“Rid the streets of the poet / to whom the doors are locked.”
There is a wise dicho in Spanish: Cada cabeza es un mundo. Every individual is unique in this world.
When Gemini Ink’s Writers in Communities asked me to facilitate and teach a poetry writing class last fall, I was humbled to be part of this innovative program that sends professional writers into diverse settings to work with teens to develop their own unique voices through oral traditions, reading, and creative writing. The workshop was open to incarcerated youth at the Cyndi Taylor Krier Juvenile Correctional Treatment Center, a residential program for adjudicated Bexar County offenders known to generations of San Antonio youth as Southton. In the 1950s its residents included a teenage Fred Gomez Carrasco; today, most of its young offenders, ages 12-17, face charges ranging from possession and assault to robbery and truancy. The average length of stay is nine months to a year.
Yo Soy — I Am was a four-month poetry workshop. The dozen residents selected to participate in the workshop, mostly young men, came from Mexican-American and African-American backgrounds, from San Antonio and a few from post-Katrina New Orleans.
They tested me as I did them, asking about my previous work and listening to my own poetry. And while the presence of a state-mandated security officer might have stifled an open flow of ideas and the building of trust, by the third session, it was a non-issue.
My goal was to use identity as a springboard to find individual voice: What’s your name? What does an ID say about your background? Is your given name the one you prefer? Would you change any of these? The first evening I used Shirley Ellis’s classic pop ditty, “The Name Game,” with its interactive entreaty to rhyme one’s name to the lyrics of the song: “I betcha I can make a rhyme out of anybody’s name.” The old-school hit proved daunting until they realized its rhyme and reason shares roots with the more familiar world of rap and hip-hop.
They later wrote prose about their definition of success. To get them to read it aloud, I used the instrumental track from hip-hop artist Drake’s “Successful.” By validating their music with poetry, their definition of poetry began to change and offer new possibilities. Their prose converted itself into vibrant poetry, and the floodgates opened.
The group’s dedication to succeed was more than evident. Our class was held in the early evening after a full day of regular classes, counseling, and other requirements. We held double sessions on school holidays — even during the Thanksgiving weekend
Doing time is harder for teens, yet some of our greatest literature has come out of prisons. Cervantes wrote Don Quixote, the first modern novel, in jail. In recent times, other dissidents and outsiders have written poetry, memoirs, and essays while imprisoned, from George Jackson and Angela Davis in the 1960s to raulrsalinas and Jimmy Santiago Baca in the ’70s.
Each generation picks its literary heroes, and certainly the late Tupac Shakur would be high on that list today; however, it wasn’t until my students read his book of poetry, The Rose That Grew From Concrete, that they encountered the sensitive and tender side of the gangster rapper. They considered the romantic poet John Keats “a playah,” and judged the rhyming quips of the young Cassius Clay as “clowning.”
They also found two unlikely poetic heroes: Maya Angelou and Bob Dylan. Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings brought a shock of recognition, and her description of how she changed her name from Marguerite Johnson to Maya elicited smiles. Watching the young Bob Dylan singing “Subterranean Homesick Blues” in D.A. Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back took on special significance once we discussed its rebellious intent. They were mesmerized as “the old hippie” beat poet Alan Ginsberg passes the torch to a new generation in the film’s opening. Later, they aped Dylan as they recited their own poems while flipping flashcards that often contained words within words: one card labeled “REVOLUTION” contained the italicized word LOVE.
They chose to learn sonnets instead of “kid stuff” haiku. They wrote 14-line poems in the style of Shakespeare and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Each measured the iambic and labeled the rhyme scheme. One evening was spent in deep discussion about why a line like “and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death” was so dark, beautiful, and inspirational.
Each class began with a reading from a poet’s work. After hearing poems by Cynthia Harper and José Montalvo and learning both poets were from SA and deceased, they felt an immediate bond, asking how old they were and how they died. And then I realized that this experience was the first time they had heard a brown or black voice express itself in poetry and verse. Whether it was Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” or Jimmy Santiago Baca lamenting the loss of 10 years of poems in a fire, these young people were deeply moved. They understood what it means to be young, gifted, and a poet.
Each session ended with a recitation of the students’ work. I was amazed by the energy and pride with which they tested new material, hoping for approval and constructive feedback. One young woman sang a cappella — lyric poetry if you will. Homer would have been proud.
When the time came to cull and edit their best work, most of the students were responsive to making their poetry leaner and stronger; others vigorously defended a certain word, a phrase, or a title: “I’d rather it be untitled, that way the reader can give it their own title,” or “That’s the word, the expression and the spelling we use” in our barrio, in the Ninth Ward.
Were we successful? The answer lies in the creative harvest from the workshop: a chapbook and a public reading. You may recognize the voice of your sons and daughters, your brothers and sisters, your homies, your brave young poets.
When they return to their home schools, they may find that arts education programs have fallen to budget cuts and an emphasis on achieving higher test scores. Is it any wonder that dropout rates in San Antonio are at an all-time high? For some of these writers, their poetry and prose will grow and mature, for others this may be the first and only time they commit their minds and souls to verse. I pray not. But most important is the realization that they have the option to use their passions and experiences in nonviolent and creative ways and to give rise to a new voice filled with power and beauty. •
Yo soy — I am
A few of the poems that will be published by Gemini Ink in March in the chapbook Push and Pull: Poetry by Residents of the Cyndi Taylor Krier Juvenile Correctional Treatment Center. Copies can be purchased at Gemini Ink, or online at geminiink.com, for $10. Proceeds support Gemini’s Writers in Communities program.
