Poet Ken Arkind discusses Denver's outlaw magic, gentrification and his new book, Coyotes
As American National Poetry Slam Champion and executive director of the award-winning Minor Disturbance Youth Slam Team, Ken Arkind gets to share his words with the world. A lot of those words are about his native turf of Denver, Aurora and the Colfax Avenue connection, and his second book, Coyotes, shares the poet's frustrations and triumphs with the place he calls home.
On Tuesday, March 11, Arkind and some of his artist friends and poetry counterparts will celebrate the release of Coyotes with a show at Deer Pile. In advance of the gathering, Arkind spoke with Westword about the book and his feelings about this changing city.
Westword: Can you talk a little about what your second book, Coyotes, is about?
Ken Arkind: I got this deal like two years ago with Penmanship Books, which is a New York-based publisher. They publish poets like Joshua Bennett, who performed at the White House, Michael Cirelli, Mahogany Browne -- a lot of well-known, respected poets. I was nervous as hell because you work your whole life to have a book and then you don't want to fuck it up. (Laughs.) So I've been sitting on it for a long time.
When I finally put it out, it was good to actually do it. It felt like a cleaning-out -- the whole thing kind of concentrates on being a punk-rock kid growing up in Denver. A lot of the poems are about mischief and mistakes and a bit of madness. So it's definitely a rough collection, but that is appropriate. That's why it's called Coyotes -- there's a lot of mischief in it. Also, I think sometimes poems need four-letter words, so there are some dirty words in there. Which is good. In talking about this book, one of the poems is called "Robert Frost Doesn't Have to Cuss in His Poems to Sell Books But I Do So Fuck Him And Fuck You Too." Which is fun to say.
I personally enjoy colorful language and don't see a point in censoring oneself, especially as a writer.
There's this thing about using the language of the people -- we use four-letter words. It is something that we do. It is interesting being an educator, because with this book it isn't like I was going to lie about where I came from or what I've done. But at no point do I glorify any negative behavior; I just simply address it because it took place. I think if you censor your art in some way, shape or form, it's going to be boring and disingenuous.
I also feel that writing isn't yours if you don't tell it the way you would want to tell it.
Especially with young kids, they see that. When we were fourteen or fifteen, we tried to watch and listen to anything we could. There was a huge amount of rebellion that went on in the late twentieth century; you grow up idolizing the people who say things that seem real. Being able to put all of this out in a book allows me a clean slate to do whatever I want with later collections. The thing about poetry, as well as other art forms, is that you have that idea of the "sophomore slump" -- like with albums -- and in poetry, I don't think you have to worry about that. It's supposed to get better the older you get and whether it is true or not, I live with the belief that I won't write a decent poem until I'm fifty.
I just keep writing and keep going and I am happy with it. I do know I'll look back at this work and at least know that I'll be proud of the collection for what it is. It is honest to a time in my life.
I also try to capture Denver (in Coyotes) -- the Save the Signs movement and everything. There's a very specific thing going on in Denver; things are changing in a weird way. When the hipsters start to get gentrified, something else is happening there. There's a poem called "All White Everything" where I address some of the neighborhood issues in the city. I talk about, say, it's not the Baker District until you hit Third Avenue. It's not all the Santa Fe arts district; it's called the West Side of town. It's not called Highlands; it's called the North Side.
It's about trying to stop this Portland-ization of Denver, you know? I was walking down the street the other day and I got asked for directions, which blew my mind. Denver's not the kind of city where you ask for directions. San Francisco, that's where you ask for directions. You ask for directions in New York. We're changing, whether for good or for bad.