Students from the valley to participate in Youth Poetry Slam
If You Go...
Who: Logan Phillips, Myrlin Hepworth, Mercedez Holtry and students from the valley
What: Youth Poetry Slam
When: 6:30 p.m. Friday (registration opens 5:30 p.m.)
Where: Third Street Center
How Much: Free
Spoken word artist Myrlin Hepworth writes three rules on the white board of a Glenwood Springs High School classroom.
1. Be brave.
2. Be respectful.
3. Your voice matters.
The room is filled with 30 high school students who have signed up for his writing workshop. Some are there for the first time, and some took the same workshop from him last year.
Hepworth is one of three spoken word artists who have been brought to middle and high schools all along the valley by Aspen Words, a nonprofit literary organization that brings writing conferences and important literary voices to the area. This is the third year Hepworth and poet Logan Phillips have led these workshops, and the first year with poet Mercedez Holtry.
After two weeks of workshops that will reach about 3,000 students, the artists will host a Youth Poetry Slam at 6:30 p.m. on Friday at the Third Street Center. Winners of the slam will be able to perform with Hepworth, Phillips and Holtry at the Wheeler Opera House on Saturday. Both events are free.
“We try to connect them with students here in the Roaring Fork Valley,” said Renee Prince, program associate of education at Aspen Words. “We started bringing them out to work in specific schools with teenagers, and it just grew.”
Hepworth and Phillips are from Arizona, and Holtry is from New Mexico. Prince said the fact that all three are bilingual is important for these workshops in the valley because of its large Latino population, and bringing a female poet on board this year will, she hopes, inspire the young women who take the workshops.
“With such a vibrant Latino community, it makes sense that that’s where we’re looking,” Prince said. “And we wanted one more poet to help us do more workshops this year. It’s also really great for young women to be able to work with this very powerful, courageous woman.”
Phillips teaches workshops regularly and said he doesn’t see it as something totally separate from or in addition to his own writing.
“Teaching isn’t outside of my artistic process,” he said. “Teaching is a core part of my artistic process. My job isn’t just to create poetry, but to listen to poetry and create room for more poetry.”
Before the workshops at Glenwood Springs High School, the three spoken word artists hosted an assembly in the auditorium. They performed poems about identity, race, relationships, language and domestic abuse. They then invited students to sign up for one of their workshops at a table set up in the lobby. Hepworth went straight from the assembly to his first workshop of the day.
After laying out the rules — be brave, be respectful, your voice matters — Hepworth starts off with word association. He writes “squirrel” on the board and asks students to call out words that are related. Tree, nuts, rabies, frightened, brown and Alvin are all added — with some chuckles and protestations at the last one.
“Even though Alvin is a chipmunk, you can still associate chipmunks with squirrels,” Hepworth says with a laugh.
Then they try another kind of association together, where one word leads to the next. Tree, green, money, Benjamin, President, Obama, black, night, stars, moon, cow.
Hepworth tells the students they have one minute to do that kind of association with the word “plastic,” then again with the word “dishwasher.” The students come up with about 20 words at most, and their end points are all totally different. That’s the lesson here. Also, he’s teaching them not to overthink anything in the early stages. It’s important to just put pen to paper.
Next, the students read a poem together, “Guitar Repair Woman” by Buddy Wakefield, about the poet’s mother. Hepworth then tells the class to write down four people who come to mind in 45 seconds. They’re to pick one and write single words they associate with that person. From there, they’re given 10 minutes to write a poem, and they’re given a few pieces of advice:
“Strong writing employs specific details,” Hepworth says. “And there’s this thing in writing: ‘No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader.’ Be brave enough to investigate that thing you need to investigate. Write what you need to write. Just burn through that piece of paper.”
As the students set to work on their poems, it’s easy to see that it’s a struggle for some to put their ideas on the page. The teenagers are gnawing on their pen caps, digging thumbs into their eyes or staring straight ahead with blank expressions. Some begin to cry. But they all come up with something, and that’s the point.
When the 10 minutes are up, Hepworth invites the students to share their poems. He gives them the option of staying at their desks, standing, sitting or coming to the front of the room. He even offers them moral support.
“If you think your poem’s pretty heavy, and it’ll be hard to read, you can come up here and I’ll read it with you, or I can come to your desk and read it with you,” he says.
Eight students end up sharing, some by volunteering and others by agreeing to it if they’re called on. They’ve written about their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers. One student has written about his dog. They are all brave and respectful.
“I’ve been able to observe workshops with all three of these poets, and what they can do in one hour with students is just extraordinary to me,” Prince said. “They’re able to establish such a safe place where students can share what’s vulnerable to them and authentic and true in their lives. What these poets do in the classroom is just hold space and hold an invitation to join them. Just that act of holding some space in time for kids to really focus on what they need to say — and not have to get something right, and not have to work toward a test — I think that’s pretty remarkable. And then they get to stand on the sage themselves at the end. It’s such an important act of courage.”
Cole Cooper, an 18-year-old senior who took Hepworth’s workshop this year and last, plans to perform at the Youth Poetry Slam on Friday. He said he didn’t start writing poetry seriously until after his first workshop with Hepworth.
“I had stories in my head and all that, but Mrylin’s such an awesome teacher, so it really helped me move to it,” he said. “I just like the way he frames it. He makes you feel like you don’t have to be afraid of your words, your voice or the power that comes with those words. And he has those three rules: be brave, be respectful, your voice matters. I think that maters for some kids. I don’t necessarily have a problem with talking and going in front of a crowd, but some kids do. I think he really helps with that.”
Cooper writes his poems first, but he said the experience of sharing them out loud adds a whole new importance to what he’s written.
“It brings emotion to it,” he said. “When you’re writing, you’re thinking about it. But when you speak it, it’s totally different. You feel the words coming out, and you feel the emotion that’s behind those words, the weight of those words.”
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