Gangsters’ special weapon: poetry
Chris Henrikson got it all wrong. You’re supposed to quit Hollywood because nobody appreciates your work. In his case, success drove him out.
“I felt like I’d sold my script down the river,” he says as we exit the Pacific Coast Highway and climb the mountains of Malibu on our way to a juvenile detention camp.
Henrikson had reluctantly reworked his screenplay at the request of a producer back in 1995, and felt creepy about it.
“It was like I was paid a lot of money to drown my own child in a bathtub.”
To pick himself up, Henrikson began volunteering with incarcerated kids through a Writers Guild of America program, and from the outset, it felt like what he was supposed to do with his life. In 1997 he began Street Poets Inc., a nonprofit aimed at reaching unreachable kids through the power of their own stories.
I met Henrikson by way of his wife, who is writing a script based on my columns and book about a skid row musician. When Henrikson told me about the Wednesday night trips he’s been making for several years, using poetry to soften young delinquent hearts, I asked if I could tag along.
Camp Miller’s setting looked more appropriate for a resort than a jail, with twilight shadows moving over rocky peaks and green canyons.
“The goal is total transformation in a kid,” Henrikson said as he pulled into the lot with colleagues Alan Irie Reyes and Rob Thelusma, who help him run the writing workshops.
They agreed that one kid in particular, Mario, was in the midst of a breakthrough. A month earlier, he’d strutted into his first session like the gangster he was, but with each week and each new poem he’d penned, he had moved farther from his past.
We gathered in a space the size of a living room and the kids filed in with their weekly poems in hand. David, 15; Marquese, 16; Joseph, 14; Luis, 15; Nestor, 16; Manuel, 16; Antonio, 17; Mario, 18. Another kid came to the door and pleaded to be let in, but Henrikson told him the room was full for the night.
It’s always full, with a waiting list for the next session.
In a city with growing divisions between black and Latino, there are no divides in the room where the teenagers meet each week, and for the most part, no artifice or pretense. They can let go of the preening and tough stuff in here.
Antonio, a pint-sized banger with a shaved head, had been waiting to ask Henrikson a question:
“Have you read that book, ‘Dante’s Inferno’? It’s a different kind of poetry, but it’s poetry. It’s cool.”
Henrikson looked at me and puffed his chest a bit.
Marquese was first up to read aloud. He called his poem “The Struggle,” and it was about his mother turning their house into a drug den, with customers coming and going. His cousin was killed at 15 over something “stupid” -- something Marquese felt guilty about but didn’t fully explain.
And sometimes I wish
They didn’t take him and
Took me ...
My family thought I was
Confused but I knew what
Was going on
Henrikson asked what he meant by that. He was only 7 years old, Marquese said, but he knew the white stuff being cut at the table was drugs. “I knew my mom must be doin’ something bad,” he said. He recalled her propping a chair against the door when police came, and remembered seeing his grandmother in handcuffs.
Those little details are powerful, Henrikson told him, and should have been in the poem. “The role of a poet is to be a witness,” he said.
Henrikson told Marquese his poem was a rescue mission. He’d gone back and scooped up the 7-year-old he once was, and he’d given voice to his pain. He said he wanted for Marquese’s next poem to be about his guilt over his cousin’s death. It was time to let it go, Henrikson said. Marquese was responsible only for his own life, and it was time to turn his wounds into the source of his strength.
It went on like this for two hours.
The poetry was a tool for the boys to take measure of their lives, to talk out their fear, rage and grief.
David described the bullet that pierced his buddy’s stomach and “went right through his spine.” Manuel said good riddance to dope. Luis couldn’t believe he’d been dumb enough to get locked up again. Joseph was eager to get back on “the outs” and put his finger on a trigger.
“It’s a dangerous image for you to hold onto, because we move in the direction of our thoughts,” Henrikson said, telling Joseph he’s on a suicide mission.
Use this time to tear up the old contracts, Henrikson told his young writers, who listened to him as if he were a guru. “People die never getting to know who they are,” he went on. He read them a Rumi poem, written in the 13th century, called “Ali, the Fighter,” in which Ali prepares to vanquish a foe who, in a last fit of anger, spits in his face. Ali pauses, sees a younger version of himself in his foe, and helps him up.
Of all the kids in the room, only Mario seemed old enough to be world-weary and wise. He’d already revisited his past -- It’s not a life-style, It is a death-style -- and wanted to move on. He called his poem “Better Days,” and read it as if he were ready to graduate.
Now I’m looking forward to
The better days
Where I don’t have to steal
For me to buy a meal
Or run around like a menace
Looking for an enemy to kill
“You’re a man now,” Henrikson told him when he was done. “You’re 18, and you’re an old soul.”
And that’s not unusual. “I see a difference in the kids who go through the program,” said Craig Levy, director of Camp Kilpatrick, which is next door to Miller. “It exposes them to things they don’t know well, like reading, writing and expressing themselves in public. They come out of it with a little less slang, and speaking more like young men.”
Mario will need help on the outside, Henrikson said when we walked out and the gate locked behind us.
Despite his apparent turnaround, Mario’s gang will try to draw him back when he leaves, and that pressure is always intense.
Street Poets (www.dreamyardla.org) may step in and offer him an internship, Henrikson said, to keep the momentum going and give him a chance. And maybe, on a future Wednesday night, Mario will be in the car when Henrikson drives back up the mountain.