South L.A. teenager finds home in poetry

On a chilly night in South L.A., over a hundred young people have packed into a small theatre for an open-mic poetry reading.

Kenzie Givens

Kenzie Givens, poet, and high school student.

Seventeen-year-old Kenzie Givens is an African American poet and tonight is her first time performing at the venue.

On stage, Givens looks tough. She’s dressed in a leather jacket, mini-skirt and combat boots and her hair is done up in dreads.

Despite her apparent confidence, Givens doesn’t always fit in with her peers. She writes poetry because she often can’t connect with students her age.

“When I’m at school, I’m usually pretty shy,” said Givens. “I have this little place where I sit off. It’s actually behind this little shrubbery thing, and that’s usually where I go and eat my lunch. If people are around me my head tends to be in a book.”

Givens lives in Baldwin Hills, but doesn’t go to school in the predominately African American neighborhood, which features signs reading “Black Owned” and “Support the Hood.”

In the third grade, her parents, Darren and Caroline, chose to send her to charter schools in mostly white, wealthy neighborhoods.

“As one of the only African American students, I definitely felt like an outsider. I tried to make friends with people and tried to ingratiate myself into different groups and stuff, but I found out that in order to do that I’d have to be someone that I was not, and that didn’t appeal to me. So I just kind of decided to be stubborn, and stick it out alone,” she said.

Her father felt it was important to raise his children close to their family roots.

“It was important for them to be in an environment where one, they would be safe, but they’d be around their own people as well, able to go outside and play, drive around, participate in the neighborhood, go to their own stores, and different things,” said Darren.

Kenzie Givens (right) and her father.

Kenzie Givens (right) and her father.

Givens’ mother is a teacher in South Central, and admits that it was important to send Kenzie to a school that would prepare her for university, even though it was difficult to send her away.

“I would have liked her to have more African American friends, which I think she doesn’t have as many. Does she have any? I don’t think she has any African American friends,” said Caroline.

“I’m certain there’s someone at my school that I could have really great conversations with but I’m so focused on my books and exploring topics on my own, I never get to talk about it with anyone. Like, I’ve never had a boyfriend, or maybe my boyfriend is a book, I’m not sure,” said Givens.

While the final days of high school tick away, Givens has found a way to connect with other poets.

Recently, she started a poetry club at her high school. It isn’t popular, but the members are dedicated to their craft.

During a drizzly lunch period, four teenagers assembled in a classroom to read their poems. There were no notebooks or scribbled-in journals.

The students wrote and read their poems off their cell phones – their fingers scrolling over the words.

Poetry club members, Edwin, Sophie and Daniel, all agreed that poetry was misunderstood at their school.

“When you tell people you’re a poet, they think you’re all sad and depressed, when it really isn’t like that,” said Daniel.

For Givens, poetry is important.

“I write what feels most real at any moment. It can be any experience that is so moving that it demands to be written down. I think my biggest fear is probably a very common one, and that is of disappearing entirely. I‘d like to know that I mattered,” she said.

On the night of her first reading, Givens’ nervousness melted away. She appeared grounded and confident about her future.

Next year, she is heading to Reed College in Portland, where she secured an early admission and a scholarship. She is certain that the open environment at Reed will be accepting of her poetry and her identity.

Meanwhile, in the crowded South L.A. theatre full of poets and performing artists, she’s no outsider. As she reads her poem, the crowd snaps and applauds – expressing their approval.

On stage, Kenzie Givens is at home.

Listen to an audio version from Annenberg Radio News