Steven Dunn and Lorenzo James met in the Navy. Both had come from poor Southern families — Dunn from West Virginia and James from Alabama — but together they raised themselves up in the military while looking beyond its limitations and bonding over a mutual love of hip-hop and literature.
James, a poet, was already reading his work publicly while still in the Navy. After the two men left the military, they moved to Denver, where Dunn earned a B.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Denver and last year published a novel, Potted Meat, through Tarpaulin Sky Press. It’s not the usual trajectory you’d expect, but the two have now become entrenched in Denver’s many-layered writing community. And while they appreciated and embraced their acceptance by that community, Dunn and James felt something was missing from the scene: people of color, like themselves. So in early 2016, they did something about it by creating the Art of Storytelling reading series at the Collection Gallery in Aurora.
“We both read a lot around town,” Dunn says. “But when we go to a reading, we are often the only non-white people there. We wanted to give more space to writers of color — to give people a chance to practice with an audience.” That said, Art of Storytelling is not exclusive to people of color or writers working in a single style, he adds. “We try not to limit it to a specific genre, because that might close it off to a bunch of writers of color. We keep it open in order to serve more writers.”
The Art of Storytelling attracts writers from the DU community, slam poetry stars like former Aurora Poet Laureate Jovan Mays and flash-fiction specialists from the Fbomb series. At the events, James and Dunn have even screened a film, Fuck Radio, by Georgia hip-hop artist C.Y.N. Like many reading series, Art of Storytelling warms up with an inviting open mic that welcomes newcomers and readers of all ages.
After one successful year, the series will continue in 2017 at a new location (the closure of the Collection left the readings without a home). Monique Antonette Lewis, founder of the national At the Inkwell series, and Denver YA author Traci L. Jones will be featured at 3 p.m. Saturday, January 28, at Art of Storytelling’s first installment at Prodigy Coffeehouse, in what looks like a happy convening of community-minded ventures.
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“We love the mission of Prodigy, a nonprofit business that employs youth from low-income neighborhoods and teaches them how to be citizens of the workforce as adults,” Dunn says. The partnership with Prodigy opens new community-building doors for the Art of Storytelling, and Dunn and James hope to pitch in by offering editing services to students working on college applications and research papers.
Dunn says he knows where these kids have been, and that they can find their way out. “When you're in it, it’s hard to see it, but when you're out of it, you begin to see more,” he notes.