¡DUENDE! Youth Grand Slam Competition Finds Home Through CALB

Kasi TeYana, Mae Ramirez, Michelle Denise Jackson, June Kaewsith. (Not shown: Patricia Poston) - Photo by SRW

12:00pm | ¡DUENDE! is a grassroots organization offering spoken word workshops for area youth, developed by five women who all share a passion for poetry, and a commitment to community.  They've partnered with the newly formed Cultural Alliance of Long Beach (CALB), and will be hosting a Grand Slam Poetry Competition on Saturday, April 7th, from 5 - 8 PM at the MADHaus, which is located at 624 Pacific Avenue. All youth are welcome to participate, but must sign up on the website in advance to have a spot reserved.

Founded in August of last year, ¡DUENDE! started workshops in January at the Homeland Cultural Center's new Manazar Gamboa Community Theater.

June Kaewsith, who cofounded ¡DUENDE!, serves as the community outreach coordinator, and facilitates parts of the workshops.  Kaewsith, known in the art world as Jumakae Yodraj, is a dynamic and well traveled singer, songwriter, pianist, and poet.  She was also one of the leaders of One Imagination, and continues to host a monthly spoken word event called Break The Silence. 

I asked June about the origins of ¡DUENDE!.

"Five years ago I co-founded an arts and social justice organization called One Imagination. Two years ago, we did a Spring workshop called 'Our Word is Our Weapon', which was a writing and performance workshop for youth ages 13-19. It so happened that Brave New Voices was going to be in Los Angeles that year and one of the organizers, Sumiko Braun, submitted an application for us. Timothy 'Big Brother' Cheung and I took four of our youth to Brave New Voices 2010. It was life-changing! We were probably the youngest coaches in the space, but we knew this was something we wanted to continue doing for the city of Long Beach.

"I was looking for a new venue for our monthly open mics," June continued, "'Break the Silence!' and I fell in love with Homeland Cultural Center's new facility: The Manazar Gamboa Community Theater. I worked hard to gain the trust from the staff there by volunteering every week with the youth at their writing/performance workshop, facilitated by Linda Delmar. I gained their trust, made beautiful poetry with them, and they offered me the space for the open mic - and the ¡DUENDE! workshops.

"Michelle Jackson, a former CSULB classmate of mine, had just graduated from NYU and moved back to the Long Beach area. She gained an intensive knowledge of slam poetry while in New York and had a vision to start a youth slam team for Long Beach. She was aware of my past experience, and knew several other women, so we all met in August of 2011 to discuss how this vision would manifest. This is how ¡DUENDE! was born."

For those readers who don't know, a poetry slam is a competitive poetry event where poets are scored by a panel of judges drawn from the audience.  The slam concept arose in the mid '80s as a way to make open mic poetry readings more exciting.

"¡DUENDE! consists of 5 main organizers," continued June. "They are Mae Ramirez, Patricia Poston, Michelle Jackson, Kasi Teyana, and myself. As recent college graduates, we are all working women (and Mae is getting her masters degree in Creative Writing at CSULB as well) and put a lot of our free time into planning the ¡DUENDE! workshops."

I asked June to describe the workshops.

"The workshops cover 6 main topics, before we end with a 'grand slam'. These topics are: Identity, Voice, Imagination, Expression, Power, and Community. These are themes we feel are very important to writing strong poetry pieces.

"Each topic takes 2 workshops to cover," June continued, "so in total we have 12 workshops taking place every Saturday at the Manazar Gamboa Community Theater."

I asked June about her specific contribution to the workshops.

"My background is theater, spoken word, and singing so it is very natural for me to facilitate both the Voice and Expression workshops. I cover breathing and posture techniques, just like a singing class, except I inform our youth that these same skills apply to any performer on stage.

"With expression," June explained, "we take it to another level by incorporating movement into their bodies so that they are not attached to their papers when reading on stage. We do things to break their comfort zones so that they know what it means to own the space.

"When they observe the videos we bring in of other slam or spoken word artists, they can now analyze them, rather than just enjoying a performance. They can see how these skills we are offering them apply to the professionals as well. However, we go much deeper than these exercises. Workshops have a comprehensive critical aspect, as well as encouraging creativity."

Abrielle Parker, Jenai Vickers, Hatefas Yop, Tanisha Bland, Xavier Buck, Lance Cotton, Shawn Garcia Jr., India Ford, Erin Williams (Youth not shown: Ade Ford, Myles Barksdale, A'Darius Bouvay, Claudia Chen, Bucket Manyweather, Yoanna Rodriguez, Cayla Warren) - Photo by SRW

I asked June about the participants.

"Currently, we have exactly 21 youth in our database. Every week, we serve 9 to 15 different youth. The numbers increase by word of mouth. Most of our youth are from Long Beach. Several of them are straight from the neighborhood of Gundry we are serving. Others come from surrounding cities because they do not have this type of programming there. For example, we have one youth who takes a bus all the way from Temple City, and has been dedicated to our work from the beginning. We have 4 youth who come from the Cerritos/Artesia area who had never been exposed to spoken word, but are interested in cultivating this craft.
"We never ask them personal questions," June said, "that might make them feel uncomfortable in a large group. Instead, we offer them writing prompts related to whatever topic we have covered. At the end of each session, we have youth share there work. This is where their stories come alive.

"For example, one of our writing prompts for Identity was: 'Write a love letter to your City.' The love/hate relationship they have to their hometowns are so powerful, and these poems could possibly gain the attention of a politician who needs to be aware of the issues they face in their communities.

