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Troubled Teens Find Power in Written Word

October 27, 2000|BOOTH MOORE

There's poetry in all of us--not just the T.S. Eliots and Robert Frosts of this world, but people like 21-year-old Taylor Maxie Jr., a former gang member who said he's been shot seven times. Maxie said he discovered his flair for the written word while he was doing time for robbery and auto theft at Camp Fred Miller, the juvenile probation camp in Malibu. He was introduced to poetry three years ago by DreamYard L.A., a nonprofit group founded in 1997 by screenwriter Chris Henrikson to bring poetry to incarcerated teenagers.

At DreamYard's first fund-raiser Wednesday, Maxie, who has given himself the nom de plume Johnny Tremain, said writing saved his life. These days, he helps teach poetry for DreamYard L.A. and works as a production assistant on films. And he writes every day. "It's therapeutic," he said. "I like to write about what I'm going through when I'm angry because it helps me release the tension on paper instead of going out and doing something stupid."

The party, hosted by Robertson Boulevard jewelry store Slane & Slane, was capped off by a poignant spoken-word performance by alumni of the program. Cocktails were served in the courtyard, where photographer Jonathon Hexner's images of incarcerated teen poets had been mounted alongside their work.

After Henrikson founded the organization, "it took on a life of its own," he said. "Guys who came through the class wanted to do more, and we realized someone who has been a gang member is the best person to be reaching out to others in that destructive mind set." Now alumni are a permanent fixture at workshops. "I look at the kids like my little brothers," Maxie explained. "And I see myself in a lot of them."

Actress Claire Forlani, who has been volunteering in the program for a year, said she didn't think she had much to offer at first. But once a teen reads a poem, she said, "You know instantly what's going on with them. It opens up a line of communication." Henrikson's wife, screenwriter Susannah Grant ("Erin Brockovich," "28 Days"), added: "It's the first time for a lot of these guys that someone has said, 'Your voice is as valuable as everyone else's.' "

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In this year's tight presidential race, the polls have been wildly erratic. One minute George W. Bush is ahead, the next Al Gore--and it seems as if the leads are within the margin of error anyway. . . . But if past results are any indicator, General Cinema's literal straw poll may be the one to watch. I discovered the poll--which gives moviegoers a choice between drinking straws in Democrat or Republican-labeled wrappers--by accident the other night at the Galaxy Theater in Hollywood. After ordering a soda, I grabbed a straw without realizing I was casting a vote. "Don't take Republican straws!" a moviegoer next to me snapped.

Results are tallied twice a week at the Galaxy (and 134 other General Cinema theaters nationwide, including battleground states). As of this week, Gore retains a 10% lead over Bush, according to General Cinema spokesperson Brian Callaghan, who said nearly a million straws have been counted so far.

Launched in 1968, the straw poll has accurately predicted the outcome of the presidential race in every election.

Now if only General Cinema could get people to make their choices where it really counts: in the voting booth.

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SoCal Confidential runs Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Booth Moore can be reached at booth.moore@latimes.com.

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