Yet Another Poem About Denver
by ASHIA AJANI
Queen City of the Plains
Lift High Our Spirits
Sing Well Our Praise
For in You
And are Loved.
We hold hands in the quick and heavy moments before a poetry slam. Our palms are sweaty extensions of our nervous limbs as my team—two Black girls (Tolu and me), a Chicano guy (Diego), a white person (Abby, they/them pronouns), and a Native/Chicanx person (Alexis, they/them pronouns)—bows our heads in prayer before we enter the theater. Our ritual: Alexis brings out sage and cleanses each of our energies, one by one. They start with our arms, sweeping out from our chests to each goose-bumped limb, then our legs, and lastly our heads. We smoke herbal cigarettes afterwards and yell our poems into the circle under the dry night. Summer in Denver is frighteningly arid.
I have lived on the border of Aurora, Colorado, and Denver, Colorado, my entire life. If you go south, you run into Aurora. If you venture a little ways north, you are on the outskirts of Denver, where mismatched apartment complexes morph into ranch-style houses and everything seems a little more quiet. Between the two cities lies a distinct shift in landscape, noticeable as soon as one sees the rusting “Welcome to Aurora, Colorado.” Everything is much flatter and less Emerald-City green. Trash piles on the side of the road fester in pools of antifreeze and polluted rainwater. Even the Wal-Mart stops carrying quinoa. But the shop names are all written in Arabic, Mandarin, Korean, and Amharic. There are more hair braiding establishments run out of homes than shops. Music of all genres case neighborhoods like protective shields. This is our second home. Aurora is our sister to the southeast. She fuels us with workers, immigrants, food, music, and culture. And no one writes poems about Aurora.
The first poem I wrote about Denver was two years ago with my former poetry group, Minor Disturbance. We split it up between three people: Diego, Alexis, and me. In the opening lines we identify ourselves: Black feminist, Chicano dropout, Urban NDN. We claim Denver as our city—her sharp mountains and historic Black neighborhoods, former Cheyenne and Arapaho land, renaming of whole neighborhoods (i.e. the dissolution of Denver’s rich Chicano culture by retitling the Northside “Highland”)—any time we leave the state and feel the burning sensation that comes with a stranger raising their eyebrows in surprise upon learning that we are from Colorado. Every poet from Denver I know has a Denver poem, and every single stanza begs the city to come back into our arms. We write with a sole message: one history does not override another. Our art is one of the few things keeping our narratives alive. Land is life and we want ours back.
Denver has undergone exponential industrial expansion since its emergence as a small, rinky-dink gold mining town and the subsequent exhausting of gold veins that came rapidly soon after. Our city pride is wrapped up in romanticized memory of the Old West. We are the home of the glorious Rocky Mountains and the starting point of the untamable Colorado River, a body of water so sought-after, legislation had to be passed to regulate its consumption across Colorado, Nevada, and California. We are the meeting point of industry and the quotably “untouched wilderness” of the Rockies. We are a “Green Capitalist” county that hides behind the legalization of marijuana and a Whole Foods on every corner. We consume “ethically.” As Purdy explains in “Environmentalism’s Racist History,” a white, paternalistic pride lies within our ability to preserve that which is considered “nature”: a “measure of our character.”
Tourists are greeted by and encouraged to engage in this white environmentalist perception of the West. Denver International Airport displays images of Native peoples in traditional headdresses, holding spears, long expanses of plains backing glass cases of “authentic” Old West clothing: a buckskin dress and moccasins alongside a cowboy getup. The Western aesthetic is what draws visitors in; we are a modern city with a wild feel. On Peña Boulevard, right outside the airport terminal, there is a 32-foot sculpture of a blue mustang horse welcoming passengers. The bold, vibrant color lets you know you are really in the Southwest, the pinnacle of the American Frontier: hot, flavorful, brave. But color means something different to everyone else. Cobalt reminds the creator, Luis Jiménez, of Mexican muralists and working in his father’s shop as a child: a memory. To white visitors, it is a testament to the eccentricity of the West. Even color has its own forgotten history.
Everything we revere is something of the past, or at least something we’ve tried to abandon there. Our nostalgia is so limited. We go a ways south to Pueblo and learn how the “Indians” lived. We forget Denver’s first mayor was a Confederate; we forget that this city was once a contentious area caught between the fight for Southern states’ rights and opposing notions of Northern exceptionalism. Denver, like many other cities, experienced waves of white flight that led to the emergence of neighborhoods that were ours to claim. I didn’t learn about the Sand Creek Massacre until senior year of high school, when our student-run walkout in solidarity with Ferguson protesters marched to the Capitol building and realized that a memorial for the lives lost during the massacre was taking place on the grassy steps. Cheesman Park, a popular hangout for white, privileged teens in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city, once was a graveyard for poor, disease-ridden settlers, criminals, and unnamed ghosts of the landscape.
