by Jason Baez and Brenda Prado
Carlos Contreras, a national championship slam poet, held 400 students at Lawrence High School spellbound with his lyrical poetry and personal stories last month.
“At 17, I was angry and confused,” he told the audience, “And at 29 I am still a little confused.” He told the students that was where the inspiration for his poetry comes from. “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, 29, is a national champion slam poet. He talked about his journey in poetry and his dreams of publishing and working full time with poetry.
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 has started a non-profit Justwrite.com, which aims to connect the imprisoned population with people on the outside, both interested in connecting 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.
Looking more in his early than late 20’s, 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 brought 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. The students loved his talk. “This isn’t a question but you’re very talented guy, God bless” an HLD freshman shouted from the crowd during a question and answer break he took between delivering his poetry.
“Some people go to the gym when they’re stressed, some people go to church for strength. This is my church, this is my gym. When I get stressed, I write it down.”
Contreras told the students that something was missing in his life, he just didn't know what it was. When he was 17, Contreras went to go see another poet preform and from this day on he had fallen in love with poetry. Contreras went to go see Kenn Rodriguez at a poetry slam, while he listened to Rodriguez read his 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 attended the National poetry slam championship in Seattle, Washington. This time was very special for Contreras because not only did they attend the championship, but he was on the same team with the man who inspired him, Rodriguez." My inspiration became a good friend and even like another older brother."
Although writing is clearly his first love, he talked passionately about his time teaching inmates. "It's been life-changing working with those people and showing them that they can speak their mind."
“The most important people I have met were those behind those walls," he said. He said that he doesn’t teach his students poetry, 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 talked about the high rate of poverty, and how it impacts the jail system in 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,”
The website for Justwrite has as its goal connecting people through writing, and in this case, one group of people are incarcerated. “It doesn’t exploit them, but rather exposes their humanity.”
In a piece of advice to students, he told them he writes about three things, “Who I am, where I am from and who I come from,” and has been doing it for 12 years.
Contreras really enjoys helping people open up and speak their mind, whether it’s in public at a poetry slam or just encouraging them to write in private. His main goal is just to get people to get their thoughts out to the world. Later on Wednesday he was at the El Taller bookstore in Lawrence doing a reading and invited people from the crowd to come up to the stage. Noreen Walker from Lawrence delivered two poems she learned as a child in Jamaica to battle a lisp.
Contreras's work mostly surrounds the struggles that people go through and have to overcome throughout their lives, particularly those close to him. He told the students that he grew up privileged, with an intact family and attended a private school. He also talked about his “very macho household with two older brothers and a former Marine as a father.” Contreras's shared that his father suffered from post dramatic stress disorder after his service in the Vietnam War. When he was younger, he never knew this about his father. "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. In his poems and in talking with the students he revealed, "It’s in the last 10 years it feels like I finally have a dad." Carlos talked about if he has any kids, that he wouldn't want them to follow in his footsteps but to follow their own hearts and dreams." If I have kids I want them to do what makes them happy because that's the way I was raised."
"Poetry helps me understand my life and my whole life just made sense after poetry."
He has three self-published books and will publish his first book with West End Press this spring.