Dark and strong at the Poets' Café

At Barnes & Noble in New York's Chelsea, Sherry Pettaway introduces her poem "The Diagnosis." A little stage-shy, but regally outfitted in African print, Sherry reads:

I was told some years agoin a not-so-reassuring waythat I have an illness thatcould stop my breathing the air,my living. I fought thereality within the marrowof my bones. I struggled andwas left alone with memyself and I. I want tolive -- not die, die, so I lookto the goddess and thediagnosis is LIFE.

Sherry and I have been meeting at AIDS Service Center of Lower Manhattan (ASC), where I run a creative-writing workshop with ASC's clients and peer educators. Each week, we start by reading a poem by an established poet. Often it resonates so that participants want to respond, or the language and style open new avenues for expression.

One week, we read James Baldwin's "Guilt, Desire and Love," in which these three characteristics become like characters in a play. Hattie L. Brown produced "Tears/Stress," personifying these elements as "stalkers" who pursue her until she finds a way "to beat both Tears' and Stress' ass." At the bookstore, she read "Tears/Stress" to hoots of approval and energetic applause.

ASC has hosted three Poet's Cafés, where participants read their work before an audience, often for the first time. The very public nature of this event has all the readers a bit anxious. But as each poet begins, words and rhythm take over. Random B&N browsers make their way toward the standing-room-only reading area. These poems are about surviving not just HIV, but homelessness, racism, poverty, substance abuse, violence and heartbreak. Before long, the collective intimacy that well-written, heartfelt poetry inspires has taken hold of the room. And for the poets there is a sense of being listened to -- on their own terms, in their own voices. "I didn't know I had it in me," Rufino Colón tells the audience, before blowing us away with his philosophical, haiku-like poems on despair, tenacity and compassion. The back lesbian poet Audre Lorde was right: Poetry is most definitely not a luxury.