For Bobby LeFebre, Colorado’s eighth poet laureate, place and identity are an inseparable part of the human experience. His work addresses this, revolving around contemporary cultural issues and phenomena, asking questions of racial identity, gun control, gentrification and humanity in the modern age. It’s within these questions that the heart of his poetry is felt, distilling societal frustrations into powerful art that radiates through his words, both written and spoken.
“I want to capture the cultural conflict,” LeFebre says. “Opening up dialogue around systemic issues can be an art form, though many people don’t see it that way. There’s so much going on right now, and I want to encompass what it feels like to be in this moment.”
Most recently, after Boulder’s March 22 shooting, he shared on social media:
The hand tells the gun:
“I am boss.”
The gun answers the hand:
The gun tells the bullet:
The bullet answers the gun:
“I am afraid.”
The bullet tells the target:
“I am sorry.”
The target answers the bullet:
The target tells the blood:
“Don’t leave me.”
The blood answers the target:
The blood asks society:
“How much more of me do you want?”
Society answers the blood:
In the distance prayers ring out:
“God bless the hand.”
“God bless the gun.”
“God bless the bullet.”
“God bless the target.”
“God bless the blood.”
“God bless the United States of America.”
A Denver native, poet, activist and playwright, LeFebre has navigated many different circles in his life, evangelizing his message of racial, cultural and social justice. This year for April’s National Poetry Month, LeFebre is partnering with the Longmont Library to provide a livestream event filled with poetry, conversation and connection through the art of language on April 22.
A Chicano hailing from Denver’s Northside neighborhood, LeFebre has spent his life finding connection between place and identity, and how the two interchangeably work together to shape who and what we become within society.
“I’m from a neighborhood that has been through and seen a lot, and I carry that and those stories of the people and the city with me in my work,” LeFebre says. “All artists deal with that question about place and how they fit into and represent it.”
As a poet, his words are poignant, lyrical, spiritual, often dancing between English and Spanish, tackling issues of freedom, equality, race, violence and love. Raised Catholic, though no longer traditionally religious, LeFebre sees poetry as a spiritual practice.
LeFebre says he fell in love with performing and artistry in the eighth grade, during an exercise where students were asked to write what they wanted to do or be on notecards. “Be specific, my teacher said,’’ LeFebre recalls. His mind wandered back to when, as a child, he participated in a school play about Jackie Robinson put on for Black History Month. In the one-act play, Robinson recalls moments from his life: his struggles with poverty and racism, his desire to make America a safe and equitable place for people of all colors and walks of life. That, LeFebre says, was his first experience in understanding racism and the power of performance.
“On that note card I ended up writing a sentence as opposed to a single word: ‘I don’t know what I want to be, but I know I want to perform and help people.’” These two desires have driven everything LeFebre has done in the years since, whether in the art world or the realm of social justice work.
LeFebre juggles a multitude of jobs, projects and art, but despite his admission that his life is overwhelming, he insists it’s chaos “in the best way.” During the day, LeFebre is an administrator for Denver Human Services, managing supervisors who work with youth in the area. He also sits on the board of the Clyfford Still Museum as well as the Denver Commission on Cultural Affairs, and is a member of the Latino Cultural Arts Center’s advisory council, a National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures fellow… and more. He’s launched numerous side projects, both alone and as a cocreator, that work to heal and give artistic expression to BIPOC communities and youths; in 2004, LeFebre co-founded Café Cultura, now called Sacred Voices, a Denver-based nonprofit that supports youth literacy through poetry.
Suzi Q. Smith, a longtime colleague from Café Cultura and frequent collaborator of LeFebre’s, likens his art to holding up a mirror for the community. “Bobby is an exceptional writer, performer, thinker and human being,” she says. “I think his work resonates with people because it is an authentic reflection of who he is, offering either a mirror or a window to audiences, allowing them to reflect on his and their own experiences.”
Still living in the same neighborhood he grew up in, LeFebre says that while the inspiration he drew from the Northside was a jumping off point for him in his earlier work, he has begun to expand into different things, projects that are still fueled by finding identity and inspiration through art, though not always with the personal ties to his own Northside home.
Having received a federally funded grant for a project called Proyecto Sobremesa: Radical Imagination, Accountability and the Future, LeFebre is in the midst of hosting a six-dinner series where he brings BIPOC cultural workers, social workers and creatives together to have intimate conversations about racial, cultural and social equality, using art as the entry point and poetry as the conduit. The idea, LeFebre says, is to amplify existences that are marginalized, giving them space to discuss identity politics and colonial structures within our society — to brainstorm ideas and ways to create more equity in our cultures.
