Instead, she stayed home and applied for scholarships.

Myrlin Hepworth, one of the program’s teachers, said he aims to give young poets the chance to grow in ways not always offered in the school setting.

“We want to give students an opportunity to have a legitimate honest conversation about themselves in this world, in their world,” Hepworth said. “An unapologetic conversation about who they are and through that process, we want to give them an opportunity to express that truth by using their voice physically.”

But the content wasn’t all heavy. Roaring Fork High School student Eric Tinajero won the slam for his poem “All I Need is a Mexican Woman,” with guidance from teacher poet Mercedez Holtry.