Edited by LR
Ranging from the gut-wrenching to the revelatory, this collection of student work from LA youth touches on themes of home, body, personal identity, family legacy, self-worth, systemic injustice, anger, depression, and Spongebob Squarepants. Just the essentials. We had the privilege of working alongside instructor Khamal Iwuanyanwu and curriculum designer Kelly Grace Thomas with students ranging in age from 12 to 18 yrs of age. They are members of Get Lit’s Emerging Writers Fellowship, in partnership with Heart of Los Angeles (HOLA) and the California Library Foundation, and when we could still gather, we assembled weekly for a semester and a half to read and write poetry — they still meet with us online, tracing out the outlines of our rapidly changing world.
“I closed myself off with caution / tape,” writes Cielo Valenzuela, and later, “I became / bilingual in loneliness & guilt.” These young people exhibit a keen self-awareness coupled with a loneliness that feels simultaneously universal and generational. Naomi Farkas writes, in a persona poem from the point of view of what might be described most plainly as her soul, addressing herself: “I’ll make sure that before you leave/ you create at least one thing / One thing worth / remembering.” This selection of work, submitted to The Los Angeles Press by the students and curated by Editor-in-Chief Linda Ravenswood, is a blistering into self-awareness and adulthood on the page in front of you.
“My voice is a scratched desk…my anger an empty backpack,” writes Nathan de la Pera, in a short poem entitled simply, My Metaphors, a barrage of plain metaphors that surprises with the amount of storytelling it does just by juxtaposing images. “I wonder if my silence is loud enough to cause an avalanche,” says Amari Smith in a poem couched in rich memory of watching Spongebob, drawing strength from the cartoon’s story to build the poet back up: “Can you believe that grown ass kid became manager? / That everything got better over a long period of time?”
This is the promise and the burden that these poems bear, an incredible act of witnessing from a rising generation, holding up their narrative for scrutiny, and wondering if the stories we already have are enough to contain them.
Spoiler alert: the answer is no. That’s why they’re here. Their voices are urgent and clear.
The Old Testament
The Lord said to the white man
“give them the ruined fat of the pig
never meant for your mouth”
and the Black woman said
give me a handful of salt
my father mined for you
and I’ll bare my child a feast.
The Lord said to the white woman
“wash your hair in the silk
slit of a waterfall
and leave nothing
but polluted river beds
to rinse their naps”
and the Black grandmother
with her legs spread
and bent like broken fences said
tilt your head this way child,
let me braid
you tend, and back
The teacher in front of my 7th grade bio class
pulled on my pony tail,
rubbing curls like candy wrappers
between her pale fingers and said
“flat iron your hair
or the science fair judges will dock you points.”
My Momma said
on the pink stool and bring your knees
to your chest,
hold your ear
took a hot comb
to my head like a gardner,
said a Black girl who doesn’t know
to fold her ear into static
if she doesn’t know the feeling of fire teeth
in her kitchen
she deserves her baby hairs to burn into ash.
My hot comb is oil handled,
Momma says it is worn by the hand
of her hair-dresser grandmother,
told her to split her part with eggshells
and stand in the sunlight to lose
the Black girl grease.
My hot comb hasn’t been used
since 7th grade when it chewed
into my scalp and left bloodstained
hairs upon my head
to gleam in front
of the judges like headlamps
through the stain of summer highlights.
My hot comb hasn’t been slapped
against my Momma’s palm
coughed out a cackle
of smoke since my sister’s
senior prom, she cried
after the perm fried her hair
tried to sweat out
the flatness through dancing
her natural curls don’t remember
a time before the big chop,
or the days spent at Sunday school
singing this little light of mine
while the white kids pulled on her pigtails.
They live in the aftermath
of transitioning, bandaged
in headbands wrapped
around clustered craters
of depressed volume.
My hot comb stores these memories
between the gaps of its teeth.
Threads each one carefully
like floss as it cotton-gins
our hair with steel,
each cavity holes another knot
that is ripped
from our heads
and left forgotten.
It knows that one day
these strands will crumble
away into dust,
return what we borrowed
back towards Home
and it will be left here too.
