2011 Youth Speaks Hawaii Grand Slam Finals culminates in competition and camaraderie

Jess Kroll

HONOLULU—On the outside Faith Pascua is a normal, 17-year-old junior at Farrington High School. She is also the defending Youth Speaks Hawaii (YSH) Grand Slam Champion, and a returning member of the YSH travel squad gearing up for this year’s finals.

“I’ve been Finals-crazy for the longest time. I will be completely relieved when it’s over,” Pascua says. “I thought last year was scary. I was so wrong!”

Founded in 2005, YSH is a non-profit organization that educates students between 13 and 19 in the writing and performance of slam poetry. Each year, YSH sends a team of six poets to the annual international youth slam poetry tournament called Brave New Voices.

Hawaii’s past performances have been highlighted by championships in 2008 and 2009—the only team to win twice in Brave New Voices history. Hawaii’s 2008 team had a featured role on HBO’s “Russell Simmons Presents: Brave New Voices.” Internationally, YSH has a reputation for powerful writing, strong emotions, and a welcoming, inclusive spirit. Last year’s team, which featured Pascua, made their fifth-straight appearance in the semi-final round. 

On Friday, March 25, YSH, or more accurately the five guest judges, will select which six of 21 competing poets will comprise the 2011 YSH travel squad. Finals also serves as the organization’s major fundraiser for the year, with profits going toward sending the team to represent the state at this year’s Brave New Voices tournament in San Francisco.

Unlike previous years, where past team members were given coveted late spots, even vets like Pascua does not have an guaranteed place. Due to a new qualifying structure, which uses the monthly 2nd SATurday Slam to accumulate points toward Finals, newcomers have an equal chance, in theory.

“I wanted to reward participation and not just winning,” says Sterling Higa, host of both Friday’s Grand Slam Finals and the monthly 2nd SATurday Slam. Higa is also one of the developers of the qualifying system, which rewards points for being a returning veteran but also for competing, featuring, finishing in the top three and winning a qualifying slam.

“I’d rather see a stage full of poets who are participating every month and pushing themselves to improve their writing than one prodigal poet who won one slam and hibernated the rest of the season,” Higa says.

For newcomers, like 16-year-old Kaiser High School sophomore Joanna Gordon, the qualifying slams aren’t only a boost to Finals competition, but a path into the poetry slam community. “It has added camaraderie,” she says of the monthly slams. “It’s easier for newbies like me to jump on the band wagon, and makes us more confident in gearing up for the slam. Knowing my competitors makes me a lot more excited to participate.”

Having learned of Youth Speaks last year through the free Wednesday writing workshops held at Arts @ Mark’s Garage, also the site of the free 2nd SATurday Slams, this will be Gordon’s first appearance at Finals.

“I am terrified and anxious, but also thrilled and honored,” Gordon says. “As a total newcomer, I’m going to soaking up every aspect of the Grand Slam.” Gordon, who began performing poetry when a severe knee injury placed her on the soccer bench, has quickly taken to the slams, even co-founding a club at her school. “I’m just enjoying listening to the more experienced poets, taking the knowledge they share and creating my own writing style. Slam is such a great way to express yourself, and an even better place to be heard. Everyone should try it.”

While the competitive aspect may draw in the crowds, what keeps the poets interested is the challenge that competition presents, and the movement which surrounds it.

“It pushes poets to improve themselves,” says Higa, the 2010 First Thursday Hawaii Slam Grand Champion and the first poet ever to compete for both the youth and adult Hawaii slam teams in the same year. “Sure, competition can bring out ugliness, but for the most part it’s helping poets with their writing and performance. My favorite part is knowing that I’ll never finish improving, and competition is part of that.”

For Pascua, the competition has been a struggle, but also a reminder of why she enjoys slam. “The poems I’ve been lucky enough to hear so far are amazing and that continues to push me,” she says.

As a member of the 2010 team, Pascua has been one of the most visible teen poets in the state, appearing at schools across Oahu and Hawaii Island to perform and conduct writing workshops.

“I love the fact that random people can be a part of each other’s lives in just three minutes,” Pascua says. “And I love the family Youth Speaks Hawaii has created. It’s been so helpful in my growth and everyone else’s.”

Gordon also cites personal growth as one of the most enjoyable aspects of slam poetry: “Since I joined Youth Speaks, I’ve never felt more comfortable in my own skin. I’ve gone from the girl scribbling down illegible lines in the dark, ashamed to be seen writing, to reading my poetry in front of hundreds of people.”

As for Higa, who turns 20 and therefore ineligible for youth competition only seven days after the season’s major event, the finals signals both a relief and a mere respite. “Not having to compete means I don’t stress about practicing and can enjoy seeing all the competitors leave their souls on stage. After this I’ll take a break,” he pauses, “for about a week. Then it’s time to start coaching the team.”

Youth Speaks Hawaii Grand Slam Finals begins this Friday, March 25 at 7:00 p.m. in the Farrington High School Auditorium. Tickets are $10 at the door, with all funds going to support the team. For more information on Finals, weekly workshops, monthly slams, or other events, visit www.youthspeakshawaii.org or www.facebook.com/youthspeakshawaii.