A few weeks ago, one of my students, Andrew McGregor, sent me an e-mail to ask if I would serve as a judge at a poetry slam he was staging in Los Angeles.
Andrew is a big, burly guy with a huge, ready smile and a life-is-beautiful-anything’s-possible attitude. In real life — that is, when he’s not sitting in class trying to discuss Nabokov with a straight face or agonize over the choice of one word versus another — he’s a war correspondent and a documentary filmmaker who has been to those parts of Africa most of us would never dare step into. He has lived in war zones in places like Rwanda and the Congo, escaped massacres, helped arrange the release of other journalists not as lucky as he. In the midst of that he has created an NGO called the Tiziano Project and embarked on a program whereby local men and women are trained as professional journalists.
During the two semesters he studied with me he missed more classes than he showed up to, turned in just enough work to keep from failing the course, and wrote as if he were jotting down some notes in the margins of an old newspaper. He came to class hauling a big, heavy suitcase because he had just flown in from some faraway country, sat directly across from me and fell asleep while I spoke, wrote long e-mails about his exploits abroad and why he didn’t have time to do the work I had assigned.
Still, you can’t fault a guy for being absent from a literature class when he’s out dodging bullets and writing about ethnic cleansing, or nit-pick his assignment when he’s teaching child soldiers to report for CNN. You can’t tell him he has to write in full sentences when he’s telling about body parts being blown across a tent, can’t argue in good conscience that he needs to work on sharpening the “conflict” in a story when he’s writing about a war he has lived through.
There’s a kind of writing that saves souls, I’ve always believed. And then there’s the kind — Andrew’s — that saves lives. The second is more urgent, often more useful, than anything I could have taught the man, and that’s why I went easy on him with the requirements, wished him luck and admired him when he missed class. It’s also why I was so shocked, just recently when I got his e-mail, to read that he was taking a break from the slums of Kenya to, of all things vital and pressing in the world, organize a poetry contest in Los Angeles.
Then I learned that the event was intended as a kick-off for a Tiziano Project in our own, Third World and hopelessly neglected, local war zone — L.A.’s Skid Row; that the contestants were mostly area residents; and that Andrew was going to teach them what he had been teaching Africans. Still, as much as I like the idea of bringing educational and employment opportunities to Skid Row, I wondered if inviting people to read their poetry when they’re dying of stray bullets and alcohol poisoning isn’t a bit Marie Antoinette. I said I’d go ahead and be a judge; what the heck, I might learn something.
I can tell you honestly I’m no stranger to downtown Los Angeles at night. I’ve been going there and back for more than 20 years, had my car broken into more than once, taken the wrong turn off the freeway exit and ended up in scary neighborhoods. I’ve seen how it empties out just after dark, becomes hollow and haunted and occupied by stooped, slow-moving ghosts and piles of dirty blankets that suddenly move to reveal a person, the black-and-white cruisers and tattooed young men in sleek SUVs. Even with all that, I became nervous as I turned into the area where Andrew had decided to stage the contest, kept checking to make sure my doors were locked as I searched for the address. Then I saw the building and thought poor Andrew had struck out; he was in for one of those “surprises” that I tend to have at least once every book tour: an empty venue with rows of empty chairs and a total of three individuals — one insane, two homeless and taking shelter from the rain — for an audience.
I parked my car hoping it would still be there when I came back and went in to console Andrew and tell him he shouldn’t take it personally, he was to be commended for having such a lofty goal but even at its best — that is, in its fancy neighborhoods where people can have both bread and cake — Los Angeles isn’t exactly a sanctuary for artists and writers. Bringing poetry to Skid Row, I was ready to tell Andrew so as to relieve any sense of dismay at the fact that no one had turned up for his party, was like handing out mascara and eyeliner to barefoot and naked kids in those refugee camps he knew so well.
Sure enough, the room was hot and stuffy, complete with rows of white plastic chairs, the obligatory toothless hobo and the strange lady with a hat. But that’s where the similarity with the fancy bookstores and genteel venues in San Francisco and New York where I have appeared and lived to tell about ended. This place was packed from wall to soot-stained wall, bustling with excitement and anticipation and an audience that was engaged, eager and appreciative. Not only that, it was also diverse, in a way you wouldn’t expect on Skid Row or anywhere else, really, in Los Angeles.
African American men in corn rows and wife beaters, young white men in golf pants and Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts, a beautiful young blonde with a bouncing pony tail and spotless white shoes, an elderly Jewish woman in pink linen and a home-made hair-do. A middle-aged white man who looked like a professor: Paul Cummings, published author and poet, founder of Crossroads and New Roads schools. A young Iranian man with a shaved head and an emaciated-looking girlfriend. A pair of Hispanic boys who held hands and whispered to each other throughout the evening. A busy, energetic male of indistinct ethnicity who managed to be absent every time his turn came up. A shy little Asian girl who told everyone this was the very first time she was reading in public.
They were shuffling their papers and looking in their notebooks, checking the time and double-checking to make sure their names were still on the list of readers. They had brought friends and fans, were wishing each other good luck, and yes, to answer your question, many of them were indeed good poets, I didn’t expect it, and neither, I believe, did the other judges. I’m no T.S. Eliot, but I can tell a decent poem from a bad one, and I know I heard more of the former that night; I even heard some very good ones and a couple that would give any established poet a run for his money.
Jail was a favorite topic. One man announced that he wrote a new collection of poems “every time I’m in jail”; another had written about the 14-year sentence he served when he was a young Crip, and a few others thereafter. A social worker who tends to the sick and dying read a poem about the night his sister was murdered by her boyfriend. The Jewish lady in pink linen read the work of her deceased twin brother. The pretty young blonde read about her own struggles in a way that brought tears to everyone’s eyes.
I’ll confess I didn’t expect them to be nearly as good. Nor did I expect that they would care so much about the way their poetry was received, take such pride in their own work and grant such importance to my and the others’ judgment of it. After the first round, a few who had been eliminated gathered their papers and stormed off. Before the semi-final, the former gang member who had spent half his life in jail came up and told the judges that we were all useless and biased, a “bunch of white people judging black men,” because he had come in fifth from the top and therefore didn’t make it to the next round. I pointed out that three of the four semi-finalists were also black men, and that he — the Crip — had lost to number four by only one point. “Yeah,” he said, “but no one tonight was better than me.”
And while we’re on the subject of cake versus bread, the top prize was a $50 gift certificate from Barnes & Noble. When the final tally was announced, everyone in the room broke into wild applause and rushed to shake the young blonde’s hand, give her hugs and wish her luck and say they hoped she’ll publish her poetry; they wanted to hear more, and Andrew would have to stage another contest soon.
Outside, the street still was dark and quiet and littered with bottles and bodies and bits of broken lives. A few of the poets stood smoking on the sidewalk; others walked slowly away into the night. As I was about to cross the street, someone asked me if my car was parked nearby. It was, and yet by the time I pulled away from the curb, none of the people I had spent the evening with seemed to recognize me as I waved at them.
Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.