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Upward From the Streets 

Tucsonan Ivette Cambridge takes the pain of addiction and homelessness and turns it into award-winning prose.

As a 14-year-old girl living on the streets of New York, Ivette Cambridge dreamt of a better life.

She'd left home one year earlier to escape sexual abuse, but the streets offered little comfort. Prostitution was her method of survival. But writing was her dream.

At 15, she read a book by Donald Goines, best known for his gritty portrayal of life in the inner-city underworld. His writing inspired her.

"I picked up one of his books and compared it to what I was writing because he wrote street stuff, real issues. I thought if he can do this, I can do this," says Cambridge.

Almost 30 years later, her dream is coming true.

On Friday, Aug. 15, Cambridge will recite her poetry at the International Society of Poets Convention in Washington, D.C., as a finalist in the competition for Poet of the Year. Cambridge entered the contest on poetry.com and will vie for the honor against 35 other poets, with a chance to win $20,000. Billed as the single largest gathering of poets in history, the ceremony will be hosted by Mickey Rooney, with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet W.D. Snodgrass and National Book Award winner Lucille Clifton in attendance.

It's been a long road to this celebration.

Cambridge says she was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and grew up in the Bronx with five siblings. "There was many, many struggles. When I first came from Puerto Rico, we spoke no English. My dad came to the States because his family was here. He was having affairs. ... We went many days without eating. My grandmother had a lock put on the refrigerator so we couldn't get in it. She was mean to my mother," she recalls.

Hardships continued for the 9-year-old, as Cambridge says a man tried to abduct her on the way to school. "Every time he tried to physically abduct me, someone would intervene. But one day, I went home and told my mother what was going on. She followed us to school one day and she killed him. She shot the man. ... My mother murdered a man to protect us," says Cambridge.

With her mother in jail, Cambridge was sent to a Catholic convent.

"That's when I really got my first initial taste of physical sexual abuse," says Cambridge. Of her violator, she says, "We just called him Father." The abuse continued for almost a year before Cambridge was reunited with her siblings and mother, who served a reduced sentence.

"Eventually we ended up in Connecticut. We were living with an aunt and her husband started molesting me. That went on for two years until I ran away from home ... to the streets. I got involved with prostitution; I got involved in cocaine; I got involved in alcohol. It was my only way of surviving. I just could not go home. I could not deal with my uncle coming over all the time molesting me. ... And I was afraid to tell my mother because when I told her a man tried to abduct me, she killed him," says Cambridge.

Running to the streets of New York, 13-year-old Cambridge descended into a life far from anything she imagined. "What it all boils down to is I lost all sense of what life was," she says.

Her saving grace was writing. "I carried a piece of paper everywhere I went and I just wrote and wrote and wrote. I couldn't tell anyone what I was going through, so writing was my only way to get it off my chest. It was either writing or committing suicide, because I had to deal with it somehow," says Cambridge.

An excerpt from "A Day in the Ghetto" paints a picture of her world at the time:

Another day in the ghetto, gunshots, dope spot, everywhere a cop wanted you to stop. Oh shit what's that, yo what's up? Pop, pop, pop, another brother drops, dead on arrival, heart beat stopped, there goes another brother who won't reach the top.

Another day in the ghetto, man your sister's fine, damn she's a looker, goes to school by day and at night she's a hooker, gets arrested and off she goes, damn the cops have to book her.

Another day in the ghetto, sorry to admit it but that's how it goes, will there ever be a change, hell nobody knows, because don't you know that it's true, that for me and for you, the world is a ghetto.

As dark as the ghetto was, life was about to get worse for Cambridge.

"From 15 on, my life regressed. Because I was a prostitute on the streets, I was prostituting for a pimp; I was always being beat up. This pimp would beat me up with these wires, these hangers.

"I was locked up in a room for five days being raped by three men. I mean, they did whatever they wanted to do to me. But that too, I survived.

"I ended up doing seven years in prison for manslaughter. I thought the man (a date) was going to kill me. I honestly thought my life was in jeopardy. All I knew was violence. I didn't know how to take care of myself and I didn't have anyone to take care of me," she says.

Released from prison at 22, Cambridge says she went back to the streets and eventually met a woman who introduced her to AA. "I stayed clean for a few years, but I just wasn't happy. I had everything going. I was modeling ... I let the modeling thing go to my head. There was a lot of alcohol, lines ... I relapsed," she says.

Throughout her late 20s and 30s, Cambridge married twice and had two children. She recalls drinking heavily--to the point of blackouts--and began using crack cocaine. With her eldest child cared for by her mother, Cambridge ended up alone on the streets with her younger child. They lived in hotel rooms until Child Protective Services took her daughter.

"I went nuts. I had nothing to live for. I didn't want anything. I OD'd twice. I was just miserable," she says.

Cambridge kept running from her pain until April 22, 2003--the day she voluntarily walked into Casa de Vita, a drug and alcohol rehab facility in Tucson.

Cambridge had previously stayed at Casa de Vita, but was negatively discharged because of behavior. "I worked with her in the fall of 2001. The change in the last two years is just tremendous. ... She has really turned herself around and made progress," says clinical coordinator Wanda Winningham. "A big part of that is the poetry gives her a more acceptable outlet to express herself."

Adds Cambridge's primary counselor Susan Marion, "The poetry is helpful for anyone who listens--to help them know where they may be headed. She's been through a lot and is making a positive thing about it, which in itself makes her extraordinary. ... Clients are supportive of Cambridge's poetry with most encouraging (her) and blown away ..."

Cambridge recalls the first time she read her poetry to an audience at the Pima County Jail. "I remember the faces, the tears, the way they had their mouths open. ... That gave me the initiative that what I am doing here is something," she says.

From there, Cambridge says she started reading at Bookman's and Hazy Dayz Lounge. "The first time I went to Hazy Dayz, people gave me a standing ovation. But most importantly, they came up to me afterwards. ... They recognized that I was talking about life and addiction," she says.

Cambridge also performed at Tucson's first annual Poetry Crawl Slam in June. As part of the seventh annual Poetry Crawl, the Slam pitted Cambridge against stiff competition.

"I knew I wasn't going to win. I had no faith in myself whatsoever. I went up with honesty and conviction and I recited my poetry which deals with addiction and I kicked butt," she says. Cambridge won first place.

"The crowd was touched, moved and intrigued. They were impressed with her delivery and the grittiness of the subject matter," says David Mitchell, co-founder of the Poetry Crawl. "She obviously has some innate talent. If she continues to develop, she can be an outstanding poetic voice in the community."

Cambridge speaks to the community through her poetry. To those still on the streets, Cambridge wants them to know "you're not alone. There is hope."

... As of today, I will no longer allow the signs of the times to screw with my mind, because of the destruction brought upon me by mankind.

To those reading her poetry, she comments, "People need to recognize addicts as more than non-caring, hopeless individuals."

Why do you judge me? Yet you don't even know me. After all you bleed like I bleed, hell, when God thought of you he also thought of me ..."

"I have learned that what I write is not just me," says Cambridge. "I speak for myself and for the thousands of addicts that have gone through what I have. Now I go out there and let my word be known. In writing it brings pain; in reading it brings closure. ... Expression is the key to freedom."

Cambridge is scheduled to leave Casa de Vita in September and plans to do so with her sobriety and dream of writing in tow. "Without my sobriety I have nothing. I will go nowhere."

... The high, oh, the high will eventually kill me, if I don't kiss "The high" good-bye.

More by Irene Messina

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