What is your official title?
Kirk: We represent two different organizations here, one is Kinetic Affect, and one is Speak It Forward. For Kinetic Affect, I am the Executive Director and Co-Director with Gabriel. Under Speak It Forward, I am the active Education Director and Co-Founder.
Gabriel: Of Kinetic Affect, I am the Co-Director and Director of Visual Media, and with Speak It Forward, I am the Co-Founder and Executive Director.
Kirk: We made up our own titles.
What’s an average day in the ‘Zoo look like for you?
Kirk: What is an average day. We don’t have one, I mean genuinely, we don’t. One day it’s hanging in the office, writing poems, writing lessons, having conversations, having meetings. The next day is walking into a classroom working with juveniles to do a workshop, which is typically followed by a meeting, which is followed by an evening performance. Another day it could be traveling across the state to do a series of workshops. It’s constantly different.
Gabriel: Flying out to Colorado to do leadership development and run workshops.
Kirk: I think what really makes the job wonderful for both of us is that you can’t predict what’s going to happen.
Gabriel: I don’t know what’s happening next week. That’s how crazy and hectic our schedules are.
Kirk: It’s hard to look at the schedule more than a week at a time.
Gabriel: It’s great, because we started off as poets and we have a busy schedule, so that’s a fantastic problem to have.
What is Kinetic Effect and Speak It Forward?
Gabriel: Kinetic Affect is the name that we go by when we stand on stage as performers. Kirk likes to call it our rock band name.
Kirk: And we’re not a rock band.
Gabriel: So it’s more or less the way that we are able to communicate who we are as we brand what we do. Essentially it’s us being able to make a living as spoken word poets, storytellers, and keynote speakers. And there is a difference between Kinetic Affect and Speak It Forward.
Speak It Forward is a non-profit organization.
Kirk: It’s the educational arm of Kinetic Affect.
Gabriel: It’s about getting other people to tell their story.
Kirk: Kinetic Affect is about telling our story; Speak It Forward is using our skills to help other people tell their story. We perform locally, nationally, whatever; you name it, we’ve probably done it. The Association for Maternal and Child Health in Washington, DC. Greeley Public Schools in Colorado. America’s Got Talent. We beat out quite a few people in Chicago to get flown out to California. We lost to a burlesque group. If we had done poetry Magic Mike style, I bet we would’ve done great!
Which organizations do you partner with?
Gabriel: We work with Lakeside Academy, we’ve had a residency program there for five years and just ended our two year contract with them. During the school year, every Friday we start at 8:45am and then we do four classes with a very small lunch break, and we’re usually out of there by 1:30pm for the whole year. They have about 100 students on campus, and we usually start with about 80 of them; by the end of the semester, we maybe have 20-30 students. The culmination is a performance where the kids pick what type of piece they would like to perform.
Kirk: We also work with KCYC, The Kalamazoo County Juvenile Home, we’ve done some stuff for Pretty Lake Camp, HUMANeX, United Way, the Community Healing Center – the list really goes on. We enjoy working with the people in this community.
Can you tell us about your background/passion?
Gabriel: I grew up in New York, my family is from here though; my mom was one of 13 kids growing up in Richland. My mom and my dad met in New York; my mom was studying modern dance. They got divorced when I was seven, and for four years in a row I went to a different school while they were going through that transition, and ended up in Richland. New York to Richland was an interesting transition. I grew up pretty poor living in one bedroom places in New York, so moving to a place like Richland was beyond weird for me. I didn’t really get along with the kids there, so I acted out and got in a lot of trouble, befriending people who didn’t care about the system I guess. I ended up getting involved in drugs, alcohol and gangs by the time I was a young teen.
I started selling drugs by the age of 14 and had people working for me by the time I was 16; I had a very entrepreneurial spirit. I wasn’t really thinking about my future and how things were going to play out; I didn’t really expect to make it past 25 and didn’t have long term goal aspirations.
My grandfather, who I was very close with, and proximity-wise was the male role model in my life. He was a very good family person – he had 13 kids so he had a lot of practice. He passed away my senior year of high school and my family asked me to read something at his funeral. My senior year of high school in 2000, in mock elections, I was voted ‘Class Bully’ and ‘Class Poet’; kind of weird, like, I’ll beat you up, but I’ll write you a poem? It was an interesting personality clash.
