Cultural Quarterly
Fall 2008
Volume XXI, Number 4
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The Voice of Today’s Urban
Youth is…Poetry!

Ray Dominguez shows kids how words can unlock hearts and open opportunities
By Holly Strawbridge

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It’s Friday night in Lauderhill, and teenagers are streaming into a once-abandoned storefront to do something that would shock many of their peers – recite poetry they have written. Organizer Ray Dominguez has found the key to a door that educators and parents have not been able to unlock. Through the power of poetry, he has given today’s youth a voice.

“They tell me this is the first time someone has wanted to hear what they have to say,” says Dominguez. “There are a lot of angry kids out there, and poetry is so healing.”

“Not your mama’s poetry”
The poems are raw. Most don’t rhyme. They have more in common with rap than Wordsworth. Dominguez doesn’t care.

“This is not your mama’s poetry. It’s in-your-face, urban,” he says.

He gives the kids pencils, paper and three minutes to spill their hearts. The torrent of emotions is

Poets at Louder Than Life poetry Slam
Poets at Louder Than Life poetry Slam

as shocking as the range of topics they choose. They write about absent parents, regret, poverty, lack of respect, failure of our educational system, poor management of natural resources and other topics that few adults understand are on the minds of today’s youth.

Dominguez’ goal is to crack the shell kids use to shield themselves from pain and get them to open up. He has seen the process work miracles.

His first workshop at Okeechobee Juvenile Prison so captivated the young inmates that the wardens asked him to stay an extra day to work with a group that included a big kid with a bigger reputation for trouble.

“I said to them, ‘If God came to you and gave you three minutes to talk with your mom or dad because you would never see them again, what would you say?’” Dominguez recalls.

The kids wrote furiously before putting down their pencils. When he asked who wanted to go first, the big kid put up his hand. He stood up slowly and read a poem – a letter to his grandmother, who had raised him – and started to cry. Pretty soon everyone in the room was bawling.

“The social workers and psychologists had been trying for months to get him to open up. They were so grateful, because they felt the healing process could now begin. This is when I knew this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” says Dominguez.

The Write Side at the right time
The connection between poetry and young lives began when Dominguez walked into a Tampa coffee shop that had a little stage. It was open mike night, and the place was so packed with kids he could barely get to the counter. With coffee in hand, he stayed and listened. In no time, he was on the stage himself, sharing some of the poems he used in sales presentations.

Poet at Louder Than Life poetry Slam
Poets at Louder Than Life poetry Slam

When the coffee shop closed for the night, he invited everyone to his home, where they read poetry all night. His eight-year-old son, Michael, was fascinated and refused to go to bed.

Every Friday and Saturday night for months, Ray and Michael went to the coffee shop. Soon, Michael had memorized poems and was coaching the readers, causing his father to wonder if other kids could do the same.

He offered to teach poetry at his son’s after-school program, using composition books and pencils purchased with his own money. To start, his son read one of the poems he had written. The kids were mesmerized. “They all wanted to write like Michael,” says Dominguez.

That’s when he decided to start The Write Side Poets, Inc. In 2007, it was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. While times are tough for a poetry teacher in today’s world, Dominguez has no regrets.

“Some people awaken and say, ‘Oh no, I have to go to work today.’ I awaken and think, ‘I can’t wait to hear what the next kid will say,’” he says with a grin.

Poetry Slam opens the door
In 2005, Ray’s company transferred him to South Florida, and he quickly integrated himself into the poetry community. That same year, he auditioned and was accepted for the Delray Beach Poetry Slam team. (For the uninitiated, a “poetry slam” is a poetry contest). This team competed in the national slam in New Mexico and finished tenth in the U.S.

One night when Dominguez was attending a poetry contest in a Fort Lauderdale restaurant, the owner asked if he would help assemble a team to compete in Brave New Voices, a national competition for kids to be held in San Francisco six weeks later. Intrigued and excited, Dominguez quickly agreed. They staged a competition at the restaurant, from which five kids were chosen for the team. One of the diners present that night was so impressed that she wrote a $1,500 check on the spot to help cover the airfare. More than 500 young poets from throughout the U.S. and England competed in the event: Dominguez’ team finished second.

