“You can be sure that most Americans have been affected by the prison system in some way.”
Sit in any prison classroom or recreation room in any prison in the country and ask yourself: How many writers are in the room. How many people are writing rhymes or poems? Carefully-folded pieces of paper come out of pockets – words written in tightly stylized hand-writing. And more often than not, writing is kept hidden in prisons – not out in the open. So today, we’re traveling not just to San Quentin but around the country to unpack this art form called prison poetry. We’ll visit the life of one legendary prison poet of the 1960s – who eventually helped lead a literary movement. We’ll visit the backwoods of Alabama to find poets who are currently incarcerated… and who can knock your socks off with just a few dozen words. And we’ll ask you, the listener, to write a little poetry too.
For D.C. youths who get caught up in the adult system, prison isn’t just an experience, it’s a journey. Because it’s not a full-fledged state, the District of Columbia doesn’t maintain prisons. That means anyone with a sentence too long to be served out at the D.C. Jail— gets shipped off. Kids who might not have ventured outside their neighborhoods, can find themselves being transported hundreds of miles . Family and friends are apt to lack the time or resources to visit, so the young prisoners can end up isolated and poetry provides an anchor back their community.Though poet Dwayne Betts wasn’t sentenced in D.C., but in a neighboring Virginia county, he’s from the area, and had something very similar happen to him. Sometime after, at just 16, he was convicted of carjacking, he found himself on a prison transport bus headed for, of all places, the Appalachian mountains, a place heavily associated with banjo music and racial homogeneity. In this episode we hear about the journey away from home and back and the role poetry plays.
One morning in 1996, Kelli Taylor, working as a reporter for the Australian Broadcasting bureau in D.C., arrived at her desk to find something unusual, a letter from a man sentenced to die. It was the beginning of the chain of events that would lead to the founding of the Free Minds book club, a D.C. organization that reaches out to juvenile offenders through literature.
Award winning poet Dwayne Betts explains and takes us through a writing exercise about list poems. Then he tells us what it was like to be incarcerated at 16, and what it was like to end up in an Appalachian supermax prison.
You can never tell how life is going to turn out. When poet Randall Horton arrived in Washington D.C. from Birmingham, Alabama in the 1970s, his future looked bright, he’d come from a family of middle class educators, and was a good student and athlete who’d had his pick of colleges. Then, everything went wrong, and he was carted off to prison. The journey back wouldn’t be easy.
A poet famous for writing about the civil rights movement and for epitomizing black arts movement feminism, Sonia Sanchez passed through Attica’s gates 8 years after its legendary 1971 uprising. Though she’d never been incarcerated herself, for several years, she’d been married to widely praised prison poet Etheridge Knight. As Sanchez took the stage for a reading, memories of Attica’s insurrection and its casualties must have still lingered. In this episode of PPW, we go looking for prison poetry and prisoner poets in New York, visiting legendary institutions like Riker’s Island jail and Attica prison, to discover poetry as transformation.
Segment – A
McGregor prison is a tough place. According to the Correctional Association of New York, about 54 percent of its inmates are serving time for violent offenses. Yet, poet Cara Benson opens a session of the poetry workshop at the medium security prison by asking a group of all male prisoners to write a feminist poem. As we get to know this group, we see how well it cultivates sensitivity.
Segment – B
Bronx native and writer Victoria Sammartino takes us through a writing exercise that utilizes anaphora— and also explains what that is. Afterward, we take a drive with Derrick Anderson, a former McGregor poet whose family is facing eviction, and who isn’t sure he’ll be able to find a job in time to prevent it. With all the stress and time constraints in his life, he’s found that the easiest way to continue writing and sharing poetry is by text message. The guy on the receiving end of those digital missives is Sean Dalpiaz, another former inmate.
Patrick Mathieu says that, back in the 90s, he was always wishing he had more time to pursue his myriad interests. When he was sentenced to 10 years in prison, he wondered if the universe had finally answered his prayers, and couldn’t stop laughing. Angie Ortiz, on the other hand, found nothing funny about her situation. Incarcerated at Rikers Island while she was pregnant, she wound up giving birth in shackles. Both ex-offenders use poetry to relay their experiences.
