This session of the New Skool Journalism Workshop found teen journos digging into the lives of other writers and artists. Applying a critical scrutiny to their own world and their own work as well as to material by Joan Didion, Sharon Olds, John Edgar Wideman, and Patricia Williams, the young writers produced stories that brought unique perspectives to fresh topics. They reported on the street from the street—real work they rightfully consider to be (as one workshop writer put it) the voice of the street.
NSJW has received past support from Poets & Writers and is an ongoing collaboration between The Brooklyn Rail and Urban Word NYC, a collective that offers free after school writing workshops to the city’s teenagers.
Editors, Knox Robinson and Jen Weiss
MySpace to Write by LAURA MARIE O’REILLY
She is a hyperactive hipster who keeps hitting her head against the glass like a bee trapped in a jar, always buzzing. At age 17 she’s treading water in the deep end with a motor mouth and a keen sense of “independence.” Her name is Patty and you have probably seen her dancing in the window of American Apparel on the LES.
“I write what I think, and that’s all. I offend people, but I don’t care what their reaction is. As long as I am being heard I don’t give a shit,” explains Patty, a self-proclaimed MySpace addict. She says having a public journal on a website like MySpace has shaped her as a writer: “I like people to find things out from my perspective. I’m a Leo. I’m an attention monger.”
When Patty moved from Riverdale in the Bronx to the Jersey suburbs she felt isolated and was miserable in her new high school. She started cutting as an outlet, and soon there was blood in her journal: she recorded the patterns of her self-tattoos and how many times she would cut herself as it became an everyday ritual. Eventually she was sent to rehab, where she wrote constantly just to cope with the move between rehab and “the insanity of my home.”
“I would write itineraries for every day,” she says. “To do lists: ‘8:30 take lithium,’ ‘9:30 eat breakfast.’” Patty later moved in with her aunt in Manhattan, shared a bed with her cousin—her best friend—and started her junior year at a Catholic school. “I was happy at first. It’s hard to write when you’re happy,” she says. “Then at some point I think I stopped feeling, so I was writing a lot to keep myself busy.”
Over the summer Patty got a job at American Apparel. Working there helped her find her voice as a writer, she says, mainly because her job encourages freedom of expression and the ability to be outrageous on the clock. Patty also made a name for herself with an infamous bluntness; her reputation for saying whatever is on her mind to customers traveled to company headquarters in L.A. Still, Patty says she’s moving on—her job at American Apparel has been an outlet, but she doesn’t want it to define her.
Finding a sense of self in such a large and overcrowded city isn’t easy. Patty’s finding her voice while screaming for attention, and she could be a queen in a scene where everyone desperately wants to be seen. There is something distinct about her—something special; you have to wonder if her general insanity is all a show. She needs more than an outlet, she needs a container. That’s what MySpace is: interactive Tupperware for an overactive generation. It’s giving Patty’s generation the opportunity to feel seen and heard. And taking blogging beyond a hobby might develop skills that transfer into a profession for some.
Patty intends to pursue print writing as a career.
The Sole of the Streets by JASON ANTHONY JULIEN
Today the streets are talking, and everyone who walks on them is listening. The palms of my hands are warm and anxious as my mouth gets dry and parched. I look down at the white plastic bag and continue to breathe heavy. My heart beats faster than a basketball in the hands of a Rucker Park point guard. I pull a tanned box out of the bag and open it slowly, pull the cover off the top and witness a beautiful birth. Under the blanket of onion paper the striking patent-leather skin demonstrates my reflection. A perfect moment in time, I stared at a phenomenon that will impact the streets in more ways than one.
Culture and the streets are joined by shoelaces that personify who teenagers are. There are so many emotions when a pair of $100 sneakers become yours. No one knows that feeling more than Angie, a 20 year old worker at A Life sneaker store on the Lower East Side. “A Life is not your ordinary sneaker store,” Angie proclaimed. “Buying a $400 pair of sneakers from here is close to buying a Ferrari when it comes to cars. But buying a pair of Shaqs is like buying a used 1990 Nissan. I’ve only worked here for one week, and I’ve learned more about the streets than I ever knew. I’ve learned that if you own some hot kicks then you own power. You are popular even if you’re the biggest nerd in your high school; the streets will respect you.” Angie was smiling with her teeth bright and white as she was putting a pair of Nike Dunks inside the red velvet carpeted glass case.
Most teenagers lack a job, but still feel committed to a new pair of sneakers every month. And while “there are days I catch myself staring at somebody’s brand new kicks,” Matthew Torres, a 17 year old high school senior and sneaker collector, says he also sometimes feels controlled by his sneakers. “It’s stressful because on one hand I just spent money and now I’m completely broke! How I even get the money for kicks is a battle in itself.” A battle that sometimes isn’t just financial but physical as well. When teens walk out of their house, onto city streets and see some fresh-ass sneaks, they register feelings of jealousy or scorn for those who have what they want. We’re trapped in a world where one pair of rare sneakers can make or break us; says you have money, that you have authority!