Beyond words
By 2007, Dominguez’ hobby had overtaken his life, and he resigned from his job to pursue his passion. He began knocking on doors asking to do poetry workshops. So many teachers and groups accepted that he put 141,000 miles on his new car traveling around the state.

One group that accepted his offer was VSA Arts of Florida, a nonprofit state-funded organization dedicated to opening the arts to children with disabilities. They asked Dominguez to teach poetry to children with autism – and they responded so favorably that he arranged for them to perform at Miami’s Carnival Center.

He then set his sights on the national Brave New Voices competition in San Jose, California, and staged the Louder than Life High School Poetry Slam to raise money for the trip. His team went to San Jose and finished 26th.

The national spotlight shines on Broward
Dominguez was busy coaching a team of Broward high school students for the 2008 Brave New

Poets at Louder Than Life poetry Slam
Poets at Louder Than Life poetry Slam

Voices competition when he received a call from the organizers. They wanted to include Dominguez and his poets in a documentary being filmed for HBO. Dominguez arranged for the local contest to be held in Fort Lauderdale’s beautiful new African-American Research Library and Cultural Center, an ideal backdrop for television. When word spread that HBO would be filming, they sold 400 tickets to the event.

HBO followed Dominguez’ team to the national competition in Washington, D.C., where they finished sixth among 45 teams. The week held a myriad of other opportunities, as well. The kids read poetry at the U.S. Capitol, attended a poetry workshop at George Washington University and recited their poems into a loudspeaker near the White House to let the President know what they thought about education in this country. At a Global Warming Poetry Slam at the Kennedy Center, they were thrilled to meet Robert Redford.

The Brave New Voices special will air on HBO in early 2009.

The voices are getting louder
“Kids in poetry don’t get into trouble. They read more, have better self-esteem and go on to be spokespeople and leaders,” says Dominguez.

He smiles when he recounts how poetry can turn around lives. He cites the example of Shamika Thomas, who was a mediocre student in a Miami high school when she made the 2006 team. She later was awarded a full scholarship to Spellman College, where she maintains a 4.0 average and has studied in Dubai and South Africa.  Two Write Side graduates from Tampa and Miami are attending the University of Wisconsin in Madison on full scholarship.

Dominguez’ desire to give kids their voice is endless. While he continues to prepare teams for competition and hold after-school writing workshops, he offers a myriad of unique workshop on topics that include how to write a college scholarship application essay or a newsletter for a school or church, become a community activist or stage a performance event.

One of his most popular workshop topics is rap versus poetry. “I tell them that you have to be a poet first to do rap. I show them that everything Tupac said, Shakespeare already said. Suddenly, they can relate to Shakespeare,” he says.

It takes “The Village” to raise a child
It seems fitting that, after all Dominguez does for children, a wonderful opportunity should drop in

Poets at Louder Than Life poetry Slam
Poets at Louder Than Life
poetry Slam

his lap. Earlier this year he spotted a vacant laundromat for rent and inquired about its availability. The owner wouldn’t lease it to him, but officials from the City of Lauderhill offered a larger, more open space in the same shopping center.

“It was the perfect place for young artists. We call it The Village, and we hope it will be the first of several locations where kids can come to tap into their creative side,” he explains.

Jubilee Dance Theater shares “The Village” with Write Side Poets. Eventually, they hope to offer film classes and have volunteers to help with reading and writing.

As for Dominguez, he’s always looking for ways to fund his passion. Fortunately, his wife is understanding – and employed. He survives on a shoestring budget in order to help kids find the words that unlock their hearts.

“I’m humbled, thankful, amazed. Where else can kids have this kind of opportunity?” he asks.