Alongside the grandmother
And the Lord said,
with her black body twisting
to fit between the gaps
of her neighbor’s chain link fence,
and the other black bodies
that have forgotten
what it means to live
And break the law of conservation
just by being,
how their molecules expand past
the scripture just through existing.
the white man wrote:
“a Black woman who doesn’t know
how to change coils
into a white woman’s spun silk
is no Black woman at all,
a Black woman
who doesn’t know how
to press her daughter’s hair through
red cheeks and puffy eyes
is a Black woman
who doesn’t exist.”
And the Lord said,
Edited by LR
Christina Miles is an African American/Ashkenazi Jewish poet from Orange County, California, and I’m a self-described History Junkie. I am a member of Get Lit’s Emerging Writers Fellowship, one of their 13 Get Lit Players, and a 2020 Cohort for the Dragon Kim Foundation Fellowship dedicated to making the film industry more inclusive. I am also an editor and art editor on my school’s award winning annual literary magazine Inkblot. When I’m not writing poetry, I’m either binge watching movies or trying to learn new languages. My goal is to tell stories about my history to help uplift my community, whether that be through film, novels or poetry. My ultimate dream in life is to be an Ancient History professor with a pet basset hound and cup of Earl Grey always by my side.
My thoughts on my body image from 5 to 15
Happiness was ripped from me
Along with my femininity.
I didn’t speak in
dresses or skirts.
I closed off my skin;
Tried to forget the girls who said I wasn’t one.
Insecurity worn with pride,
Decorated with dinosaur t-shirts
I embodied uncomfortable.
My hair had become disgust,
My eyes were disappointment,
I’d lost my childhood.
I was overwhelmed with looks
At a young age.
Filled with rage,
I closed myself off with caution tape.
Hiding had become my new comfort.
I was digging my grave before I had even
started to live.
In 6th grade I became
bilingual in loneliness & guilt.
My best friends were replaced
She showered me with love.
Clouds dripping with sadness
Every footstep, like a
Headphones drowned the
Deadly silence outside.
Socializing had become
A foreign tongue.
My eyes had become dams to hold back
Because tears built like rivers
on my cheeks.
My lungs felt like they were drowning.
Now, I start to get ready for school.
I pick out a shirt, some jeans,
some shoes and a jacket.
The shirt is big so it hides my stomach.
The jeans are high waisted so I feel skinnier.
The jacket keeps me warm but also hidden.
The shoes are the best part;
They’re just for show.
“I don’t really like my body”
I observe every inch of me with my eyes &
see the tattoos of my past.
Disappointment cradles my eyes,
Sorrow weighs heavily above my collarbone,
Shame is stamped on my wrist,
Guilt spread out on my stomach,
Embarrassment hugs my hips,
Foolishness lays on the side of my foot.
I guess I’m still learning to accept my body.
Cielo Valenzuela is a poet from Pasadena, California. She is a Get Lit Emerging Writers Fellow. She has presented work with YWCA and CHIRLA.
Second First Name
My birth certificate has two names
My second name was not a mistake
When you call me call me by both my names
One of my earliest memories is of my grandfather
putting in the tile around my old fireplace,
of watching him set every green-turquoise square in it’s rightful concrete bed.
Although never a painter,
I think this work was his most fluent language.
My dad says his father speaks four tongues, but I think he’s only learned what he needs to say
to stay alive.
I think my family really only thrives off tradition.
I think the world continues to rotate because
we never stopped building hallways to walk through.
I think someday I’ll love Exie Bella
not for the way she walks
but for her tongue.
The day I buy a house to hold all the extra baggage
will be the day my knees work again.
I think both my names are not for you to eat like another
did for yours.
spewed out in dedication to my memory
is another way to tell you
I love you.
What should I do?
I’m worn out like the shoes of a lost soldier
I feel embarrassed as a child who had thrown a tantrum
Eyes red like the fresh blood
Stinging, Stinging, Stinging of a skin a bee attacked
Scream aloud in a cave
I can’t amuse you, I’m not a circus
I’m talent show without talent
My legs feeling like they can snap at any moment
As sad as a heartbreak over a 10 year relationship
I have no use for anything
Something disposable which can be taken care of
Why do I stay inside this shell
I’m a bug stuck in a spider web
I’ll be free one day
One day, I say
Andrea Hernandez is a middle school student and a Get Lit Emerging Writer’s Fellow.
