Teens Finding Ways To Get Poetic Justice

Robert's first stab at poetry stalls quickly. After eagerly volunteering to write a poem with instructor Richard Gold, the teenager hesitates. There's an awkward pause. Finally, he admits he doesn't know where to start.

"What's on your mind?" Gold asks.

Robert's reply comes quickly: "I'm mad that I'm here," he says.

"Here," in this case, is the King County Juvenile Detention Center, where Robert and Gold's other aspiring poets are incarcerated. They are among the nearly 3,000 teenagers detained here annually for offenses ranging from repeat truancy to murder. To protect their identity, jail administrators asked that their full names not be used.

Gold, 41, quit his job as managing editor of a computer trade-book company to write his own poetry. And he comes to the detention center twice a week to coax poems from teenagers. Each summer, he publishes his students' work, mostly with his own money.

Robert saw his roommate's copy of the most recent chapbook, and wants to be in the next one.

As Gold takes notes on a lined pad, Robert claims he doesn't know why he was arrested this time. But once the 16-year-old moves beyond the denials, he gets to the heart of what's on his mind.

"I have six felonies," Robert says. "What kind of a job am I going to get? How am I going to provide for my family? When people look at me, are they going to look at me as they always have, as just another cholo."

The word, which he translates to mean gang member, hangs in the air. He knows the answer to his own questions, but leaves them unanswered.

Gold says it's a point most of his young poets reach during their hourlong session. The results may lack poetic polish, but they offer a rare look into the minds of young people often unseen by society.

When Robert's done, Gold reads his words back. With some of his writing pupils, he suggests different tacts, nudges them to reach harder for an emotional truth. Not this time.

For a second, Robert seems surprised by what he has revealed about himself. He suggests some minor rewording but he's clearly pleased with the final product, happily granting Gold permission to publish it.

Gold gives away most of the 1,500 chapbooks to the writers and other youths in the detention center. He sells the rest to recoup some of the costs of his nonprofit project.

As Robert rises to return to his cell, he shakes his instructor's hand.

"I think it's cool that you take time from your schedule to do stuff with kids," he says. "Thanks."

Other poems included in Gold's latest chapbook.

The Other Piece of Me, My Father.

(a poem by Baby Chicken, dedicated to her father).

He was a nice person, but he had problems

He really disappointed me when he had said, "Don't come home. No matter what you do, don't come home." I didn't go home, I was stranded at school And the lady who lived down the street had taken me to her house

The next day, I went back home, and the house was empty, except for my room I didn't go back to that lady's house, I stayed at my house by myself My dad left me money He left me a portfolio in his room, next to the telephone, that had my baby pictures, my birth certificate, little things that I had given him when I was younger, and a letter to me, saying:

I don't mean to hurt your feelings,

but I care for you a lot,

and I'm sorry that I couldn't be there,

to take care of you,

and I love you very deeply,

and I hope one day you can forgive me.

That's the letter, I was 11

I stayed in the house, by myself, until the landlord came and kicked me out So I went back to that lady's house, and I stayed there for about three months and then went back to group homes

That's what I get for being a bad kid I guess But when people neglect you and abandon you, it's hard to treat them with respect

Money.

(by Shady).

I have to have money every day No matter what I'm doing, I just want to get paid Standing on the corner with rocks for the people I'm getting 20s, 50s, and 100s, so can it be evil? From sun-up to nightfall, hustlers are never lazy Serving all these fiends is driving me crazy Mom said I'll be in jail, or maybe even dead Still I want for the smoker to give me my daily bread I hustle today, so I can eat tomorrow I'm trying to get rich, but still I feel sorrow As I lay in my bed, just me and my honey, I think to myself how much I love money!

How I Quit Heroin

(an excerpt of a poem by Anonymous Tweeker)

I quit heroin about five months ago We were going through K-falls on my way back to Seattle We had just been kicked out of Berkeley for felony possession of weapons and methamphetamine My dog and I were sitting on the freeway onramp waiting for a ride, even though I hate hitching But if you go through K-Falls on the trains you die from the lack of oxygen and all the soot and carbon monoxide in the tunnels It started snowing and I did my last shot, it was Halloween

Cradle to the Grave (an excerpt from Robert's poem)

I don't even know why I'm here

I was trying to do good I got a job Been following directions, trying to get it together It was different when I was younger, I used to not care, but things change Eventually you have to get your life together

I used to not care about stuff like what my mom thinks, what my family is doing, because of home boys and other stupid stuff But I started thinking about ten years from now I have six felonies What kind of a job am I going to get? How am I going to provide for my family? When people look at me, are they going to look at me as they always have, as just another cholo?

People used to look at me as their friend, but now they look at me in a friendly way, but they're afraid You have all the people in the world on your side But when you sit down and really think about it, you have no one.

Only the people who've been with you from the cradle, your family, will be with you till the grave

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Where to buy the teens' poetry.

Copies of "Trapped in the Ghetto & The Other Piece of Me" can be purchased at Northwest Bookfest tomorrow and Sunday at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center, or through Pongo Publishing, PMB 155, 2701 California Ave. S.W., Seattle, WA 98116-5102, e-mail: pongopublishing@hotmail.com.