Students find a voice in Aspen Words poets-in-schools program

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Poet Myrlin Hepworth is one of three poets who has been leading workshops with Roaring Fork Valley students over the last two weeks. Students will compete Friday night in a Poetry Slam in Carbondale.
Will Russack/Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: 3rd Annual Youth Poetry Slam, presented by Aspen Words

When: Friday, Feb. 12, 6:30 p.m.

Where: Third Street Center, Carbondale

How much: Free

More info:

“Life is real!” the poet-teacher Myrlin Hepworth exploded last Friday in a school assembly at Aspen High School. Hepworth, hosting a student poetry reading amid two weeks of workshops by poets in Roaring Fork Valley schools spearheaded by the nonprofit Aspen Words, was responding to an emotional reading of a poem by a student about the death of a parent.

His outburst drew some laughs from the students and he used the opportunity to make a point about the power of self-expression. He talked about how he’s used poetry as an outlet and how his grandmother, whose son was murdered and whose husband died young from alcoholism, expresses herself through gardening.

“She’s not had an easy life, but because she expresses herself in a positive way, she’d had a fulfilling life despite what she’s lost,” he told the assembled students.

“We all lose people we love. It’s what we do with our pain that makes us who we are. Writing is just one thing you have access to, right? But you have to express yourself. Because if you don’t choose how you express yourself, it comes out in a destructive way for you and the people around you.”

Hepworth, based in Phoenix, is a powerful performer with a burgeoning hip-hop career and a way with young people. He’s one of three poets who have been working with students in valley schools over the past two weeks — leading bilingual workshops with upward of 3,000 students in 16 middle and high schools.

The poets-in-schools program culminates with the third annual Youth Poetry Slam at the Third Street Center in Carbondale on Friday, where high schoolers selected based on their assembly performances will compete in a slam format.

Hepworth kept the Aspen High crowd engaged (no small feat as 3 p.m. neared on a Friday) with humorous rhymes about the histrionics of slam poets and the memory of a second-grade crush. But he also hammered home the value of poetry and the necessity of self-expression.

From smartphones and torn spiral notebook pages, students read and performed poems they’d written in workshops with Hepworth — sharing work focused on their families and themselves. The results ranged from the light-hearted to the emotionally raw, with multiple student poets reading through tears.

After a pair of students read stirring poems about a death and drug addiction, Hepworth spoke about writing’s power to grow empathy and yield what he called “karmic dividends.”

“All of us, regardless of whatever privilege or lack of privilege we were born into, we carry trauma and loss in our lives,” he said. “We’re not different that way.”

After a poised performance by a first-time poet, Hepworth spoke about the nerves he felt his first time on stage (“I forgot how to read!”) and about the transformative effect of public expression. His second time reading his poetry, he said, “I was like a ninja — I let that whole poem sing from my body. Oh my God, I let it go, I let it fall out of me, this big heavy thing I had inside of me, and it dropped out of me into the ears of these people in this town in this place.”

That experience changed him.

“After it was over, something happened to me,” he told students. “People said, ‘Hey, you. We see you.’ Often we live in places, in crowded, stacked-up spaces, but we still find a way to feel invisible. One of the great things about writing and speaking is that it automatically makes you feel visible.”

Valley students have visibly taken to poetry since the Aspen Words poets-in-schools program began in 2013, with the formation of several student poetry clubs and the youth poetry group First Word, which began performing last year and earned a main stage slot at Carbondale Mountain Fair last summer.