Youth Poets Find Their Voices Onstage
Innocence. Self-realization. Understanding. Pain. Passion. These are just a handful of big concerns that a group of young poets in the Roaring Fork Valley explored over the summer.
Surprised? Don’t be. The Valley has long been fertile ground for creative expression and experimentation, an area rich with artists, musicians, writers, dancers and performers drawn to the area’s progressive values and idyllic beauty. It seems only natural that young people raised here should feel free to express themselves, but these teens are pushing boundaries. Seeking inspiration beyond just mountains and rivers, they are fearlessly looking deep into the heart of our community. They are tackling – nay, annihilating – tough subjects via a provocative, daring art form: spoken word.
Meet a few members of First Word, the Roaring Fork Valley’s newest youth poetry group: Moises Camargo, 16; Alyssa Szczelina, 16; Naomi Pulver, 17, and Julia Lee, 15. To watch them perform is to witness them challenge and reinvigorate the valley’s artistic legacy one poem at a time.
“With spoken word, you have the freedom to express your feelings about how you see the world,” says Pulver, a student at Roaring Fork High School (RFHS) in Carbondale. Lee, who also attends RFHS, agrees, “I used to think poetry was stuffy and boring, but after joining this group I realized that you can weave ideas and emotions into your poems, and really make people see and feel and think.”
Often referred to as slam poetry, contemporary spoken word is a creative medium borne of the tumult and civil unrest of the 1960s. Rhythmic and brimming with raw emotion, this style of performance-based poetry rose from a small urban movement to somewhat of a national phenomenon by the early 2000s. Today, it has even found its way to the Western Slope.
“The goal of slam poetry is to evoke emotion in the audience. It pushes buttons. And it is truly the place where writing and performance come together,” says local teaching artist Kether Axelrod. With the help of her daughter Anika Jade, Axelrod leads First Word, an offshoot of literary nonprofit Aspen Words’ Youth Poetry program. The First Word teen poets have a true role model in 20-year-old Jade, a Carbondale native and a junior at New York City’s Pratt Institute who has won national recognition for her work as a rising slam poet. Recently she performed at the White House Poetry Night at the invitation of First Lady Michelle Obama.
Axelrod believes the original tenets of spoken word – freedom of language and freedom to challenge the status quo – have not been lost on her students. “The kids have something really important to say,” she notes, “and a lot of them haven’t been heard before.”
Renee Prince, Education Associate at Aspen Words, agreed that the organization’s Youth Poetry program struck a chord with local middle and high school students after its inception nearly four years ago. Since then, the program – held for a madcap two weeks each February – has grown to feature multiple renowned teaching artists at 16 schools throughout the valley.
“We really plugged into the energy of the kids after that first year,” Prince recalls. “Suddenly we had this lovely, powerful momentum going and we wanted to continue to honor their voices. Many of the students had never had an opportunity to express themselves freely like this before, but just given the invitation to use their voices, they took it.”
Prince was thrilled to find that many students wanted a way to keep practicing spoken word long after Aspen Words’ annual two-week intensive had ended. “For these kids, spoken word is a fresh, accessible way to speak out. It has the ability to connect them to the outside world,” she says. “We have been working with community members and local artists like Kether Axelrod to help the students continue writing and performing throughout the year.”
So, what is it like to be a teenage spoken word artist? On a July morning before performing at Mountain Fair in Carbondale, the young members of First Word gathered at The Launchpad to rehearse and discuss their work.
For starters, they all agreed, you can’t be afraid to go onstage.
“I actually wrote a poem about being nervous,” Szczelina, a Yampah Mountain High School student, says with a laugh. “I actually read it the first time I ever performed in front of a large group of people. At first, you always get the jitters but oddly enough, the more you keep performing, the more comfortable you get.”
Szczelina, who employs dynamic vocal cadence and physical gestures to deliver a decidedly classic form of spoken word, has been performing pieces about social struggles, equal rights and other hot button issues. “I like speaking about topics that others don’t want to address. What inspires me are those emotions that people don’t usually want to experience,” she adds. “Poetry is a way to get negative feelings out. Although I don’t like them, they have value and they have a story to tell—something to teach me.”
Each member of the group has an individual flair. Lee performs her poems with a softer edge and a contemplative delicacy. Her stage presence is surprisingly disarming in light of the controversial subject material she often broaches in her work. A piece she presented at Mountain Fair examines the emotional toll of human violence on a young heart.
Pulver’s performance style is defined by a natural, frank delivery of her work. Her poems are at once wide-eyed and yet keenly observant, gleaning significance from the beauty of everyday struggles. “When you finish a poem, I feel like it reveals some truth you’re trying to get at,” she explains.
Axelrod was quick to note that much of the group’s strength lies in the students’ differences, both in experience and aesthetic.
“Alyssa really gives a powerful slam experience, Julia has this soft, evocative tone, and Naomi brings a tenderness—beautiful and joyous,” she says.
After rehearsal in The Launchpad’s intimate outdoor amphitheater, Axelrod and Anika Jade gathered the students for a few final words before their upcoming Mountain Fair debut. When the technical notes addressing diction, delivery, and presence were finished, Axelrod offered encouragement.
“Trust yourselves. You’ve worked really hard. You all have something very important to say out there.”
And now, it is up to the rest of us to listen.
For more information about youth poetry in the Roaring Fork Valley, visit AspenWords.org.