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Bob Hsiang

Savvy Scribes: Young as they are, the kids of WritersCorps are no strangers to the life of the poet.

WritersCorps moves kids to the front of the line

By Amanda Nowinski

When you're an 11-year-old girl growing up in the South of Market area, where homeless people share the streets with drunken clubbers and other such disturbing night crawlers, about the worst diss you could receive is "doin' it with a bum in an alley." Or so I learned when I sat in on the Tuesday night WritersCorps session at the Columbia Park housing center.

Four girls--Anna, Asefa, Victoria and Leezeth--joke back and forth, using the tool that children quickly learn to master: language. In the prepubescent setting, the vocabulary reaches newfound refinement and becomes a more sophisticated, enjoyable toy than even dolls or playhouses. Clever retorts and innocent laughter shoot about the room at a hyperactive rate, much to the slight annoyance of Bay Area writer Alison Seevak.

"All right, girls, let's settle down," Alison says. Asefa grabs a chocolate-chip cookie and perches on top of the table where Alison and two of the other girls are seated. An antique Chinese jewelry box containing strips of paper rests on the table, next to the pile of ornately decorated journals the girls have created. "OK, let's pick seven pieces of paper and write one poem using all these words." Asefa takes the lead, reaches inside the box with her eyes closed and announces, "OK, guys, you can add your own words, too. After all, this is a poem. Duh."

Unrestrained giggling and taunts about "boys" and "bums" continue, but the girls quickly quiet down and proceed to compose. Ten minutes later, the poems are complete, and naturally, Asefa volunteers to read first. Her poem is full of sea imagery inspired by the words "dark" and "blue." She masterfully plays with metaphorical depictions of "mystery" and "loneliness" but ends her poem with a demure shrug, as if embarrassed by the potency of her skill. The group is stunned. "That was really beautiful," Alison says. "Wow!" chirps Anna. Victoria reads next but is too seized with laughter to continue--her poem is about Leezeth "making out with a bum." Admirably patient and hiding a grin, Alison asks that the girls think beyond "just poking fun." Leezeth admits that her poem shares Victoria's topic, so the two girls decide to leave the table and rewrite.

Young as they are, these girls are no strangers to the life of the poet. They have performed at large-scale readings in San Francisco, including a recent event at Borders Books, and been professionally published. Same Difference: Young Writers on Race (1998), an anthology compiled by the San Francisco WritersCorps, contains the poetry of some of the 650 low-income/at-risk youth who participated in the program last year. Crucial treatises on identity, pride and anger flourish in the book, whose writers range in age from 6 to 21. In "How to Be an Indian Girl," Asefa writes, "You always have to look nice even if you are having a bad day. ... Always brush your teeth and make sure that you are perfect. ... Remember to wear your eyeliner when you need to, because it makes you look pretty."

Developed in 1994 by former NEA chair Jane Alexander and Eli Siegel, the former head of AmeriCorps (a federal national and community service agency created by President Clinton), WritersCorps, has branch programs in Washington, D.C., and the Bronx. The organization seeks to "transform and strengthen individuals and communities utilizing the written word."

WritersCorps teachers, much like Alison Seevak, are professional writers and published poets who meet the younger writers weekly in schools, detention centers, housing projects and shelters around the city. Since its inception, WritersCorps has reached more than 4,000 youth in San Francisco alone, and as evidenced by their annual anthologies, the results are impressive. "This is a program worthy of anyone's legacy. ... The Woody Guthries, the Richard Wrights and the Ruben Salazars of tomorrow are daily being born," wrote Luis Rodriquez in American Book Review.

"Our objective is to help kids learn and to become more self-sufficient," Janet Heller, San Francisco Writers Corps project manager, explains. "If children work with a writer for eight months, it helps them feel more connected to who they are, and it gives them more self-confidence." A poet who has taught in colleges and high schools throughout the States, Heller established Runaway with Words--a writing workshop for runaways in Florida--before joining WritersCorps five years ago.

"Many of these kids are writing creatively for the first time," Heller says, "and this helps them feel connected to the world and to their communities. Participating in live readings also gives them great self-confidence, and enables them to take on new things in their own lives, to become better friends, students and sons and daughters. Through this, we can provide a forum for kids to excel--when they don't see themselves as very successful. WritersCorps moves kids to the front of the line in a very dramatic way."

Same Difference: Young Writers on Race can be found at Borders Books in San Francisco.

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From the December 21, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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