The taming of a landscape, expertly defined in Greta Gaard’s Towards a Queer Feminism, is a patriarchal, binary-driven action. We possess imperialized notions of what it means to be “natural” and what nature means. Nature is feminine. It is erotic. Industry is masculine and rational. Nature is there for consumption and manipulation, along with the cultures of the people who are also considered feminine (i.e. indigenous peoples), erotic and thus submissive. Industry gets to define the boundaries of nature. That is why parks like Cheesman can exist without question, but with acceptance and appreciation even. It is why the Cherry Creek Reservoir is a local hotspot for tourists and residents alike. It is why all of the portraits of Native peoples are set in the Old American West; rewritten historical memory allows indigenous peoples to only exist outside the realm of industrialization and capitalist expansion. Settlers have “replaced” Native peoples as a different sort of Native population: able to simultaneously work alongside and subdue the land. My friend Alexis scoffs and flips their middle finger up at every “Colorado Native” bumper sticker we encounter. I think of the Black and Brown cowboys that worked and cleared and farmed and ranched the land long before my mother could even conceive of a name for me. We sit downtown amidst touristy gift shops filled with marijuana key chains, fake Native jewelry, figurines of bison and mountain lions, “pine”-scented candles, overpriced bundles of sage, dream catchers, cowboy boots, and postcards hand-painted with images of pre-industrial Denver as the moon peeks its eager head over the skyscrapers that encase 16th Street Mall. Someone tells us to buy something or quit loitering. Our mere presence is a nuisance. We take the 105 bus back to Colfax Street, the longest, continuous street in America, grin, and say to each other: “Wanna write a poem about it?”
The last time I was in Denver, it was late May. Despite its many flaws, my being there felt glorious. The apple trees were blossoming and I was relieved that I had survived my first year of Ivy League chaos. I walked my favorite stretch of Colfax right outside my high school, sipped my fair-trade Yerba Mate, and took note of everything I miss now that I attend school on the East Coast. Even the ways I think of Denver are borderline problematic. I imagine my home city as some perfect symbol of a peaceful life one can’t get in the cold, unforgiving, right-in-your-face polluted cities of the Northeast. I take my three hundred days of sunshine and squeeze all the life out of it my selfish hands can bear. I think I have insight. I use aggrandized natural imagery in all my poems to harken back to something I feel I have lost: an existence among tacquerias and paleta carts pushed through grand demonstrations of grass and meadow, the people more natural than the meticulously cultivated land.
The slopes and nicks of Denver seem to change almost imperceptibly. A catfish joint goes out of business. A neighborhood-run gardening initiative is abandoned and overrun with weeds and empty beer cans. Rent goes up seventy-five dollars. Then another hundred. Then another. A white-owned medical marijuana shop replaces a family-run corner store a few blocks away. A “Closed for Renovations” sign pops up. Everything tastes like ash. Or maybe that is just the drywall settling after yet another house has been ripped apart.
And the poet wonders: Does the Denver government ever ask, “who lived here”? Do our administrative officials ever wonder if a child took their first steps here, if a meal was left in the oven too long and the residents had to order out and argued over what type of food to get, if a young girl received her first kiss, her first report card, her first heartbreak? Do they ask if someone had a wake here, if someone exchanged their food stamps for cash here, if there was a small garden on the patio or a photo album wedged between a Bible and a cookbook, if someone yelled at someone else and then apologized shortly after? Do they ask what it smelled like, if there was a burn on the carpet from a dropped cigarette, if old grease-stained receipts were stacked up on the kitchen counter, if a hot comb filled the room with heat as cumbia loosened the backbone of an overworked madrina? Do they wonder where the residents go when the eviction notice tests the durability of a wooden door? If the criminalization of homelessness funnels more non-violent “offenders” into prisons than the city can afford? Poets dare to confront these narratives, many of them our own. We stare white people with dreadlocks dead in the eye as we rip apart the city we call home. We lament whitewashed veganism and ignorance over the true origin of our food. We write eulogies to neighborhoods we’ve spent our whole lives dancing, playing, creating, learning in and from. Ken Arkind, my former poetry coach, has a line in one of his poems: “I hope 7-Eleven corners Voodoo Donuts in the Chubby’s parking lot and knifes it.” Our poems look toward the future of Denver while looking to the memory of the past. Poets are honest, or at least as honest as we’ll allow ourselves to be. We use history as a warning: this has happened before. And it is happening right now. And it is violent and loud when you are in the middle of the crossfire.
