Young gangsters' special weapon: poetry
By Steve Lopez
For the past ten years, I've led a poetry writing workshop for incarcerated boys (age 14-18) in a Los Angeles County juvenile detention camp. My students are what one might call "extreme teenagers." Their typical teenage rebelliousness is amplified to levels well beyond those of the average high school student. Most come from severely broken homes and impoverished neighborhoods and have defaulted to gang membership for some sense of belonging and control over their own lives. They are the children of refugees who fled the killing fields of Southeast Asia and Central America. They are the children of black and latino inner-city communities and white high-desert communities devastated by drugs and economic job loss. They are the children of fathers dead, imprisoned or otherwise missing-in-action. They are victims and perpetrators, addicts and dealers, schemers and dreamers, and, once you get past the surface, they are desperate to find a way out of the self-destructive lifestyles they've chosen for themselves.
The best metaphor I've found for the work we do Ð and for the creative process generally Ð revolves around the image of a powerful river, wide and flowing. To write poetry is to swim out into that river and surrender to the flow. The poem then becomes a journey into the unknown, into ourselves. If you can envision ten bald-headed teenage boys who have never set foot in moving water before and don't think they can swim, wading cautiously together out into a river, you've got a pretty good idea what our juvenile detention camp workshop is all about. There is a lot of joking and laughter at first and then the group becomes increasingly serious and fearful the farther out we go. Tears are frequently shed. When a youth summons the courage to release himself into the flow for the first time, the experience is incredibly exhilarating, for the writer as well as the group. Often the river takes the poet places inside himself he never would have gone on his own. Poems born from these journeys become like streetlights leading the poets out of the darkness of their own minds. For many, the experience is their first real taste of freedom, and they immediately get hungry for more. Others, quite often the more academically advanced, prefer to hone their strokes in the shallows along the river's edge. In poetry as in life, the greater the risk, the greater the reward. Over the years, I've been privileged to witness many dramatic personal transformations as a direct result of this creative process. Some of these young men have returned with me to the camps in which they were once incarcerated to shoot the rapids, role-modeling through their poetry the kind of courage real change requires.
As workshop facilitator, my primary role has always been to listen deeply, maintain a supportive, affirming atmosphere, and, when appropriate, share my own stories and poems (and those of other writers) with the group. Over time, I've evolved into a more knowledgeable, pro-active "river guide." While the memories and images that come up along the river are different for everyone, there are certain emotional realities that the vast majority of our youth share. Because most were neglected or abused in childhood, I encourage them to go back and reconnect with "the kid" in themselves, the early elementary schooler who felt abandoned and powerless in the face of traumatic family circumstances. I ask them to describe what life was like for that kid, to represent him in their poems. I ask them to reflect on the kid's greatest gifts and interests. In some cases, I'll encourage the poets to feel what the child inside them needs and then write a letter or poem in response to that feeling. This reunion process can be terrifying at first for the poet because of all the pain that kid carries, so faith and patience are essential. As facilitator, I just remind them of the kid's presence there in the river, pinned to a rock in the rapids downstream. It's always up to the poet to decide when they're ready to attempt a rescue.
The biggest obstacle to this transformational reunion is what we've come to call the "Little Homie," the middle school-aged version of the poet who got tired of being victimized as a child and decided to join a gang, pick up a weapon and start fighting back. Metaphorically speaking, the Little Homie is posted on the riverbank making sure nobody gets anywhere near that young kid down-river ever again. In most of my students, the Little Homie tends to be highly aggressive and impulsive. He responds to any sign of a threat with violence or manipulation, and he can be a formidable obstacle to healing and growth if not handled appropriately. (Our prisons are full of grown men still stuck in this early adolescent state of development.) The thing to remember about the Little Homie is that he is constantly being judged unfavorably by family, school teachers, police, probation officers, judges and, most significantly, by the poets themselves. Unfortunately, this kind of abuse only increases his energy and makes him dig his heels in deeper. Instead, I encourage my students to honor their Little Homie in their poetry, to thank him for all of his hard work defending the kid from a hostile world. I ask them to acknowledge to their Little Homie that they themselves abandoned the kid just like everyone else and, if it wasn't for his strength and determination, they wouldn't have made it. Usually, with that, the Poet is able to alter the Little Homie's resistance enough to access the river's flow and begin the creative process of rebuilding himself. A "regime change" within the Poet is the ultimate goal here, but it cannot be achieved by force.
From the very beginning of the workshop I speak to the Poet, the emerging Higher Self in the youth, as though he was already fully formed. On the rare occasions when a Little Homie surfaces in class, I do my best to send love and understanding toward him while reminding the Poet of our higher purpose together. I like to think of our poetry workshop as a sacred space within the military boot camp-like confines of the juvenile detention facility, a playground on which the kids in these troubled, suffering youth can emerge, cry, smile, laugh and breathe. In eight years working with rival gang members, we've never had an altercation in one of our workshops. In fact, one of the secondary benefits of this creative process is that it brings former "enemies" together across race and neighborhood lines. Another secondary benefit - primary for me - is that it has transformed my own life in ways I couldn't have imagined when I first started volunteering back in 1995. Because I never ask my students to do work I haven't done myself, I feel constantly challenged to keep swimming, writing, and, on good days, shooting my own rapids with all of the faith that this work requires.
Chris Henrikson is the founder/co-executive director of Street Poets Inc., a poetry-based violence intervention program for high-risk youth in the juvenile detention camps, continuation schools and streets of Los Angeles County.
Words of Wisdom
The writer does not learn to write so that he can "write," but because without the necessary tools, he cannot dig his way out of prison. - Allan Swallow
Community is the fruit borne of shared brokenness. - M. Scott Peck
The greatest times in our lives arrive at the points when we gain the courage to rebaptize our badness as the best in us. - Friedrich Nietzsche
The willingness to accept responsibility for one's own life is the source from which self-respect springs. - Joan Didion
Truth is always strong, no matter how weak it looks; and falsehood is always weak, no matter how strong it looks. - Phillips Brooks
Poetry is not the assertion of truth, but the making of truth more fully real to us. - T.S. Eliot