Staff Spotlight: Dennis Kim

“A little nonsense now and then / is cherished by the wisest men.”

-- Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka

I had a homeboy back in Chicago, Scott Bradley, who used to jump in the air manically, repeatedly, in solidarity with mid-ollie skaters the world over.

“Scott…why you jumping, joe?” (We called each other joe back then.)

Scott rested, hands on knees, and asked,  “If you add up every second I’m in the air, for my whole life, do you think it’ll make a whole day?”  I don’t know where Scott is now, but I hope he still wars against gravity’s pull.  I think if he hasn’t quit, he’ll have enough seconds with his feet off the ground to add up to a day in the air.  Isn’t that what we all want—a day in the air?  To flirt with flight.

The journey towards self-realization always begins in nonsense.  It begins, in the often-tragic conditions in which we live, with the affirmation of invisible quantities—the insistence that things that never measure on standard scales are divine.  The sanctity of childhood, the genius of youth, the necessity of leadership roles for women, the self-determination of communities of color.  The poem that comes climbing out of your brain, its tendrils sticking to the brick walls behind you, the grey windows around you, the fire escapes of the Dearborn Homes and the beards of saints above the clouds.  Against all odds, we believe, that the unquantifiable thing inside—this life—is real and can change the world around us.

“…what it look like / how it sound.  
Life is round / that’s what we found.”

-- Sekou Sundiata

I’m at the table where we have our staff meetings.  Emiliano Bourgeois-Chacon, Youth Speaks veteran, front-running candidate for greatest youth poet of all time (ask Hodari Davis), and future legal advocate, has brought his younger cousin to the office on some grown man alumnus stuff.  “I’m Nur,” his cousin says, and begins drawing cartoons with a pencil. “I’m Nur, his little cousin.”  Children like to repeat things.  “Did you meet him in college?”  Emiliano laughs, says he was in high school when we met, and Nur shows the comic he’s drawn to Brandon and Isa, who take a break from the multiverses on their laptops to smile and encourage him.  Isa points out where Nur has written her name into a bubble.  “I’m floating.  I’m winning at life right now,” she says.

In about an hour, kids will start filing into the office for the Queeriosity workshop.  There will be chatter, and banter, and wheeling of chairs, fall-down funny laughter, and poems.  There will be the ones who come weary after grappling with life, its many heads and limbs unfair in how they snipe and grasp.  There will be ones who lay their heads on the faux wooden table and close their eyes while water is poured around them—fragile oasis.  There will be combat, and arguments, and insistence on language and line breaks.  There will be the hush that comes when someone is telling the truth about something, for the very first time, and we are all here to watch these words be born.

“I’ll play your favorite song—darling.”

-- Bob

Peace, fellow traveler.  This is for you.  It’s been a minute since we’ve chopped.  I don’t know where you are—how you pronounce your name today—but I know you.  You’re halfway across the earth, seeing Ghana from a glass-bottom plane.  You’re in the grip of fever-dream, your own mind prophesying greatness.  You’re in a vestibule to adulthood, wondering if this next job application, or school loan, or piece of inscrutable administrivia is really the wisest step to realizing the promise of that luminous wisp of spirit that rattles your chest, insisting on overgrowing your childhood.

It may not make sense—how we’re all connected in this work, how we are always catching each other, but we are.  This is for my boy Dave Kelly (aka Cap D), who went from underground Chicago super-emcee to general counsel of the Golden State Warriors.  I just got a call from homie—he told me how he’s bringing his family out and how things have changed since he was signed to Wild Pitch in the mid-90s.  For Emiliano Bourgeois-Chacon, who brought his cousin to the office today.

For all the Youth Speaks folks past and present—Healey, who is planning an insurrection from Lake Merritt, and Senator Whitehead, who sends congratulations and well-wishes from New York.  For Chinaka, and Rafael, and Adriel, and Nico, and Dahlak, and Katri, and Biko, and Tongo, and José, and Jason and their comrades—the children of our first golden age—who travel the world and come back home and draw mustaches on the Mona Lisas along the way.  For Watsky, who is fast becoming a monomial underground rap fixture.  For Brandon and Erika.  For Nick and Isa and Kat.  For Mush.  You are brilliant in your genius, in your lashing out, in your insistence on the way the floating feather would land with the austerity of lead.

But love, there are children coming after us
whose mics we are not worthy to carry.
Help me set a place at the table for them.
And the great cloud of witnesses say,
“Amen.”

