When poet and spoken word artist Logan Phillips visited Colorado’s Roaring Fork High School in February, he coached students to write a poem using the prompt “My Name is…” Identity is a central figure in Phillips’ teaching and poetry, which he has shared with students across the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado for four years as part of Aspen Words’ Youth Poetry Project. He is a bilingual white man of Irish-Slavic descent, raised in the Arizona/Sonora borderlands. Having taught at the University of Mexico for several years, Phillips is no stranger to bridging the space between cultural worlds, work that he continues to do using poetry, as in his poem “So Many Names Inside This One.”
During Phillips’ “My Name is…” workshop, 11th grader Emily Mata wrote the line: “If you rip up the letters of anyone’s name into small enough pieces, you will find that you are handling stardust.” This line captures one of the major issues facing both the Roaring Fork Valley and our global community: We are all human beings, or “stardust,” and yet our unique identities, histories, and stories are often fuel for divisiveness and cruelty. When the election rhetoric and news cycle lead us to fear difference, can something as simple as poetry help unite communities?
Close to half of the students in the Roaring Fork School District are Latino and there is wide income disparity between the Anglo and immigrant populations. Aspen Words’ Youth Poetry Project and spinoff poetry clubs have become an important connecting force, giving students a stage for self-expression while also creating a space to learn from, empathize with, and support one another.
Phillips’ “My Name is…” writing workshop was just one part of a two-week program that also featured Latino poets and teaching artists Mercedez Holtry and Myrlin Hepworth. The three artists taught 64 writing workshops and performed nine assemblies at 16 schools across the 4 towns in the Roaring Fork Valley, culminating in a valley-wide Youth Poetry Slam. If a group “My name is…” poem were created from that event, it would include last names as diverse as Flores, Vasquez, Lee, Golden, Boyer, and others.
Earlier in the year, US Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera kicked off the literary program’s Winter Words Series with a public talk and workshop at Glenwood Springs High School. From the stage, Herrera read bilingual poems like “Borderbus,” which gives voice to the stories of immigrants faced with deportation. In the high school classroom, Herrera — who will be honored later this month with the LA Times Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement — taught a workshop entirely in Spanish to a group of rapt Hispanic students. “The creative self is born when we write,” he told them. “If you’ve felt something, then you can write about it. You can say something.”
The ripple effects of Herrera, Phillips, Hepworth, and Holtry’s work are still being felt throughout the Roaring Fork Valley. With celebrations for the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month underway around the country, it’s an opportune time to consider the ways in which poetry can empower and connect communities year round.
Renee Prince is the education associate at Aspen Words.