Moving from New York to Michigan changed my perspective of what success meant. In New York, we didn’t have much, so success was all about family and community. In Richland it was very much about material objects – million dollar homes and nice cars – so my focus when selling drugs was to acquire the things that I lacked to make me successful. When my grandfather passed and I read something at his funeral, I got up on the podium and stood in front of a crowd of people in the church where it was standing room only, which I did not realize sitting in the pew. I read the piece, and it was one of those almost instantaneous aha moments where I literally was like, that right there is success. He had so many people who wanted to come out because he made an impact in their lives and in the community. Unfortunately, I had made so many bad choices by that point in my life that I didn’t have a whole lot of options after high school. My best friend growing up in high school is currently in prison serving 18-42 years in a level four maximum security prison.
I ended up enlisting in the Army three days after I turned 18 to get away and start fresh. I was in Germany, went to get my physical checkup, and ended up being diagnosed with cancer. I was diagnosed on a Monday, confirmed the next day, and on Thursday of that week went into my first surgery. I was then sent back to the United States to Walter Reed Army Medical Center that Saturday. I was only supposed to be there for two weeks, but after blood work and tests came back, they discovered not only that I had cancer, but it spread throughout my entire body. I had a 14 by 6 centimeter tumor in my abdomen that had moved behind my lungs and was working its way towards my brain; had it been another month before it was found, there would’ve been nothing that could’ve been done.
I went through a three-year battle with cancer; four cycles of chemo, four major surgeries, a dozen minor procedures. Two of the surgeries left me with major scars, which is a lot about what we talk about in our work – physical and emotional scars. I’m 18 when I’m going through all of this, so at the time, no one could’ve convinced me that anyone could possibly going through something worse than what I’m experiencing. One of my surgeries about six months into this happens on September 10th, 2001 in Washington, D.C. and I’m stationed at the largest military facility we have on the coast. In 2002, I’m still responsible to report to formation in the mornings even though I’m still fighting cancer, I look over and someone rolls up in a wheelchair because they have no legs, or there’s a guy next to me who lost an arm. I realize that I am lucky, and that I might have a chance to make a difference in my life choices. I made a promise to myself that if I walked out of this alive that I was going to change; I was going to go home and pursue the definition of success that my grandfather had laid out for me.
When I got my clean bill of health in December of 2003, the doctors told me that I would have a 65% chance of getting leukemia in 15-20 years. I was 21, and I’m 32 now, so I’m vastly approaching that window of time. People started asking me what I was going to do when I got out of the military, and I started to realize that the answer was so simple. I didn’t know how much time I had, so I wanted to do something that made me happy, something that I loved. I came home and went to school at Western for writing, which was something I always loved doing, but people told me that I wouldn’t be successful or make money doing it. A buddy of mine told me about this thing called Slam Poetry. I went to check it out and fell in love with it; I loved the performance aspect and not having to have meter or rhyming couplets. I could just write in free verse and express myself.
I tried out for the National team and made it my first year. I went to Nationals and loved it, then tried out the second year with the goal of winning Kalamazoo’s championship to represent Kalamazoo at Nationals. You really don’t meet any of the main competitors until semi-finals. The semis come around, and in walks this loud-mouthed, crazy white boy in a dress shirt and tie, and we were competitors. Instantly we didn’t like each other, but we were ranked one and two throughout the entire competition. We ended up making the same team and Kirk will tell you the same thing, we judged each other. We were very different; I made judgements about him and he made judgements about me.
Kirk: Most people’s initial judgements about me are that I’m perfect.
Gabriel: I was close! But I didn’t think we’d be able to relate to each other or what we had gone through. We started working together and listening to each other, and I don’t know what caused it, but Slam is a very individual, ego driven genre; it’s about my story, my way. We decided to take my piece, which was a juxtaposition of my experience in the military with how we treat people doing the same things, like war and gang retaliation, which is a very hyper-liberal piece. Rather than taking the individual accolades, I noticed that his dynamic was very strong, great energy on stage, very loud, but controlled, so I said, hey, I think we should do this piece together. We went to nationals and just killed it as a duo in an individual competition.
When we came back home we were like, let’s go to nationals next year, let’s kill it! And about seven months into it we were like, why are we trying to fight for three minutes on stage, let’s do something that connects. It’s cool, because when we reflect back on it with some of the things we talk about on stage, if we would’ve let the initial judgements impact our relationship, which happens a lot in society, we wouldn’t be doing this today. Nine years later, this guy is my best friend, he was the best man in my wedding, and he has allowed me to do something that helped me redefine what I was looking for. Every day I wake up loving what I do, and he has helped me redefine what I understand success to be.
