By Michael Chung Klam
What with its Disney-style suburban paradises, its weapons stations, and its long history of militarism and overt patriotism, San Diego is the prime location for one of the best poetry projects on the planet.
Border Voices provides some ballast for the great shining ship that sails west to east between the frothing white-water and the swaying desert flowers and north to south from ultra-conservative Orange County to Tijuana.
Border Voices, in its 15th year, has taken poetry to the schools, winning over the hearts and minds of eager students and planting the seed of creative thought for a more enlightened future.
The project’s poet-teachers advance the latest creative-writing pedagogy to inspire the kids and their teachers. The young writers develop a sense of the power of language and a strong voice that can be seen in the project’s anthologies and videos. And, for those who need the numbers to prove it, a study funded by the California Arts Council revealed that Border Voices students achieve higher standardized test scores.
Every year, the young authors receive awards for their work at the Border Voices Poetry Fair. They perform alongside the world’s most accomplished poets, mingling with Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize winners. The fair’s list of luminaries includes Sandra Cisneros, Ernesto Cardenal, Maya Angelou, Billy Collins and Martín Espada, to name a few.
This year’s event features local student poets alongside renowned poets Ekiwah Adler Beléndez, Kay Ryan, Ilya Kaminsky and Li-Young Lee.
Adler Beléndez, whose first name, Ekiwah, means “warrior,” was born in a small village in Mexico called Amatlán de Quetzalcoatl. He began writing at age 6 and published his first book at 12. He quickly became a national phenomenon.
His empathy as a young writer makes him a perfect fit for Border Voices, and his personal struggle will certainly inspire. Adler Beléndez has spent his life battling cerebral palsy.
Although he travels mostly by wheelchair, he approaches the world unfettered. “It’s just another fact of my life, like having brown hair or being Latin-American,” he says.
“In a way, cerebral palsy has forced me to do what I love the most: Stop dead in my tracks and write.”
At 20, Adler Beléndez speaks articulately, confidently, with wisdom beyond his years. While some of his written work comes from a place of innocence he grew up without television in a somewhat remote mountainous area, making poetic annotations in the wilderness he has recently begun to take interest in “the difference of being Latin-American in the U.S.”
The poet moved to Simon’s Rock College in Massachusetts to study and finds himself touching on new themes, new observations of people and place: “Cultural identity, working in a kitchen, the isolation of not being able to communicate, the pain of missing your family, the difficulties of crossing the border.” The writer has begun to dive into what he calls the “interwovenness” of experience. “Poetry can be a way to bridge cultures,” he says.
SDSU poet/professor Kaminsky feels the same connection. “Immigration is a huge factor of my own life,” he says. “I came to this country when I was 16, without a word of English.”
San Diego as a border town, he says, is “in many ways something much closer to the heart of the human condition than any other town I can think of. So, border voices are humane voices. At least that is the way I see it.”
Kaminsky says that he finds this region to be wonderful for his poetry. “To be honest I did not quite expect that: I did not expect to be inspired to write poems in a place with the largest navy base in the world.”
The last year or so changed his perspective.
“Here is the city of two languages, on the very border of cultures, with nature everywhere around us, every single day, surprising us with itself, in what it can do to amaze us: the mountains, the ocean, the desert,” he says. “This region, truly, is a gift to a poet.”
Kaminsky explains that there are at least two San Diegos. “One is ‘America’s happiest city,’ so to speak, where each house on the street looks exactly the same and neighbors do not know each others’ names. Another San Diego, however, is a wonderful community in a border town, with great multiplicity of voices, languages, colors, ideas.”
The poet/professor says that art is always born on the borders, “in border towns, where the wind of something new comes first, and stays.”
While Kaminsky spends most of his time in the academic world, he sees the value of poetry from the streets, the underground: “I think that in this time of propaganda, this time of war, this time of mediocrity promoted daily on TV, this time of conformism in mass production, any sincere human uttering, human drive to community, to offer a voice to that which moves in each of us, and to make it beautiful, to make it compelling to others is a worthy effort.”
Kaminsky and Adler Beléndez will share the stage with poets Kay Ryan and Li-Young Lee, who has been hailed by the Harvard Book Review as “a major voice in modern poetry.”
Jack Webb, Director and Founder of the Border Voices Poetry Project, says that Ryan “is just the funniest thing going.” Her sense of humor will entertain. But all of the poets, he says, “have a spiritual, mystical quality.”
The Border Voices audience can expect to hear exceptional poetry from dramatic personalities, but ultimately the fair is about the kids.
When asked to sum up the project, Webb said in a radio interview, “Each kid has truths inside themselves that can be expressed by no one else in the world… if you give them the tools to do so.”
The Border Voices Poetry Fair: Dancing in the Sacred Cave takes place on Saturday, April 19, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Montezuma Hall, Aztec Center, San Diego State University. Admission is free. There will be music by Claudia Poquoc and Celtic Ensemble and clowns to entertain the kids. Visit www.bordervoices.com for more information or call (619) 293-2546.