Magazine / People

Shouting to Be Heard

“I feel like there are responsibilities you must carry when you’re a poet," says Jose Guerrero, "and that when you’re on stage you’re responsible for what you’re telling your audience." Photo: Justin Edmonds

It’s a few minutes past 9 on a Sunday night at Denver’s Mercury Cafe, and Jose Guerrero has just finished reciting “Father Love,” his poem that goes into gut-wrenching detail about what it’s like to be a young, single dad. Five judges — volunteers from the audience — hold up their scoreboards, the numbers barely visible in the dim room. A packed house of poetry fans and young poets awaiting their turn at the mic cheers the high scores and boos the low.

“F*** the score, clap for the poet,” the emcee instructs. The audience complies.

His scores are just average, but that doesn’t rattle Guerrero. He knew he wouldn’t make it past the first round when he was assigned the dreaded one-slot: the first poet of the night. It’s what slammers call “score creep”: Scores tend to get higher as the night goes on and the judges get more enthusiastic.

“The first slot usually doesn’t move on; it’s just kind of how slam works,” he says with a shrug. He also allows that he might have made a tactical error.

“I don’t think I chose the right poem,” says Guerrero, a 19-year-old DU junior who’s been slamming since he was 17. “It was too slow; it wasn’t the [right] type of poem. I usually use that for my last round so that it brings it home. On this occasion it didn’t do it. It was strategy that backfired a little bit.”

Welcome to the cutthroat world of slam poetry, where the wrong poem can sink you just as fast as the one-slot, where the audience is encouraged to express its pleasure or displeasure with the judges and with the poets themselves, and where a legion of Denver kids come every week to pour their souls out on stage.

Conceived in 1984 by Chicago poet Marc Smith, the poetry slam is a competitive event in which poets perform original pieces of three minutes or less and are judged by members of the audience. At the end of each round the highest-scoring poets advance until only one is left standing. It’s become particularly popular among young poets, who congregate at community centers and coffeehouses around the country to share their work and hang out with others of their kind.

Denver—the Mercury Cafe in particular—has become one of the hottest slam scenes in the country for youth and adult poets alike.

“It feels like home,” Guerrero says before the slam, standing on the sidewalk outside the Mercury and taking a drag off a friend’s cigarette. “I come and see all my friends here and hang out with them. The adult poets are like my mentors.”

Chief among those mentors is Denver poet Ken Arkind, who coaches the city’s Minor Disturbance youth slam team. In July Guerrero made his second trip with the team to Brave New Voices, an annual youth poetry competition in San Francisco. In 2010 the team took fourth place and was featured in an HBO special on the event; this year Minor Disturbance finished third.

“I think there’s a level of honesty and a freshness in the youth world of poetry that does not always exist in the adult world,” Arkind says. “I think it’s something that can be threatening to adult poets, and I kind of enjoy that, to be honest. I know I compare my own work to the young people’s work far more often. If I don’t believe it’s as honest or as blatantly straightforward as what they do, it’s not worth my time.”

Arkind knows the power of a poem, the effect it can have on an awkward teenager who takes the mic for the first time and is amazed to discover that people are actually listening to what he has to say.

“You ever seen a question mark turn into an exclamation point? That’s exactly what their spines do,” Arkind says. “You know that 14-year-old: Your hands are too big for your body, your feet trip over themselves on purpose, you get yelled at for everything you do, and your spine does that thing where you just suddenly hunch over.

“But eventually, when you start to speak louder, your chin lifts on its own because you need to do that in order for people to hear you. Your chin gets higher and your back straightens and you walk more confidently — I can guarantee you that I wouldn’t have had three assault tickets by the time I was 15 if I had had this program when I was that age.”

Which means he knows some of Jose Guerrero’s pain — born in El Paso to a pair of Mexican immigrants, raised in a poor part of west Denver, in trouble with the law before he knew how to drive.

“Jose comes from some of the hardest circumstances you can in a city like this,” Arkind says. “He made some mistakes as a young man, he really did. That’s kind of where he came from. You had to be hard; you had to be tough. When he first walked into the youth slam, he acted like he was walking into a hip-hop battle. Everybody was his enemy. And it confused some of the kids at the beginning. They were like, ‘Why is that guy always going so hard?’

“Because he has to.”


Word power

Guerrero’s journey to the slam stage began when he was a student at La Academia, a private school run by the nonprofit Denver Inner City Parish. A visit from Cafe Cultura, a Denver-based arts group for Latino poets, sparked the high school senior’s interest in poetry.

An actor since age 15 with Chicano theater Su Teatro, Guerrero already had an advantage when it came to speaking on stage. The night he read at Cafe Cultura for the first time, a reporter from La Voz newspaper happened to be in the audience, and a few lines of Guerrero’s poem were reprinted in the next day’s edition.

