A WORK OF ART – Poets Bring Words to Life

On a brisk winter’s day, Grand Junction’s Main Street bustles with pedestrians touring the city’s public outdoor sculpture exhibit, a.k.a., “Art on the Corner.” Tourgoers huddle around a large sprawling sculpture titled Aurora, where Fruita poet Danny Rosen reads a poem he penned about the piece.

It’s part of “Poetry on the Corner”— a program spearheaded by Western Slope Poet Laureate Wendy Videlock. The program pairs sculptors with poets to create poems about the artworks to be read at future unveilings. Videlock said she seeks to make poetry a part of daily life.

Wendy Videlock

Wendy Videlock, Western Slope poet laureate, promotes poetry in various ways. Photo courtesy of Danny Rosen.

Videlock, who resides in the nearby town of Palisade, promotes poetry on the Western Slope in a number of ways. She helps facilitate monthly spoken word events at Copeka Coffee shop in Grand Junction where people come to share poetry and stories before packed audiences. She writes about poetry in a biweekly syndicated newspaper column titled, “The Barefoot Laureate,” and she places a box full of poems — written by poets worldwide, both ancient and modern — outside the Palisade library. Passersby are encouraged to take a poem from the box.

Of all the programs she’s initiated over the past year, the one she considers most important is Good Morning Poetry implemented at two Mesa County public schools where a student reads a poem — from an anthology provided to the school — over the loudspeaker, along with morning announcements and the Pledge of Allegiance. Videlock is quick to point out that there’s no discussion, no testing, afterward — the goal is simply to have students listen to poems.

Poetry teaches us how to listen — a skill most needed in life.” —Wendy Videlock, Western, Slope poet laureate

“It’s a listening, grounding practice,” she said. “Poetry teaches us how to listen — a skill most needed in life. I’m concentrating on opening the door, because people think of poetry as an academic thing, when it’s actually physical; it moves us to feel something, to see something.”

Videlock is one of many published, award-winning poets to be designated poet laureate in their community. Telluride, Lafayette, Aurora, Fort Collins, Loveland, and Colorado Springs — plus San Miguel and Adams counties — all have their own poet laureate program. Durango appointed its first-ever poet laureate in 2024, as well as a rising (youth) poet laureate, positions funded by the city’s Lodgers Tax Arts and Culture Fund, and administered by the Friends of the Durango Public Library and a poet laureate committee.

Applicants must typically submit samples of their poems and have published or performed — or both — their original work. Regional positions are often supported by local arts and culture organizations, and/or libraries, with selection committees choosing the poet laureate.

Videlock was appointed Western Slope poet laureate in May 2023 by the Telluride Institute, “a nonprofit organization that fosters the transition to a sustainable world” through various programs and events.

Typewriter poetry

Z Bass Speaks (his stage name) completed his two-year term in March as poet laureate of Lafayette. During his tenure he performed at roughly 100 events held at libraries, public parks, and schools. He also taught a poetry workshop held at a children’s museum. Although his term officially ended last month, he’ll perform for a poetry event at the Longmont Public Library this month — National Poetry Month.

Z Bass Typewriter

Z Bass Speaks, poet laureate of Lafayette, types poems for people at a community event. Photo courtesy of City of Lafayette Arts & Cultural Resources.

Like many poets, Z sometimes writes about topical issues. “Martin Luther King Jr. was a huge influence,” Z said. “I was inspired to address similar social justice issues. I thought what I had to say needed to be heard. I like to question things, ponder. I was invited to speak about immigration, racism.”

His new favorite event — outside of performing — is “typewriter poetry” where he brings a vintage manual typewriter to a public event or space and types out poems upon request. “It’s an attention grabber,” he said. “Someone comes up and can ask me to write a poem about any topic, or use particular words. I will type it out on the spot. It usually takes five to six minutes. Then I give it to them. They can read it, or ask me to read it to them.” On a busy day he might write up to 40 poems, he said.

He recalled an emotional encounter during a typewriter poetry event at the Oxford Hotel in downtown Denver. He was already packed up and ready to go to his next gig, when a woman and her friend came out of the elevator and approached him, asking for a poem. She had just received big news and wanted a poem to celebrate the fact she was to become a grandmother.

Z removed his typewriter from his wagon and sat down with the women to begin writing a poem. At first, he was flustered, unsure of how to begin, he said. “What does a grandparent say?” he wondered. “It was a challenge to me; I grew up without grandparents — there was a bit of a disconnect. I asked myself, ‘What would I want to hear from grandparents?’”

Martin Luther King Jr. was a huge influence. I was inspired to address similar social justice issues. I thought what I had to say needed to be heard. I like to question things, ponder. I was invited to speak about immigration, racism.” —Z Bass Speaks, poet laureate of Lafayette

He finished the poem, removed it from the typewriter, and gave the copy to the woman. “They were so grateful that I stopped and took time to write a poem,” Z recalled. Everyone was teary eyed. “They said I was the third person to know. I felt honored to be a participant in this celebration of life, and welcoming someone into the world.”

