Interview: Ken Arkind, the "LeBron James of Denver Poetry"
In the past decade, Ken Arkind has seen the Denver poetry scene morph and evolve. A fixture in the local scene for a decade, Arkind has made multiple trips to national competitions across the country, bearing the banner of Denver poets from the Mercury Cafe and earning a title spot with the 2006 local championship slam team. More recently, he's been developing projects like the Denver Minor Disturbance Youth Poetry Project and helping to lead the Denver youth team to a fourth-place slot in a global competition earlier this year. Still, the past year has seen a shift for Arkind. He now devotes at least half of his year to touring with "Dynamic Duo" partner Panama Soweto, participating in readings and poetry events across the country; at the national slam competition that recently wrapped up, Arkind performed with the New York team, earning a tongue-in-cheek title as the "Lebron James of the Denver Poetry Scene." Still, Arkind remains a major force here in the home town, and he caught up with Westword to discuss the future of poetry in Denver and his own future in Denver poetry.
Westword (A.H. Goldstein): Can you detail your involvement in this year's national slam competition that wrapped up in St. Louis last month?
Ken Arkind: I was actually on the New York team this year...I was on the Denver team the last year. I was on the Merc team in 2006, when we won. I was on the Cafe Nuba team in '09. I tour for a living, and I'm always passing through New York. There's a friend out there named Mahogany Browne who runs the Nuyorican Poets Cafe's Friday Night Slam. She and I have been wanting to work together for years. In fact, through serendipity, every time I showed up, I won the grand slam out there. I get to represent them in the world competition, too. That's coming up in December.
WW: Was leaving the Denver team difficult after your history with Merc and Nuba?
KA: It was unfortunate, because all of our bouts were at the same time. I didn't get to see the Denver team compete. I've seen them compete in local events ... If it was a different team that I was on, people would've been a little weirded out by it, but the fact that it was the Nuyorican Poetry Cafe, that it was famous ... It was part of the Puerto Rican arts movement.
We came in second, behind St. Paul, the home team. In the Denver semifinal bout, both Denver teams were beat by St. Paul. They were a really good squad. Everybody was, like, really supportive (of me). We would go back and forth to find out who was going where. We were really happy for each other.
WW: So you didn't have any conflicts switching teams?
KA: Someone made a joke and called me the Lebron James of Denver. Actually, that was pretty funny. But everyone was really supportive. I didn't feel any extra weight.
Any weight that I felt was because I was trying to do good for Mahogany. I was trying to give her a title.
WW: With your recent out-of-town activity as a backdrop, how would you characterize the development of the local poetry scene in the past decade?
KA: Slam has taken over. There's a lot of open-mike and different factions; it all comes in waves; it fluctuates in and out all the time. Four years ago, there were five readings a month that would draw well over 100 people every time. A lot of those crowds didn't intermingle. Now they are mingling. Everybody's going out for everything, every slam team, which is really nifty.
WW: Now that the national contest is over, can you talk about what the Denver poetry scene is like at this point in the game? Is it calmer at the Merc and Cafe Nuba?
KA: It's usually pretty mellow right now. People start really gunning to go out come spring, because the trials are usually in April for both teams. The big names come out of the woodwork around January, but there will be some really good slams coming up. The Mercury Cafe and Slam Nuba are always really good shows.
The one thing I can say about Denver is that in the past five years, every Denver team that's ever been (to nationals) has finished in the top ten or top twenty. We're always up there. They do it with work that people in the community can really respect, not like cheap slam. It's well-written, respected work.
WW: What's your involvement in the scene right now?
KA: I'm not running any of the adult slams or involved in the organization of those anymore, except for the youth slam's relationship with the Merc Cafe, which is where we hold our slam. I'm pretty much organizing Minor Disturbance right now.
WW: Are you keeping a distance because of the demands of touring?
KA: It's because I'm touring, and it's because there are other people who can run those shows. Minor Disturbance has been my main project in Denver for about five years, and we're really getting to the point where we're becoming a real organization. We have a regular workshop series.... We've been doing the one at the Flobot community space for almost a year now; we're going to be doing a second one at Rainbow Alley, which is a queer youth center off Santa Fe.
We often go in and do appearances with a bunch of different high schools to try to get kids interested in poetry. It's just a really amazing tool for them, in all honesty. That's the thing about slam -- it's a medium for poetry, but you can use the competition as a medium for all kinds of things. It's incredibly effective with the youth.
WW: If the demands of the Minor Disturbance project and touring have pulled you away from the local slam scene, do you still feel as if you have a connection to what's going on in the community?
KA: Oh, yeah. I don't slam very much anymore, but I'll show up and I'll do readings at open mikes. If I'm in town, I'm always at the youth slam, every second Sunday at the Merc.
WW: As someone who's been involved in the scene for a decade, how would you sum up what the Denver scene needs to progress?
KA: For the past two years, it's been in a bit of a downturn for a bit. There used to be so many different types of readings; it used to be so big. Pretty much, there are only the two slams, and there's usually a reading at Gypsy House. I used to put on a reading called "Pretty Boys" -- that one went away.
Because slam was so big and it's so important, there are certain elements that we are missing -- writing circles, workshops and people taking the page work a lot more seriously. I think that's the direction that everybody's moving right now. That's something that I definitely learned from touring. That's the reason places like New York are New York. The slam team in Denver is just as good as New York, but we never have, say, great academic poets show up and do features at our slam. New York has the people show up from the universities who show up and do readings. That work is incredibly important. I think that's the direction that Denver needs to move in.
WW: Finally, have you kept a strong sense of your roots in your voyages to different cities and new scenes?
KA: Denver for life, baby. Denver for life.