Last night I was invited to participate in a poetry reading at the Homegirls Cafe, a part of Homeboy Industries. The cafe looks like an arts cafe from some bohemian-trendy neighborhood: golden yellow walls of set by dark wood counters and holding large canvases of local artists, a glass case full of pastries and orange and red bottles of Jarritos (the ELA designer drink). The girls behind smile and take orders like a Starbucks barrista, only they don more colorful shirts with slogans like “Jobs not Jail” over the Homegirls logo. Only this belies the reality of what makes Homegirls Cafe different: these girls have histories that most employers would shun.
Even though I know the history of Homeboys and Homegirls Cafe, I still would not guess that the young woman with the smile that embraces the cloudless LA sky had any sort of history of drugs or crime. I assumed she was a manager who helped to rehabilitate the girls. But none of them looked like the needed it, which I guess is the success of Homegirls. The only way I knew the truth was through the poetry reading.
The reading was informal, more like a party than the more ‘literary’ readings of LA.This was a fundraiser and community event first, a literary reading second. I started off the night with a few poems that garnered warm-hearted responses of appreciation. There is nothing like feeling your writing make a connection with people who are ready to be moved or inspired. Many of the readers that followed read poems that could best be described as confessional narrative. I don’t mean the literary school of confessional, but old school confessional, of pouring your heart out and witnessing to life’s best and worst.
I’ve been to a lot of readings in the area over the past year and it is readings like this — where people get up to share something real, where they are not there to show off and hog the mike, where poems written in notebooks live with poems crafted over months or years, where breaks are given to partake of the chips, gourmet salsas, tostadas and aqua fresca in the back — that I am reminded of the role of poetry in society and of readings. It is oral storytelling, it is witnessing, it is manifestation of our connection as human beings.
There will be readings once a month and other events every Thursday to raise money for Homegirls Cafe. For locals or visitors, I highly recommend checking out this great cafe (for an event or lunch) for a look at the non-Hollywood reality of LA.