Friday, April 28, 2006

Cement Oasis

I went to prison this week, for the first time. Sadly, like many folks who've never been inside a correctional facility before, my expectations had been shaped by MSNBC's Lock-Up, HBO's Oz, the films ConAir and Shawshank and, maybe, a dab of The Andy Griffith Show.

I know. How surburban of me.

Suffice it to say, my assumptions were ... um ... wrong. True, the innmates could've been actually shanking and hustling and tossing one another right before I showed up, but they were writers and poetry fans with me.

By the end of the night, I was signing programs like a rock star and accepting generous compliments and thank-yous for the day we'd spent together.

"You're a blessing ... really."

Me? Sheesh. "Thank you" isn't quite adequate, d'ya think? No, I didn't think so either. Especially when they are the ones who made the day important, which made it spectacular. For my part, I turned a workshop into a sustainable series ... something that the inmates will nuture and grow into something ... more. We started with a workshop on how to add volume, power and clarity to their writing; executed their first ever poetry slam (with 20 poets!); and, that night, launched the first open mic poetry series in a Wisconsin correctional facility.

Still, real life is just that. By 8pm, 100 grown men dressed in industrial green were waiting for their turn to get ice cream. Ice cream! Vanilla sugar cones, at that. Even from their places in line, these men --black, white, young, old-- were whistling and snapping at the poetry they heard. One of the judges flashed his scores from his spot in line. I'm watching the cinema, grinning my classic I'm-so-proud-of-y'all-mother-duck grin. Inside, wondering how they got here. How they each went from buying a cone or dish whenever they damn well pleased to ... this. What were the string of circumstances and decisions to land these guys here? Especially the ones with art and poetry thumping in their blood?

Once upon a time, they were irreverent teenagers, hormone thrashed middle-schoolers and tumbling, babbling, Elmer's glue eating toddlers. Just like the rest of us. In fact, one of the inmates did a poem called FlashBack where he referenced common demoninator kid stuff: Boston Baked Beans, Monkey See/Monkey Do, skipping pennies, pulling ponytails, flipping noonies, roller skates, the dozens, Now&Laters, the whole caboodle. Everyone was nodding and smiling ... remembering.

But we never know, do we? The precise turns and twists that insert our lives into brain-numbing jobs, between toxic relationships, under bankruptcy, atop stripper poles, wrapped in poetry circles, and inside prison.

In any event, we had a great time. The workshop was fun, their first slam was, actually, pretty impressive and the show that night was simply amazing. Partly because of the poetry, partly because of the band (yep, they have a band), partly the slam, partly a new pair of breasts to focus on (hey, I accept they weren't all/always hanging onto my words) but, mostly, because they've been granted an opportunity to refresh. For example, one of the inmates appointed himself as my assistant at the end of the workshop. By the time the evening show rolled around, he'd secured a calculator and a clipboard to help me keep score. By the end of the show, his score announcements had become charmingly comical commentaries ("What score do we have for Mr. Smith" "Mr. Smith has edged ahead with a noble and consistent score of 25.7!")

For me, this was one of the most fulfilling excursions I've had in a long time. Yes, I was appreciated. Yes, they were a great audience. Yes, they seemed to absorb the teaching points. Yes, they had fun. But all that dims in comparison to their future-forward smiles. Small, I know, in the scheme of decades-long sentences and lost loved ones and, well, remorse -- but they had something new to look forward to. For some, they'll look forward to a new platform for letting their words dance and fly. Some, need a sanctioned venue to entertain or be the center of attention. Some, need to be fed these new-fangled scriptures we call poetry. Some, just want an escape into a storefront normalcy, immerse themselves in something un-institutional.

In all cases, I'm honored (I know, Kendall, I know) to be a part of the architecture, the lead designer, in fact. This day was less about poetry and all about punching another airhole in the presswood boxes they've built for themselves. Everyone, everyone deserves a chance to breathe.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Reality numb

Words stand still
broad bands
of expectation

Bodies of young boys
beneath murky lagoon
bound by marsh weeds
pulled down to sweeten
its stagnant streams

frozen in my mouth
jagged edges digging
into fury
tearing open that simple shell
exposing apathy's patient dead seed

Unable to bear fruit
from freedom ringing verdicts
handed to police academy misfits
one family
our community
all damned to prune these
plantation field perversions
grief proving its forever harvest

shrink away
too small
and limp
to even wobble
beneath the weight of this
unbrave world
into corners
what good can they do