by Zinta Aistars
|Gabriel Giron, Kirk Latimer, Nick Lobel|
The SOuL Event, a performance by the slam poetry duo, Gabriel Giron and Kirk Latimer, otherwise known as Kinetic Affect, with the additional lineup of youth from Kellogg Community College, Calhoun County Juvenile Home, Urban League, and Summit Pointe, on Saturday, March 3, at Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek, Michigan, took more than soul. It took guts.
My friend Amy and I had been planning on and looking forward to attending the event all week. Amy came by for dinner first, and we sat down to a meal of elk steaks with mushroom sauce, red-skinned potatoes with dill, beets and salad, toasting the evening with a glass of red wine. It was good to catch up, although we both seemed to be as busy as ever. There was a lot to catch up on … and we chattered in anticipation as we drove to Battle Creek.
I had recently written an article about Gabriel and Kirk for an online news magazine, Southwest Michigan’s Second Wave. Hearing about the background of this event during my interview with the two poet performers confirmed it was something not to be missed.
The lobby of Binda Theater at the community college was full when Amy and I arrived after dinner. People were anxiously waiting to be let inside, and when the doors opened, nearly every seat filled. The rare seat left empty, as Kirk later put it on stage, was for those who could not attend or were no longer with us. So many stories these youth told on that stage, after all, were about the people missing from their lives.
One by one, they came up to stand in the white spotlight. There on the edge of the stage they stood, blinking at the light, shifting weight from one foot to the other, clearly nervous. No doubt many of them had faced weapons and fists without flinching, but most of them had never stood on a stage before. It was a different kind of test.
Many of them admitted to nerves as they cleared their throats, getting ready to read the work they had written and rewritten and polished and practiced over the past four months. Kirk and Gabriel had guided them each step of the way and were guiding them still, standing off to one side like a couple of proud parents, ready with applause and congratulatory hugs.
Who were these gutsy kids? Boys and girls, they ranged in age from early to late teens. The reasons for their lock up were not discussed, because that was irrelevant. What was relevant was the soul they were willing to bring to that spotlight.
Amy and I glanced at each other more than once. The poetry, the stories these kids read to us, a few reciting by heart, were sharp and poignant and real and brimming with emotion. A 16-year-old boy read a poem to his mother who had died just weeks before, her body giving in to years of drug addiction. I wondered at his cool and controlled face. His words exposed what simmered beneath.
A girl read a poem about her father who kept sneaking into her room at night, slipping into bed with her, shushing her to keep their incestuous secret. Another girl read a poem written to her mother who never seemed to notice her, asking for nothing more from her mom than an occasional hug and to be told that she was loved. She didn’t need her mother to be perfect. She needed to have a relationship with her and not just shared space.
|Gabriel tears up, telling his own story|
A boy read a piece about his life as a gang member since the age of 12, and watching a friend die in his arms. Another boy read about how his mother, a heroin addict, had abandoned him when he was six years old, left him and his brother with his dad. She told him she would be back soon, real soon … and the boy stood at the window waiting for weeks, months, then years for a mother who would never return.
Each one read a story, surely one of many each held inside, and shared it with all of us—friends, family and many strangers, like me and Amy.
It was sometimes difficult to listen. It was impossible to keep a dry eye. But what moved me perhaps most of all was the support I saw in that group, one for the other. Each time someone stood on stage and blinked, forgetting a line, losing a place, losing nerve—the rest of the group immediately shouted up to the one standing in the spotlight words of encouragement, cheering the reader on and applauding. Each and every time, the reader would grin and go on, the spell broken, able to resume again.
It was surely a lesson Gabriel and Kirk had taught them. The two had told me how they had met as dueling slam poets and how they had seen each other blink on stage. Gabriel had gone blank once just like that, and he remembered that feeling, and how the audience had encouraged him to go on. When he saw Kirk blink, he walked over to offer encouragement. A friendship was born.
The bond among these kids on this night was clear. Every one of them had been to hell and back. Some still lived there. All of them had been through more pain and heartbreak as children than most adults would ever know in a lifetime. Yet why is it that society doesn’t seem to want to know about these kids? Juvenile delinquents, after all. Lock them up and throw away the key, I’ve heard some say. Vicious little animals, say others.
|Performing "The Wall"|
Only that’s not what we saw, not what we heard, not what we witnessed on that stage. No child is born wanting trouble. A child craves love and approval from his or her parents. That was the one message coming through all of their stories, all of their poems, every single one. They wanted to be seen. They wanted to be heard. They wanted to be loved. No different than anyone else. Yet what they had received was a slap in the face, a punch in the gut, the stab of a knife, or the empty silence of a missing parent.
If a child lashes out, someone has lashed out at him or her first. That pain, that anger, that outcry has a reason. We forget that. As a society, the village that surrounds them, we need to be witness to their stories of pain. We need to acknowledge their incredible courage to give their stories public voice as these kids did.
From their broken places on Saturday night, an astounding beauty filled the room. For an hour, my friend and I were witness.
I am currently working on obtaining some of the written work performed to publish in the upcoming Summer 2012 issue of The Smoking Poet, online in June.