"They also get very intimate about their family lives," admitted June. "We never force them to write about these things. What we do as facilitators is offer a safe space where they feel comfortable enough to talk, through poetry, about the issues that affect their daily lives. Knowing they have this safe space to be honest allows them to feel comfortable sharing these deeply personal stories."

I asked June about funding.

"We raise funds in two main ways: by selling chapbooks, which have poetry from youth and adult poets from the Long Beach area. And we also have an IndieGogo Campaign that was launched over a month ago. Our priority is to get our workshop participants to Brave New Voices, taking place in San Francisco in mid-July. Although the IndieGogo campaign goal is $2,500, we realistically need approximately $4,000 to make it happen. Funds will cover transportation, food, lodging, and the registration fee.

"Even if we don't make it into Brave New Voices as competitors," June said, "we still want the youth to experience this environment. We can only select up to 6 youth to be a part of the competitive team that will represent Long Beach, but we hope we can take more if we get the funding."

I asked June if there were plans to expand the program.

"We want to see expansion, but it will only come from the support of the greater Long Beach community. Because we are volunteers, and without funding, we do not have the resources to pay for large venues to hold workshops and events. At this point, the workshops come out of our own pockets. Luckily, many of us are educators already so we have access to some materials. That, and the Dollar Tree store is our best friend.

"I am aware," said June, "that Long Beach's art scene, especially in the downtown area, is slowly growing and we just have to tap into that network. However, Homeland Cultural Center and their Manazar Gamboa Community Theater is one of the areas that needs this type of programming the most. It's accessible, and gives youth in this area the opportunity to feel valued and safe outside of the 'gang-infested' reputation."

I asked June about the 'Grand Slam' event.

"We plan to have a poetry slam competition on Saturday, April 7, one week after our last workshop. This will be open to youth all over Long Beach, even those who did not attend the workshops. The slam poetry competition will determine which 4-6 youth will represent ÁDUENDE! Long Beach at Brave New Voices, and other local events. However, we are still seeking venues to hold this competition and we will need help from the community to do so.

"On March 14, 2012," June continued, "Michelle and I attended a Discussion on the Arts meeting hosted by the Cultural Alliance of Long Beach (CALB). Little did I know there would be key people there who would become supporters and collaborators of our movement. There were at least 50 artists and curators who were looking for opportunities to do more for the community. Break out groups included arts advocacy, programming, fundraising, venues, and education.

"Michelle and I were able to meet grant writers, business owners, and other educators who wanted to know what they could contribute to our programs. One of the key people was Mike Wylie, owner of MadHAUS, who graciously offered his space to us for our Grand Slam Poetry Competition. He strongly believes in giving back to the community, and is a great supporter of the arts in Long Beach."

"In the last year," said Mike Wylie, co-founder of CALB, "the MADhaus has hosted a variety of artists, from internationally known musicians to local art and theater groups. I am very excited about about this event because slam poetry captures emotions, and spurs creativity.  It engages the mind and soul. That's why it has grown from a small group of artists in Chicago 15 years ago to a world-wide movement fostering competition, communication and creativity!  We at CALB and the MADhaus are honored to help connect local youth to this very special event, and a revolutionary global movement."

I asked June what kinds of changes she's observed in the workshop participants.

"On our first day," June recalled, "the majority of youth didn't know what spoken word was. If they weren't familiar with spoken word, how would they even know what 'slam' is? Most of them just knew about poetry, but in high school we are limited to canonical poets such as Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe. It's rare for them to see poets their age, performing about topics relevant to their lives. We also present our own poetry, which helps them to feel comfortable about being honest with what they put in their work.

"Prior to the workshops, most of them had never been on a stage, or performed in front of a microphone and audience. We want to give them this opportunity and to let them know that no one is going to speak for them except for themselves. Everyone has a voice. Everyone has a story.

"You may feel alone," said June, "but when you put your work out there, there's somebody in the audience who you will affect because they thought they were alone, too. And who knows, you may be building another poet in the audience."


Here is a poem that resulted from one of the workshops:

Those Hands
By: Lance Cotton
Age: 17
March 18, 2012

I remember going to the beach
with my uncle every weekend as a kid.
Those were the days—
a kid with a smile, oblivious to the world around me
only one thing on my mind: play, play, play!
Those days are gone and I realize now what I didn't then:
trash around, instead of in, the trash bins
soda cans buried in the sand,
the shore line is a dump line.
The motto is,
I saw him dump his, so I'll dump mine.
Long Beach, your citizens don't see the consequences of being so careless.
We poison your waters and then use your port for trade.
Self-centered epitomized, our life is made
as aquatic life fades to fewer and fewer.
Almost entirely intertwined, is our ocean and sewers.
I remember one day I wanted to help and clean,
there was a man on the pier, over it he leaned
and flicked a cigarette butt.
I said, "Hey!"
He said, "What?"
I said this isn't where that goes and as he looked at me down below,
He replied, "Look around, kid, I'm not the only one who does it."
"Not the only one who does it" can't be plausible because if
If this is what it's become,
 there's no doubt we are done.
Change must come and reach out to all of Long Beach.
Our life rests in the hands of the ocean, the coast, and the port
The least we can do is respect it,
before those hands leave us without support.


Learn more about ¡DUENDE! workshops and events.

Youth, ages 13-19, interested in participating in the Grand Slam, should register on-line, or call (562)264-5784. They should also bring at least 3 poems, each no longer than 3 minutes and 10 seconds.

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