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GK, I mentor a 15-year

December 13, 2004 |

I mentor a 15-year old boy who suffers from severe depression and obesity, and has tried to commit suicide on more than one occassion. He lost his father about eight years ago, and lives alone with his mother in a very dangerous neighborhood in Phoenix. His mother is afraid he is going to turn out like his older brother (who was recently shot in a botched drug deal).

Amazingly, for a tough kid (at least on the exterior), his passion in life is poetry. Unfortunately, I can barely tell the difference between Shel Silverstein and Robert Frost (pathetically, my favorite book of poetry is "There's a Wocket in my Pocket" by Dr. Seuss).

The poems my mentee writes are dark, full of despair, loneliness and hopelessness — but they are so moving... so powerful.

What can I do to help direct him? I don't have the slightest idea where to start or who to turn to... how can I help foster this talent? Is there a "must read" list? Do you know any poets he could become an old-fashioned "pen pal" with him to help encourage and critique his work?

He is such a sweet kid, and I think poetry could be his ticket out of despair. Any direction you could give would be greatly appreciated.

Best Regards,
Jon Lewis
Chandler, AZ

Jon, you're right about wanting to blow on this spark and get the flame burning. I'd suggest he look at the poems of Charles Bukowski and the very early work of Victor Hernandez Cruz — two poets who might interest this kid, simply because the poets are living on the rough side of town and find beauty there — but I think he might also be intrigued by poetic form, the villanelle and sestina and the sonnet, which can give great pleasure, like working out a math problem. For a young poet who is passionate about the art, publication is a natural step, and you'll want to urge him to put his poems out there where other people can enjoy them. The thought of giving enjoyment to strangers is a healthy notion for a young man. Publication might mean something as simple as taking his best poem to Kinko's and running off a hundred copies in a handsome layout and putting them in a public place for people to read. Or posting them. Eventually your poet might want to attend a poetry event (not a Slam, but something uncompetitive, where poets of all ages take turns reading to the audience), at first to listen, then to participate. The boy's depression has to be treated seriously, by professionals, and I don't hold out poetry as the answer to that, but surely it can only help him if poetry can be an entry point to a larger world in which people gather on the basis of love of language, rather than physical attractiveness, or hipness, or athletic prowess. And how about piano? Can we get his hands on a piano? Can he sing? Does he maybe have a comedian jiggling around inside him?

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