Poet Performers Discover the Riches of Words

Times Staff Writer

A curly haired boy in glasses approached the lectern and grabbed the microphone.

Hot and slimy

Wrapped in foil,

Three bucks a box,

Tastes like it's spoiled,

Sushi isn't good from a trunk.

The audience laughed. The boy beamed.

Steve Abee, published poet and seventh-grade English teacher, smiled and sauntered toward the mike. "Ladies and gentlemen, that was Mateo Tate. He'll be at King Middle School all week. Just come by my room."

As end-of-the-school-year rituals go, there's graduation and there's prom, and in Los Feliz, there's the annual reading by the Writers Club of Thomas Starr King Middle School at Skylight Books. ("Not to be missed," the store's newsletter proclaimed.)

Tuesday night's poet performers are mostly seventh- and eighth-graders, all students in the gifted magnet program at the Silver Lake school. Most weekdays, they can be found in Abee's classroom during lunch period, with their food and their poems. A number of students come and go -- "it's become a drop-in spot for a lot of these kids" Abee said -- but about a dozen are club regulars.

Tyler Albright is one of them. Standing at the microphone, head bowed over her paper, she started with a small admission: "Um, I've never read this poem out loud."

But the 14-year-old, dressed in a T-shirt with a drawing of a cat and the word "Chococat" printed beneath it, remained poised. The audience of family and friends listened intently, sitting in folding chairs nestled between stacks of books, the store's enormous ficus hanging like a canopy over them.

How perfectly lovely your voice is,

And oh how nice this is, being able to see your face.

After I have not seen you,

After you left I went a little crazy --

But here you are....

The members of the Writers Club seem to have discovered the riches of words and now they are luxuriating in them. "I'll usually take a feeling and over-exaggerate it into something," Tyler explained after the reading.

And they have the kind of teacher you wish you had had in high school: funny, smart, encouraging, and prodding.

Abee's proteges are uncensored but not undisciplined. "I would say stuff like, 'I don't think it's done.' I would kind of be a stick in their sides. I was, like, 'To make this happen, you've got to explore the idea more.' ... They're really open."

Embracing the adage "write what you know," the student poems are filled with images of love and heartache, dirty Hollywood streets and fishy fish, confusion and -- as Ingrid Alvarado, 14, titled one of her poems -- "contradiction":

If I were a butterfly, would it be wrong to rip my wings off and watch me suffer? ...

If life was a game, would I win?

Or, as Ben Russin, 13, lamented in a poem: "Sometimes I wish I was a normal person who didn't know their destiny." Ben informed his audience he had composed that poem in the shower. The second work he read was one he wrote in history class.

Abee, 39, who sports the requisite hipster soul patch under his lower lip and wears his hair long enough to curl over the collar of his shirt, sat on the floor, leaning back on his hands. "What if you took a shower in history?" Abee asked his student.

"That's creepy," Ben said.

Sometimes the poets looked outside themselves.

"The city is the emergency exit for the young, the hopeless, and the drug addicts," 14-year-old Angel Alvarado wrote in a work titled "The City."

Everything is ripe for metaphor. In 14-year-old Bernice Hernandez's poem, "Kit-Kat," she wrote:

Dear melted thing which has sunk through the cracks on the ground, dear Jesus, dear Kit-Kat bar which is sitting silently in Lizbeth's stomach, Dear suicide letter, yes I have cried but no I will not die.

When Abee started holding these readings, his daughter, Penelope, was a baby. Now she's 10, and on Tuesday night, she stood nearby, fixing him with an impatient stare, not nearly as adoring as Abee's students. ("I'll have her in class year after next," he noted.) He collects the work of each year's Writers Club in an anthology, which is bound together like a movie script and sold for $5 at the bookstore. This year's anthology is called "Deus Ex Machina."

And the source of this poetic inspiration? "I know this sounds like such a stereotypical answer, but really just being a teenager," Ben said.

Some of Abee's students are born performers. Others couldn't even be cajoled to come up and read.

"Come on, Vincent," Abee said, trying to coax Vincent Measures, 13. The audience joined in, but Vincent wasn't moving. "Can I read it?" asked Abee. "No," said Vincent.

But Abee ignored him and read "The Blazing Beast" as Vincent sat hunched over in his chair.

Blazing heat with scarlet waves of fire filled the cold air with warmth,

Death and agony filled the chilling night air as the many people watched...

A once cozy home now a diminished skeleton ...

When Abee was done, the audience hooted its approval.

Later, Vincent smiled sheepishly when asked why he wouldn't read. "I thought everyone would ridicule it."

"Mr. Abee, he really allows these kids to bring out what's inside," said Olga Measures who had two children -- Vincent and Ingrid, 12, -- in the Writers Club this last year.

Each year's club functions a little differently, Abee said. "This year was a little more chaotic. But that's who they are: a little more chaotic, frenetic, funny."

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