We travel to Indianapolis, IN to explore the story of literary great Etheridge Knight, who published his first book, the soulful 1968 masterpiece “Poems from Prison,” while incarcerated at Indiana State Prison. Knight wrote as a prisoner, drug-addict and Korean War veteran. In this episode PPW explores the beauty and complexities of his work and life.
Knight spent his boyhood days on a farm in Corinth Mississippi. There, he lived the idyllic life, working and playing alongside a large brood of brothers and sisters, we learn from Knight’s surviving siblings. But he also pined for adventure, stealing off to rowdy pool halls whenever he had the chance. In such establishments, Knight would’ve found men “telling toasts” (performing memorized, African-American folk poems), a skill he picked up and mastered. By 16, Knight was off on a more fraught adventure, as he enlisted to fight in the Korean war.
Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 black
faces: my father, mother, grandmothers (1 dead), grand-
fathers (both dead), brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts,
cousins (1st and 2nd),
Returning from the war, Knight began what he called his “mad years.” We hear about how, having picked up a heroin addiction in the army, the veteran found himself in and out of trouble with police. In 1960, Knight was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to 10-25 years in prison. While behind bars, his love for telling toasts grew into a general appreciation for poetry. Knight wrote prolifically, was discovered by Pulitzer Prize winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks, and released not long after he published his first book. Former Michigan poet laureate Norbert Krapf considers Knight’s story inspirational, and crafts a writing exercise for listeners based on a poem dedicated to him.
We meet Dwayne Betts. If Etheridge Knight has a young literary heir, it might be him. Betts went to prison at 16 after being convicted of carjacking, but has since launched a successful writing career. He, like some other poets we hear from, credits Knight as a strong influence. We also meet Francis Stoller, who spent time with the poet during his last days. “I will write well. I will be a famous writer. I will work hard and my work will be good. I will be a famous writer. My voice will be heard and I will help my people,” Knight once wrote. The voices we hear prove he succeeded.
We take to the streets of New Orleans, Louisiana to ask folks about their connection to the criminal justice system. In the state of Louisiana, one in 86 adults are in prison and one in 55 adults are in jail, leading some to refer to Louisiana as the incarceration capital of the world. But today, Prison Poetry Workshop Radio won’t be attending any long-winded policy meetings or outraged protests, we’re here because, paradoxically, wherever you find the adversities of prison life, you find the transcendence of poetry. We’ll explore songs sung at Angola prison, past and present, and hear how, for one man, the tragic death of a sibling touched off events that landed him behind bars for over a decade… and how poetry helped save him.
Writer Nik De Dominic started a poetry workshop at Orleans Parish Prison in New orleans in 2009, and it’s still going strong. When we visited, inmate participants were knee deep in a conversation about famous American poet Walt Whitman. They came up with some unexpected insights.
WORKSHOP: Exploring our history can be the very thing that finally liberates us. New Orleans poet Patrick Young believes that’s the case, and that’s why he sees one story in the bible a little differently. It’s the one about Sodom Gomorrah, where Lot’s wife disobeys God. Though she’s usually seen as villainess, Young writes a poem defending her, and encourages listeners to write their own “in defense of” poem. Next, we absorb a 1954 recording of men working on a Southern chain gang, singing as they hammer in railroad spikes. The recording was captured by Alan Lomax, a folklorist who traveled around collecting prison songs for the Library of Congress.
When folklorists John and Alan Lomax traveled the country during the 1930s, they were participating in a series of innovative projects and programs implemented under President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Tasked with traveling across the South to record American roots music, they came across a prisoner everyone called Leadbelly.The man author Alex Haley would one day describe as the Mount Everest of Blues rocked their world. Leadbelly’s music was so good, it eventually earned him a pardon from the governor. While poet Patrick Young’s story isn’t so tidy, and involves him opening fire on a crowded night club, we also dig into his life and the positive turn it took.
Long before the term La Vida Loca became a song hook for early-aught pop star Ricky Martin, in Los Angeles California, it denoted a lifestyle.The crazy life was a life of partying and death, liquor and drivebys, funerals and sex— in essence, the modus operandi of the gangbanger. Inviting us into his San Fernando Valley office on a swelteringly hot day, chicano writer Luis J. Rodriguez doesn’t seem like someone who’d know much about that sort of thing. Silver maned and spectacled, he looks every bit the intellectual and family man he’s become. But there were darker days. Much. Later we travel up the coast and learn from participants in the rich writing tradition found in California’s prisons. Today, we’re in California searching out prison poets and prison poetry—discovering poetry as story.
