Ken Arkind still remembers the day he met Jose, "that evil little kid in the back of the classroom." In the years since, they have struck up a friendship but that day, at a workshop where Arkind was teaching local youth to slam, Jose was being a little snot. "He gave me crap, so I was just like, 'If you're so good, why don't you come up here and slam?'" Arkind says. So Jose did, and "he was kind of a badass."
Perhaps the most bad-ass strength of Denver's youngest poets is Minor Disturbance, the organization created and still largely run by that age group. In late 2006, teenager Jacob Rosen started the outfit to foster opportunities for his peers, despite the fact that he would age out of the competition range at his next birthday, when he turned nineteen. That's when Arkind came on as head coach and executive director. "By now, we have created this reputation and competed what feels like a billion times, but in the beginning it was entirely just spontaneous and creative," he remembers. "We had no idea what we were doing, so we've always let the kids themselves guide the program."
In order to become a member of Minor Disturbance, a poet must win one of a dozen youth slams held around the city throughout the year. In early April, Denver's top teen talent is weeded down to six final members but they are not the only ones who participate. For Brave New Voices, the HBO contest that's the biggest annual competition, the team raises funds to bring along additional poetry enthusiasts. That's because developing poets is just one of Minor Disturbance's goals; another is to develop the poetry community as a whole.
Arkind has worked with teen poets who read Andrea Gibson's verses with the same fervor that he extends to Bad Religion records. "Even if you're sixteen and it's your first year on the team, your art is just as real as anyone else's," he says. "They learn that right off the bat." But for some, that idea can be tough to translate. Arkind compares being in a slam team to singing in a boy band (albeit one that has creative control), with only three months to create a body of work to take on a live tour. For teens with no previous experience tapping into their personal lives, it's not easy to embrace such a public and poignant personal identity. "By the time they're fifteen, these teens have spent Lord knows how many hours inside a classroom being talked at and to without anyone asking their opinion," he points out. "Being able to voice your own ideas and use them to change the world is one of the most important things they can learn. That power, the kind of power you can hone through poetry, is invaluable."
Over the past six years, Minor Disturbance has improved its national standings by one rank each year. In 2011, with a team that included four first-time slammers, the group ranked third in the country, its highest spot to date. Although it's difficult to maintain quality when competitors keep aging out, Minor Disturbance's alumni list today includes a computer programmer in Manhattan, multiple international scholars and one member of Slam Nuba, last year's national poetry-slam champion; they all work to help current and past members of the group realize their dreams. Jose, a single father since he was fifteen, earned a full ride to the University of Denver.
"The moment they realize that what they have to say is important, the moment they speak up, their question marks become exclamation points," Arkind says. "I think a lot of kids need that."