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Aspen Words’
Youth Poetry Slam

WHEN U.S. POET LAUREATE Juan Felipe Herrera takes the stage at Winter Words (Jan. 12) this season, he’ll greet an Aspen where poetry is having a moment, if not undergoing a bona fide movement. Poetry in the Roaring Fork Valley is both bubbling up from the streets, via readings and new voices, and billowing from the top down, such as when Aspen Words brings national figures like Herrera to town (as the country’s third laureate to visit since summer 2014).

“It is particularly fertile right now,” says local poet and teacher Cameron Scott. “There’s a lot of space being created for poetry, and for people to find it.”

Over the last year and a half, valley poets have published strong collections—Scott’s The Book of Ocho and Wade Newsom’s Poetic Notions among them—while A Democracy of Poets in the Roaring Fork Valley and Beyond, an anthology from the Aspen Poets’ Society, was nominated for a 2015 Colorado Book Award. Justice Snow’s has begun hosting lively Poetry Brothels, at which patrons can buy a verse from “poetry whores.” And a group of high school poets in Carbondale, meeting monthly at Steve’s Guitars, formed the slam poetry group First Word, which debuted with spirited performances at Mountain Fair last summer.

But that’s just an opening stanza. Aspen Words’ bilingual Poets in the Schools program, now in its fourth year, drew more than forty middle and high school poets to compete in its annual February slam in Carbondale, and hundreds of locals came to watch the winners perform at the Wheeler Opera House. The program is now in every middle and high school in the valley. Explore Booksellers, for its part, launched its new Local Writers Read series in September by featuring readings by Scott, who has a collection due out from Blue Light Press in April, and Valerie Haugen.

Along with appearances by luminaries like Herrera, Natasha Trethewey, Claudia Rankine, Elizabeth Alexander, and Billy Collins, such developments have made for a diverse, egalitarian poetry ecosystem. The boom in valley verse has taken hold relatively quickly: less than a decade ago, when the Aspen Poets’ Society began hosting its monthly coffee house readings in 2006, there was no regular public forum for poets in Aspen.

“There does seem to be a synergy, and I can’t pretend to know what that is, other than that there’s something unique in this valley,” says Aspen Words education associate Renee Prince. “There’s a value placed on people sharing their voices, and there are people willing to hear them. There is a scene happening.”

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