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“Who can be sad when they could be thinking about waffles?” says Riley O’Connell with a grin. It’s a whimsical line from her poem titled, “Thinking About Waffles,” which doesn’t prepare listeners for the intelligent and painful tale that follows. A fresh-faced senior at Regis Jesuit High School, O’Connell recounted the experience of losing her brother Kyle to cancer when she was seven and he was 10 years old through her sharp form of slam poetry. Later, standing onstage at the Althea Center on March 20, along with four other finalists and participants in Denver Public Schools Final Slam, O’Connell was named Denver’s first-ever Youth Poet Laureate.
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Created in conjunction with Minor Disturbance, Colorado Creative Industries, Youth on Record, Lighthouse Writers Workshop, and in partnership with Urban Word, the Denver Youth Poet Laureate program offers a unique platform for a young artist to be the voice of Denver’s youth. It encourages civic leadership, community engagement, and offers opportunities to perform throughout the state. As the recipient, O’Connell receives a book deal from Penmanship Books and the $2,500 Russell J. Arkind Memorial Scholarship.
5280 sat down with O’Connell to discuss high school, her newly acquired title, and the restorative potential of the written word.
5280: What is it about the written word that captures you?
My brother taught me to read when I was two or three. So I have always loved reading. With that, I became interested in writing my own stories [at a young age], because I thought it was so interesting how people could create these worlds and images and I was like, ‘Well, I want to do that.’
Did your losing your brother fuel your devotion to writing?
I would dedicate a lot of [my stories] to my brother after he passed away. It helped in my grieving process, and it still does. Even performing the other night [at the Denver Youth Poet Laureate inauguration ceremony], that really helped. It’s been 10 years. Whether you’re grieving, whether you like a boy, no matter what it is, sometimes it’s easier to explain that to people in more figurative language than it is to just say it, especially if it’s something that not everybody can understand. When you make it more artistic, more abstract, then people will try to understand it.
What are some issues you hope to address in your writing and during your time as Denver Youth Poet Laureate?
Something I’ve been writing about lately is self-confidence in girls. I’ve noticed, especially in high school, that there’s this girl-on-girl competition. I feel like girls especially, but just people in general, we tend to compare ourselves to one another. There’s this one quote, this is paraphrasing, about how we tend to compare our behind-the-scenes to everybody else’s highlight reel. All women, all people, we’re all very colorful, very wonderful, and we all have those times when we feel gray. You can’t let that take over. You can’t let that be the way that you see yourself all the time, because that’s not true.
Who are some of your influences?
My favorite book right now is Gone Girl. I read it last summer, but I just love it. I think the movie is one of the few that I’ve seen that really captures the book. This is kind of a cliché answer, but John Green. I love John Green so much. Right now, it’s for a school assignment, but The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. I wouldn’t say I have a specific favorite author per se, but I like to read murder mysteries. I like to read the stuff that I write, so young adult realistic fiction.
What are you most excited for about the position?
I’m so honored to have been a finalist. To be able to represent this amazing community is something I could not have dreamed of. I love speaking about my life and to people my age. While it is daunting, I’m excited about the people that I’m going to be meeting and affecting in some way or another. I’m also excited about getting people who don’t quite understand the power of art in general, but especially of slamming, of songwriting, of all forms of writing as expression, to hopefully understand the power and the depth of that and how much it can help people.
What was it like to do spoken word with other Denver Youth Poet Laureate finalists and Denver Public Schools slammers?
I’ve never been to [a poetry slam]. I thought it was going to be very stoic. Friday night was one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced. When I forgot one part in the middle of my piece, just the support, the rubbing of the hands, the calling out ‘You got it girl.’ It was so cool seeing how everybody there embraced and loved and supported each other and our art and our expression, our stories. Being up there, when I was performing, I didn’t feel scared. I just felt like I had everybody’s attention.
Do you think the platform for emotional vulnerability created by slam poetry (or even just written expression) is important?
For the longest time, I struggled with asking for help in any sort of setting. I’m very competitive; I’m a perfectionist. Especially in terms of my grieving, I tend to feel a lot like I’m burdening people if I ask for help. I have realized over the past 10 years that I need to. If you bottle it all up, and I know this from experience, when you finally crack and it all comes out, it is not fun.
What else stood out to you about the experience?
There was something one of the girls said in the DPS slam. She said, ‘I’m terrified of you guys’—in regards to being in front of a crowd—‘but I’m more terrified of what would happen without you guys.’ I completely agree with that. Ken [Arkind] said something about how important it is for youth to be able to be vulnerable, to be able to express themselves, to tell their stories. Because everybody has a story. Everybody has something that’s really touched and affected them on a deep and personal level, and not everybody is comfortable being vulnerable like we all were on Friday night.
Editor’s Note: After accepting admission to an out-of-state college, O’Connell has resigned as Denver Youth Poet Laureate due to the fact that she will not be in Colorado for the program’s entire year-long term (a requirement outlined by the position). Toluwanimi Obiwole, a third-year architectural engineering major at the University of Colorado Boulder, has taken over the position and will fulfill it to completion.