VENTURA-The young man is so large that he dwarfs the room as he lumbers to the front of the class at the youth jail. He is 17 years old and doing time for armed robbery, but for now he is a poet and he has something to say. He spreads his legs and places one hand in his armpit, almost confrontational. Then he looks down and begins:
"A young boy no family
no money, craving for food
starving for drugs
All by myself.
The cold days the quiet
nights, lonely, day
after day, night
All by myself.
I scream and no
one hears me. I'm
sad no one cares. I pray to
God. Help! Help! I need love.
All by myself…"
The room is silent when he finishes. His face is red, his defiant posture gone hinp. He looks up n time to see his classm~aes burst into applause.
"I don't know why my eyes started watering," he says after class. "I'm going to save a so I can look at it. So I can be proud of of myself."
At Coiston Youth Center, one of Ventura's four juvenile detention facilities, youngsters are using poetry to better understand who they are and how they ended up tn trouble.
As the words flow out they ecpress their hopes, dreams and fears. As they write they grow more confident. On this day Shelley Savren, an instructor at Oxnard College, is here to teach a poetry seminar as part of the California Poets in the Schools program.
The San Francisco-based program, which is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council. uses its $250,000 annual budget to dispatch more than 150 published poets into schools across the state.
Executive Director Mary Vradelis estimates that the program reaches 25.000 youngsters annually. Each September, California Poets in the poems from thousands of submissions and anthology of the year's 50 best. Four poems from Colston students have for the anthology in the last three years.
Over the past decade, Savren has taught poetry to developmentally disabled adults. Native Americans, elementary school students. prison inmates and community college students. She says she is on a mission Lu turn everybody she meets into a poet.
But she is especially drawn to young people in trouble."I want them to find poetry - to find a friend in it," she says. "Savren feels that introducing young people at Colston to the world of free verse gives them a chance to tell their stories, and deal with their pain.
"The kids locked up there are generally the victims of abuse, neglect or poverty," she says. "Some have incredible stories. When I can get them to write their lives they realize how hard it's been, how powerful their stories are."
At Colston, Savren will teach three classes of students over two consecutive days. She will stand before young gangbangers and car thieves, runaways and drug users, and coax them to mine their imaginations. "What is poetry?" she asks the class of 14, many of whom have not gone to school for years on the outside.
"Poetry is like, like words that go in a rhythm," volunteers a small kid with a shaved head and a sparse mustache sitting at the back of the room.
"Right," says Savren, excited. "Rhythm is very important. That's what makes the poetry like music."
"It's all about feelings," says a long-haired young man in front with dark soulful eyes of a modem-day Byron.
The diminutive Savren strides back and forth across the front of the class. Her dark eyes are bright, her cloud of curly dark hair shakes, her turquoise skirt whooshes behind her as she grows more agitated. Her energy builds as she leads them to imagination - the place from whence all poems flow. What is an image? she asks them.
"It's a picture in your head" says Colston's Byron. "You could manifest that image. You could say, 'the chill penetrated his skin like a thousand needles,' and they would feel the chills."
Savren is practically beside herself with excitement. The teens sense it. They jump in with more. "How about,'the rain on the roof sounded like a thousand soldiers marching,'" said the large young man in the back who until now had appeared to be asleep. "How about, 'the words fell out of his mouth like a brick.'" muttered another young man on the other side of the room.
She gives students only 10 to 15 minutes to write in each class. Hunched over their desks, pencils clenched in their fists, they scribble out words that would break anyone's heart. Some are just sad stories - jumbled phrases and broken words. Others are told with haunting rhythms, as if they had been percolating in the minds of their authors for all of their short lives. Then they stand before the class and read. The volunteers eagerly line up. The large young man doing time for armed robbery raises his hand. Later, shedding his toughness, he says he likes the class because it helps him understand himself better. He has sent love poems to his girlfriend. He says he thinks he has a few more poems in him. His parents are divorced. His father was in prison. His real mother is in Texas and he hasn't seen her for three years. Now it's his stepmother he misses.
"I miss her, deep down inside," he says.
Not all the poems are good. Some youngsters write kindergartners, though they on the cusp of adulthood. Some spell phonetically, writing like "oshin" for ocean and "feroshus" for ferocious.
But their feelings are stark and powerful. "These kids are all one raw nerve," says Linda Bugaj, their regular teacher. "There is just so much going on with these kids. They are on an emotional roller coaster all the time."
Indeed, it seems that Savren is tapping into a river of emotions that is rushing all the time. With little guidance it comes pouring out.
And it keeps coming.
The second day of the seminar one young man who written a poem in his life before Savren's seminar shyly presented her with three poems he wrote overnight.
"I wrote them after the lights went out." He explained. "I had extra energy. I started to write because this lady came. Next thing you know … "
The 11th-grader from Thousand Oaks glowed as Savern raved about a poem he wrote about his father. And he was first to volunteer when she asked.
"Most of the kids here, I don't relate to their way of life." He said. "But no one made fun of me. I guess I could do it again. It was pretty cool."