Teen Poetry Slam Finals in the Huffington Post

Unless you have teens in your family or work with them in some capacity, it's easy to lose touch with what being a young person is like. But as the true cliche goes, the youth are the future, and if one cares about the future, without some direct experience of young people, the future becomes even more abstract. Most television programming tells us next to nothing about adolescent reality today, being based on marketing values and stereotypes. News media tell us mostly about worst-case episodes and trends. The result is that too many adults become basically clueless about what teens face in life today. This is one reason I try to go to the local Youth Speaks Teen Poetry Slam every year. Last week's event, held in San Francisco, was part of the 16th annual "Grand Slam Finals," in which 13 young poets, winnowed down from over a hundred, compete in front of a large crowd to be one of five going to the national championship event in July. The competition is open to any youth 13-19 years old in the greater Bay Area, and as last evening's MC Josh Healy put it, "Teachers might encourage a promising poet to compete, and the poet might first think 'well, at least it might be a way to get out of class' -- but then wind up here in front of thousands." Poets reading their work are graded by a star panel of judges and the tallied votes determine who moves forward to the next round. Read rest of the article here

Under 21 Open Mic

Word On The Street: Gambling Addiction

GAMBLING ADDICTION A poem written and performed by Gretchen Carvajal  Mama and Papa, You’ve been hiding from my poetry slams. You still haven’t watched a full show, Still haven’t told me that my voice sounds just like my grandmother’s, Cuz you’re too busy gambling to the point where slot machine jackpots are drowning the childhood you have cashed out of me. Your arms so swollen from pulling machine levers But still isn’t strong enough to push my hair out of my face When I’m crying, If my tears sounded like dropping quarters will you pay more attention? I’m done tolerating your poker face, Great parents are only as good as their last transaction, That’s all it ever was for you. See distance we have created like card table to tacky casino carpet Can’t you see my papier-mâché heart cracking at every shut door? Or are you really that blinded by dollar signs and triple 7s? Too numb never feeling phantom hugs that happen every evening Too numb never sense my heartstrings popping out of pitch with every ring of that casino But not numb enough to count numbers of dollars they lose, I’m choking on my own fear of confronting you. Can’t muster up the courage to tell you To Stop Loving the feel of fuzzy card tables, The site of neon lights The sound of the ringing addiction More than you love me. Sometimes I wonder if you think of me when you’re gambling, Do you see my face in Chinese mahjong characters? Or do you see my tuition being paid off with every poker chip you win? Can you sense my reflection behind cards? This Roulette spin has become more than just a game, It has transformed into the roll the dice relationship called us, I have been trying to play peek-a-boo with our memories for the last 5 years, Does it excite you? That you’re blind betting our relationship away? I’m beyond exhausted at the thought of eating take-out like it’ll cover the cost of you leaving, The last minute deliveryman is starting to look like a foster parent, Ready to take back your neglected investments I am not a part time job, I am your child. And I’ve spent too many days wondering, If you smile around me as much as you smile around money, Too many nights asking myself if I’m not worth your time, Having to compete with your attention like Franklin, Washington, and Hamilton were my over achieving siblings, I’ve spent too many days where you called in the morning telling me you’re in traffic when I hear blackjack giggles in the background, It hurts that you think I’m that dumb. If you wanted me to act like an ignorant bystander All you had to do was ask. I’ll build you a bridge, From here to your casino out of my limbs, And maybe I’ll feel it when you come and go. Cuz lately I have felt nothing, Core numbing by the doorstep where I kiss you goodbye, Maybe if I change my name to jackpot, You’ll realize that all the riches in the world Are right in front of you.

My Silence Lives…

My silence has not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact…
-- Audre Lorde

January 26, 2012. Youth Speaks Center. Poet Mentor: Isa Nakazawa.

Today we wrote about where silence lives on the body: behind our knees, in the tremble of our hands, in the pit of our stomach. We talked about the use of language and voice in exposing our silence(s) around painful moments we often forget or bury in the past. In reading Audre Lorde’s quote, we took seriously the idea that our silence does not protect us but rather keeps us playing hide and seek with the truth. In an attempt to break our silence, we wrote poems affirming why we write and who (or what) we write for. Here is what Allison Kephart, 17 years old, from Oceana wrote:

My story is for the depths of the ocean the breath that I lack when I feel burdened the fear that grapples the legs of children as they try to run away it's for your eyes and mine to collide on understanding's halo

I come from still peace in the midst on an empire's downfall the bravery of an unknown someone in the face of mystery I come from darkness into light as I cease to be frightened due to my aliveness I come from the past, it's sure to be our future

My eyes see the unseen to the best of their ability they see the pain that lies unwritten on your face but folded into the wrinkles of your forehead you can't hide it My eyes see the way you lie at night unable to sleep because of the panic you breathe in your dreams they see the condensation that gathers in your eyes as you stare into the future still hoping

My silence lives in my ears the constant ringing of nothing echoing so strongly they tremble my silence abides in your skin the way it's absorbed and sinks in it's at home in the tree carried there by the breeze which gives it the sound of nothing My silence breathes in sound it is the space between us which vibrates to be complete

My voice screams to fill the gaps where bridges should be the loneliness of being it cries for the hurt of other's living the burden of being it demands for the safety that hasn't come yet and invisible net securing in it's obscurity My voice dreams of a day when silence is a scream that turns the ears of whisperers to the sound.