Kirk: He always forgets to mention that I’m the best thing that’s ever happened to him. To be honest, it’s something I always say when we’re on stage. I want people to make assumptions about me right away, because those assumptions are that I’m an egotistical, narcissistic jerk. The reality of it is that it’s OK. One of the exercises we do with people is to give them a notecard and then say if you had never met us before and you just see us, what would your first assumptions about us be based on the way we look alone. Here’s an example: Gabriel is a former prison gang leader. Kirk is a failed UFC fighter turned cocaine addict.
The reason why we like doing this is because we can start to break down those assumptions that people make about others, and at the same time, own the image that we project. Because guess what? I’m not going to change. It’s why we both dress the way we do when we perform. I’m still going to dress like this and work out, but there is more to me than what you see.
Gabriel had the courage to share his story with me, and when I met him I was a high school English teacher at Portage Northern. I always told my students to go out there and share their voice. I told them if they didn’t speak up, that someone else would speak for you. I’d empower them to go out and do poetry open mics and present. I had some of my students call me out on that, though, and say ‘Mr. Latimer, you tell us to do this, but do you?’ I was like screw you man! But he was right, and I loved that kid and appreciate him calling me out on that. I had another student who was just a wonderful, bright kid, and he attributed me to being the most influential teacher he had. He wrote me a letter at the end of his senior year – ‘Mr. Latimer, you’re crazy, I love you I’ve learned so much from you’, and he ended his letter with ‘but who are you really?’ He knew. He could see it.
At 26 years old I wasn’t talking about the scars I had. My students knew more about me than my wife did because I was ashamed to talk about it. She was the epitome of the woman who looked like where I would come from. I started talking about my story with Gabriel because it showed me that my scars don’t make me ugly, they make me valuable and strong. Except I didn’t have cancer.
When I was a little boy, I was super-duper sensitive, crying over dumb things. Now that I’m older and back to my old self – have you seen Happy Feet? I cried within the first five minutes of that movie. I don’t know what it is, it’s just a part of me and I’m a sensitive person, but when you’re a little boy, sensitivity doesn’t go over well. I came from a household where I had the crap beaten out of me on the regular. It wasn’t just that, and I shared this very blatantly with the students I’ve worked with, but I am a survivor of all types of child abuse – sexual, emotional, physical. So, I became a bit of a monster in order to survive. Not only was I being treated this way at home, but I was also getting bullied at school. I was living in Detroit, and I was poor; a sensitive boy, who was poor, does not go over well. I felt that I needed to build walls around myself, and it’s an illusion that people see today that may make them intimidated by me. I don’t mean to carry that anymore, but as a young boy it was very purposeful.
To toughen up I started beating people up, got into my first major fight in seventh grade, and received my first suspension. I remember lying in bed thinking, oh man when my dad comes home I’m going to be in so much trouble. He came up to my room, sat on my bed, said he heard what happened, and told me ‘good job.’ I started realizing, if people are scared of you, they won’t hurt you. Like Gabriel, I started dealing drugs. I dealt them to all of my friends, and all of these “friends” were people that made fun of me in grade school. I remember thinking, I don’t care, I don’t like these people, I hate these people, who cares what they do to themselves with these drugs. And my senior year of high school, the school became known as “Suicide High” – nine students took their lives that year. This is where it got really concerning for me. The school was concerned and then when the autopsies were done, they revealed that all of these kids were high when they took their lives. The person who was selling them the drugs was me. It really put me in a position to say, oh my God Kirk, what have you done?
I knew I needed to change. My best friend at the time, like Gabriel’s, went to prison. All of my friends were dead. I hated my family and I hated myself. I wanted to recreate who I was, so I went to college at Western and I bought a bunch of Abercrombie clothes to look like that frat boy type guy. I met this girl at 19, and she was your typical prom queen type, and she really liked me. However, I was still having nightmares from PTSD, and I didn’t tell her any of it. It took me until I was 26 and my students opening me up for me to really come clean. When you’re married and have your house and your car, but it’s all built on a surface, but you reveal what the foundation is, it all falls apart. You can’t lie to someone your whole life and then tell the truth and have everything just move on and be OK.
My whole life changed, and really because of working with Gabriel. My students now when they see me, they’re like wow, I don’t even remember this guy, because I’m much happier.
Gabriel: We came together through poetry. We met in April 2006 at the Slam, 2007 we decided we weren’t going to compete anymore and put on two shows at Wellspring Theater. In 2008 we put on two more shows, and that’s when Kirk decided to leave his job.
Kirk: I was excited to get out of that job. I loved the students, but it was hard to work for people who had tiny hearts when I felt that my heart was so full. I had written my letter of resignation every single year.
