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Poetry Saving Kids in SW Michigan

Posted to MichiganNow.org on Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Ever heard of a poetry slam? The very first poetry slam is said to have taken place at the Get Me High Lounge in Chicago in 1984. But the Nuyrican (new-yo-REEK-an) Poets Cafe had already started in New York in 1973. Among the Michigan poets are a duo from Kalamazoo. They call themselves Kinetic Affect. They perform at the City Opera Hall in Traverse City Wednesday September 26 at 7pm.  For tickets Click on www.addictiontreatmentservices.org.

Now here’s Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus with the story of Kinetic Affect.

Kinetic Affect tries to stirs people’s emotions. I cried hard when I saw them the first time. The show is just Kirk Latimer and Gabriel Giron standing in a room or on a stage. Before we hear them perform, let’s hear about their backgrounds. Latimer had abusive family members. So Kirk trained himself to be tough around other kids. He became a bully. Then a cocaine dealer.

“I started selling kilos of coke. I was hurting people.”

Kirk went to Henry Ford II High School in Sterling Heights.

“Five of my friends, five people in my circle killed themselves in the course of a three month time period. Suicide high we were called. Suicide high. My best friend at the time went to prison. Jackson. He just got out over holiday break. Swastika right here. Tattooed.”

Kirk Latimer attended Western Michigan University. He met a woman, married her and divorced her. But they have a four year old son. Kirk says raising a child has given him perspective.

“I think it’s so important to understand that sometimes we get so caught up in what’s important: money, that refrigerator, car, work, forgetting to have fun. We lose track of that. But most often times kids have it pretty well figured out.”

The other half of Kinetic Affect is Gabriel Giron. He spent a lot of his childhood in New York State. Then his mother moved the family to suburban Kalamazoo.

“My senior year of high school I got voted class bully and class poet. Even though I had only been in three fights between 5th grade and senior year, all I had to do was be intimidating. It wasn’t that hard because I went from a place that was very diverse to a school of 1,200 people that only had 12 minorities. So automatically, if I wore a hoodie and jeans I was a thug.”

The Iraq War had started. Giron joined the army. He was on a base in Germany when doctors discovered testicular cancer. He was just 18 years old.  Doctors removed one testicle. A couple days later, the cancer spread to his lungs and neck. Doctors had to crack his chest plate. He then went to the military hospital in Washington, D.C.

“Most of the soldiers, before they closed down Walter Reid, were going to Walter Reid Army Medical Center. So I was complaining about having to go through chemotherapy and have surgeries and the guy next to me didn’t have leg, or didn’t have arms or had 90% body burns. And I really wanted to feel sorry for myself. But it’s like I’m blessed. I’ll be able to walk out of here alive.”

Giron shows two scars spanning from his chest to his waist. Performing poetry has become therapy, even a life skill. Here’s a taste of Kinetic Affect when they performed this year at the YMCA in Bay City. They show how easy it was being a little kid.

“I wish I could go back to those days when a plain blanket draped over chairs could become the most magnificent fortress in all the land, providing protection from parents and babysitters who would dare tell the king it was time for bed. Back when the size of my imagination was more important than the size of my bank account. And I miss the days when costumes were part of the regular rotation of my wardrobe. When a towel pinned around my neck could become a cape and putting on red underwear over sweat pants would turn me into superman.”

In 2005, one of the masters from the Nuyorican Poets Café, Bob Holman, called poetry slams “the democratization of verse.”

“The spoken word revolution is led a lot by women and by poets of color. It gives a depth to the nation’s dialogue that you don’t hear on the floor of Congress. I want a floor of Congress to look more like a National Poetry Slam. That would make me happy.”

Here are Gabriel Giron and Kirk Latimer again with Kinetic Affect.

“Our world is filled with walls. And I am one of them. I am made of concrete, shattered glass, razor blades, a divorced family, broken promises and death. I am that wall. I am that wall. I am the realization of a 12 year old boy that school is really on the concrete streets and whatever you do never turn the other cheek. The neighborhood bully taught me that. He wanted to prove I didn’t have what it took. So I took him by the neck and proved him wrong, squeezed until he understood the lesson before I let go. In my ignorance I let go thinking he’d get the point I let go and he sucker punched me. The moment I turned my back was the moment it turned me cold and hard. I am the understanding it doesn’t matter who starts it. So long as you’re the one to end it.

I am that wall. I am that wall.   I will still be that wall… just one that can no longer stand… on its own.”

Kinetic Affect have spawned new poetry from teens with legal troubles in Southwest Michigan. They see themselves in these teens. They want them to dredge up their most painful thoughts.  Brianna Montgomery, is 15. She’s from Battle Creek. Her mother overdosed a couple years ago.

“I know there are a lot of poems here about struggle. There’s not a person in this room who would say they haven’t struggled. My poem is about some things I’ve been through. Most of it is about my mom. She as a drug addict. She had a major overdose in 2009 when I was 12 years old. It talks about how she woke up and didn’t know who I was, me or my sister who I would like to give a shout out to: Stephanie. I love you. (applause) I know a lot of people go through things and I know my voice is as important as everybody else in this room. I would also like to give a shout out to Yeye who I didn’t know was coming for me, my best friend who I haven’t seen in a long time. I appreciate that.

My poem is called Still I Stand, by Brianna Montgomery.

“There have been times I felt like I can’t stand it any longer. But still I stand. I have been through heartbreak and failure. I’ve been to a point in my life when I had to look at my mom in the face and she didn’t even know who I was. So there is little you could say to me that would bring me down. I have been punched in the face and pushed down the stairs. But my face healed and I climbed back up those stairs after I reached the bottom. And I still stand strong. I grew up forced to think that my mother hated me, wanted nothing to do with me. What I couldn’t see as a child was that my mother was an addict. She’d rather pop pills and overdose on addiction than look her daughter in the eyes and tell me that she loved me. And I still stand strong. I’ve been on the run and slept outside on the concrete, using it as a pillow. I’ve been stabbed before. I’ve been jumped by a group of sixteen people. I’ve been slammed on a coffee table and almost killed by a drug addict. But I still stand strong. I’ve fallen in love and fallen right back out, falling hard on hearts that weren’t strong enough to catch me. But I bounced right back to my feet.

“Sometimes I wonder if it’s because I often feel heartless. Sometimes I wonder if it’s because I’m choosing a hard drink over a gentle friend. Sometimes I want to just put this all behind me because the easy thing to do is ignore it all, push it all behind me and throw it out with empty bottles from the night before. But I am worth more than yesterday’s trash. I am worth fighting for today and every day. I am going to do what I have always done and so through it all, I will still, no matter what, stand strong.”

Brianna Montgomery is one of a dozen kids who performed this year at Kalamazoo Valley Community College.

(Brianna reads her poem.)

Saying the words on the paper, thinking about the pain again can make the performers halt their show for a moment. Tears can well up in their eyes. The students in the audience clap and scream saying “you got this.” They support one another. They try to shed the fear and the shame they feel.

(Brandon Mousseau reads his poem.)

( Tyrina Henderson, Urban League, reads her poem “Love Lost”. She was raped by her father for years)

Felipe Hernandez, 17, from Southwest Michigan Virtual Academy. He has spent time years in the Calhoun County Juvenile Home. His introduction and his poem are about people judging others.

(Felipe Hernandez reads his poem.)

Kirk Latimer and Gabriel Giron say they’ve become better men by teaching poetry slam style to teenagers. To bring them to your community to perform or maybe to help more kids, click on kineticaffect.com

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