 

The Write Side Of Knowledge Click Here
by Ray Dominguez

 

 

Excerpt from Wake Up Call 
by Ray Dominguez

It’s 7:30 a.m.
And the third cup of coffee hasn’t kicked in yet
The kids in the classroom are wondering who the hell I am
And last night I decided to stay up and watch too much ESPN.

But as I look into their eyes I can see the innocence of miseducated children
Acting to be grown but too scared to ask any questions
Looking for direction but bumping into segregation
And right now I am hoping that my words can change them.

Because if they only knew what this world has in store for them
Then maybe black and white could be left in their notebooks
Cause my hook is that poetry can move a nation
And right now I just want one kid to pay attention.

 

Untitled
By El Nino (Diego Mosquera)

I find myself shedding tears of ink
Onto the eternal pages a poet’s notebook holds
My metaphors are making love to the sights of clouds crying tears of life
And as the rain falls, I find myself searching for words like junkies do pennies
I’m drowning in memories, reminiscing on experience, as I try to find the right words to write this poem.

 

Untitled
By Jon Kay (Jon Kowalsky)

I spit fire to speak up
For those who never felt they were never good enough.
I spit fire because I must
Forget about the dollar
In poetry we trust!

 

Mother’s Day
By Write Now (Mathew Madonia)

This is a true story about a mother, who was willing to give her all for her son
And that son would do the same for her, until he grew up.

See as he got older he thought he was cool,
So he would sneak into his mother’s backyard when she thought she wasn’t looking and he would burn trees.
Now his mother, just like all mothers, knew exactly what he was doing, but never once did she complain
Maybe that is because those were her trees he was burning (shh) you know what I mean

Now her son didn’t have any money, so he thought he’d be slick
He could turn those trees he was smoking, into paper, you know that good stuff
Because he was a paper chaser, steal from momma’s secret stash and go sell
Them so he could make a little cash

Now her son was still not satisfied, he claimed his mother had so much more to give to him.
He said, mom, I know that you have always been a mother to me, but now I need a best friend
And he injected into her that same deadly sin that he had participated in into her blood ways

And now her veins were un-holy, the cells in her body could not feed off of her properly and she began to die.
She began to cry as if maybe she could purge herself of this plague by releasing tears,
And for years she went along with this, because he was her son, and she was willing to die for him. Willing to give the world to him.

But then mother’s day came around, and he didn’t have anything to give to the woman that gave him her everything
She said, “Son, I have never denied you a single thing, and you can’t even remember me on this one day?”
What do you have to say,” he replied, I’m sorry mom, I… I’m sorry mother. I apologize for my behavior, I never meant to hurt you, mother… nature.”

She said, God took my dirt, and from my womb gave your ancestors birth.
And this is how you repay me.
You betrayed me, you took my beauty and made it into paper, so you could sell it and make money.
You polluted my rivers! The veins that connect life throughout the world you have made unclean.

And still you want more from me?
My clean air, doesn’t exist anymore, you released toxic waste into the atmosphere and now it flows through the lungs of every man woman and child. And you expect my depression to be mild.
But I can’t even cry anymore, because my tears burn their way down my cheeks. My rain is now toxic, It only hurts me more to show moments of weakness such as tears.
And still you want more of me?

Well I am sorry, but I have nothing left to give you.
You ask me for clean air, and I say you already took my breath away.
So when you have your baby daughter, pop her out and pop a gas mask on her face,
Because I am now a too polluted place for the pure youth to survive
I am dying slowly, but God somehow keeps me alive

But soon, I will know how it feels to burn like the fires of hell
The only thing that was keeping me safe, was my ozone layer, the roof over my head.
But I even gave you that, because diesel fuel trucks and nuclear power plants were the cool thing, and I wanted to be a cool mother.

But now I am just a disappointed mother!
And you think you can fix all of this with a simple sorry!
You can’t but you can start by next mother’s day, actually getting me a gift and I might forget for that day that you spent the rest of the year trying to kill me.

 

 

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