Bobby LeFebre looks back on four years as Colorado’s poet laureate

Bobby LeFebre’s mind is a repository for the beginning of poems.

Dozens of fledgling verses take flight in the Denverite’s brain every day. LeFebre witnesses an interaction, overhears a conversation, stumbles across a particularly poignant scenic view and can’t stop himself from converting those little moments into words and phrases that may or may not make it out of the nest and into his next work.

Just don’t ask to look at the notes app on his phone, where he tries to capture it all.

“It’s a big mess,” LeFebre said.

The 41-year-old is wrapping up his four-year term as Colorado’s eighth poet laureate. LeFebre is the youngest of the state’s poet laureates and the first poet of color to hold the title.

LeFebre’s ability to connect with a younger, more diverse audience made his tenure stand out, said Christy Costello, interim director of Colorado Creative Industries, a department in the state’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade focused on strengthening the arts.

“Bobby really took the poet laureate program in a fresh and new direction,” Costello said in an interview. “He had a pretty big fan base when he was selected into the position, and being a person that’s younger, was able to make new and different connections in his role.”

What does the role of a state poet laureate entail? “Making magic of the mundane,” LeFebre said, and scattering that magic far and wide across Colorado.

“This position can be treated as an ivory tower where people sit up there and collect the title and it’s not looked at as an active job,” LeFebre said. “At the surface level, it’s an ambassador for poetry across Colorado. A lot of that, though, hasn’t been in a way that reaches audiences like I have been able to do — young people, people of color, hip-hop folks, marginalized people.

“I don’t focus on publishing and writing books. I focus on being out and doing events, facilitating conversations, asking questions, listening — and that’s an activation of the post in a way that is different.”

Power of performance

LeFebre was first swept up in writing when his eighth-grade history teacher signed him up for a national competition in which students took historic topics and portrayed them through the arts. LeFebre wrote a play about Jackie Robinson becoming the first Black player in Major League Baseball.

The play won a state contest and qualified for a national competition in Washington, D.C., where LeFebre took his first plane ride to perform his work, he said.

“The minute I stepped on stage, I fell in love with performing,” LeFebre said.

Inspired, LeFebre took acting classes and studied theater. A passion for hip-hop prompted the teen to write his own raps and rhymes, which became his entry point to the slam poetry world.

LeFebre found community in spaces like Cafe Nuba, a poetry series and slam poetry team that put on shows and competed.

After graduating from North High School, LeFebre’s first class at Metropolitan State University of Denver in 2000 was a Chicano studies course taught by poet and activist Lalo Delgado.

“It was really empowering to see this big, bold Chicano man teaching Chicano studies,” LeFebre said. “It was my first entry point to college and I was like, ‘OK, I can do this.’”

While LeFebre soaked up Chicano studies lessons, what he really relished was handing Delgado his poems after class and watching Delgado go at them with an editor’s vigor.

“He loved that red pen,” LeFebre said.

Delgado supplied LeFebre with Latino literature and poetry while an African American studies course offered LeFebre a taste of writing from Black authors.

LeFebre learned about poetry from writers of color he admired and was motivated to join their ranks. He continued performing slam poetry and writing new pieces, drawing on his theater background to enhance his stage presence.

Eventually, LeFebre racked up recognition for his work. He’s a two-time Grand Slam Champion, a National Poetry Slam finalist and an Individual World Poetry Slam finalist. His venues have included the standard — universities, conferences, TED talks — but also detention centers, protests and cultural events.

In 2004, LeFebre co-founded a nonprofit organization, Cafe Cultura, that taught youth literacy and cultural development through poetry.

He’s also the playwright behind the lauded “Northside,” which debuted in 2019 at Su Teatro Cultural and Performing Arts Center and ran for more than 20 sold-out shows. The play delved into Denver’s displacement of the Latino community in the Northside neighborhood.