Gabriel: He left in 2008, and I graduated in December 2008, and was dating another poet from Detroit at the time. We were getting ready to move to Chicago; I was going to go to Columbia College and get my Masters degree. Kirk said if you really want to go to Chicago, I think we can do this long distance and figure out performances and what not. I was in the running for a full ride scholarship, and withdrew my name and said nope, and ended my relationship.
Kirk: I also ended my relationship at the time. So, essentially, we married each other!
Gabriel: I just got married in October.
Kirk: And I just got engaged! It took a while to find someone to put up with me, but when you find someone who makes you a better person, it’s all worth it.
Any events coming up that we should be on the lookout for?
Gabriel: We had our second Speak It Forward Celebration of Success event on Friday, May 1st. We had over 600 people come out to support the youth. We started Speak It Forward in 2009 as part of a commitment to each other that if Kirk was going to leave teaching and I was going to do this, we were going to find some way to give back.
We’ve had a relationship at Lakeside Academy – we’ve had a residency there for the past five years – and we’ve worked with the Kalamazoo Center for Youth and Communities – KCYC – for the past three years. Both organizations have been partners in this celebration project. Friday was about getting them up. We had ten student performances, two of them being duos, which was really cool. We did a collaboration with the Kalamazoo Junior Symphony Orchestra with one of the students. It’s very hard to explain what happens or what it looks like, but it’s an opportunity for students who never get a chance to share their stories to speak in front of an audience, and talk about things like we just talked about with you and receive positive feedback – applause, standing ovation – when they’re used to being told that they’re a bad person. It’s easy for us to sit on the outside and say everyone in prison and everyone in the juvenile home deserves to be there, but when you’re able to really hear about their background and some of the things they’ve been through, from even as young as three-years-old, you start to ask, man, how did you even able to make it to this point with everything that you’ve seen and experienced so far in your life?
Kirk: It’s very circumstantial. There are people that are born into better, more loving environments, and if you were to take that person and insert them into the life of some of these people that we work with, I don’t know if they’d survive.
Gabriel: The event was great, and one thing I can say is that living in Kalamazoo is a blessing for us. I’m not sure if we would’ve been able to do this in another city in the same way because it’s so philanthropic and supportive of the arts and youth. We had a lot of really great community partners from the Gilmore Foundation to the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, Lakeside, KCYC, United Way, Tyler Little Family Foundation, Gorilla Gourmet, Imperial Beverage. Everyone is like, how can we help? I wish I could describe the event to you, but it was just amazing; you kind of had to be there to feel how great it was.
For what we have upcoming, I mean, it’s kind of weird. Back in 2007-2008, we used to put shows on here, but we’ve developed such great brand recognition for our name as speakers, we don’t have a lot of performances here in town anymore. Everything else we do around here are private events for a very specific audience. We’ll do a Celebration of Success event every year, though.
What do you love most about Kalamazoo?
Kirk: For me, I can see love and reasons to love any place that you live, but where I came from in Detroit, I was viewed as a lack of talent and a waste of space. I was not anything that that community wanted. A lot of communities often talk about talent retention and attraction, you know, the buzz words. Guess what? I was talent, talent repulsed, but I’m in Kalamazoo now where I’ve had a chance to flourish. I think Kalamazoo has more of an understanding of what talent is and that sometimes you find talent in the most unlikely of places. I think we still all have a lot to learn because of that, but I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t have a community that believed in the crazy things I’m doing. I’m far from perfect, but I appreciate that this community accepts that.
Gabriel: I have a two part answer. First part is that I’ve lived in seven states and three countries. I feel like it’s not as much about where you are, but about how you are dealing with yourself that allows you to live and find connection with a location. Having said that, having traveled around and lived in all sorts of different places, there are lots of things that I value and appreciate about Kalamazoo. The constant, in your face philanthropy is awesome; there are so many generous people who not only want to see change, but are actively pursuing ways to try to change things for the better. The constant support of the arts – my mother, who I mentioned studied modern dance in New York – has sat on the board of Wellspring, and I’ve seen companies from New York come to Kalamazoo and go, holy crap, you guys have that here? From modern dance, to orchestra to poetry, visual, audible, everything, we are a super supportive arts community. We have less than 75,000 people in the city, and to have something going on all the time is really incredible.
What have you been jammin’ to recently?
Kirk: I do like to listen to music. Primarily, I’m listening to music when I lift heavy, so I want some pissed off music, or some form of dance music. And then when I’m just relaxing, I want to listen to something emotional. Have you heard of Mat Kearney? Love that guy. And have you seen the movie Interstellar? I just bought that soundtrack.