Mother Courage by Taylor S.
It takes sacrifice, fear for your life
And love to do what you did
Something I would not
Have been able to do.
You were fading in front of me
Why didn’t you let go?
Dying each night and day
Brought me to tears.
Damned nurses and doctors heedless
They knew you were very ill
You were quivering deathlike
To the point of no return.
Sacrificing your life for my sister Asia
Just to see her grow up and smile
You are phenomenally courageous
It could have taken you the deathbed.
It takes sacrifice, fear for your life
And love to do what you did
Something I would not
Have been able to do.
Mom, I love you.
Brown Threat 2 Society by Alejandro V.
A menace to society and a vago from the hood
And porque my skin is brown
People assume I’m up to no good
They don’t feel safe when I’m around
They look down on me cuando hablo Espanglish
A bloodthirsty descendant of the Aztecs
Porque I don’t speak the “proper” language
I speak what’s known as Tex-Mex
Because I come from the Deep South
And have aggressive attitude towards people
But in my life, there’s been nothing to smile about
It’s full of sin, struggles, and evil
All they show is resentment and fear
But if you look closely into my eyes
You’ll see the pain from all those troubled years
I disguise it with black shades in daylight
And at night wash it away with a case of beers
But still at times in the still of the night
Alone in the dark I fight away tears
Pero no me entiendes, you can’t understand
When the odds are against you, how can you prosper?
When during childhood you become a man
And after that deranged into a monster
This is for all my misunderstood brothers
Who won’t settle for minimum wages
Who are a danger to themselves and others
For all the carnales confined up in cages.
Untitled by Erick M.
Dreams deserted burnt the surface
Yet find that silence is
Picture perfect sinner’s torment
A mind divine as this.
I try with rhyme defining life
A criminal unraveling
The twine of mind confined in time
Living with insanity
Damnation by humanity
Cold conviction of my spirit
Society denying my plea
Bold nonfiction though, why hear it?
Is how they think and so they chose
I guess to simply not then
Rid the streets of the poet
To whom the doors are locked
Many times I’ve been incarcerated
Awoke in straight jacket hospitals
But kept determination and inspiration
Despite of all these obstacles
Do you know what it’s like
To pray until you fall asleep?
Handcuffs tearing your flesh
And shackles on your feet?
I’m a son; I’m a brother;
I’m a lover; and future father too
But to the law and the judges
I’m nothing — but a fucking monster!
Pursuit by Trevon M.
Pursuit is just the act of pursuing
Pursuing is just the verb of pursue
Pursue is just the noun of capture
And capture is what I do
My pursuit is becoming a rapper
Pursuit on gaining knowledge
Pursuit on also gaining intellect
Pursuit on getting my prey
My prey is knowledge and paper
I put those two together to express
Through writing utensils and paper
Pursue the thing I do best
Pursue my dream through all the pain
All the confusion and the sorrow
I strive to succeed I strive to be better
I persist on pursuing while I pursue
Human Mother Beasts by Bryan S.
Elegant beasts impregnated against their will
For purebred babies made to kill Monstrous
Moms distorted souls locked in battle
Overused like a horse and saddle
Owners watch and get their kicks
As these fierce moms get nicked and bit
If their necks are reached they may lose their litter
May lose their lives as they struggle to survive
Their souls begin to lock like push and pull
Give and take their legs start to shake
Some of these beasts’ mate is their brother
So to the litter its aunt and its mother
A mother’s love is like no other
Can you feel it as you get smothered?
Never doubt the pain of your mother
To give more than they have
And show you their love
So take these absurd words
As we live with the women we love
We as people are nothing more
Than the beasts we domesticate
FALLING by Savannah F.
It’s just so hard to make any sense and less easy to conceive
What I have to do with these questions still living in mystery
Every word you said wasn’t worth it there will be no fighting
When shall it be exciting again?
I’m stuck not knowing what is the matter
It is indifference through circumstances
This rage is starting once again
And fate still isn’t finished with me
Or does it want to escape the truth again?
I am reaching in all my conflictions
My thoughts are polluted now
Why can’t I stop and fade away
And remove this weight of sorrow
Love, I’m not falling face down again.
To my Dark Side by Michael P.
Why do you hold me back?
Is it cuz I’m Mexican and a little black?
But I don’t care what the reason
Mexican blood is what I’m bleeding
You can call what you believe
I know I can achieve anything
As long as you stay away
I believe I’m going to pay
For my sins that I’ve done
There’s no place to run or hide
Because deep down inside
I know I can become something
I’m a human being
That’s the opposite of what I feel
Because I feel like a caged animal
Waiting to be killed is no thrill
It gives me a creepy chill
I’m not who you think I am
I’m not Mexican but I’m a Mexi-can
And I’m a super powerful android
That refuses and cannot be destroyed
The darkness is just a decoy
For me to deploy
My good side
Not the hood side
But the real person
The one that’s really hurting
I’m working for the right side
You know that light side
Not the dark night side
To my dark side,
I’m on the wrong side
You know I’m going to ride
When my good and evil collide
So watch as I ignite
The words that I recite