“We want to treat these social workers, people who are used to giving and giving, being extracted from constantly, an evening where we take care of them,” LeFebre says. “We’re going to be talking about heavy things, but over amazing food and good mezcal, so we can do things together in a way that feels good. It’s all about the conversation, the process. We don’t know what will come out of it, but I want to collectively give these people more room and grace to live in those spaces of conversation.”
LeFebre is also a celebrated playwright; his semi-autobiographical play, Northside, premiered in June 2019 at Su Teatro Cultural & Performing Arts Center to a sold-out audience, and was subsequently dubbed one of the most successful homegrown productions to ever premiere in Denver by myriad local publications, including Westword and 303 Magazine. Tying in a bit of the real and a bit of the artist’s imagination, Northside frankly depicts the gentrification of BIPOC neighborhoods, and the ripple effect it has on the lives of the community.
“The story was very reminiscent of things happening in my neighborhood and all over the city,” LeFebre says. “Systems and institutions didn’t seem excited about stopping it, so we wanted to humanize the topic and explore the nuance of what happens during that process through the people and their lives and stories. We wanted to capture that cultural conflict and show it in real time. It was a beautiful thing to create something that spoke to that wound.”
Tony Garcia, program director for Su Teatro, has known LeFebre since the poet was 19 and first auditioned at the theataer, a space which was born out of the Chicano Civil Rights movement of the ’60s and ’70s.
“Bobby was an activist first, heavily inspired by the poet and change-maker Abelardo Delgado,” Garcia says. “It was this influence that showed him that he could be an activist and a poet. He is on the ground, speaking to people, working against that system of oppression. He had begun writing his play Northside, which was further fueled because someone began posting signs in [Le Febre’s] neighborhood that said ‘whites only.’ And that inspired him to take action, to hold guerrilla poetry presentations, to write this play that led to deeper analysis of gentrification and racial justice. He took the name for a neighborhood, Northside, and made it into a one-word statement for identity.”
The fact that LeFebre is Colorado’s first person of color to be named poet laureate does not escape him.
“As I was being interviewed at the beginning, I touched on the fact that I’m intelligent enough to know I’m not the first person of color who was qualified to be poet laureate,” LeFebre says. “Arts and culture doesn’t live outside of the systemic issues we face in our society, and it’s just indicative of that inequality. I named that first, but at the same time saw it as a learning opportunity. I don’t need to shine. It’s nice, but I would rather talk about things that matter, and in that sense I’m super grateful and proud because this has opened up a dialogue and allowed me to push forward in a better way.”
LeFebre’s current project (the details of which are hush-hush at the moment) will bring artists and cultural workers from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border together, working with poetry and identity to express how art connects us. Identity politics are complicated, and, as LeFebre says, we all embody performative identities in our day-to-day lives whether or not we know it. Identity is the way in which we show up, engage, appear.
“I’m someone who thinks about [identity] a lot — the ‘who I am, who we are, who we’ve been, who we want to become,’” he says. “I regularly obsess and talk about not only cultural identity, but who we are as a people, a nation, a city, an arts ecosystem. Who are we and how and why. It haunts me. Because only by understanding who we are can we make radical changes in who we want to become.”
LeFebre’s program with Longmont Library will provide a space to share poems, talk about arts and cultural social and racial justice, the pandemic, gun control — whatever people need to talk about. As with his poetry, and all his art, the topics LeFebre enjoys engaging in are contemporary, meaningful and ever present.
“Every project I start or am a part of is about mining ideas to put forth towards a better tomorrow. A lot of people are outcome driven, and that’s an important piece, but for me as an artist, so much of the beauty and magic happens in the process, the digging and the exploration,” he says. “There’s a quote by Bukowski I used to live by: ‘Find what you love and let it kill you.’ For me, as I’ve grown as an artist and a person, that quote has come to embody capitalism, this idea of ‘work work work until you die’. I changed my mind about that quote somewhere along the line. Now I say, ‘Find what you love and let it keep you alive.’ I’ve been able to merge all my identities to create a wild life that I’m super grateful for and fulfilled by. That’s the truest gift.”
CELEBRATE NATIONAL POETRY MONTH with Colorado poet laureate Bobby LeFebre. 6:30 p.m. Thursday, April 22 via Webex. Registration required at eventbrite here.