Thursday, February 28, 2008

Yesterday I went into Juvenile Hall with C and taught two classes of poetry. I brought in the Chinese Oath of Friendship, which involves swearing a vow of loyalty "forever and ever, until all the mountains are flat and the rivers all run dry." The language is simple--about a second or third grade reading level--but the concept of loyalty and different ways to express a long long infinite time I thought would be relevant. And I brought in a Forest Hamer poem, "Initiation," about being jumped into a gang.

The first class was too disruptive to get much done, although we did manage to brainstorm two whiteboards full of different ways to express "forever and ever." My personal favorites were "until Kobe Bryant start passoing the ball," and "until Jesus and the Devil have a child."

But their idea of real poetry is rap, that rhymes, and soon they started reciting long tracts of it, out of which I caught the words "nigga" and "motherfucka" about a million times. Their mastery of the repertoire was impressive; they had every gesture, every syllable memorized, pages and pages of it, like the bards of old. They could have gone on reciting and rapping all day, for as long as we let them, and never run out of material.

Faced with this, I didn't know exactly what to do. I was impressed by their command of the form, and at the same time it all seemed rotely memorized to me, and as if they were just repeating certain stock phrases, mostly having to do with violence, over and over. I wanted to find a way to co-create some kind of poetry with them that could incorporate that culture but expand its vocabulary. I didn't find it on this visit, but I'm not discouraged. It would be crazy to think I could figure that out in one session, when it should be a joint effort, me and them together. Unfortunately the teacher didn't have the greatest rapport with the class, and so they were already jumpy and aggressive when we started.

After that class was over, C and I repaired back to his cubicle, got on his computer and found a couple of good poems by Kevin Young: including "Black Cat Blues." We brought them in to the second class which began on a better note as I was a little less nervous and took the time to introduce myself and meet them properly. They seemed to really like the Young poems, when a crash and shouting next door made all the guards and counselors jump to attention. There was a big fight; a kid had gotten back from his court date and it hadn't gone well for him. Another kid said something and he lunged.

Guards and counselors streamed into the room; our kids, who were jumping out of their seats and craning their necks trying to see the fight, were told to stand with their hands behind their backs, and everyone was marched back to their own rooms, under close supervision. Class was over for the day. C took me out for a BLT, and we processed the day. No one could call it a howling success, but it hadn't been a complete failure either. A couple of kids had paid attention, asked questions, engaged. We'd found some material they liked. I was beginning to see what the challenges were and I was not in despair.

(Today of course I went to the elementary school where the third graders clamor to show me their poems, so there was balance.)

I finished Rewrites. Neil Simon rewrote his first play that was ever on Broadway more than 25 times. Completely rewrote it, top to bottom, in the era before computers. He went through so much grief just to get the thing produced, including bad reviews, thin audiences, self-doubt, and producers wanting to close the show after a few nights. They started giving tickets away in a desperate attempt to spread word-of-mouth.

When he returned to his study to write his next play, he bought a dart board and spent four months doing nothing but playing games of darts with himself. He lied to his wife and told her he was working. I can't tell you how encouraging I find all this information. It makes me feel like I might have a chance after all.

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