Poet Ken Arkind on his new book, Denver, and the purpose of poetry in a music-driven world
When they met a few years ago, Ken Arkind and Charly Fasano became fast friends. Like Arkind -- an American National Poetry Slam Champion who tours the world performing and teaching poetry as executive director of the award-winning Minor Disturbance Youth Slam Team -- Fasano liked to perform poetry at rock-and-roll shows. An artist and filmmaker, he also shared Arkind's compulsion to be creative. The two soon began showing up on bills at indie gigs, trading turns at the mic in between sets by up-and-coming bands like Achille Lauro and Hot Congress.
This weekend, Arkind and Fasano celebrate their first official collaboration: Denver, a new book from Fasano's Fast Geek Press that explores a spirit of Western restlessness and futility: "Raising glasses in Denver is a middle finger against natural law....We still live in a cow town/but it's full of wolves," Arkind writes. Fasano's linocut block illustrations recall both ancient wood art and modern, DIY-screenprints, and reference landmarks from Tom's Diner to the Lion's Lair.
Arkind and Fasano celebrate Denver with two events this weekend: On Friday, there's a free, all-ages multimedia art show at the Fast Geek Boutique, 311 West 11th Avenue, 7 pm. The party continues Saturday with a reading and music from special guests at Deer Pile, 206 East 13th Avenue, at 8 pm.
Arkind's prose has an stark, epic feel -- an exploration of Denver that expresses both jubilance and despair. A Colorado native, reared in Aurora, Arkind waxed about writing with honesty, the state of slam and his unwillingness to explain Denver.
Westword: How did you and Charly meet?
Ken Arkind: We heard about each other, for years, kind of bumming around the same circle. and he was like the original punk rock poet of Denver. And he's recorded with Lucero. He's the only poet I know who has a seven-inch, which is pretty sweet.
Really? You know a lot of poets.
Nah, I don't know any of them that do, except for Charly, I mean not that have put out a record record. And now I want to. He made me want to do it. So he was kind of like that guy who would play with bands and so stuff. Then he moved to Chicago for two years and he came back and there was this like asshole hipster kid doing what he used to do, who was me. And traveling with the same kind of circle and opening up for bands and doing that. There's no other poets in Denver that really do that. I'm not sure why. There's poets that read with hip-hop groups and stuff like that. more funk bands and stuff. It was cool to be part of Hot Congress and those bands. It's my favorite realm to read in.
It's the most popular form of live entertainment in the world. People everywhere go to see music. And comedy has reached this point where it's considered a mainstream art form. And I feel that poetry is, too, and I feel that it deserves to be. And it's kind of one of those things where you either have to have a budget from a school that brings you in or you go to a slam or an open mic and that means someone has to have their own incentive tacked onto it or they won't get a chance to read. Poets don't even believe that their art form is good enough half the time for us to be in a place where 'I'm going to do something in this room and you're going to pay money to come and see me do it.' But that's what you do with bands, that's what you do with everything. I feel like poetry deserves to be on that level. And it does. When you read with rock shows, thirty percent of the crowd is talking while you're reading, and that's nerve-wracking for poets. The thing that they don't realize is that the same thirty percent is talking while the band is playing. They just can't hear them. Half the time people just go there to socialize and hang out.
So, anyway, I finally met him and he was like, [effects perfect impression of Fasano's distinctive Christopher Lloyd drawl], 'Ah. You're the Ken Arkind.' So we just started doing it together. So at the Undergound Music Showcase, in 2011, we were the first poets to ever do that, which was cool. I had a set and then he had a set and we decided to just split each other's sets and do it together. And I'm obviously more performative, more slammy than he is. But our styles fit; we go back and forth. So it's one of those kinds of things. He's just one of my buddies. And it's just easy to make art with him. he's very motivated and extremely prolific. He's always doing something, whether it's a short film or his artwork or his poems.
Is that sort of an attitude that you had to cultivate? Did you have to overcome any that competitiveness or the urge to be territorial with your craft?
Nah. I got enough competition in the slam world coming up. I don't care. I don't know where I am right now. if you're sitting around worry about what someone else is doing and if you're relevent you're probably going to be really crappy at what you do, if you're spending any of your energy worried about that.
Of course that makes sense intellectually. But for most people, there is a part of human nature that might struggle with that somewhat. I don't know if you realize this, but that is one thing that you really contribute to this city and the scene: You really do root for other people. You're a fan.
Yes. Very much so. You have to want to see other people. It gets tough if a person's a jerk. And I think in poetry, in particular, there's a lot of opportunity for people to say one thing and then act another. It happens a lot. Because there's such a hero worship that comes with the slam world, and there's such a morality stance that comes with it. That's one the things I love about Charly's work: There's no morality stance. He just gets up and tells a story and walks away. And he's not afraid to make himself look like kind of a jerk. And I try that, too. i'm not sure how good I am it, but I want to be honest with the work. That's one thing that can fall short in slam. People can feel afraid to be truly honest, when the stance is sort of, 'I'm right, and this is why, and stand up for the little guy, and screw the Republicans and blah, blah, blah.' And it's not the case every time. But it can happen.
There's a common philosophy or politics of slam....expected to be shared by everyone.
Yeah. And that's part of it, part of its appeal. The identify poem, the feeling of 'I want to tell my story,' and that's great. Especially for young people. That's incredibly powerful. But at this point, for me, I'm not at that place. You know I do these rock shows and a guy will come up to me afterwards and say, I've never really been into poetry, and man, I hate slam, but I like what you do? Have you ever been involved in slam?' And I'll be like, 'I've been on eight teams and I coach a youth slam program and blah blah. I'm about as slam as you can get. But I've tried really hard to never to fall into a trap of slam. I don't write for slam. I haven't slammed in two years. I'm not a slam poet; I'm a poet who happens to slam, and I always have been.
This book, Denver, is not a slam poem.
No. It's long. I'd been working on a piece about running around town. I was on a magic realism kick. And after we lost the World Series to the Red Sox, I wanted to write a poem about the city getting really drunk and setting itself on fire. And that's what the poem's about, the whole piece. And it just kind of escalates. And I get to talk about Corky Gonzales, and Don Becker, and I get to call the Highlands the West Side. One of the things that was important to me about it was, you'll read a poem about New York, and the New York poet will say stuff about New York that only New York knows and they don't try to explain it and open it up. Whereas in Omaha the poet will explain. He'll be like, 'Well, that thing I just mentioned, that's kind of like our Grand Central Station. Our version of something else in New York.' Like if I describe Aurora I have to say it's like the New Jersey of Denver. That's how people [outside of Denver] understand it. I very purposely leave things alone; I don't explain them. You don't know my city? You need to learn my city, son.
You're excited about this piece.
It's the first product I've been apart of that I feel really proud of. I mean, there have been other things that I've liked. The CDs have been good. But as far as one thing that l think I will enjoy showing people thirty years from now, this is it.
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