Gabriel: I grew up listening to hip-hop; it’s what inspired me and spoke to me. Tupac and Outkast and Biggie – those were the people who could get through to me. I still love hip hop, but hate rap music now. My number one Pandora station right now is The Roots, and I like Nas and Damien Marley. If I’m not riding in my car or doing yard work, I’m also a huge dubstep fan.
Kirk: Yeah, dubstep’s cool.
Gabriel: I like Pretty Lights and Gramatik. Ellie Goulding’s mixes are pretty cool.
Kirk: He also likes The Dixie Chicks. They’re awesome at dubstep.
How do you take your coffee?…or do you?
Gabriel: I like my coffee when it doesn’t taste like coffee.
Kirk: I used to love those white chocolate mochas, but now I’m pretty strict with my nutrition, so I keep it pretty clean. I’ll drink coffee occasionally, but I try to avoid it. I could drink a bunch of coffee and it would affect me the same way not drinking coffee would.
Gabriel: My wife loves coffee; she needs coffee.
Kirk: I’m totally desensitized to it.
Gabriel: It’s necessary if we’re on the road a lot, but aside from that, not too much coffee.
Do you have a “go to” spot in Kalamazoo?
Gabriel: Home. We travel so much that it’s not really necessary for me to feel like I have to get out all the time. I say home, but it’s really the neighborhood I live in. There is a new housing development in the Edison neighborhood where they built 23 new houses right next to the Farmer’s Market. I love my neighborhood legitimately. I walk to the Farmer’s Market every Saturday, and I love that it’s so communal and that so many people are getting into it.
Kirk: Home equals gym for me.
Gabriel: We share a Google Calendar, so that when we schedule things we know what’s going on, but that also means that we share Google Maps. I would get these weird advertisements when Google was trying to promote an app that was kind of like a ‘hey, want to meet up and get a coffee’ sort of idea, but they would use your information from Google Maps. They had the Portage Family Fitness gym as home because Kirk would go there so much.
Kirk: I used to want to go out and do a bunch of stuff, but now I just want to do my thing and spend time at home.
Gabriel: He is one of the hardest working people I’ve ever met. Kirk and my mom are the two hardest working people I know. He is extremely dedicated to everything he does, especially in the beginning when we were trying to find our way.
Who would play you in a movie?
Kirk: You ask us deep questions and we’re good, and you ask us this and we’re stumped! I don’t know if I’d want anyone playing me in a movie; I don’t think I’d like to be in a movie.
Gabriel: I would pick Michael Pena who was in Watchdogs with Jake Gyllenhaal.
If you could give your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be?
Gabriel: Stop it. No, I’m kidding. So I have this weird memory…
Kirk: Just one?
Gabriel: I say it’s weird because I’m not sure if other people have similar memories, but I have this vivid memory of myself in sixth grade on the bus on the way to school, looking out the window and in my head talking to the future me. Every now and then that memory comes back into my mind and I kind of update him on things. I think the thing, it’s actually really simple with how deep we go into things typically, is to not be so angry. I was so angry from losing my father in the divorce, my community and constantly having to move, it was hard for me to really connect with other people or trust people. It took me a long time to learn trust again. I would just encourage the younger me to not be so angry and to let go a little bit, to know that things happen, and did happen in my life for a reason to get me to where I am.
Kirk: My younger me, I would probably hug him and kiss him and tell him that it’s OK that everything is happening for a reason, just give it time. It’s exactly what I do for my seven year old son.
What is the future of Kinetic Affect and Speak It Forward?
Gabriel: When we started Kinetic Affect in 2007, our concept of what was achievable is not what we’re doing now. It was more along the lines of performing theater shows or traveling to different Slam venues. What we’ve been able to achieve has surpassed our original expectations. It’s what we’re learning now with Speak It Forward with being able to hopefully cause some change and connect with people; it’s massively growing. At one point we thought we needed our own facility, but I don’t think it’s what we want right now that we are in the thick of it. I think it would limit our ability to make as big of an impact as we can since we are so flexible with our time and space now.
Our long term goals are can we create a movement where this becomes something larger than ourselves. With Speak It Forward we use the “pay it forward” concept where we encourage people to talk about things when we’ve been told, no, you shouldn’t talk about that, you should compartmentalize that and hide it away. We want people to be able to talk about things that can connect them to another human being. Right now we are growing our mentors to understand this curriculum we’ve developed.
Kirk: So this can continue on when we are no longer here.
Gabriel: That’s the long term goal – can we create something that’s going to live on after we go.