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A Slam Dunk: Denver Poetry Scene Hitting Crazy Heights

Lenny Chernila, a.k.a. The Professor, has been performing at poetry slams for 15 years.

Suzi Q. Smith (left) and Ken Arkind (second from right) lead Minor Disturbance.

The audience laughs and cheers for the participants.

Every Sunday evening at 8 p.m., a poetry slam is held at Mercury Cafe.

Ken Arkind believes Denver itself influences the artists' desire to bring their best work.

Among Minor Disturbance's various events, slam poetry has proven to be especially popular.

"It's a pretty serious game that we play around here," says Suzi Q. Smith.

Denver's slam poetry scene is imbued with a competitive atmosphere that has injected new life into the art form, empowered countless young voices and propelled some of the community's brightest writers to national champion status.
I admit to arriving at the Mercury Cafe a little behind schedule, and to being caught a little off guard when I first entered. The crowd noise -- hoots and hollers and some truly enthusiastic applause -- seemed more rock-and-roll show than poetry reading. For a moment, I actually wondered if I had stumbled in on the wrong night, or perhaps into the wrong venue. 

"A good poetry slam should be exactly that, totally rambunctious and totally crazy," says Ken Arkind. "The audience will be booing the judges when they disagree, or cheering for them when they like what they do."

And Arkind knows a good slam. He's a touring artist, published author and National Poetry Slam Champion (among other accomplishments). Perhaps more importantly, though, he understands the significance it can play in local Denver communities.

"Slam is a mechanism to get people interested in poetry," he says. "It's an arts education tool. It's a way for young people to empower themselves and use it to do whatever they want."Lenny Chernila, a.k.a. The Professor, has been performing at poetry slams for 15 years.

To that end, Arkind also is currently serving as the executive director of Denver's Minor Disturbance, "an independent literary arts organization dedicated to helping Denver youth find voice through the mediums of poetry and performance." 

Among Minor Disturbance's various events, workshops and more, slam poetry has proven to be an especially popular medium because, true to the atmosphere I walked in on at the Mercury Cafe, it allows performers, no matter how small the audience, to feel a bit like a full-fledged rock star.

"I wanted to be a punk singer," Arkind admits. "But I had no musical talent whatsoever. This is the closest I'll ever get to that. Even if you don't necessarily win . . . the drama, the getting up on stage, the chance to tell your story . . . it's a rush."

Keeping score

The competitive nature of slam poetry certainly is partly responsible for that adrenaline rush, and perhaps a little counterintuitive to those who are used to -- or expecting -- a more sedate "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood" setting. The most important thing to understand is that slam is a venue or event, not a genre of poetry. And it's not necessarily a battle during which poets are trying to one-up each other in a head-to-head, freestyle format. Essentially, a slam is an open mic night with an additional dramatic variable: a group of judges.

"It's a simple setup," Arkind says. "Five people from the audience are randomly selected. That's the most important part. Preferably, people who've never even been to a slam. And they judge the poets on a scale of one to ten." 

It might be a simple contest, but it does matter, and not just for local bragging rights.

"It's a pretty serious game that we play around here," says Suzi Q. Smith, poet and Denver native, who also is a coach for Minor Disturbance. "We have two adult slams that have both done extremely well in the national circuit. We have a youth slam that has also done extremely well in the national circuit. So when teams form and compete at their respective competitions, Denver tends to do very well, and has for many years now."

And by extremely well, we're talking a youth team that has made it to national finals the last six years, and took first place in 2012 and 2013, and adults who won the National Poetry Slam in 2006 and 2012 and were in the finals in 2007 and 2014.

"Denver has a lot of poetry. It's not just slams," Smith continues. "There are poetry open mics in the area every night of the week so there are a lot of poets and a lot of people who are interested in poetry. Slam is just one aspect of that. We have solid audiences and new people coming all the time. Since the teams change every year, with new blood coming in, I think people are still excited about it, and want to bring their best work."

The audience laughs and cheers for the participants. A little bit of crazy

Arkind believes Denver itself influences the artists' desire to bring their best work, too. 

"I think at the heart of us, we will always think we're the underdog city," Arkind says with a defiant smile. "If you're a city that was built on cattle barons and corruption and gunslingers, there's always going to be a little bit of crazy. And that's what I love."

Indeed, two of Arkind's most popular poems -- Breathless (embedded below) and The Scripture of the Mile High (which was commissioned by the Denver Nuggets) -- detail that love. 

"We're the only major metropolitan area for 500 miles in any direction," he adds, "so you have to learn to not wait for people to find you. You have to just do it on your own."

Which is exactly what the poets at the Mercury Cafe, the Crossroads Theater and numerous other venues throughout the city are doing on a regular basis. With a rambunctious crowd that provides a little rock-star rush, of course.

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

Read more articles by JB Bissell.

Based in Denver, JB writes about local happenings and far-flung places often getting sidetracked at various points between. He can be reached here.
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