At a table tucked in the back of one of Mercury Cafe’s many funky performance rooms, 17-year-old Ashia Ajani sits patiently, reviewing her material. Above her, strings of lights line the ceiling, and in front, a cluster of tables face a simple, but cluttered stage, decorated with a long, rustic grand piano, some sound equipment, a few chairs, and a random pumpkin. A lone microphone stands at center, waiting.

Ajani, a senior at Denver’s East High School, is here for the cafe’s Youth Poetry Slam, hosted on the second Sunday of every month. The event, organized by Minor Disturbance, a group that encourages youths to express themselves through slam poetry, allows Ajani and other 13- to 19-year-olds to take the stage to perform—and compete—with original written works. Even at Mercury, a vegetarian cafe that moonlights as a music and arts venue, the multi-round, knockout-style contest is no joke. In typical slam format, each poet is given only 30 seconds onstage, and his or her work is judged by five randomly selected members of the audience. On one particular evening in October at the Curtis Park hangout, there’s no mistaking an onlooker for a poet; the room is notably tense as the young artists await their turns.

When the poetry begins, the room quickly transitions to pin-drop silence, save for the bebop jazz echoing from the floor above. Within minutes, it’s clear that the acute emotional heaviness that’s integral to slam isn’t lost on these teens. The subject matter is distinctly heavy—in this slam alone, Ajani discusses racial identity and injustice, sexism, and the over-sexualization of society. By exploring these subjects through poetry, Ajani says she’s learned to understand how her viewpoint might differ from others. “[My] perspective has the ability to shape the world through poetry and writing,” she says.

Here, in the back of a vegetarian restaurant on a Sunday night, the voice of a younger generation is heard. At the end of the show, Ajani and three other Minor Disturbance members take the stage to perform an original poem titled “We Are Denver.” As the young women recite their diverse cultural identities—“Black feminist.” “Chicano dropout.” “Urban Indian.”—the audience is reminded that everyone has a story to tell. And for these teens, slam offers an outlet to do just that.

Mercury Cafe’s Youth Slam takes place on the second Sunday of every month. The next event is on November 9. There’s no cover, but a donation of $5 is suggested.