Poets have been barnstorming schools throughout the Roaring Valley since Feb. 3, leading some 100 workshops and 10 school assemblies with students from Aspen to Glenwood Springs.
The annual Poets in Schools program, run by Aspen Words, will culminates in Friday night’s Youth Poetry Slam at the Third Street Center in Carbondale, where middle and high school students from the Roaring Fork Valley will perform their own spoken word poetry.
The four teaching poets who’ve led the annual spoken word project are former Philadelphia poet laureate and Aspen Words writer-in-residence Yolanda Wisher, Denver’s Meta Sarmiento and Toluwanimi Oluwafunmilayo Obiwole and Albuquerque-based poet Mercedez Holtry.
On Tuesday night at Hooch Craft Cocktail Bar in Aspen, the young foursome performed their own work for a crowd of more than 30 and discussed their experiences in local schools.
Holtry, a poet, community organizer and Chicana activist who is in her sixth year teaching here through the Aspen Words poetry project, said the work is about inspiring young people to speak out through poetry.
“I’m happy to be alive and to be speaking these poems and hopefully impacting these kids in a way that teaches them they too are strong and have voices that absolutely f-ing matter,” she told the crowd of adults. “If that’s not the goal of this project, I don’t know what is.”
Obiwole, who served as Denver’s inaugural Youth Poet Laureate in 2015-16, also co-directs the acclaimed collective Slam Nuba. Her 2020 visit to Aspen’s schools comes on the heels of the Trump Administration expanding its travel ban to her native Nigeria.
At the Hooch event, she performed work inspired by the ban and spoke about how devastating the ban has been to her family both in the U.S. and Nigeria.
“I am very directly affected by it, having immediate and close family here who are not documented and don’t have any choice but to go back because they no longer have any path to citizenship,” she explained, later adding: “Despite that, I still remember the dreams that I have in this country.”
Sarmiento, a poet and rapper born and raised in Guam, performed personal works about his cultural identity and alienation from both his birthplace and his home in Colorado.
This is his first time working with the Aspen Words school program.
“My experience so far has been like a roller coaster,” Sarmiento told the crowd. “Really physically, emotionally exhausting.”
But it’s been rewarding, he said, recalling an experience with a student in Glenwood Springs who broke down crying as he spoke with her about confronting her fear of performing publicly. She told him, he recalled, “For the first time I feel relieved about my own insecurities because somebody in the room understands.”
He added: “That’s the reason I get into classrooms.”