Many street gangs represent themselves by flair and style. I remember walking down my block in Coney Island, and seeing sneakers being hung upon the phone wires up above. Sneakers mark territory. An anonymous 16 year old “blood” from Brooklyn has his own theory, “Every person who brought us harm, we rob them of their sneakers. Then we throw their kicks up on the lines until they stay there. Our hood is our hood. You will get jacked if you disrespect us and the whole block will witness your humiliation.”
Still, sneakers are not only popular in hip-hop culture. Ashley, a 15 year old who is in a rock and roll group, customizes her sneakers. “Without my special colors or buttons, the retail for my sneakers is only $45. All you have to do is show people you’re creative, that you’re unique,” she says. “But I don’t do it for others. I do it because I know I look cool.”
Today the streets are talking, and everyone who walks on them is listening. From Adidas’ 3 stripes to Nike’s signature check, from Puma’s pouncing black panther to the single star of Converse, sneaker trademarks have turned the streets into a daily cat walk. There are some new models on the market that look to make a future impact such as Bathing Apes, Skater Boys and 310’s. How much would you give to reveal your sole to the streets?
Staged Secrets by IEMI HERNANDEZ-KIM
“When I let out my secret onstage, I have to admit I was kinda pissed off,” says Anonymous. “I wrote about someone and I expected there to be a big fight or something. I expected that the one secret that I’ve kept would be out in the open and that I’d feel free and be able to talk to people about it and have all of my feelings about this secret out. I guess that I wanted to use the stage as my way out from something that trapped me in. But it didn’t work, the person that I talked about acted as if nothing happened. They just acted like they were happy.”
Anonymous is part of viBe Theater Experience, an amazing theater collective that allows teenage girls to write uncensored as well as stage and perform their own play. The organization says that these stories and voices “build and transform themselves and their community.”
But secrets can be the one thing in our lives that can ruin it. They can take away a person’s name only to leave them with a question mark that so many of us are afraid to claim. Can setting secrets free in an uncensored place like the stage help the people who suffer from them? This question came to my mind once I found myself weaved into viBe and saw so many young girls go on stage and talk about things that hadn’t been talked about before. Why were they willing to go onstage—where the spotlight is on you and there is no turning back once you step on it—instead of heading to the birthplace?
“Yeah, I wrote about my brother and he acted as if nothing happened,” said a girl in the bathroom before a performance. “Me too,” responded another.
Many non-profits help a lot of teenagers, but there’s a limit—a limit was built on what can and can’t happen onstage. Your voice is heard by hundreds of people and there are times when it affects people, but your voice might also affect the most important person: you. “I guess that I write about secrets as expression, thinking that since I’m letting my anger out, it will help me get over it,” says Anonymous. “It did in a way. But then, it didn’t because it’s still going on and there is still that little grudge hanging over me.”
“Right now, I feel more trapped than free,” continues Anonymous. “After letting my secret out nothing happened, at all…” So why bother to even express a secret on stage? Maybe to some people expression might be the perfect step, but for others being free takes more than just expression. But for those that have gone onstage or somehow expressed something deep about themselves and have found that almost useless, let’s look at the stage as the secondary source and instead use actual talking and helping as our tool for fixing. Let’s all break this anonymous wall we’ve built and help ourselves help ourselves.
For more information on viBe Theater Experience go to www.vibetheater.org
Art on the Corner by TOLA BRENNAN
I am an aspiring artist. Two months ago I set up a table on the street in SoHo. I went partly because my mother sells her paintings there, and because another street artist, Patrick-Earl Barnes, inspired me to get serious about my art and take it out to be seen. I was surprised to receive such a positive response. Selling my art as much as I have encouraged me to keep working. The street should be as esteemed as any gallery and any artist should consider selling there.
The street gives artists absolute freedom as to what they can exhibit. As long as you have a table and hopefully a tax ID, you can display art without having to cater to gallery owners or anyone else who decides what gets seen and what doesn’t. The street is free. Anyone can bring their art to the street and wait to be discovered—one never knows who will walk by. “The street gives me the opportunity to be accessible to the masses,” says Barnes. “On letting them know how I think.”
It’s a popular misconception that all art sold on the street is mediocre and just stuff that doesn’t make it into the galleries. There are actually a substantial number of first-rate artists who choose to sell on the street as an alternative to hustling in the chaotic gallery scene. Working with painting, collage and mixed media on canvas and found wood, Barnes creates art that is stylish and contemporary, and many of his pieces contain political and social commentary.
“My style is my vernacular,” explains Barnes. “It is comprised of things from my history.” Originally from Shrevesport, Louisiana, he has been displaying his at the corner of Broome and West Broadway for the last five years and is currently working on projects he calls “Shirts & Ties,” “Shotgun Houses,” “Art of Fashion,” “Storefronts,” “Deep Ties,” and a new series called “DJ Booths.” As a distinct and charismatic example of an artist expressing himself and showing his art on his own terms, Barnes says he meets many of his contacts on the street.
