After attack, poet finds strength in her stanzas

A brutal attack leaves her filled with fear. Poetry helps her conquer it.

By ELISABETH DYER, Times Staff Writer
Published August 23, 2007

TAMPA — The night of the attack, Adrienne Nadeau recited her poetry at the Ybor Cigar Theater, then headed to a restaurant to meet some friends.

She was walking on 18th Street when she sensed she was not alone. A man was coming toward her from between two parked cars. Her first instinct was to protect herself by making a human connection.

"Oh, you startled me," she said. "I didn't see you."

He replied sarcastically: "You know black guys, right?"

He came at her. She felt no pain, but why was she suddenly looking in another direction?

She saw the second punch coming. His right fist tore into her mouth and knocked her to the ground.

He pulled at her purse. She screamed. Her iPod was inside. You're not getting that, she thought. The bag also held her phone and camera, her poetry notebook and $120.

Nadeau tasted blood and reconsidered. He might kick her, might break ribs. She thought: I have to let it go.

When her friends found her, she was covered in blood. A ring he wore had cracked her tooth. It would take 11 stitches to pull her split lip back together.

On the way to the hospital a friend told her, of course, she would have to write this into poetry.

* * *

Nadeau, who has performed her poetry at shelters for abused women, had never been hit before. She was proud of that. In her writing, she is a warrior. A woman who speaks her mind and knows only tenderness and respect from men.

She is 23, a recent graduate of the University of Tampa. She showed up at a spoken-word performance with her "white girl poetry" three years ago and ended up making friends with many of the African-American poets, who blew her away with their hip-hop verse.

She didn't want the attack to make her think of race. But now, she was thinking of race.

A voice in her head wondered whether she had offended the man. Did she say something that made him think she was racist?

She tried to silence the voice. He was just a random evil sweeping through Ybor City, she told herself. It wasn't her fault.

But she felt humiliated. "Maybe I'm a little bit stained," she said the other day. The idea of seeing him made her heart pound. She studied passing faces for the goatee that lingered in her mind. Noises startled her when she was alone at home. "I hate that," she said. "I want to be someone who's fearless and independent."

A month after the attack, with the scar tissue still thick inside her mouth, she got her chance to be both. She was invited back to Ybor City to recite her poetry.

* * *

"It's a little weird to be in Ybor," Nadeau says as she drives.

It's early August. When she gets to the International Bazaar, she has to wind through hand-carved furniture and African drums to get to the back stage. The room is dark. She takes a seat, picks at her blue nail polish and waits.

Nadeau's dad is here. Her friends are here. She watches through her digital camera, recording five poets who perform before her.

When it's her turn, she runs a hand through her hair and walks onto the stage. She positions the microphone in front of her.

"Most of you know what happened to me," she says. She has written a poem about it.

It's called Initiation.

In it, she speaks of a dream in which she is chased by a monster. She describes a "dark-like night fist" coming at her. Then she hesitates. "I'm sorry, I lost it," she says, and retrieves her purple notebook. She starts over:

"I had my initiation into the group of women that men thought they could turn into victims."

Her father stares at the floor. Nadeau's arms float up and down like she's conducting an orchestra.

"So I swore that this encounter will not make me fear melanin," she says.

Fear leaves her through her words, and she is powerful. She doesn't need the notebook now. From the back, like an amen in a church, someone says, "Speak."

Hear Adrienne Nadeau's poems at myspace.com/spittingfyre. Elisabeth Dyer can be reached at edyer@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3321.

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Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes they will play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes they may be part of the news. To comment or suggest an idea for a story, contact editor Mike Wilson at mike@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2924.