Ken Arkind and Denver

When I first started doing readings with Ken Arkind, I had to get used to the concept of being upstaged. Of course, I wasn’t the least bit surprised by this — after a decade of winning national competitions, becoming executive director of Denver Minor Disturbance Youth Poetry Project, and touring throughout the nation and world, Arkind has become an institution in the Denver poetry scene. So it just makes sense that his spoken word performances are less of clumsy readings through material and more of events to behold. Recently he teamed up with another venerable Mile High City poet, Charlie Fasano, to release Denver, a book including a longer poem by Arkind with linocut block print illustrations by Fasano. Arkind and I got to sit down and hash things out for the better part of an hour. Below is a transcript of this momentous conference.

A lot of people like to give the genre of slam poetry a lot of shit.
They really do. I thought it was really stupid the first time I saw it, but it’s like any art form — 98% of it is going to be shit. I think people turn it into an art form where it really should just be an event, because that’s all it is. It was a mechanism that a guy in Chicago invented to get people interested in poetry. The more theatric, the more people are willing to listen to it. So people learned techniques and styles to win slams and those end up being the same techniques and styles to putting on a good show or telling a good story. But when I first saw it, I thought it was stupid. I saw a grown man cry when he lost the poetry slam, and I’m like, ‘This is weird. I’m just going to stick with my open mic with all the old guys.’

So how did you get into slam poetry?
My friends and I went on a tour with the zine we made, which was called 90 Proof and it was just like five writers we randomly selected. And we got this idea to go on a tour. And we would just show up at a city, find the open mic, read on the open mic, and try to sell copies of the zine. Basically we were doing what slam poets do anyway. We kept going by places and hearing about slam and this whole network and this national slam poetry thing, which I didn’t know existed. When I went back home about a month later, I saw the sendoff to the Denver team. So I borrowed $100 from my old boss, hopped in a car, and went out and visited the National Poetry Slam in Minneapolis. Then I went back and started slamming and I made the team the next year. And one thing led to another and my friend and I got picked up by an agency to go do tours for colleges. Half the time you end up getting booked like a standup comedian. They don’t even recognize you as a poet. None of those kids have been to a poetry show. That’s when you find yourself on the front lines where you’re converting people into liking it. And whether they stick to it or not, and whether you get to read the kind of poems you always wanted to read or not is not necessarily important. You’re job is to entertain them, which is good. And you’re job is to also get them interested in this shit.

You’ve been involved with youth programs that incorporate poetry and slam. Can you expound on the work you’re doing currently?
Denver Minor Disturbance Youth Poetry Project is an independent literary arts organization that empowers youth in the mediums of poetry, performance, and slam. So I coach when we go slam at Brave New Voices. I do all the bookings and write a lot of the curriculum. It’s all non-profit. I send emails. I’m an Executive Director, but I don’t know what that means half the time. It means, the guy who asks for money. It’s interesting because I never graduated college or anything like that and I do a lot of teaching work, which is fun. I got to do the TEDx Teachers event last week and do a TED talk. And I got to tell a room full of teachers that I never graduated college. But every team member of Minor Disturbance has gone to college except for one.

So is that what you do for a living?
The Youth Program doesn’t pay me anything now. I honestly wanted to keep it as simple as possible for as long as possible, because the non-profit world is really cutthroat and shitty and I didn’t want to be a part of it. We just want to help kids. So it was like, how can we do that as easy as possible and make it still worth our time? That’s why I used to do all the workshops myself; I didn’t want to subject anyone else to that. All the donations would go to send the team to Brave New Voices every year.

What are the Brave New Voices competitions about?
Basically you bring six kids and two coaches at least and as many entourage kids as possible because even if they’re not competing, at least they get to go see it. What makes it cool is that you get kids from all over the world that are writers. And I’m sure you remember how it was when you were fourteen or fifteen in the back of the class, writing poems, or journal entries, or thoughts. You just think of it as a very lonely thing, which is cool in its own right. But I think poetry is and always will be a communal thing at its heart. And so you get to share in a community with all these other people who share the same secret as you. And when you’re 15, it’s cool. The kids won the Brave New Voices last year and we won the Mastermind Award from Westword last year. It keeps getting bigger and bigger. Luckily the Flobots guys were like, ‘We’ll scoop you up and give you fiscal sponsorship,’ which makes our lives easier. I think our new slogan is ‘Minor Disturbance: Teaching kids to cuss artfully since 2006.’

