LAWRENCE – Carlos Contreras, a national slam championship poet, held 400 Lawrence High School students spellbound with his poetry and personal stories on Wednesday.
“At 17, I was angry and confused,” he told the audience, “And at 29 I am still a little confused.” This confusion, he said, is where he draws his poetic inspiration. “Life is hard to live. Simple things, like paying the bills and getting through life is a confusing thing,” said Contreras.
“Poetry pays the bills, at least in part, every month, and has allowed me to see the whole United States.” Contreras, who won the National Slam Poetry Championships, talked about his journey in poetry and his dreams of publishing and writing full-time.
He also talked about his current job, teaching English to inmates in the correctional system in New Mexico. Connecting his two passions, writing and teaching, he started a non-profit called JustWrite (nowrongjustwrite.org), which aims to connect inmates everywhere with the outside world through writing.
“If you have something up here and in here,” gesturing to his head and his heart, “make sure other people are hearing it,” he told the students.
The Albuquerque native appeared before the crowd in a black T-shirt, worn jeans and an arm sleeve of tattoos dedicated to the women in his family that elicited questions from the audience.
“I was not comfortable in my own skin, so I decorated it,” he said with the easy grin that punctuated much of his talk.
Lawrence High students loved his talk. “This isn’t a question but you’re a very talented guy, God bless,” an HLD freshman shouted from the crowd during a question-and-answer break he took between poetry deliveries. Contreras recounted the pivotal moment in his life when he first decided to pursue slam poetry. When he was 17, Contreras saw slam poet Kenn Rodriguez perform. As he listened to Rodriguez’s work, Contreras thought to himself “I could do this.”
Contreras began to write and later found himself the youngest poet to qualify for the Albuquerque poetry slam team. His team competed in the National Poetry Slam Championship in Seattle, Washington. This time was very special for Contreras because not only did they attend the championship, but Rodriguez was also his teammate. “My inspiration became a good friend and even like another older brother,” said Contreras.
Although writing and performing are clearly his first loves, Contreras talked passionately about his time working with inmates.
“The most important people I have met were those behind those walls,” he said. He said that he doesn’t teach his students poetry, rather, his aim is to, “let people know they are capable of speaking their mind. And it’s been incredible. It’s not something I teach them, they teach themselves.”
“If we’re not allowing a release of these emotions, we are not rehabilitating anyone at all,” he said. Contreras talked about the impact of high poverty rates on the jail system of New Mexico. “Recidivism is a problem for us. There needs to be a continuum of care, and writing workshops can be an important part of that,” he added.
In a piece of advice to students, he told them that for 12 years, he has been writing about three things— “Who I am, where I am from and who I come from.”
Later on Wednesday, Contreras gave a reading at the El Taller bookstore in Lawrence, inviting people from the crowd to come up to the stage. Noreen Walker, a Lawrence resident, delivered two poems she learned as a child in Jamaica to battle a lisp.
Contreras’s work often centers on the struggles of the people particularly close to him.
He told the students that he grew up privileged, with an intact family and private school education. He also talked about his “very macho household with two older brothers and a former Marine as a father.”
Contreras shared that his father suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after his service in the Vietnam War. When he was younger, he never knew about his father’s condition. “I didn’t understand my father for many years.” He talked about how his dad could never wait in lines, and at restaurants, his family would have to sit where his father could see the exit.
Nevertheless, Contreras was incredibly appreciative of his upbringing, saying, “If I have kids I want them to do what makes them happy because that’s the way I was raised.”
He has three self-published books and will publish his first book with West End Press this spring.