A poetry portal to the world

Long before she became the sixth Pikes Peak Region poet laureate in 2021, Ashley Cornelius, who is also a licensed professional counselor, used poetry in her work as a therapist for adolescents. In 2018, she began sharing her poetry at open mic events and slam poetry events — competitions that often include elements of poetry, performance, storytelling, and theater.

Cornelius cofounded Poetry719, a community poetry organization in Colorado Springs that “fosters and supports the freedom of expression through the written and spoken word.” Monthly events include open mics, discussion panels, movie showings, volunteer opportunities, and themed poetry nights. Poetry719 also organizes an annual poetry festival in Colorado Springs.

In September 2023, Cornelius partnered with the Pikes Peak Library District and Imagination Celebration to present the Global Poetry Experience, an interactive global poetry project that involved a series of workshops with people worldwide. Set up outside the Manitou Springs Library, Cornelius hosted workshops inside the “Sojourner” portal, which was connected to poetry portals around the world. Participants interacted through Zoom with people from Iraq, Ethiopia, and South Africa to learn about one another and create poetry together.

“Everything I do is poetry”

Kerrie Joy became Adams County’s firstever poet laureate in August 2023. She’s been working with Adams County, Anythink Libraries, and Adams County Parks, Open Space & Cultural Arts to help design the inaugural program. Joy was creative-in-residence for five months at the Denver Art Museum before becoming poet laureate of Adams County.

Kerrie Joy

Kerrie Joy, Adams County’s first-ever poet laureate, performs original work. Photo by Dave Russell ©buffaloheartimages.com

She’s performed at Anythink branch libraries and for the Winter Solstice Gayla at Riverdale Regional Park in Brighton. Joy has also organized two poetry slams this month — one for youth and one for all ages.

One of her most successful events was a fashion show where she worked with local designers to incorporate poetry into their designs, she said. “Models were telling the story of my poem as they walked down the runway.”

“The first time I realized my poetry was not just for me I was in New York, at an open mic in Queens where I realized how much people connected to it. I began sharing more,” said Joy, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, who grew up in Newburgh, New York. After dropping out of medical school, Joy joined the military and went on to earn a degree in sociology. She now works full time as a poet.

Kerrie Joy said poetry builds bridges. “These letters, words, and all of the spaces in between, they don’t exist in a vacuum. They are supported by other forms of expression and action. For me, it shows up through event curation, community engagement, and even rest.”

“Being a poet is who I am. It’s kept me going; it keeps me grounded in this world. Everything I do is poetry.”

Being a poet is who I am. It’s kept me going; it keeps me grounded in this world. Everything I do is poetry.” —Kerrie Joy, Adams County poet laureate

Colorado poet laureate

Forty-four states have an official state poet laureate position, while two states — Alaska and Idaho — have a state writer laureate, and writer-in-residence, respectively.

There’s also a United States poet laureate — currently Ada Limón, who was appointed to a two-year second term in April 2023, by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. The position is supported by a private endowment made to the Library of Congress in 1936. National poets laureate are largely given the freedom to shape the position however they choose. While some are highly visible during their tenure, others focus more on their writing, according to the Library of Congress.

Andrea Gibson

Colorado Poet Laureate Andrea Gibson. Photo courtesy of Colorado Humanities.

While poet laureate programs in local communities across Colorado have sprung up more recently, the designation of an official state poet laureate is a tradition dating back more than a century. The first Colorado poet laureate was Alice Polk Hill, a champion of the arts in Denver, who was appointed by the Colorado governor in 1919.

In September 2023, Gov. Jared Polis appointed Andrea Gibson as the 10th Colorado poet laureate, succeeding Bobby LeFebre, who served from 2019–2023.

Gibson has published six books, won the Denver Grand Slam four times, is a two-time winner of the Independent Publishers Award, is a three-time Goodreads Choice Awards Finalist, and the winner of the first Women’s World Poetry Slam. In 2019, Chronicle Books published Gibson’s nonfiction book, How Poetry Can Change Your Heart.

“Colorado’s poet laureate is an ambassador of the arts, and Governor Polis selected Andrea Gibson for her inspiring use of poetry, advocacy for arts in education, and unique ability to connect with the vast and diverse poetry lovers of Colorado,” said Eric Maruyama, spokesperson for the governor’s office. “Governor Polis understands that art and poetry can unite communities, bring light to those struggling, and serve as an important outlet of personal expression.” The Colorado poet laureate position is supported by Colorado Humanities and Center for the Book, and Colorado Creative Industries — together they provide an honorary stipend to help offset travel and other expenses related to organizing public events.

“I want to come up with new and inventive ways to help a larger population fall in love and appreciate poetry,” Gibson said in September. “I want everyone to have a poem that they can go to like you would with a song.”

To learn more about these poets and their events, visit the individual websites of the regional poets laureate.

I want to come up with new and inventive ways to help a larger population fall in love and appreciate poetry. I want everyone to have a poem that they can go to like you would with a song.” —Andrea Gibson, Colorado poet laureate

Sharon Sullivan was an award-winning newspaper staff writer before launching her freelance career in 2014. She writes for a variety of magazines, newspapers, and nonprofit organizations from her home base of Grand Junction. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking on Colorado’s public lands.