FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Mentor Dar'ron Cambra, left, with youth poets Alaka'i Kotrys, Ittai Wong, Jocelyn Ng and William Giles. Below, Ng and Giles in action.
Young poets go with flow
A Hawaii teams wows a mainland audience to win the Brave New Voices international competition
James Kass, founder and executive director of Youth Speaks, is particularly proud of what the Hawaii team did to win the nonprofit organization's Brave New Voices international competition.
YOUTH SPEAKS HAWAII
» Free poetry/spoken-word workshops for teenagers, 4:30 to 6 p.m. Wednesdays at The ARTS at Marks Garage, 1159 Nuuanu Ave.
» 2008 Interscholastic Poetry Slam, Nov. 29 (details pending)
» 2009 Youth Speaks Hawaii Grand Slam Final, April 7, to choose Hawaii's team for the 2009 Brave New Voices competition in Chicago
He sees Hawaii's win as part of the exponential growth of the youth spoken-word scene over the 11 years that the poetry slam festival has been in existence.
"In the first year of competition, there were representatives from only four cities," Kass said by phone from San Francisco. "This year, there were 44, and we had to turn away seven. The audience has grown from an original 100 to 5,000 this year at the Lincoln Theatre in Washington, D.C., and it was filmed by HBO."
The new partnership with the premium cable channel will result in a documentary series about the journey that poets from around the country made to this year's festival in D.C.
"A couple of the kids from the Hawaii team have already been coming to the national contest for a few years now, and they've really grown to be one of the beloved teams," Kass said. "They clearly have two things going for them. One is that the focus on their performance has increased, in addition to their being great writers. In their collaborative use of voice, they did this one incredible piece ... that showed their ability to communicate both in their native tongue and English.
"The other thing that's unique about them is that they are really focusing on who they are. In other words, they don't want to sound like New York, or San Francisco. They're kids dealing with Hawaii issues (and) they made it completely clear in their translation for the rest of us."
The piece that so blew away the D.C. audience was "Kaona," a fervently performed duo piece by group members Ittai Wong and Jamaica Osorio about the beauty of the Hawaiian language. Fellow members Alaka'i Kotrys and Will Giles enriched the performance from the audience, standing to respond in Hawaiian.
"That piece was the best example that got the Hawaii message across," said Osorio. "We were very proud to do that piece. When the guys chanted from the audience -- it was a prayer asking our ancestors to bring back the hidden meanings, the kaona, of our native language -- it juxtaposed with the English and made for a powerful plea for the survival of the Hawaiian language."
The local group's success is rooted in weekly workshops held at the ARTS at Marks Garage and as an outreach program in schools. Youth Speaks Hawaii is one of 36 partner organizations across the U.S. under the aegis of Kass' national Youth Speaks group.
EXCERPT: "7 Deadly Sins"
We are the 7 deadly sins embodied
Your worst traits and your dirtiest hobbies
Envy, gluttony, lust, greed, pride, sloth, and wrath
By the cinder scent of powder trailing from your breath I know every last one of you has at least one of these wounds
A virus cocked back and fire injected into your iris
See we've managed to extract the slug riding shotgun to your brain for this examination
But only you have the pliers to pull the rotting infection from between your eyes
Remove the shells from your smoking carcass
But until you do you might as well be holding the trigger finger hugging your forehead
Creating your own unibrow with lead
In workshops with their peers, the teens are shown "the potential of the spoken word in poetry outside of competition," said Dar'ron Cambra, a mentor to the group. "It's important to spread the word about that aspect of performance."
During lengthy jam sessions and a couple of sleepovers at director Liz Soto's home, "we wrote 10 new pieces between April and June, and seven made the cut," Soto said.
"We would brainstorm, picking on ideas that we'd either collaborate on or work on individually," added Wong. "It was an amazing process."
"The great thing was that we were all there to help each other," said Osorio.
"Since we all have awe and love for one another, it made for a great vibe," said Wong. "We were always joking with each other, messing around, eating Willy Wonka Nerd candies and playing 'Rock Band'."
Another well-received poem that Youth Speaks Hawaii brought to D.C. was "Other," done by Osorio and Jocelyn Ng.
"It's a piece about racial profiling," said Osorio. "We noticed in our college applications that there's that 'other' box when trying to identify who we are racially. So the performance is about the similar experiences people like ourselves of mixed ethnicities go through, and also our different perspectives on that."
"It's all about embracing what we write about," said Ng, "and, at the end, we knew that the mainland audience was going to get what we were talking about."
Travis Thompson, the team's coach and a veteran of the spoken-word scene, said he and the other "grown-ups" -- Soto and Cambra -- have found a rekindled inspiration for poetry in the kids.
"What we have is a team of skilled ninja assassins, always on call to show what it takes to be successful," Thompson said.
"We noticed that the kids do this more for the love of the word, and work harder," said Soto.
"It's a regeneration of the local scene," added Thompson.
At the end of this group interview, Soto has something special for her assembled poets. She hands Ng, Osorio and Wong Certificates of Special Recognition signed by U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono. The trio ooh and ahh over the certificates, proud of what they've achieved for the 808-state.
But Youth Speaks Hawaii isn't resting on its laurels. After all, the finals are in Chicago next year, and you know Hawaii must represent, straight-up.