Once known for floating corpses and drug deals, Echo Park Lake on this afternoon is a pastiche of sights and sounds: ice cream vendors, Spanish conversations, seagull chatter and not-too-distant church bells. Children blow bubbles, a group of men plays checkers and volunteers offer free HIV testing.
Four writers -- Steve Abee, a schoolteacher and poet, and three of his former students -- melt into the scenery too, reclining on the grass between palm trees. And when you ask the youngsters what inspires them to create poetry, you realize the answer is all around you.
"The inspiring thing for writing is just life itself," says Cindy Espino, 14. "Just sitting somewhere and watching everything."
Abee and his prodigies, who discovered poetry in the 37-year-old teacher's Writers Club at Thomas Starr King Middle School, will give a reading Saturday afternoon as part of the festival celebrating the opening of the Edendale Library in Echo Park. The program also includes musical performances, other readings and a screening of the film "The Ghosts of Edendale."
Poets Espino, Jennifer Lopez, 14, and Ilana November, 13, are high school freshmen now, but they continue to stoke the creative fires that were sparked in middle school.
Says Lopez: "Sometimes normal words don't cut it."
Abee, who has published six volumes of poetry, knows the feeling. His club fosters expression in an informal atmosphere where students sit, talk and share what they write.
"Writers Club was really great with these guys because they were able to think about their work and talk about their work," he says. "It was a mature writing experience."
When November, braces glimmering through her incessant smile, talks about who has a crush on whom, it is easy to imagine the girl's poetry is similarly adolescent. Yet ask about her favorite poets and she immediately cites a range of influences from the morbid writings of Jim Morrison to the upbeat rhymes of Shel Silverstein.
This duality between the adult and the adolescent is apparent in Espino's recitation of her recent poem, "Sandwiches and Shoes." As she reads, everyone listens to her impressive rhythm, cadence and plays on words. Her work uses the image of a pair of shoes -- "as a sandwich between rubber and tile" -- to describe a high school flirtation.
"A chick went up to a friend of mine and stood on his shoes and asked what he did outside of the classroom," Espino explains.
Like Espino's poem, Abee says, poetry "is just a way of looking at life. It's like she hears this guy say this thing and the next thing you know you've got this meditation on what's going on. And clearly you love your language. You love your words."
Abee is not only an English teacher and mentor to his students, he is also their friend. This year, they are at public schools throughout the city and notice the lack of resources for fledgling writers. Espino plans to start a poetry club of her own because "a lot of schools don't have writers clubs, so [students] write but they don't share with anybody," she says. "They keep it to themselves, and it's important to share it."
In fact, Abee's current and former Writers Club members hold regular poetry readings and also issued "Fetch Dog, Fetch," an anthology of their works from 2004. The chapbook is on sale at local bookstores.
For Abee, working with young poets is important -- he, too, has a lot to learn from his students. "It's a mutual awareness society," he says.
Scavenging for poetry, his students find pieces they admire in all kinds of places, from an Internet blog to a thrift store. "The kids have an experience that's important to them," Abee says. "It's a meaningful experience, so they are going to keep doing it."
If they find inspiration they share it with each other. With characteristic humility, Abee says that the impetus for his book, "The Bus: Cosmic Ejaculations of the Daily Mind in Transit," came from "reading the journals of my students."
As for teaching, "I've got to balance between letting the kids who are motivated go and then helping those who aren't coming up with something. A lot of people are locked up.
"I try to be like a spiritual Army sergeant."
Abee's own experiences, now and as a teen, help him relate to his students and their need for self-expression. Not only did he find a similar community of writers in high school but also his experiences as an 18-year-old orderly at St. John's Hospital proved fruitful fodder for his poetry. He recalls "pushing people down to the morgue
Just as his father exposed him to poetry by reading Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" on Sunday mornings, he continues to inspire young people.
"Teaching is a beautiful job because I've got to be human all the time," Abee says. "How I am spiritually completely affects the classroom. If I'm full of crap, it's going to come out."
Edendale Library Festival
What: Readings, storytelling, musical performances and film screenings to celebrate the library's opening, on stages inside and outside the facility. Among the contributors: Actor Valente Rodriguez ("The George Lopez Show") will give a bilingual reading at noon. Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-L.A.) will read children's stories at 1 p.m. Writers Club poets will read at 1:30 p.m., followed by Steve Abee at 2. Carlos Guitarlos plays an acoustic set at 4 p.m.
Where: 2011 Sunset Blvd., L.A.
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m.