A little while ago, I finished two poems that I know are going to be signature pieces. I don’t really care for that expression, because I believe everything a writer does is his or her own signature. But I have been working on these for awhile and they just wouldn’t come forth. One piece came because someone in my family called me ‘lost.’ The other came about after three years of developing a different type of lifestyle. After I finished that work, I just had to dance. It was like something being released from me. I let go of burdens I didn’t even know I had.
About a week or so ago, I had the opportunity to read my work at a prison. I won’t even go into the journey and visitor requirements. However, I noticed that I received more respect as a person coming in to do a program than as a person seeing a family member. Often, as a family visitor, I have had to take off shoes, sweaters, hair clips, and put my bra in a brown paper bag and walk several times through the metal detector. This time that was not the case, which made me see that the way people are harassed when they come up to visit is completely unecessary, as I suspected.
The men I met in this program were absolutely beautiful. They did an open mic for about an hour, but I could have listened to them all day. I like work that is real. I think the purpose of art is to tell the truth, and these men were testifying. Sitting in the bright visiting room with the tables and chairs and soda machines and microwaves doesn’t give you the real feel of prison. What really speaks is to go into a prison on an afternoon when the sun is bright and see the darkness inside. The corners where men stand and there is no light. The way the air is hot and heavy and doesn’t move, even with a fan. The twists and turns of the long hallway floors, painted green, and the beige walls, no windows, no color, no life. It is like being buried in a huge gymnasium. And when these men read their work, they brought all of that up and out. Now it can be hard to tell the truth when you are on stage in front of a crowd, or with some of your family and friends, but you don’t have to live with some of these people, or, in the case of the crowd, ever see them again. But to be in prison, and talk about the loneliness, missing children and women and home, and then to have to look in a man’s face everyday and he has seen that side of you exposed- that takes heart. I don’t know that I could do it.
I look at some of these men who are so positive now, reading and writing, making chapbooks, striving to get that knowledge and become a better person, and I wonder what is going to happen to them in ten or fifteen years. Of course, I didn’t ask them how long they have on their sentences. But take a man who’s say, 30, and he’s got all this young man energy and he’s thinking and reading and coming up with new ideas and ready to come back into the world and live his life, and then lock him down until he’s 45. Will he be the same man? Will he have the same hope? My heart was breaking that day.
I was telling one of my friends about the experience and she said “I can’t go up there, I woulda been in trouble. All them fine brothers and they got knowledge too…” And I know where she is coming from, because I felt that way too. It is only because I know the inside story, watching my father and mother, that I know what that life is like. Taking vacations alone. Riding up to the prison on holidays. Always watching the phone bill. Tracking every single law made on prisoners and parole and looking for some kind of loophole that can be the key you need. Waiting for parole and trying not to get excited and waiting for parole and reading the denial and waiting for parole again. Not ever talking about the wedding ring on your finger to strangers, having vaguely hopeful conversations with family and friends..”Well, maybe this will be our year…”
I have to go back into the prisons. I am working it out now. I have never felt that much energy, that much love, from the crowd. I read some of my pieces dealing with prison and poverty and single motherhood and just being a black woman in this society who refuses to be defined by what I should do, want to look like, or believe, and I felt like the men understood where I was coming from. Here they are, as, my father says, in the belly of the beast, and according to society, they have been thrown away. They should be killing each other, they should be, as my family member said, ‘lost’ – but instead they are writing, and they shared it with me. I am truly grateful.
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