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Slam represents culmination of weeks of workshops

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By Will Grandbois
Sopris Sun Staff Writer

Owen O’Farell stands before a group of kids just a little younger than he was when he discovered poetry. Now a junior at Roaring Fork High, he has just finished reading a poem from his phone and has kept the Carbondale Middle School students engaged almost as well as Mercedez Holtry, who introduced him and does this for a living. 
Projector Lights

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Forgive my memory, it is poor,
so I don’t remember every word you said,
nor do I know what clothes you wore that one night we had together;

that night the strobe lights flickered on your face,
and you seemed to move like a flip-book of fragmented memories
in pace with my quick heart beat and that fast beat rave music.

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I can’t remember what song,

but I swear 
if you were to run my mind through a projector
and make those fragments move fast enough
you’d know what it felt like to start falling for you.

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I can remember that vividly.

And ever since that July day that film has been rolling in my head.
And at times that projectors light is so warming,
but at times it is blinding,
and at times I wish I didn’t have that film anymore.

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I don’t think it would be hard to look at you then

though I suppose it’s always hard to stare at something so bright,
but I wish you were more than a flash in the pan,
I wish you’d be more than a brief flame I was infatuated with as a child,

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because if you’re a flame it means I have already gotten as close as I can,
and if you’re a flame it means the brief moment I was able to touch you burned me,
and I don’t want a scar to remember you by,

so please don’t fade so quickly,
don’t disappear before next year’s end,
don’t tell me I’ve smothered any chance I had.

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I’d much rather you be the air,
giving me the voice to speak this,
and always filling the spaces between my fingers.
                               – Owen O’Farrell

O’Farrell is the first to acknowledge that he never expected to be speaking at his alma mater on the merits of poetry – that he was, in fact, resistant when a friend tried to recruit him to the art in seventh grade. 
“He told me that there was a slam in front of 300 people. I thought that sounded awful,” he tells the crowd. “It turned out to be one of the most fun I’ve had.”

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Indeed, O’Farrell, like fellow student presenter Julia Lee, hopes to participate in this year’s slam – the fourth in five years of programming. Hosted by Denver’s inaugural Youth Poet Laureate Toluwanimi Obiwole, the free event is open to the public and takes place at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 17 at the Third Street Center (520 S 3rd St.).
“I think it’s a really rare event. It’s an opportunity to see young people express themselves in a way that they maybe don’t otherwise,” says Nicole Stanton, who runs the Poetry Project for Aspen Words. “It creates a venue that every type of kid can participate in and brings together students from every school in the Valley in a way that usually only happens at sporting events.” Still, while it’s a nice capstone, Stanton sees the event as secondary to what precedes it. 
“Slams are a gimmick – a way to make poetry exciting and engaging – and everyone who participate will tell you that,” she explains. “I think the heart of this whole project is the work that happens in classrooms each day. That’s the time you go from a kid who’s never read a poem to that same student figuring out how to craft a story about his/her life and being brave with their words.”

Be brave
That’s the first rule Logan Phillips tells a group of Bridges High School students the day after the presentation at CMS. Next is “hold space” – that is, leave room for all to share – which ties right into “your voice matters.” After all, Phillips points out, fear isn’t conducive to growth. 
“Poems are like people,” he observes. “If they’re not breathing, they’re dead.”
He encourages his students to say what isn’t being said and listen for voices that aren’t being heard. Tattooed, clad in a purple shirt and ballcap and sporting an heirloom bolo tie, he shares a poem of his own and another that’s borrowed, and asks them what they notice. 
Most of the kids in the class have been in the workshop before, so they know the drill. When he provides them with an opening line – “I’d be lying if I said…” – they settle in to five minutes of “liberation writing” without hesitation. The raw materials are shaped by revision, first solo and then in a small group, and gain polish with remarkable rapidity. The stock line gains personal poignancy: “I don’t know if I’m lying when I say I love you.”
Similarly, “to the person who told me…” conjures a striking mix of naysayers and supporters. One student embraces the challenge to integrate all the senses and viscerally conjures the slaughter and consumption of a pig. Far from being disturbing, it becomes a touching homage to a late family member. 
It’s the perfect time, Phillips notes, to be writing, with myriad platforms both digital and analog in which to share one’s voice.
“It doesn’t matter to me how you get your words into the world, but it matters that you do,” he says. “It trains us to be more articulate in the moments that matter.”
The kids certainly seem to benefit and appreciate it. 
“It feels good to express myself on paper,” Oscar Chaparro says. “When I try writing on my own, I don’t know where to start. He gives us something to write about.”
Viridina Peña would be writing anyway, but the workshop certainly helps.  
“It makes you feel like a person instead of just being bottled up,” she says. 
That’s just what Stanton likes to hear. 
“The moment a kid can say ‘I’m a poet,’ they’re hooked,” she says. “It’s my hope that we as an organization can continue to provide spaces for the kids that latch onto it during these two weeks.”
To that end, the organization holds youth poetry meetings in Carbondale every Monday, and another, broader demographic slam is slated for Steve’s Guitars on March 30. Perhaps the biggest metrics of success are the returners like O’Farrell and Lee.
“We’ve seen familiar faces come back again and again, and they only get better,” Stanton says. “I think that’s a testament to what we’re doing – it’s a system that breeds poets.”

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Published in The Sopris Sun on February 16, 2017.