The beautiful scars of Kinetic Affect bring healing to others

When you see the crowd of 700 rise to their feet in a second ovation at a performance in Washington D.C., or the circle of young attentive faces at Kalamazoo's Lakeside Academy in laser-focus on the stage, the healing effect of Kinetic Affect is obvious.

Sold out crowds  gather to hear them at school fundraisers, art hops, comedy and improvisational shows, talent shows and theaters. And connecting community service to the spoken word art form, the team of two poets also performs to audiences of those that some might say have been forgotten by society: at-risk youth, single mothers raising children, prison inmates, struggling addicts.

Yet the healing isn’t just happening among those in the audience. On stage, the healing touches poets and performers Kirk Latimer and Gabriel Giron as well.

"Scars are beautiful," says Giron. "We’re not here to change the broken."

"The broken are here to change the world," finishes Latimer.

They talk like a perfectly aligned and synchronized couple from a long-standing marriage that has taught one how to finish the sentences of the other, fill in the blanks, lead into the next sentence.

"Although we started out competing against each other," says Giron.

"I was the wild card at a slam poetry competition at Kraftbrau," Latimer finished.

The two listened to one another perform on the slam poetry stage, critical yet appreciative, as they tried to best one another. The time came that each recognized a kindred soul and that they would be twice as powerful as a team.

But that’s not where the story begins.

For Kirk Latimer, the story begins in a metro Detroit neighborhood. "I was raised to be a tough guy," he says. "An attack dog. My family’s intentions were to teach survival skills. I was constantly on the brink."

On the brink of disaster, Latimer pushed every kind of boundary. Most of it he did with his fists, for a time as a boxer. His boundary pushing, he says, included trafficking drugs, heavy narcotics, gambling. He would land a fist in someone’s face for looking at him the wrong way. Everything was a confrontation. He had experienced every kind of abuse and in turn became abusive to others.

"I hurt people," he says simply. "But another part of me was very sensitive. I lost a pair of earmuffs and I cried about that. I learned to shelter the best part of me."

Where that path led was predictable: at 16, Latimer did time for his crime. What could change such a hardened but sensitive man-child?

"My senior year in high school, five friends died. The first one hung himself in his garage. The rest followed, like a domino effect. One friend overdosed, another died drunk driving…"

Latimer was tough, but he was also smart. He got the message. Drugs, violence, broken families played a part in his moment of transformation, but perhaps the real epiphany came much later. If the grief of watching his friends die hit him hard, hard enough to drive him back to school to earn a degree with honors at Western Michigan University in English and education, it took another young voice to complete the turnaround.

Latimer taught at Portage Northern High School for seven years, passing along his love of creative writing and forensics to young and eager minds. Reading a student’s evaluation of his teacher, at the very bottom was a question the student had for Latimer: "Who are you really?"

"I wasn’t really practicing what I preached," Latimer recalls. "A student called me out."

Meanwhile, another transformation was taking place. Another path was leading toward that moment when Latimer and Giron would find themselves sharing a stage.

"My father grew up with abuse," Gabriel Giron begins. "His father beat him. He would put jalapeno and lemon juice in his eyes. But my father was determined to break that cycle of abuse; I grew up in a loving family. My parents met in New York, got into Eastern philosophy and went to India--and that’s where I was born--in an ashram."

Growing up accustomed to different cultures and ethnicities, Giron was open-minded and naturally tolerant of difference. When his parents divorced, the 7-year-old boy lost his loving support system and grounding sense of stability. A series of quick moves left him disoriented. "Four schools in four years," he says. "Every time I felt settled, it was time to leave. I learned to keep people at a distance."

Moving to Kalamazoo to be near his mother’s family, the then 10-year-old Giron found himself in a school where he was seen as much as a bully as a poet. It took one teacher to see through the posturing of a boy shooting pellet guns at squirrels, smoking and selling marijuana in school halls to other students, quickly spiraling out of control.

Giron distracted a janitor while a friend stole a $3,000 scale from the classroom. The teacher knew it. He asked for the scale back and when it was returned he gave Giron a second chance. Giron finished high school with straight A’s.

"That teacher saved my life," Giron says.

With a clean record, Giron joined the military after graduation. Then life took a turn. An odd lump turned out to be stage IIIB testicular cancer. Cancer had spread throughout his body. Aggressive treatment, four cycles of chemotherapy, four major surgeries and more than a dozen minor procedures would restore health but also give Giron introspective pause.

"Cancer changed me. I was shattered. I couldn’t have a conversation without crying," he says.

With his military career over, Giron returned to Kalamazoo and found a connection with the city and its people that he hadn’t felt before. Slam poetry gave him a stage to express his experience.

At last, the two paths converge. On stage, watching each other perform, hearing each other’s raw and powerful poetry, Giron and Latimer developed mutual respect. And each witnessed the other’s vulnerable moment in the spotlight when words ran dry. It happened to Giron, then it happened to Latimer.

"I blinked," Latimer says. "He came over and encouraged me."

After that, they both chime: "Long walks in the rain, hand in hand, talking about poetry," and then both break up into laughter.

"We were too different to become friends, but now we love each other like brothers," they echo.

Lessons? Many. But the important one is that scars are beautiful, and broken people can reach out to let other broken people (and who of us isn’t, they point out) know that we are OK as we are. The duo plant seeds of healing and watch them grow, some in that moment, some no doubt much later.

Kinetic Affect, LLC, the non-profit organization the two started in 2007, now performs to local, regional and national audiences, and more often than not to packed houses.

Speak It Forward, a recent 501 (c) 3 non-profit outgrowth, focuses on outreach to youth and adults at the fringes of society. Performances include (but are not limited to) Calhoun County Juvenile Home, Kalamazoo County Juvenile Home, Starr Commonwealth, Lakeside Academy, prison re-entry programs and various treatment facilities.  

Originally, their plans were modest -- to make sure that within five years they could survive with Kinetic Affect as a main source of income. They accomplished that with time to spare. Now their long-term goal is to create what could be described as an "Interlochen for the broken," a school where, over the course of years, scarred youth "see the powers they possess and turn them from doing harm into doing productive and beautiful things," Latimer says.

"We’ve always pushed each other to go deeper," says Giron. "That’s why people connect with us. In one word, it’s vulnerable."

"Real strength is in exposing our wounds," Latimer says. "We can’t be afraid of our vulnerabilities. They reveal who we really are."

Upcoming performances include The SOul Event on Saturday, March 3, 7 p.m., at the Binda Theater, Kellogg Community College, a program that brings area youth to the stage to perform their own work and find their own voice. The SOul Project is funded by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation and supported by the Battle Creek Community Foundation.

Zinta Aistars is a freelance writer from Portage and editor of the literary ezine The Smoking Poet.

Photos by Erik Holladay

Visit the Kinetic Affect website to learn more, view videos, and check an events calendar.

Kirk Latimer, left, and Gabriel Giron are the poetry team called Kinetic Affect.

Kinetic Affect’s Gabriel Giron

Kinetic Affect’s Kirk Latimer.