You often refer to yourself as a writer…
Well I write, but I don’t get paid for the writing as much as the spectacle of performing my writing in front of people. And that depends on who I’m touring with or how I’m doing it with different groups and sometimes it’s more performance-based. And if it’s me, then I literally have an awkward conversation with the audience for an hour and throw in poems to help that conversation go. Compared to other guys who do slam, I’m not a cult of personality or anything. I’m just kind of a weirdo who’s good at being honest. That’s why I like doing all the shows that don’t exist in that realm, like a book release show, or doing shows with Charlie [Fasano], or opening for bands.

What’s the slam circuit like?
It’s like any indie art scene, like hardcore bands in the early ‘80s to a certain degree. You have venues you know do it and you go from point A to point B and you make a little bit of money and keep going. Then you can get more money by going to colleges and certain slams and certain kinds of shows pay you more. But I think there’s a lot of people that get into slam and they’ll be on a team, but then they’ll find out there’s all these venues and that you can tour. And they’ll go on a tour, but they don’t go on a tour so much as they just get to couch surf across the country for free, which is a tour, I guess.

Yeah, that’s a tour.
It is a tour. A lot of bands do it that way. You just do it with less gear and your sets are shorter. So you’ll show up at a place like the Merc [-ury CafĂ©] and there will be an open mic and you’ll do your 15 or 20 minutes and then you sell chap books or CDs and people give you money if they like it and then you move on. There are some hot spots, like New York. New York’s hard to break into, but once you break into it, it can be really good for you. Boston, the whole New England scene in general is great. Seattle is great. Portland is really great. Portland has one of the largest slams in the country now. I’ve done 49 states, six countries including the U.S. I feel like I’ve had my little punk rock career. 

How did the book come about?
Charlie [Fasano] used to work across the street from my house, so I woke up one morning and had this idea like, Charlie should fucking illustrate my book. So I asked Charlie and I said, ‘Hey, do you want to illustrate this?’ And he said, [in a Charlie voice] ‘Kenny, I think that’s a fantastic idea. Let’s do it.’

He’s a good person to ask because he’s so motivated.
Oh completely. He was on it four days later. He’s like, ‘I got seven prints, man. Take a look.’ He kept reading the poem, and he said, ‘I love it. I wish I wrote this fucking poem.’ It is kind of a Charlie poem. You’ve seen the way the guy writes, and the whole poem is crazy like that… It’s cool; I get to mention Don Becker and Corky Gonzales in the same poem, because they’re so much a part of Denver. When people write poems about New York or London or Paris, they just automatically say a place whether you’ve been there or not, and you’re expected to know what they’re talking about because it’s this famous place. So I approached the poem the same way, so when I talk about the Westside or Northside, instead of saying the Highlands or Santa Fe Arts District, you should know that.

So that’s what the book’s about?
It’s just this one poem called, ‘Denver.’ I used to read it every Denver show because I couldn’t read it anywhere else, but it’s a seven- or eight-minute long performance piece. It’s’ a lot, but I kept forcing it on people. I think after awhile people were like, ‘If he reads that fucking poem again, he can go fuck himself.’ So I stopped. But it’s a magic surrealist piece about when we lost the World Series to the Red Sox. That first game against the Red Sox was the worst shutout in World Series history. It was 13-1. It was horrifying. It was the first time the Rockies had been to the World Series and I remember everyone was so pumped, like, ‘We’re a real city too.’ And Boston’s like, ‘No you’re not.’ It was a disheartening time in Denver’s history. The thing about it is the same year Men’s Health released a magazine saying we were the drunkest city in America out of 50 major U.S. cities. So the poem is about us getting really drunk after we lost game one and setting the city on fire. Denver rears up and commits suicide, basically. And it took me literally until last week to realize that the whole thing is about me breaking up with my fiancĂ©. 

You know what’s funny? Your cohort Charlie has an anti-slam poet poem.
I know. I fucking love it. It’s so good. I think it was funny for Charlie because I think he heard of me because we travel around in the same circles a bit. And then he went to Chicago for two years and he was always that guy that read with bands and did those shows. And he came back and there’s some fucking prick with a beard standing in his stead, hanging with the same people, doing a similar thing. I think we just looked at each other and started doing shows. I’ve always admired him so much. He does it the way I always wanted to do it. He’s doing what Rollins did. He’s the kind of guy I would have grown up reading. He really is the Denver poet. But I think I wrote a better Denver poem.