You should apologize
You make me feel like I’m climbing in mountain
You are the alarm clock no one likes.
You make me feel like a jewelry thief.
You are where people go once they die in hell
You make me lose my sanity when I even think of you.
You teach me stuff I won’t use in the outside world.
You are completely useless …. school
Giancarlos Mendoza is a middle school student and a Get Lit Emerging Writer’s Fellow.
Nathan de la Pera
My legs are like a turned off TV..
My sadness is like someone not wearing cologne from PRADA.
My lips are like a scratched desk.
My toes are like a garden with no flowers.
My anger is like a backpack with no books inside.
Nathan de la Pera is a middle school student and a Get Lit Emerging Writer’s Fellow.
Home where are you?
Home I called out your name but you are not around
Home why ain’t you there where I need you
Home you said you will be permanently but how come I have to move from place to place
Why don’t you make out your mind already
Home where are you?
How come your walls look so depressed
Can’t you afford to make a family happy
If I were in your place, your place, your place
Home what is like being a house
I hear people can’t seem to understand you meaning anymore
Tell me you make successful children, tell me you make parents proud
Home don’t tell me you want to crumble apart
Your job isn’t that hard
You must be out of your mind
Home where are you?
Home it’s ok
Home just breathe and let everything out
Home I didn’t realize what you have to go through
Home I can hear your sadness in the deep end of the hallway
Trying to let go of that child whom you fail to help grow
Seeing how hard your purpose of life is
Home people are wrong about you
Home where are you?
Even though you failed I’m sorry I didn’t remember that that that that that that you also have many victories
That you have many happy memories
Like seeing my parents drink hot cocoa while we open our presents on Christmas morning
Or like that time where you fill me of hope that my sister will be okay from her surgery
Home you were always in my every decision
Without you this memories would become a sock that would be lost inside a huge pile of clothes
No matter where I go you will always live in my heart
Home home home I say to myself
I’ve finally found you
Evelyn Velasco is a Get Lit Emerging Writers fellow. Her poem Home is a response to “Wanda, Why ain’t you dead” by Wanda Coleman.
When the Letters Speak
Dear Naomi Farkas,
After some careful consideration, I have decided not to go away.
I am the smiley face you left on the mirror after a hot and steamy shower
The plaster mold you left your hands in.
And your brother’s hands.
I am the days you spent at preschool, coloring pages and listening to hebrew in the synagogue/schoolhouse.
I am the song your great-grandfather sung to your great grandmother as he serenaded her
I am the song you will sing if you meet a beautiful girl who likes romantic gestures as much as you do.
I am your grandmother’s prize-winning poem
I am the language your ancestors spoke.
I am the sarcastic comment that you did mean, and the apology that you didn’t.
I am your first crush, and I will be your last, although you haven’t gotten to the point yet.
I am the cracked playground, the dusty corners, the sunflowers, and all the nostalgia in betwixt.
I know, as you remind me so often, that nothing is permanent.
I know that the sun will die and take us with her, I know that nothing we see or do will ever be
significant because we are insignificant, infinitesimal, pitiful little beings.
I know you love her.
I know you loved her.
But, unfortunately for you, I’m not leaving anytime soon.
And you aren’t either.
I’ll make sure of it, my child.
I’ll make sure that before you leave you create at least one thing.
One thing that’s worth remembering.
Naomi Farkas is a 12-year-old, queer, Jewish poet from Los Angeles, California. She is a member of Get Lit’s Emerging Writers fellowship.
i need anesthesia because i can’t be alone in my
thoughts/silence isn’t an anesthetic/it is a harbor for/ships
of thought to dock/and fill my port with/toxic thoughts/so
happiness can’t be exported./anesthesia doesn’t create
silence/i can’t have silence/anesthesia numbs/anesthesia
skips time/a break from life/thoughts can’t intrude/induced
meditation./i can’t get anesthesia/so i have to/shatter the
silence/i wear black wedge heels/and sprint down the
sidewalk/clicking my teeth together/so the clop of
shoes/the calcium clink/will give me anesthesia/scare the
silence away/like a flashlight shone on a ghost/spectral
thoughts scared off./but i can only run/for so long/before i
have to stop/catch my breath/and in between the
breaths/the anesthesia wears off
Spongy and Me
I was up at three in the morning
I was on the first episode of Spongebob
I watched it so much that I could quote things from it
“I’ve prepared my whole life to be a part of the Krusty crew and now I’m ready.”
