Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

Aurora's got a poet laureate but Denver doesn't? You can bet the Big Blue Bear's butt on it

The highlight of Monday's luncheon for Imagine 2020, the city's first cultural plan in 25 years, was local slam poet and DU student Jose Guerrero, who'd written a poem about Denver for the event that included a memorable reference to the "Big Blue Bear's butt" and even more telling lines about how this city's kids want to express themselves whether in graffiti or poems. And when he repeated his performance before Denver City Council that night, the response was so strong you could imagine him being named Denver's poet laureate on the spot.

Just one problem: Denver no longer has a poet laureate position, even though poetry is on a roll in this town, which is home to numerous award-winning slam poets.

And although Imagine 2020 has many ambitious plans for how to push this city's cultural scene, resurrecting the poet laureate program is not one of them. (There will be a public presentation on Imagine 2020 at the McNichols Building at 4 p.m. today, if you want to hear more details.)

The city's poetry program, which included the laureate position, was cut in 2008 "when the city was requiring significant budget reductions from each department," says Daniel Rowland, spokesman for Denver Arts & Venues, which led the charge to create Imagine 2020. The last poet to hold that post was Chris Ransick, appointed in 2005 when then-mayor John Hickenlooper was in office. And although Imagine 2020 is full of ideas for how to celebrate this city's cultural scene, resurrecting the poet laureate post is not one of them.

But our upstart neighbor to the east hasn't hesitated to take a page from Denver. After the idea of creating a poet laureate for Aurora was first proposed last summer, the city's Quality of Life policy committee gave the concept the okay, and in late January, Aurora City Council gave unanimous approval to naming Jovan Mays Aurora's first poet laureate. A graduate of Smoky Hill High School, an award-winning member of Denver's Slam Nuba team and manager of Your Writing Counts, a poetry program for elementary-, middle- and high-school students throughout Denver, Mays will volunteer his time to serve as Aurora's poet laureate for two years, through December 2016.

His duties will include advocating for poetry, literacy and literature; participating in public readings; leading literacy and creative-writing programs in public schools; and penning original verses about the city: "I think that I shall never see/A new Aurora subdivision with a tree..."

But although the Aurora spot is filled, poets who like the public limelight have one more chance: Colorado is in the process of choosing a new poet laureate to serve as an advocate for poetry, literacy and literature throughout the state. Colorado became one of the first states to have a poet laureate when Governor Oliver Shoup appointed Alice Polk Hill in 1919; since then, five other people have served in the position: Nellie Burget Miller (1923-1952); Margaret Clyde Robertson (1952-1954); Milford E. Shields (1954); Thomas Hornsby Ferril (1979-1988); Mary Crow (1996-2010) and David Mason (2010-present).

Unfortunately, the deadline for applications was last month; Governor John Hickenlooper will make the final pick. To be considered, a poet had to be a legal, full-time Colorado resident for at least three years (which is more than Colorado requires from someone running for a public political office), then pass a background check and promise to remain in Colorado for the duration of his or her four-year term, which will start in October.

Is it too much to hope that Guerrero makes the cut?

Continue to read Jose Guerrero's poem about Denver.

Art Poem By Jose Guerrero

As an educator I often find myself arguing for the Importance of art in our classrooms I go on and on about it's potential to empower Our youth and its Ability to turn traumatic life experiences Into beautiful pieces of art For those who remain skeptical I challenge you to take it up with the Big Blue Bear and as You stand there staring right into the Big Blue Bears Butt You will smile, and realize That small moment of joy Could be the most important lesson we could Teach our youth My love for art developed in the streets Walking through the Westside of Denver I saw some of the most powerful pieces of art Written on the walls The graffiti's vibrant colors reflected how Most of us felt inside Something about seeing names on the walls gave us a Feeling of ownership we never Obtained through mortgage contracts Many of my friends would stay up all night searching for the perfect spot A wall worthy of their masterpiece They felt like little kids aligning alphabetical magnets On the cities fridge They wrote short poems on brick because The schools failed to provide them paper The art work never lasted very long but For that short time they turned our Alleys into art galleries and Trash cans into anthologies They are the seeds that birthed the roses that now Grow on the Santa Fe Art District Yet they were never cited in the government documents I have witnessed art nourish a community in ways politicians could never imagine Like the time a mural was painted across the street from the middle school The mural a desperate cry to cease the fire I watched gang members from opposing sets come together Using the color of their bandanas to spray paint the words "Barrio Unity" A treaty attempting to end gang violence There hasn't been a drive by on that corner since I have listened to poets and Hip-Hop artists Communicate and mobilize the people In a language academia has deemed worthless The same word grant donors use to describe our services Like helping a kid get through a rough day Isn't worth the investment Because happiness has never been an Accurate measurement of success But you tell that to the little girl who feels Unbreakable when she Hip-Hops On The Dance Floor Tell that to the queer teen who just came out to his parents In a poem Tell it to the young musicians who Bounce the sounds of their Parents arguing off their instruments How many more messages on the wall Must we see before understanding that art Still peaks to the people? Especially the youth They are the future Let's give them to tools to paint themselves a better world

Here's Guerrero delivering another one of his poems:

More from the Calhoun: Wake-Up Call archive: "Thomas Hornsby Ferril's house is a part of history -- and could be history."

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun