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THE SCENE / ORANGE COUNTY

Poetic Justice : Young writers share with their pensive peers a dedication to the craft and a maturity that comes of examining issues and expressing feelings.

October 14, 1994|ROSE APODACA JONES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Manuel Schwab fumbles with a Camel cigarette before tucking it behind his right ear. His waist-long hair is tied into a ponytail, away from a face that resembles those of artists who talk expressively over smokes and espresso.

Manuel, however, is not like those artists. He might share their affection for nicotine and caffeine. He might tell a fellow poet that if this woman from the L.A. Times wants to interview him, she can walk over to him. But Manuel turns out to be one of those few people without an attitude, unpretentious almost to a fault.

Like not mentioning that he spent two weeks touring with Lollapalooza, reading his poetry to concert-goers in six cities. (That was offered up by a poet acquaintance who saw him at the show at Cal State Dominguez Hills.) Or that he took the prize at the poetry slam--a nonstop competitive run of spoken word--held that day.

Even finding out that he was commissioned to write a piece on Los Angeles for a Propaganda Films production directed by David Lynch turns up only in a chance conversation a day after the interview.

Nor did I realize that I was already familiar with Manuel's work. The latest tango at the Kuwaiti border reminded me of an anthology of regional poets published during the conflict three years ago. In "Journal of the Gulf War: Poetry from Home" (Poets Reading Inc., 1991), one writer penned two lines that caught my attention:

*

A dry-cleaned american flag

waves in the exhaust of a porsche.

*

As it turns out, it was this Manuel who wrote these lines. He was 13 at the time.

Now 16, the sophomore at University High in Irvine has collected a number of accolades in his short career as a poet. But to Manuel that is less significant than his devotion to writing, as well as the drive shared by other poets in high school.

These young bards walk the halls or find a quiet spot during lunch armed with worn spiral notebooks filled with tiny writing, maybe doodles in the margins and folded loose sheets of laser-printed material stuck within.

Most of the more dedicated ones tend to speak articulately, revealing their love for words beyond common adolescent favorites such as "like, uh" or "you know." And they reveal a maturity beyond their age, no doubt from having thought through issues and feelings that most of their peers either don't face or prefer to blow off.

It's usually around freshman year that the poetry begins. It's then that anxieties and frustrations seem to develop overnight and amplify with each semester. Most poets, however, stay in the closet, reluctant to share their notebooks with friends or family.

Not only would it mean exposing their secrets. It would open them up to possible literary criticism that, for some, is secondary to the exercise in expression.

"I think many people write in high school," observes Manuel, "but they keep it to themselves, which I think is fine if that's what they want."

Father turned transparent red with turbid rage because he had just dropped 16 years of impromptu breeding, of introverted runts becoming radiant in his eyes, of bringing up a son.

(from Manuel's recent "Atheism Was Inherent at My Birth and I Deny the Existence of God with Reckless Passion")

*

Manuel's experience is unusual among his peers, partly due to parents who have supported his interest by taking him to readings and offering guidance.

His mother is a professor of comparative literature at UCI, and his stepfather teaches English at Loyola Marymount. But Manuel considers the two years he attended the UCI Farm School, a private elementary school on the university campus, as the point he realized poetry. At age 10 he was introduced to Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and the other beats and assigned to write his first poem for a school show.

He followed with his first public reading on his 12th birthday at the Laguna Art Museum. A year later, he published his first work, "Yellow Bliss," in the anthology. Since then, his works have appeared in poetry magazines such as Caffeine and Dance of the Iguana put out by the Iguana Cafe, a poetry haunt in Los Angeles where he will read on Nov. 27. He also tried his reporting hand with an article on Lollapalooza in Next magazine.

Poetry, says Manuel, "is a much more concise way for me to get something across. It's a form that I can combine quickly different senses, experiences, emotions into one unified piece.

"Writing in general is vital to my mental and spiritual health."

Already, notes Manuel affectionately, his 5-year-old brother, Leon, is discovering poetry by accompanying him to open readings. "He's getting a lot of the flavor," he says. "After a reading he gets a book and says 'I'm going to do poetry now.' "

Doing poetry now for Manuel includes his friend Dave Youssef, 16, on acoustic guitar. Also a University High sophomore, Dave joined Manuel on a reading he did for a KUCI radio show two years ago.

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