Aspen Words Youth Poetry Project expanding while going virtual
What: Youth Poetry Slam, presented by Aspen Words
When: Thursday, April 29, 6 p.m.
How much: Free
More info: A link to register as an audience member will be available at online soon. Student participants will be selected via a lottery and all interested middle and high school poets will be able to sign up at aspenwords.org.
Aspen Words’ Youth Poetry Project has in recent years become a rite of spring for creative young people in the Roaring Fork Valley — a two-week crucible of workshops and writing followed by a public performance.
This year is different, as all things are different amid the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic. The program will take place virtually, but will also expand to run for more than three weeks of instruction and mentoring.
After 14 weeks it will conclude with the public (also virtual) Youth Poetry Slam on April 29, capping National Poetry Month.
This new version brings three teaching artists into middle and high school classrooms between Aspen and Glenwood Spring and aims for a deeper engagement and more personal attention on students in creative writing workshops.
The three teaching poets, all new to the Aspen-based program, are Cynthia Amoah, poet and educator based in Ohio and originally from Ghana; Natty Carrizosa, a National Poetry Award winner, writer and speaker; and Joaquin Zihuatanejo, author of the collection “Arsonist” and the scholarship guide “Dollars for Scholars.”
The trio built a curriculum and an approach to the semester-long initiative that is tailor-made to the needs of young people enduring the pandemic.
“I believe the craft of poetry should be an in-person experience to make the most impact in person, so I thought that would be a tough approach,” Amoah said in a phone interview from home in Ohio at the conclusion of the first week of workshops in January.
Using some new tactics, Amoah found the teaching poets could and did connect meaningfully with students in the virtual format. They performed poetry, they wrote together, they recited mantras, they discussed the craft of creative writing and creativity more generally.
“Poetry can be utilized whenever there’s any kind of human interaction,” Amoah concluded. “As long as a student can hear me, as long as the group is engaged.”
The youth poetry programs were among the final arts happenings untouched by the pandemic last year. A powerful evening of poetry performance at Hooch Craft Cocktail Bar in Aspen, packed with listeners in the basement space, ran in early February 2020 followed two weeks later by the exuberant Youth Poetry Slam in Carbondale bringing the valleywide community together.
Last year, a four-poet teaching team led 100 workshops and 10 school assemblies in a two-week sprint.
This more sustained 2021 iteration with Amoah, Carrizosa and Zihuatanejo is meant to serve local students amid the mix of online, hybrid and in-person classroom time at Aspen-area schools.
“We are thrilled that these slam champions, emcees, educators and poets will get to have a richer impact on RFV students through extended workshop touch points,” said Aspen Words executive director Adrienne Brodeur.
Their over-arching aim is to empower students and provide lifelong tools.
“I’m hoping that I can impart a way that they can express themselves,” Amoah said. “I believe that self-expression is gold. When a young person finds — or is given — the keys to properly express themselves, they discover something far greater than I think they would have ever imagined.”
With that goal in mind, the mental, emotional and social challenges of the pandemic’s forced solitude might be harnessed for positive outcomes, Amoah suggested. She pointed to the writer and activist James Baldwin, who said, “Perhaps the primary distinction of the artist is that he must actively cultivate that state which most men, necessarily, must avoid; the state of being alone.”
If the public health is good for anything, Amoah suggested, it might be for this.
“In the state of being alone is where we truly discover who we are, where we come from, what makes us feel most alive,” said Amoah, who completed a new poetry manuscript during the stay-home periods of 2020. “It is with this knowledge of feeling most alive that we can then show up in the world.”
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