Poet Ken Arkind discusses Denver's outlaw magic, gentrification and his new book, Coyotes
As American National Poetry Slam Champion and executive director of the award-winning Minor Disturbance Youth Slam Team, Ken Arkind gets to share his words with the world. A lot of those words are about his native turf of Denver, Aurora and the Colfax Avenue connection, and his second book, Coyotes, shares the poet's frustrations and triumphs with the place he calls home.
On Tuesday, March 11, Arkind and some of his artist friends and poetry counterparts will celebrate the release of Coyotes with a show at Deer Pile. In advance of the gathering, Arkind spoke with Westword about the book and his feelings about this changing city.
Westword: Can you talk a little about what your second book, Coyotes, is about?
Ken Arkind: I got this deal like two years ago with Penmanship Books, which is a New York-based publisher. They publish poets like Joshua Bennett, who performed at the White House, Michael Cirelli, Mahogany Browne -- a lot of well-known, respected poets. I was nervous as hell because you work your whole life to have a book and then you don't want to fuck it up. (Laughs.) So I've been sitting on it for a long time.
When I finally put it out, it was good to actually do it. It felt like a cleaning-out -- the whole thing kind of concentrates on being a punk-rock kid growing up in Denver. A lot of the poems are about mischief and mistakes and a bit of madness. So it's definitely a rough collection, but that is appropriate. That's why it's called Coyotes -- there's a lot of mischief in it. Also, I think sometimes poems need four-letter words, so there are some dirty words in there. Which is good. In talking about this book, one of the poems is called "Robert Frost Doesn't Have to Cuss in His Poems to Sell Books But I Do So Fuck Him And Fuck You Too." Which is fun to say.
I personally enjoy colorful language and don't see a point in censoring oneself, especially as a writer.
There's this thing about using the language of the people -- we use four-letter words. It is something that we do. It is interesting being an educator, because with this book it isn't like I was going to lie about where I came from or what I've done. But at no point do I glorify any negative behavior; I just simply address it because it took place. I think if you censor your art in some way, shape or form, it's going to be boring and disingenuous.
I also feel that writing isn't yours if you don't tell it the way you would want to tell it.
Especially with young kids, they see that. When we were fourteen or fifteen, we tried to watch and listen to anything we could. There was a huge amount of rebellion that went on in the late twentieth century; you grow up idolizing the people who say things that seem real. Being able to put all of this out in a book allows me a clean slate to do whatever I want with later collections. The thing about poetry, as well as other art forms, is that you have that idea of the "sophomore slump" -- like with albums -- and in poetry, I don't think you have to worry about that. It's supposed to get better the older you get and whether it is true or not, I live with the belief that I won't write a decent poem until I'm fifty.
I just keep writing and keep going and I am happy with it. I do know I'll look back at this work and at least know that I'll be proud of the collection for what it is. It is honest to a time in my life.
I also try to capture Denver (in Coyotes) -- the Save the Signs movement and everything. There's a very specific thing going on in Denver; things are changing in a weird way. When the hipsters start to get gentrified, something else is happening there. There's a poem called "All White Everything" where I address some of the neighborhood issues in the city. I talk about, say, it's not the Baker District until you hit Third Avenue. It's not all the Santa Fe arts district; it's called the West Side of town. It's not called Highlands; it's called the North Side.
It's about trying to stop this Portland-ization of Denver, you know? I was walking down the street the other day and I got asked for directions, which blew my mind. Denver's not the kind of city where you ask for directions. San Francisco, that's where you ask for directions. You ask for directions in New York. We're changing, whether for good or for bad.
The Portland-ization of our city is totally happening. I'm all for progress, but at what cost? I think about places that I love closing or being demolished, it's not just that I have memories of these places -- it's that they are what make Denver Denver and not, like, Seattle.
I'm paraphrasing, but there's a quote from Patti Smith where she's asked for advice for young artists moving to New York and she says, "Don't come to New York." It's the idea that opportunity and creativity can be priced out of a city.
Right. And (people) want to move here because we're not Seattle. And (people) want to move from Seattle, so they leave Seattle back home. You know? As for New York, I feel like Williamsburg was the most high-profile case of it -- Williamsburg is being gentrified by the yuppies.
It's like in Denver, the term I hate is "RiNo District." I just don't get it and I don't think I ever will and I don't want to. When we talk about the area, I think about my friends and I living in warehouse collectives there, back at the turn of the century, and for us it was a way to like build some tiny little world where we could stave off reality. What is now Matchbox used to be a collective called Linoleum and I used to live there. We were like the poor artists to move in. And when the poor artists move in, the rich artists are the ones who follow. And the rich artists are the ones who have the kids and the kids are the ones who change the neighborhood.
It's like (in New York) -- suddenly there were strollers in Park Slope and everything had changed. This is going to happen no matter what, in some cases, but I think the important thing is this: Gentrification is one thing, but what comes with gentrification, a lot of times, is cultural genocide. That's something so based on systematic racism and a million other things. I'm not saying anything new, but there's a dusty, outlaw-esque magic to the Denver that is disappearing.
It's especially frustrating, I think, for people like us who have grown up here. Of course we want Denver to be a wonderful, vibrant city. I don't want to live somewhere that's on a decline, but again, at what cost is this happening? At what cost are we not preserving the important parts of our city and the people inside of it that are not moving here and buying a condo on Brighton Boulevard?
The amount of times I've had to explain to people who "Corky" Gonzales was or Don Becker was is crazy to me. These are cultural legends for multiple reasons, historic reasons. I'm trying to do the same thing with Coyotes that I did with my Denver book that came out last year -- when people talk about 8th Avenue in New York, or Union Square or 42nd Street or Times Square, you're supposed to know what that means; there's no frame of reference. In regards to Denver, someone might say, what is Colfax? And (I would day) Colfax is kind of like the Broadway of Denver -- (I'd) have to explain what Colfax is in context to another city.
But at some point with this book, I was just like, fuck that. I had many conversations with the publisher -- who herself is wonderful New York-based poet Mahogany Browne -- but I was like, I'm going to write about Aurora (and readers) will just have to look that shit up. If you don't want to look it up, it's not for you. I write poems about Aurora; I write poems about random things that are specific to this city and I think it is important to do that. The more specific we are to an environment, the more universal things are, I think, in writing.
Ken Arkind's release party for his new book, Coyotes, goes down at 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 11, at Deer Pile. The gathering will feature Arkind executing his work live alongside a diverse cast of local and national performers, including Lady Speech, National Poetry Slam champion Katie Wirsing, World Poetry Slam champion Rudy Francisco, Brian Polk, Westword contributor Josiah Hesse and Cop Circles. This event is all-ages and donations for the artists will be accepted at the door. For more information, visit the event's Facebook page.
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