Undeniable Voices, Virtually
Annual Aspen Words Youth Poetry Slam goes online for 2021
The eighth annual Aspen Words Youth Poetry Slam went virtual this spring, capping an expanded poets-in-schools project that ran for more than three months for young people in the Roaring Fork Valley.
“Poets are often at the forefront of revolution,” Aspen Words poetry project coordinator Ellie Scott said in her introduction to the live virtual April 29 slam, “illuminating the dark places in ourselves and in our systems.”
That proved true among this year’s bold crop of young local poets who, after a tumultuous year of societal upheaval, underscored how they are the tip of the spear of progressive thought and action here in Colorado and across the U.S.
Students perceptively plumbed personal and societal depths in their work and gave spoken word performances that managed to transcend the limitations Zoom. Their work was at times deeply personal, tackling identity, body image issues and personal experience with mental illness, love and loss, while also confronting thorny issues of social justice, public policy and the environmental.
Ruthie Brown, a Roaring Fork High School senior, won the first place prize at the slam. Her two pieces in the competition bridged the personal and the societal, sharing one poem about anorexia and one about citizenship in our politically fraught era (it opened “Dearest America, why must you be so hard to love”).
Among the youngest poets in the group, Will Goldfarb, a home-schooled 5th grader, performed two surprisingly fierce poems aimed at social change: “A Black Death” about American racism and the murder of George Floyd, and “There’s Still Time” about climate change and consumer complacency.
For his bold and mature work, judges awarded Goldfarb a special Poet’s Choice prize.
In prior years, the poets-in-schools program had run for two intense weeks with poets barnstorming schools – last year a four-poet team led 100 workshops and 10 assemblies – in February. The 2021 version went virtual due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, while pairing Roaring Fork Valley students with a trio of teaching artists from across the U.S.
The program was led by Cynthia Amoah, a 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.”
Concerns about the virtual format quickly fell away for students and teachers.
“Poetry can be utilized whenever there’s any kind of human interaction,” Amoah told me after the first week of workshops in January. “As long as a student can hear me, as long as the group is engaged.”
After 14 weeks of virtual work, students shared their work in last week’s public slam competition, emceed by Amoah and Carrizosa who kept the online affair lively. Attending the slam, longtime Aspen architect Harry Teague said he’s been coming to the slams since the beginning and has come to look forward to them more than anything else on Aspen’s cultural calendar.
“They are the most powerful cultural event that I go to all year,” Teague said. “It’s not quite as powerful on Zoom, but it’s still moving. I’m Irish, so I cried.”
During an interlude in the slam, Zihuatanejo shared one of this own works, which won an international slam prize for the U.S. Performed vocally and in American Sign Language, the piece included the memorable line “You cannot deny the lucid fact that silence must succumb to voice.”
Anybody who witnessed this Youth Poetry Slam cannot deny that.