The San Quentin prison yard emerges lively. An inmate strums a guitar and sings, while, feet away, on a sandy baseball field, a dozen or so prisoners enjoy the innocent pleasures of an afternoon game. Nearby, Native American inmates fire up a sweat lodge. Over at what’s called the art trailer, a group of prison writers give a reading you’ll never forget.
At one point, Luis Rodriguez was determined to commit suicide. He tells us how he gathered what he needed to do it, and then, how something unusual—“a song”— saved him. He tries to pass on what he learned that day to the students of the prison poetry classes he teaches: “ As long as you have a song in your heart, in your head, you’re not going to die.” he says.
WORKSHOP: Judith Tannenbaum, who ran a poetry workshop at San Quentin for years, takes us through an exercise based on a poem called “ Some Advice To Those Who Might Serve Time in Prison ,” written by Turkish writer Nizim Hikmet, a political prisoner in the 1940s.
So we know that poetry offers prisoners an unfettered way to explore, and give meaning to, their stories, potentially changing their lives. But what about the people who help them get there? What does that process look like from the other side? That’s something teacher and poet Judith Tennenbaum can speak to, she writes eloquently about the friendships she developed while teaching poetry at San Quentin.
Michigan has always been home to a number of bustling American enterprises, including the prison industry. Each year, the state’s correctional facilities take on 50 to 60,000 more “felons,” in a process that seems as endless as it is overwhelming. In this episode, we visit with those most likely to be able to explain it all: The state’s prison poets—and learn the extent to which time dominates their reality. While that seems like a given—we call it “doing time” after all— that relationship plays out in some surprising ways.
Cooper Street Correctional Facility is in Jackson, a factory town in South-Central Michigan. Each week, a group of about ten Cooper Street inmates get to gather in the prison visiting room for a poetry workshop run by the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP). During each workshop, the prisoner’s explore some motif, and today, it’s the apocalypse.
As the founders of PCAP struggled to get their prisoner arts organization off the ground, they ran into a few problems. One was the predominance of cliche: Some of the prisoner painters whose work PCAP wanted to display tended to trade in stock images— think roses and teardrops– that were bound to elicit exhibition room yawns. Another was forbidden laughter: While PCAP’s prison theater troupe was free to explore all manner of dramatic themes, once it veered into the comedic, it earned the ire of prison officials.
In the sixties, a time when black poets had few avenues through which to publish their work, author Dudley Randall founded Detroit’s Broadside Press. He went on to publish some of the most famous voices of the Black Arts Movement (everyone from Gwendolyn Brooks to Amiri Baraka), and to befriend and edit one of the most accomplished prison poets who ever lived: Etherdige Knight. These days, Detroit spoken word poets like ex-offender Shaun Moore-Bey embody that legacy.
John Lomax and his son Alan toured the South in the 1930s gathering music for the Library of Congress. Life then, and now, can be pretty tough in Alabama prisons. We travel with the inspirational Alabama Prison Arts & Education Project looking for prison poetry and prison poets to discover how the music of poetry heals
We visit Staton prison, where a group of ten prisoners gather around a table with Keyes Stevens of the the Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project. The group believes in creating a safe space for sharing poetry, but it also has high standards. When an inmate’s poetry is found wanting, the group isn’t shy about calling him out.
Workshop: Keyes Stevens takes listeners through a writing exercise where they explore disparate objects through verse. Former prisoner and poet Bryce Johnson then breaks in to tell us how he once broke out, and how pastimes like poetry helped keep him out of trouble once he was caught and brought back to prison.
Poetry can play a huge role in a young person’s life, especially if that young person gets caught up in the juvenile justice system. Former wards of the state of Alabama like Daniel Miller tell us about the Alabama Writers Forum, where teachers succesfully connect with at-risk kids through poetry and where one veteran teacher says he’s never encountered a behavior problem. Then poet and ex-offender Randall Horton tells us how poetry helped him gain a deeper sense of self and family.
We visited both Etheridge Knight’s archival collections at both the University of Toledo and Butler University and looked through his papers. The publication “Poems from Prison” by Broadside Press was a turning point in Knight’s life as a poet.