Project aims to empower young poets
By Lacee A.C. Martinez
Pacific Daily News
October 13, 2008
As one of the organizers of the monthly Sinangån-ta poetry slams, Melvin Won Pat-Borja -- along with other members of the Sinangån-ta group -- has inspired many to breathe life into words they've penned on paper.
The poetry slams, held on the last Saturday of each month, draw youths and adults, teachers and students, and many others to perform their poems on stage.
Won Pat-Borja and crew will soon offer island teens the tools to develop their talents, with an outreach program that has the potential to grow award-winning poets.
Through a grant from the Guam Humanities Council, the group will launch "Sinangån-ta: The New Generation of Native Tongues" this month, offering teens free writing and performance workshops.
"It's really a dynamic program that has been proven in Hawaii and they've modeled it from there," said Kimberlee Kihleng, executive director of the Guam Humanities Council. "The council's most recent efforts is to reach our island youth. It's fabulous because it does that and you're teaching about language, writing and critical thinking, as well as creative arts. It's a win-win situation."
Creating a community of young critical thinkers, authors and writers is the big goal of the project, Won Pat-Borja said. He added it will also establish validity of their work in high school curriculum.
Part of the grant funding will go to publish a collection of the participants' work, which will be donated to the Guam Public School System.
"Our goal is to eventually have these young authors become part of the (literary) canon," he said. "A lot of the times, the canon consists of old, dead authors that kids don't care about. We're trying to empower these kids to know that their writing and their voice is important and it will be heard."
Now a Southern High School English teacher, Won Pat-Borja grew up writing music, gravitating toward rap and hip-hop styles.
"For me, personally, I like rhyming, I like rhythm," he said. "When I was in high school, I didn't always have access to recording equipment and it was hard for me to keep practicing my craft. But poetry -- it just seemed like it was always available. I could always write poems and you don't need music."'
The workshops will give teens a space to write without boundaries, drawing from their experiences first and eventually building on literary skills and learning and refining techniques.
"When (students) think of writing, they have this stereotype of what poetry is and what writing is," Won Pat-Borja says. "We're trying to say that is not necessarily 'Roses are red and violets are blue,' and Shakespeare. Whatever is going to allow you to deliver your message to a given audience, that's what we want. We try to focus on empowering the students to feel like their message is important, what they say is important. How they choose to say it, that's up to them."
While attending college in Hawaii, Won Pat-Borja became involved in the poetry slam scene, eventually competing in national competitions with his school. Before returning to Guam, he helped lay the foundation for the Hawaii chapter of the Youth Speaks outreach program, conducting poetry workshops for teens.
Youth Speaks Hawaii competed and won first place in this year's 11th annual International Poetry Slam Festival, held in Washington, D.C.
The end of the Guam project will include a slam event, featuring at least two of the members of the award-winning Hawaii team.
On Guam, the poetry slam competitions recently were expanded to all-ages shows, luring youths to step up and compete sometimes with others twice their age, thanks to Won Pat-Borja and fellow organizers Kie Susuico and Fanai Castro.
Sinangån-ta, which means "our spoken words" in Chamorro, perpetuates the long tradition of oral history the island holds, encouraging others to speak up on cultural issues, Suscuico said.
Peter Onedera, who teaches Chamorro language at the University of Guam and is president of a literary Chamorro performance group, supports the project because it aims to continue the island's oral tradition and promote strong cultural awareness.
"On the culture aspect, there's a generation crying out saying, 'Listen, pay attention to us because we are faced with this.'" he said. "I saw that underlying message of Won Pat-Borja's presentation and it blew my mind. I support him 110 percent in his endeavors to teach self-expression to young people in poetry."