Selling on the street takes a lot of patience. It’s hit and miss—it all depends on who walks by. Some artists believe it’s all about location; others feel that it’s all about the work. A few artists compete fiercely over what they think are the best spots. To keep their chosen spot they arrive as early as six in the morning; some even sleep in their cars overnight. For artists like Barnes, however, that’s a bagatelle for artistic freedom. “I realized that it was my obligation as an artist to this society to open ways for a better understanding,” he says. “My art is used for the needs of the people and to say, ‘this way, please.’”
Under the Influence by JODI-ANN GAYLE
“If you date a girl, you date all her friends,” says Branden, a talented 17 year old, when asked why teen relationships tend to end badly. Love is mysterious as is, but usually we ruminate about what crime has been committed to make it more mysterious. Something’s wrong and it needs to be figured out, from the ground up. Rumors and suspicions sprout daily, so what was planted in the root—maybe when we least expect it, someone near us slips a poisonous seed in our soil?
We spend time in our relationships being afraid and not knowing whether to go right or left. The confusion comes from not being aware of the choices we should make, versus the choices told to us by our friends. New at love, teens receive yes and no answers that evoke passion, but end up bringing us closer to knowing more about the person speaking, not the situation at hand. Tone, a 19 year old student, speaks of the hope and confusion we all experience at one time or another: “You’ve got to really prepare your mind, because when you think about it, whatever perspective or view the next fool may have on you or your relationship is true, but in reality, I take it as bullshit, kinda.” Just like Branden, Tone’s ex-girlfriend took whatever her friends told her without giving him the benefit of the doubt. Word of mouth became her truth. For both Branden and Tone, their ex- girlfriend’s friends caused their relationships to end.
Now in his 20’s Sam looks back at a situation that happened when he was 14 and dating a girl from a rich background. One day, Sam’s friend told him that his girlfriend was hanging with a rich kid, whom they disliked. Instead of finding out the truth from her, Sam broke up with her before she could explain, only to find out later that the guy was only her distant cousin. Six years later he still talks to about it.
“I think they break up instead of confronting, because they may be afraid of the embarrassment of being wrong, or they just don’t want to argue,” explains Daniel. Donald Jacques adds that “communication is the key.” And 22 year old Vinny, who’s also been burned, says “it’s up to you whether you are going to let rumors hurt your relationship or not.” Having learned his lesson the hard way, he, along with the other guys I spoke with, said that they don’t allow friends to interfere with the choices they make in their relationships. For each of them, relationships survive when they listen to their own voices.
However, Devin, a 19 year old who says he has “positive friends,” listens to his friends because they wouldn’t say what they didn’t know. He says he would approach his partner if he saw a change in her demeanor. Even though they turned out not to be true, Devin also experienced the rumor and romance scenario, but for him, suspicion equals insecurity.
So what if you were insecure about your relationship and you told your partner, and they reassured you? Are we as strong as we think we are? I definitely know we aren’t as strong as we appear to be. We use this protective shield for protection, but when the right person comes along that shield goes away and we are weak. If you were someone who knew the depth of my pain, then you know the sorrow that I don’t have to borrow. When all goes wrong, and the rumors and suspicions overrule the options, we choose to forfeit the game without asking why.
Handology by UJIJJI DAVIS
When a teenager on the 1 train shouted “Take a hand and love it, man” I started to consider. Smooth soft wrinkles, tiny pores and light hairs. Creases for joints and curves for knuckles and nails in an assortment of colors. Possible scars and birthmarks, but always the engraved lines that some think tell the future. Hands. According to Webster, the hand is the part of the arm below the wrist used for grasping. It seems that, in this case, Webster’s definition is inadequate and helps feed into our lack of appreciation for our hands. Hands are used to touch, hold, hug, squeeze, and speak. Sign language is one way to provide voice, but using the hand to write is another way to provide voice. Writing is the most powerful and loudest voice that can be heard, and to do so, a hand is needed.
Even though every wrinkly, smooth, ashy, sweaty, achy, dry or arthritic hand gets us through each day, when I asked my friends about their hands, they mostly laughed, looked at me with concern, or propped their hands in front of their eyes and examined them for something magical hiding underneath the surface.
However, after laughter and an intense gaze at her hands, Juget Benjamin, a known poet at The Young Women’s Leadership School said, “If I didn’t have hands, then I wouldn’t be able to produce the works of art that I do right now.” After answering, as if unsure of her words, she looked back at her hands before continuing to eat. Naa-Ayanna Djata, a rising poet and actress, shows great appreciation for her hands. “I wash them. You know, I put a little nail polish, put on some cocoa butter to keep them from getting dry. I soak them, you know.”
Writers show affection for their hands, or as Tahani Salah from Urban Word NYC called them, her “tools for expression.” And Mark Arena, a poet and emcee, calls his hands, translators: “They translate what’s going on up there in my head onto physical space,” he stated.
It seems that many are unappreciative of their hands, but when asked, teen writers help revise Webster’s definition: Hands are the part of the arm below the wrist used to grasp daily life and write about it.
NSJW is a program of Urban Word NYC. For more info or to sign up for Spring workshops, go to www.urbanwordnyc.org