Tuesday, July 27, 2004
Teens tap power of poetry
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.
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.
"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
-- 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
-- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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