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Peace through superior poetry

By: Phoenix Jay Posted: February-17-2012 in
Ryan Tong and Kosal Khiev
Phoenix Jay

Ryan Tong and Kosal Khiev are on a mission. Part of new arts collective Studio Revolt, these Asian-American activists – one a youth worker, the other a former refugee and convict recently deported from the US to his native Cambodia – are using poetry to teach orphans the delicate art of self-expression. Ninety kids aged seven to 16, who survive by scavenging from Phnom Penh’s dump sites, are embarking on a voyage of self-discovery through spoken word at local NGO A New Day Cambodia.

When did you discover a love of poetry?

Ryan: When I was growing up, it was all Shakespeare, sonnets, haikus, and that never really appealed to me. But when I saw spoken word artist Baophi perform in Orange County, I just knew I had to get into this. It came full circle when I went to the Asia Pacific Islander Spoken Word Summit, which Baophi was coordinating, and he approached me and said: ‘Wow, I really like your stuff. I really felt that piece.’

Yours is a very different story, Kosal.

Kosal: My journey of self-discovery began when I got locked up at the age of 16. I didn’t come full circle until I went into the hole – solitary confinement – for a year and a half. It makes you face a lot of yourself that otherwise you wouldn’t face. Writing in the hole kept me sane, kept me conscious of where I was at. When I got out, I was introduced to a Vietnam War veteran and he introduced me to spoken word. Hearing him speak his writing gave me a whole new outlet. Instead of just writing on paper, I was able to speak it – and that helped. Somehow the words are connected with the emotion, and the emotion is connected with the body. Everything felt aligned.

What inspires your writing?

Kosal: I come from personal experience and I like it that way because I’m able to connect with the kids on a deeper level. I realise the conditions they were born into – a rough place. You have no control over that. At one point in time, I had nothing too. But I’m standing here now, a testament to what you can overcome if you connect your brain with your heart.

And are the kids at A New Day Cambodia showing much artistic potential?

Ryan: By the second week, they were so charged. It’s like nothing else they’ve experienced in Cambodia. In traditional school systems, your teacher’s the authoritarian, and the children ‘know absolutely nothing’ and just have to sit and absorb everything. When we teach spoken word, we’re talking about them. ‘Who are you?’ That’s our biggest question. It’s empowerment. Take the class system in Cambodia: ‘rich is good, poor is bad’. We want our kids to take ownership of who they are and where they came from, and be proud of it. We want them to acknowledge it and say not just that they’re victims, but they’re survivors and they’re taking charge of their situation.

Sounds like Pysch 101...

Ryan: You have your internal thoughts, but it takes on a whole other thing when you vocalise it. Our kids are super polite and while that may be good, it’s also a hindrance because we’re not getting into the real issues. We’re starting to get to a point where you don’t have to say ‘My family is happy and polite and we all get along’. We want to get beyond that, but it’s difficult.

Kosal: The goal is to open them up emotionally. I came into class one day feeling really horrible and kids are very intuitive. They said ‘Why are you sad? You should be happy.’ I said: ‘Well, there’s nothing wrong with being sad. If you’re sad, feel it.’ We’re going to touch on all sorts of emotions: sadness, anger, compassion...

You’ve got big plans for this year: launching the first local spoken-word artists.

Ryan: Their stories aren’t being told from their perspective. I think that’s one of the most important things we’re trying to get at. With spoken word, I’m not teaching you these skills as an engineer. We’re trying to help you be yourself more. When you acknowledge your true self, when you stop hiding in constructs that you’ve created to deal with your situation, then you become more authentic and you just love yourself more. And when you do that, everyone else loves you more too.
Inner peace through poetry: you heard it here first.


This article was 1st published in The Advisor - All back issues are available as downloads here

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