The violence we are writing against is a slow violence emblematic of the one Robert Nixon mentions in his work. In our city, gentrification gets downplayed as “urban renewal.” The necessities of one population overrides another. Landlords are given the right to raise rent without notice and that is violence. The further ostracization of Black and Brown residents who keep this city’s lights on is violence. The installation of condominiums and high-end apartments that cost more than many marginalized people make a month is an act of violence by the state and city governments. As more affluent, young white people funnel into the city, many poor residents of color have no other recourse. We become outsiders within our own communities. Our internal displacement puts us on the margins of an existence we helped create. And Denver getting ranked among the most livable cities in America isn’t helping. The glorification of our natural habitat alongside an inability to recognize the needs of impoverished people is a form of violence. White environmentalism seeks to appreciate a wilderness free from human contact. But the notion of wilderness, as least through a mainstream perception, is a construct. Who had to be pushed out for an untouched wilderness to exist? As poets, we observe (and experience) the many ways white environmentalism has led to environmental violence: the slow death of impoverished populations who crowd up urban areas and leave ugly reminders of their existence. But a permanence remains. Our murals stay up. Our music seeps into shopping malls, grocery stores, night clubs, restaurants. Our poems fill the crisp night air.
As a poet who is currently living miles upon miles away from Denver, I often wonder what my responsibility is to my hometown. In Slow Violence, Nixon ruminates on self-translation and navigating systems of power as an artist, specifically as a writer. I often say that my art is my activism, but what sort of privilege does that entail? And while art is a form of resistance, in what ways does it bring about social change? We get videos on YouTube. We get book offers. We go to national poetry competitions and win prize money and gain fame and come back to Denver and wail at the construct of yet another frozen yogurt shop. Rinse and repeat. And I am so far removed from the violence that beats the pavement into submission up and down all the streets who sing the blues and smoke menthols as the sun goes down. Colfax. Zuni. Mariposa. Alameda. College girl come back to the city just to leave again.
Here at Yale, I am trying to do my best to represent Denver. My Colorado flag hangs proudly in my room, and I miss every tear and hole in my Rocky Mountain Colorado sweatshirt I accidentally left back home over the summer. I represent Denver artists: display my friends’ handmade pins and CDs and purchase their chapbooks miles away in a dorm room bigger than most apartments in my hometown. I write poem after poem after poem about Denver:
We will eat pistachios
in our lily-white kitchen
and talk about how much smaller
the Blacks Arts Festival is this year.
At a meeting of my newfound poetry group on campus, someone finally frustratedly asks me “Jeez, why do you talk about Denver so much?” And I respond: “I am trying to keep her memory alive the only way I know how.”
Every time I miss home, I think of that night of the 40 oz. Slam, two years ago in Denver. I cried, letting the stress and anxiety and heartache draw quick, deliberate lines down my face: every mournful hymn and incantation and prayer and simple wish I had for my Denver, queen city of the plains, baptizing my cheeks. Our name gets called from inside the Mercury Café. We argue for more diversity amongst the judges. After much searching, we finally get it. We take the stage. Black feminist. Chicano dropout. Urban NDN. We look at each other, take two deep breaths amplified by our proximity to our microphones. Our voices echo throughout the room as the crowd falls silent:
We are Denver
We are the ones you will never see.
Ajani, Ashia, Diego Flores, and Alexis Vigil. "2014 - Brave New Voices (Finals) - "Denver" by Denver Team." YouTube. 2014. Accessed October 14, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFnPGnVUldY.
Bunch, Joey. "Denver's First Cemetery Was Pushed aside for Cheesman Park." The Denver Post, The Archive. November 12, 2012. Accessed October 14, 2016. http://blogs.denverpost.com/library/2012/11/12/denvers-beautiful-cheesman-park-place-final-repose-citys-pioneers/4625/.
Davies, Bree. "Why the Highland Vs. Northside Debate Is All About Gentrification." Westword. 2016. Accessed October 14, 2016. http://www.westword.com/arts/why-the-highland-vs-northside-debate-is-all-about-gentrification-5779204.
Gaard, Greta. Toward a Queer Ecofeminism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004.
Myslymi, Enxhi. "U.S. News Report Launches the Best Places to Live Rankings." U.S. News & World Report. March 02, 2016. Accessed October 14, 2016. http://www.usnews.com/info/blogs/press-room/2016/03/02/us-news-launches-the-best-places-to-live-rankings.
Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.
Purdy, Jedediah. "Environmentalism’s Racist History." The New Yorker. August 13, 2015. Accessed October 14, 2016. http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/environmentalisms-racist-history.
Walker, Chris. "Denver Has Spent Millions Criminalizing Homelessness, DU Study Says." Westword. February 17, 2016. Accessed October 14, 2016. http://www.westword.com/news/denver-has-spent-millions-criminalizing-homelessness-du-study-says-7613499.
Ashia Ajani is a junior environmental studies major at Yale University, where she is head coordinator of the Yale Women's Center and co-president of WORD: Spoken Word at Yale. She was a member of Minor Disturbance Denver Youth Poetry in 2014 and alongside her team took 4th place at Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival. She was awarded honorable mention in Young Art's poetry section in 2015. Her poetry has been published in Rigorous Magazine. She is the author of one chapbook, We Bleed Like Mango.