Thursday, February 27, 2014


They call him Curly. He has no hair. Most of his front teeth are gone too.

But he has dentures that he puts in for the workshop. He smiles often. Talks a lot.

He has a mind of his own, and holds up a hand-written sign that says "I refuse" when I ask him to do an assignment. He wants to write about his religion, about perseverance, overcoming odds, acceptance, taking the hard path rather than the garden variety of drugs, hookers, and violence.

Most often, the writing comes across as religious jargon, but lately he has been infusing his spiritual message with image. "Your life is not a problem/ hiding behind limousine/ tinted windows," one poem begins. "Wow!" I say. "If life is not a problem hiding behind tinted limousine windows, what is it?"

He is working at answering that one.

The change has been a long slog. We wrangle about his poems almost every Saturday. He is confident in what he has to say, but not so confident in how he says it. He doesn't want to listen to some university-trained white guy critique his street poetry, especially if that white guy's first name is Norman. That just doesn't fly.

We have known each other for about five years now, and I have spent more time with him than with many of my closest friends or even family. He has become a friend of sorts. I find myself thinking about him during my work week, and he has written letters about writing to the students in my classes, especially the ones who are struggling, who are first generation college students, students who come from some of the same parts of town as he did, who face the same challenges, the same temptations.

When I taught high school, a very bright student once asked me, in all sincerity "Why should I listen to what you have to say about writing and stuff, when I can make twice what you make dealing with my homies?"

I answered that money was not the only part of success and that prison was likely part of the gang and drug equation. I suspect that I did not have much cred, cred that Sultan likely would have had.

He shrugged, crossed his arms, and dropped out a few days later.

So, here is Sultan, the man on the other end on that road, learning to write poetry. He has time, lots of time. And he reads. I brought him in an anthology of Rumi's poetry, along with some Hafiz and some critical essays. He reads these books and applies their messages.

He sits at my side in the workshop. He laughs hard and often, sometimes with teeth, sometimes without. He listens to the other men in the workshop read. He listens more closely than I do, and he is learning how to respond in ways that they might hear. He tries not to offend or to alienate, but to reach and connect.

He applies his spiritual beliefs.

Sometimes he takes what he calls "a hiatus." These breaks can last a month or a year. I can't expect that he will ever come back, and I don't know know what function these breaks from the workshop fulfill.

I suspect that he assimilates, broods, ruminates. He sits with his demons for all I know. I feel the same way sometimes, but do not have the will to break away and take the time let the swirling debris of my mind and my life settle.

When Sultan returns, he brings his usual fire, but now writes with more depth and clarity. He has taken the insights into how to live a step further. I can see it in the ideas. He is becoming a teacher, a minister, and in a less flattering sense, a preacher.

It's too bad that preaching and poetry do not mix well, so we butt heads, again. 

He does not want to be told what to do and still holds up his hand-written sign, usually with a toothy smile: "I refuse."

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