“I thought that was the coolest thing in the world,” he says. “I was really excited about that, then I found out there’s a huge [poetry] scene in Denver. So I went over to the Mercury Cafe and I got to slam, and in my first slam I won. So I just kept going back and got really hooked.”

Suddenly the 17-year-old had a venue to talk about the things that affected him most: growing up Latino in one of Denver’s poorest neighborhoods. Becoming a father at 17. Watching his son’s mother withdraw and eventually disappear, leaving Guerrero as the boy’s primary caretaker.

“She wanted to be my girlfriend but she didn’t want to be a mom,” he says of the girl who was just an acquaintance when she became pregnant with his child. “I didn’t want that at all. She realized I was never going to be with her again and she left — she didn’t care anymore. She still lives in Denver, but I have no idea where I could find her, how to contact her.

“When I was 17 my life stopped, and I couldn’t do the things that I used to do,” he continues. “And that was a good thing, because I was getting into a lot of trouble, not just in school but with the law. I was incarcerated a couple of times. Poetry and my son helped me realize that I had to get my life together and I had to snap out of my little stage that I was going through.”


Words as weapons

Part of getting his life together involved applying for and receiving a Daniels Fund scholarship, which he used to attend DU. In addition to his classwork and taking care of his 3-year-old son, J.T., Guerrero performs his poetry in schools around the region and works with Denver-based activist hip-hop band the Flobots, helping to conduct poetry workshops at the group’s community center. There he teaches young writers one of his favorite mantras: Your voice is a weapon.

“I feel like sometimes in society, especially brown people and especially when you’re young, you feel like your voice isn’t important, that what you say doesn’t matter,” he says. “When I say your voice is a weapon — your story can impact someone. Your story can change someone’s life. I encourage people to use it in a positive way, but sometimes you use your voice to protect against society and to educate others about the problems society faces so they’re not dumb about it.”

He’s written about capitalism, about politics, about indigenous history, about the Mexican sweatshops called maquiladoras. When he was young, his mother worked in one.

“I feel like I definitely have a mission, being a poet,” he says. “I feel like there are responsibilities you must carry when you’re a poet, and that when you’re on stage you’re responsible for what you’re telling your audience.

“I feel an obligation to my audience to tell them the truth and to tell them about things they may not be exposed to through society sometimes.”

Guerrero also uses his poetry to explore his ethnic heritage. His experiences at Su Teatro and La Academia connected him to Denver’s Latino community and made him aware of his place in it.

“Before La Academia I wasn’t too fond of my skin. I wasn’t much aware of my identity,” Guerrero says. “It wasn’t that cool to be Mexican to me, and I didn’t appreciate it much. I didn’t understand why just because of my skin I was different to some people. La Academia not only made me understand it but they made me proud of it. That’s something that really helped me later on in life. It made me see that people could do positive things and it didn’t just have to be negative things that came out of our neighborhoods. It’s interesting to feel that your people have already achieved so much. My mom, she got a sixth-grade education and so did my dad. It made me set higher standards for myself.”

Full of fire

Guerrero is making a name for himself in the Denver slam scene, both as a solo poet and as a member of Minor Disturbance. In April he won the city’s youth poetry grand slam.

Cafe Cultura founder Bobby LeFebre, who has known Guerrero since the days when both were acting at Su Teatro, says the young poet’s future is bright not only because of his performance skills, but because of his ability to write eloquently about the things he feels.

“When you’re choosing what you’re writing about or you’re writing about the things you’re passionate about, naturally there’s emotion there,” says LeFebre, who currently is working on an arts and culture degree through DU’s University College.

“Jose’s work is so full of passion and emotion because he really believes what he’s saying. It differs from other performance arts like acting because there you’re performing somebody else’s work, somebody else’s story, somebody else’s words. But with performance poetry and slam poetry it’s you, your experience and an audience listening to your interpretation of the world around you.”

“He’s at a point now where the evolution is happening quickly and he is progressing both in writing and his presence on stage,” LeFebre says of Guerrero. “Give him a couple more years and he’s going to be at the top of the game among all poets in the nation. His talent is young, and he has a lot of fire. If he continues to do this, there’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll do very well.”

Guerrero’s major at DU is still undecided. He started out in business but is now thinking about some mix of sociology and theater — a blend of disciplines that will complement and fuel his career as a performance poet and possibly an educator of kids who want to explore the growing art form.

“People like Ken Arkind and his motivating team are out there teaching kids the power of their voice and how far it [can] take them,” Guerrero wrote in a paper on slam poetry for one of his classes at DU. “It is beautiful to me that people are trying to use poetry to heal people. Organizations like this are the organizations that change the world. They have found a way to feed children assets like confidence, creativity and expression in a way where they can enjoy themselves and heal their wounds at the same time.

“Poetry is very powerful, and if used in the correct manner, poetry can change people’s lives.”


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