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Poetry with purpose

California poet laureate Al Young speaks to a classroom of juvenile hall wards Friday afternoon. (The Daily Triplicate/Bryant Anderson).
California poet laureate Al Young speaks to a classroom of juvenile hall wards Friday afternoon. (The Daily Triplicate/Bryant Anderson).

By Hilary Corrigan

Triplicate staff writer

A dark-haired teen rapped, carrying prose in a song with only his voice and aweing a group of adults.

Another — who had complained about attending the Friday afternoon session — read from a stack of his poems that he asked a teacher to retrieve.

"When I see something not cool, I can put it in a poem," the boy said.

His works recounted stories of seeing a pregnant aquaintance and worrying about her baby's future, of his reaction to a war novel, of questions about love.

"You see what he did there?" California Poet Laureate asked the group, analyzing the student's techniques that repeatedly asked questions or used the second-person to address the reader.

Young read his own poems as well, during a tour through the state that included a stop at Del Norte County Juvenile Hall, where 10 students stay.

His "Notes on the Future of Love" refered to the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina's devastation, wondering if the commandment "Thou Shalt Not Kill" still exists.

Young's "Conjugal Visits" described a woman's trips to jail to see her husband — "a honeymoon every time" — and the amount of money spent building prisons in the U.S. compared to school funding.

", for me, is a way of exploring things that you might not be able to talk about any other way," Young said, urging the students to continue practicing it. "You can get things out in your local newspaper, in your local publications."

He also warned them of the use of language, how terms such as "enemy combatant" hide human identity and help demonize others.

"Words like this really affect how we see things," Young said.

The group compared books and writers. One teen admitted that he had sent all of his poetry to his girlfriend. Another asked questions, wondering about Young's birthplace, his favorite California place, his celebrity friends and his homelife and telling him of her own travels and time in juvenile halls.

Most students housed at the clean, prison-like hall will stay about a month, following offenses that mostly stem from drug use.

Many of the hall's residents are in their mid-teens, read at a 5th grade level and still must learn fractions before they can start algebra.

"They're learning things that, unfortunately, a lot of them have not had an opportunity to learn because of poor environment," said Linda Sanford, probation officer supervisor for Del Norte County.

But they tend to pick up books.

"I do have kids who sit and write rap music and poetry and stuff like that all the time, just in their free time," said teacher Becky Barlow.

To protect the minors' identities, the hall rarely allows visitors. The chance to host a published writer and poet laureate, though, proved too tempting.

"A poet of his ability, his stature, when would these kids ever be exposed to this?" Sanford said.

Young shared his own techniques with the teens, pointing to one poem that took a year to complete because he could only hear the main character's voice while flying on airplanes. He also shared his own stories, noting the news he got that day about the death of a brother who he hadn't spoken to in 25 years.

"They listened and that's the important thing," Barlow said of students' reactions to Young's visit. "Some of these kids just need people that care."

Reach Hilary Corrigan at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it


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