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Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Teens tap power of poetry
Workshop gives youths escape from poverty, drugs, violence


Desperate to shed lives made harried by poverty, drugs and violence, a group of Seattle teenagers has been drawing inspiration from an unusual source: poetry.

Students in the Young Writers' Workshop will read from their poetry at Elliott Bay Book Company in Pioneer Square Aug. 5, starting at 7:30 p.m.

For more information on the reading, the student's publication ("The Boot" ) and the program at Southwest Youth and Family Services, visit

The 14 teens in this summer's Young Writers' Workshop run by a Seattle charity had been turned off by the rules and requirements of high school.

Many of them dropped out. Some lost hope.

But the power they've discovered in poetry has worked wonders. The young men and women in the program are sharing their pain and rising above it -- broadening vocabularies and, for the first time, visualizing a promising future.

"I've never felt so bold," said Mayra Cisneros, 17. "Before I used to keep it all inside, and now I let it all out."

The six-week workshop is run by Southwest Youth and Family Services, a non-profit that provides counseling and education programs for families and at-risk youths in White Center, South Park and West Seattle.

Every summer for more than a decade, students in the program have compiled their poems in a literary journal called "The Boot." This year's edition is due out next week, with the student-poets unveiling their work at Elliott Bay Book Company.

"A lot of these kids are really close to the edge, and we're trying to restore some hope and some trust in themselves," said Freedom Siyam, the program's lead instructor.

Siyam has taught the teens formal poetry structures, from the sonnet and sestina to haiku.

The students edit each other's work, focusing on word choice, clarity and emotional power.

There's no power shortage here. Most of the poems are gritty urban tales of gang life, poverty, love lost and gained, and the many shades of teen angst.

"My visions of an early grave ... Got me struggling, striving ... trying to find a better way. Hopes and wishes for better days," said Chris Keopraseurt, 17, reading from his poem, which was hand-written in his notebook.

Keopraseurt said poetry and journal entries allow him to say what's on his mind without being rejected by other teens, who often ridicule expressions of emotion in order to keep up their tough-guy street image.

"I just hope for them to process their thoughts and emotions, and elevate their emotions to a higher level of understanding," Siyam said of his students.

"I never liked to write about anything," said 17-year-old Jennifer Marroquin. "Freedom showed me you can express yourself a lot better if you write it down."

Last week, the teens gathered around a big table in the basement of Southwest's offices in the Delridge neighborhood of West Seattle to put their poems through a final edit before typing them.

Chavy Oeun, 18, wrote her poem, "Ruthless Boy 4 Life," from the point of view of a young man she knows.

It reads:

"Kan't ignore negative thoughts kause I'm here without my father ...

Want to go to school, but acting like a fool kause I'm stuck on the streets."

Oeun said creating the poem was cathartic. "When you have so much pain and anger inside and when you write it, it relieves you."

Besides getting their emotions out, an important part of the summer writing class is to help the teens value each other.

"We all have different experiences and we have to support each other, because really, for a lot of these kids, their peers are all they have," Siyam said.

The teens have become comfortable discussing their problems -- and dreams for a better life -- in the tight-knit group.

"I feel like I can share with them," said a 13-year-old participant -- a girl who recently was moved from an abusive home into foster care.

"They've been through it, too," she said. "These are fellow poets."


The poems of many of the Young Writers' Workshop participants revealed hardships they've faced. Some excerpts:

I got so much knowledge

But the streets ain't got a college

So I gotta stop it

Try and proceed wit my dreams

It's not an option homie

I need to be clean

No more child acts, I admit I was stupid

But being young

I ain't want to face the facts

Trapped in the image of a thug

Living day to day

Afraid of giving or accepting love

Now I gotta shape up

But whereever I go

It's still K's-up!

Don't hate homie!

I devise a new plan

No bull- - - -, I'm a grown ass man!

Cuz of change wat that make me


Call it wat u wanna

I ain't trying to sleep in a

6ft DITCH.

-- Chris Keopraseurt

Growing up had no love, but only from the streets

Struggling so I hustle, and got me in trouble

Smoking weed, drinking, banging, this is thug life

Gangsta Gangsta thug appeal kause this is Ruthless

Try to do right, but labeled criminal so this is my image

In the hood hoping only one day to re-unite with my father


Want a daughter so I gotta be a good father

Kan't rewind time, but I wish no more trouble


Ain't banging no more, but forever representin' ruthless

Mistreated by many kause they judge my image

They see nothing, but thug life

Trying to be a good man kause I never had a father

Lecturing young ones, stay outta trouble

And not be on the streets.

-- Chavy Oeun

School is like a broke down car unreliable

School is like my hair on a bad day I just don't want to deal with it

School is like a road if you go left you come to a dead end, but

If you go right you have a endless road ahead of you

School is like a block away but sometime my feet just won't carry me

School is like a long ass hike; you have to take a few breaks and can't wait to get to the end.

-- Jennifer Marroquin

Growing up in this struggle made me respect life

That's why at night I pray to Christ

I thank him for giving my family another day

My happiness' love and laughter is all that matters

They're the ones that made sure our family wouldn't shatter

So now that we're getting back on track

My happiness and me will never look back ...

So my happiness' love and strength is what kept us alive

So now it's time for me to take that struggle

And take care of my happiness

My parents.

-- Rita Leilua

Sometimes I feel like my life is a dream

When I awake my nightmares are present

Damn! I can't believe the pain I go through

But this pain doesn't stop me, I keep going

As a mother and a daughter I stand

My son is my life, my love, and future

I know I will have a better future

I know I'll accomplish at least one dream

Shoot! I know I will be the one to stand

My mind stays in the future and present

I know it's hard but, I still keep going

I know I can come through, I will come through ...

I really enjoy being in the present

I'm like a battery I keep going

I really feel like I have a future

I love to be on top that's why I stand

Many don't make it but I'll come through

It is not bad to have at least one dream.

-- Mayra Cisneros

P-I reporter Jake Ellison can be reached at 206-448-8346 or

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