“Ask Squidward. He’ll vouch for me.”
I told myself the fifth time that week that this is the last day I’d do nothing
I was a Patrick Star with a Spongebob mentality
My clothes, the mountains Spongebob climbed in his imaginary box
I wonder if my silence is loud enough to cause an avalanche
I let my thoughts swell my brain, people screaming my name and that god forsaken ticking
I couldn’t tell if it was the clock, or me close to exploding
Bathroom, alone, where all the sharp things are
I don’t have a clock in my room
I stayed in my room all day
Spongebob busted his butt and thought staying in his house was his only safety
Thinking there’s no dangers in your own home
But when your own mind warps itself into a Salty Spitoon, where is home anymore? Seriously Spongebob, you were talking to a napkin, chip and a penny
Your only place of safety became your greatest enemy
One of my favorite episodes was when Spongebob hurt himself in “How tough are ya?” He woke up in Weenie Hut General
I’d wake up in 72 hour hold If at all
I use to ask myself what’s the difference between me and spongy in that moment
And it took me a while to realize that Spongebob didn’t do it purposely
When depression hits, it hits harder than Patrick punching Spongebob after calling him tubby
Look at me
Living the phrase “I’m ready, depression.”
When I’m actually never ready
Ten times watching that first episode
Memories of it being washed away by a broom and windex
Eyebrows furrowed at the fact my blanket looks like old man Jenkins
I needed to go washing that weekend
I was motivated
Like when Spongebob went through hell and back to get his customer his pizza
Or when Spongebob tried his hardest to become manager
Can you believe that grown ass kid became manager?
That everything got better over a long period of time?
That I was living in my own best day ever episode?
I was looking in a mirror to make sure I looked kind of decent
I was playing the first episode of Spongebob again and how funny
Because before I turned it off and left, the last thing I heard was
“I’m ready!” “I’M READY!”
And I’ve never heard anything more relatable
I’m sorry for not being the greatest friend…. I’m sorry for not paying attention to you like if you’re the queen…. I’m sorry for hanging out with other kids…..for not being a loyal dog friend…..I’m sorry for not barking when you come home for not being tied to the leash for running into someone else’s hands…..for letting other people pet me…. I’m sorry for betraying you for not staying in your arms like other dogs. I hope you can forgive me….
Your Loyal Dog Friend
Alejandra Sandoval is a middle school student and an emerging writer with the Get Lit Emerging Writers Fellow.
Get Lit — Words Ignite fuses classic and spoken word poetry to increase teen literacy on the page and in visual media. We cultivate enthusiastic learners emboldened to inspire social consciousness in diverse communities.
Get Lit’s poetry and film curriculum engages young people by providing a creative outlet, community, and real-life work experience, transforming students into activists, scholars, and stars.Get Lit was founded in 2006 by Diane Luby Lane.
Brian Sonia-Wallace is a teaching artist with Get Lit – Words Ignite, and their Emerging Writers’ Fellowship. His debut nonfiction, The Poetry of Strangers, is a poetic exploration of humanity on America’s margins, forthcoming from Harper Collins in June 2020 and available for pre-order now. Brian is a nationally recognized poet and the founder of RENT Poet, a poetry experience company featured on NPR’s How I Built This serving clients ranging from Google to Vice. Brian’s writing has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Rattle, & more, and he has been a Writer-in-Residence for Amtrak, Mall of America, Dollar Shave Club, and the National Parks.
Khamal Iwuanyanwu, also known as Atlas Speaks, is a Reseda based Teaching Artist, poet, musician, and VFX editor who tells his own personal story through multimedia in hopes that his audience can find peace in knowing they are not alone. His topics range from inequality to mental illness as he believes that there is nothing that should be left unspoken. He has worked on projects with organization such as the United Nations and ACLU and strives to support groups aligned with his ideologies of peace and prosperity for everyone under the sky.