March 23, 2007

Border Voices Poetry Fair: Where Student Voices Shine!

by Michael Klam

If you ask fifth-grader Fernando Bassoco what he wants to be when he grows up, he’ll tell you without hesitation, “I’ll be a poet.”

Bassoco, at first, comes across as a tough kid, the biggest student in his class, somewhat quiet and defiant, yet confident when he speaks. You might not look at him and think, “There goes the next poet laureate of the United States.”

“I’m going to write poetry,” he says, “and bring it to the newspaper and ask them to print it like the comics, like the Sunday comics.”

Bassoco says that he wants to see more poetry in the paper “so that people can read something that’s not just bad stuff, like people dying.”

At the age of 10, Bassoco already has a public voice. He has been published in the respected Border Voices anthology, interviewed on television, and his words and photograph have appeared in a full-page spread in the newspaper.

He also has what many young poets need: a supportive community, a general education teacher who understands the importance and benefits of instruction in the arts, and a mentor poet-teacher who can inspire even the most reluctant student to write.

Johnnierenee Nia Nelson, a poet-teacher in the Border Voices Poetry Project, evoked Bassoco’s artistic abilities through her own literary skills, performance art, music and her personal approach to the craft of writing.

“She expressed her feelings,” Bassoco says, “and she had us do it, too, in drawings and poems.”

As you listen to Bassoco, you realize that this is the border that students of all ages and backgrounds need help to cross, the wide line between sitting back and remaining quiet or stepping up with the courage to express themselves.

The Border Voices Poetry Project has been sending poet-teachers like Nelson into classrooms since 1993. Jack Webb, acclaimed poet and former editor and award-winning investigative journalist, created the project.

Webb and his team of local writers, editors and teachers partly operate on the theory that studying poetry builds student confidence, especially in language ability, and these transfer to higher scores on standardized tests.

A study at Pershing Middle School, funded by the California Arts Council, not only showed the project’s positive effects of increased test scores and student achievement, but also indicated that general education teachers adopted and carried on the strategies presented by the poet-teachers.

Border Voices showcases the students’ and teachers’ achievements in ways that develop their self-worth as thinkers, writers and speakers. Border Voices students appear on ITV, Channel 16 in interviews with Webb and famous poets. Their words are published along with the names of their teachers in the annual Border Voices anthology and in the San Diego Union-Tribune, and they workshop with some of the world’s most highly acclaimed authors.

“The focus is on the kids,” says Webb, who also created the annual Border Voices Poetry Fair as part of the formula for raising the students’ self-esteem. The event brings “internationally renowned poets and local students together,” while giving the general public a chance to see and celebrate the best poetry that comes from the project, he says.

Past fairs have included literary greats from around the world such as Ernesto Cardenal, Sandra Cisneros, Alberto Blanco, Maya Angelou, Naomi Shihab Nye and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

This year’s fair, happening Saturday, March 24, from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., at San Diego State University’s Montezuma Hall, will include a series of workshops and readings by former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky, ground-breaking feminist poet Adrienne Rich, SDSU professor emeritus Catherine Yi-yu Cho Woo, publisher-poet William H. Roetzheim, and San Diego’s own professor-poet Steve Kowit. There will also be a bilingual workshop with Border Voices poet-teacher Francisco Bustos. The headliners will share the stage with Border Voices contest winners and young poets from schools across the city and county.

“Those kids are honored,” says poet/activist Kowit, who was there when Webb first launched the project in the early ‘90s. “They read along with big shot poets, and Jack Webb has done a good job making sure that the fair remains child-centered,” he says.

California State University San Marcos professor and teacher-poet Brandon Cesmat agrees: “I’m glad (Border Voices) publishes student poems,” he says. “I like to think of the work that we do as work in the community.”

Eleventh-grade student and Border Voices first-place winner Regine Reyes, of Morse High School, also agrees: “I liked that it gave people this kind of pride that they got to have their poems published in a book.”

Reyes recently competed in a school-wide journalism competition and writes editorials for her high school newspaper. She plans on studying history at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is particularly interested in the Renaissance because it was “a rebellion against classic art.” She believes that writing poetry is not just a way to express yourself and to let off steam, but that it also helps you respect and understand the world. “It’s hard to disrespect something that you feel,” she says.

Cesmat, who has also been president of California Poets in the Schools, says that success is measured when students confidently play with language, but it is just as important that students recognize each other and listen to one another. “We speak as honestly as we can using the music of language,” he says.

“Many of the children here are bilingual,” says Woo, featured award-winning poet and painter. “I will encourage them to write in both languages.” She plans to present poems in English and Chinese.

To Woo, there is no clear line that defines border voices. “California is right next to the Pacific Ocean,” she says. “If we have a broader view of the border, it’s limitless. Our land border is with Mexico, but California is a gateway to many other borders.”

Webb describes border voices as the borders between differing points of view.

And fifth-grader Bassoco seems to define the borders within himself, the decisions that he makes, the lines that he crosses or chooses not to cross: “Poetry makes me calm myself,” he says. “I feel calm.”

And he shares some advice, “I advise you to write poetry because it will help you to express your feelings, and it will help you in your life as well as it helps me.”

For more information about “The Best of Border Voices: Poet Laureates, Pulitzer Prize Winners & the Wisdom of Kids,” Webb’s most recent collection of the best poems from 16 years of festivals, featuring poems by students, teachers and national poets, visit

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