When Gov. Jared Polis tapped LeFebre out of a pool of nominees to be Colorado’s poet laureate in 2019, the governor mentioned LeFebre’s ability to “empower and connect communities through the wisdom of his words.”

“I’ve facilitated things with youth in elementary schools, visited senior living facilities — anywhere where there are people, there is room for poetry,” LeFebre said. “I like to be unapologetically focused on lifting up marginalized voices.”

“Gift of people’s ears and hearts”

Colorado was among the first states to appoint a poet laureate, Alice Polk Hill, in 1919. Hill helped found the Denver Woman’s Press Club, published two works on Colorado pioneer life and was active in local politics.

While there were several pauses in the program between 1919 and today, Costello, of Colorado Creative Industries, said the state is back on track to appoint nominated poets to four-year terms with the intention of advocating for poetry, literacy and literature through readings and other events at the state Capitol, schools, libraries and literary festivals.

For the upcoming term, the state and nonprofit Colorado Humanities & Center for the Book will provide the next poet laureate with $10,000 annually to cover travel expenses and honoraria, Costello said. LeFebre received a $2,000 honoraria and up to $2,000 in travel expenses for each of the four years he served.

LeFebre’s successor, who hasn’t been announced yet, will begin their term in July. LeFebre said he wants to take the rest of the year to focus on his writing while searching for the right next project.

In the meantime, as LeFebre winds down and looks forward to decompressing, he is reflecting on the experiences of the past four years and all the words that have spilled out of him.

He wrote poems for the Denver nonprofit community health center Tepeyac. He served as head consultant for designing Denver’s new cultural plan. He helped therapists utilize poetry in their mental health work. He traversed the state, hosting readings and conversations.

And last year, LeFebre met with the Denver Children’s Choir and composed a new song for the group to sing at a 2022 performance. Katie Sakanai, neighborhood choir program director for the Denver Children’s Choir, said the collaboration was the highlight of her career.

During the students’ performance of the song LeFebre wrote, the poet came to support them and read some poetry of his own.

“It was really inspiring in this time of difficulty,” Sakanai said. “Their positivity and connection to issues and social activism, were really cool, and the song and Bobby’s reading was the audience’s favorite part of the show.”

Getting a vibe check

With COVID-19 hitting in the midst of his tenure, LeFebre said he pivoted to virtual events, which he enjoyed because it allowed him to reach more people.

“The poets always have their finger on the pulse of where we’re at as a society, as a state, as a city,” LeFebre said. “The poets are where we go to get a vibe check.”

Sometimes state agencies, cultural leaders or business owners will commission LeFebre to write and perform a poem for a specific event. Sometimes, LeFebre will be called on to read his existing work. Sometimes, he’ll be tapped to lead a writing workshop or speak to students or host a keynote.

“It really ranges from being asked to perform existing poetry to creating something new that represents a specific moment in time or addresses a specific issue,” said Costello, of Colorado Creative Industries. “All the poet laureates have a vast existing body of work they draw from and then they often create new things that are kind of customized to each opportunity.”

During the pandemic, LeFebre said he tried to offer readers hope through his poetry and focus on writing that uplifted the marginalized and frontline workers.

LeFebre didn’t sugarcoat his work for the role. He wrote about gentrification, gun violence, class and race — but also beauty, nature, love and peace.

No matter the theme, LeFebre said he prides himself on writing romantic. One of his poems reads, “When everything is war, let our kiss be a flower tucked into the barrel of the gun.”

He often shares his writing on social media, like his namesake Instagram page.

“My work is social, political, topical, timely. But at the root of it is this appreciation and hope for bigger things like love and beauty and harmony and justice,” LeFebre said. “You can’t hope for justice and not be rooted in love.”

LeFebre’s time as Colorado poet laureate has taught him there is a yearning for poetry everywhere, whether rural or urban, young or old, liberal or conservative.

“What privilege to be able to impact people by stuff you say or stuff you write or be given the gift of people’s ears and hearts,” he said.

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