I cannot imagine anyone in their right mind saying they enjoy being incarcerated. Prison, especially state prison, is a horrible place. It is not so much being told what, when, and how to live: the food is not that bad; you are provided with health care; you can avoid the violence most of the time; and there is usually something interesting to read if you look around. No, the horror, to me, is that I am thought of as being less than human. To the prison administration we are only numbers wearing white. They train their guards to distrust us in an effort to keep a wall between gray and white—a wall that is called hate. We (the incarcerated) counter this type of psychological oppression in many different ways, some good, some bad.

Once inside, I learned quickly to let go of the past and to concentrate on making the best of the present. Whet could I do to make this time mean something—to make this nightmare work in my favor? Finally, I set my sights on the educational programs offered. I was a high school dropout in the world and thought this would be a great opportunity to get that GED I had been putting off for the past twenty years. I got it, and then some. I worked my way through the system for nine years and was eventually blessed with an M.A. in Literature, an accomplishment I am sure I would have never achieved in the world. And as a bonus, along the way, I discovered the wondrous world of poetry.

For the past few years, reading and writing poetry and literary criticism has dramatically changed how I view this world and all its complexities, good and bad. There is something about combining imagination and memories to create images that live in our subconscious that exhilarates me; it is like painting with words. But even more than that, my poems define me as being something other than a number. When I get a bogus case by some hate-filled guard, they can take away my privileges, but they can’t put me on poetry restriction—poetry is my lifeline to sanity, in an insane environment. In the comment section of the January issue of Poetry there was an exchange of opinions on the “social function of poetry.” The panel consisted of several brilliant professors/poets (all Ph.Ds) with varied opinions on the subject. But while reading and enjoying this polished prose, I kept waiting for one of them to mention, even if in passing, prison poetry. They never did. Then it dawned on me that all of these ideas came from academic points of view. And let’s face it, prison is not part of that world. However, poetry is very much part of prison. You will seldom find a prison-related publication that does not include poetry in its pages.

There are a few of us inside these fences with voices crying out, wanting, needing to be heard. In December, 2006, I sent my aunt, who had just been diagnosed with cancer, a Christmas card. Along with the card, as a last minute thought, I included a poem about my grandmother (her mother) that I thought she might enjoy:

I struggle as I piece together consonants
and vowels to express the love I feel
for her—she’s so much more than a name
on a grave stone—I still remember
the stained apron and the smell of her
bisquits. I feel each line of sorrow etched
on her face—but she never complained

or felt shame in the midst of her poverty.
There was no self—pity or useless tears,
only an undying faith in her ninety years—
a legacy of love formed in the hot-water
cornbread and sloppy-gravy years of
the Depression. Unyoked in her marriage

and unmatched in her ability to love, she
lived and mothered with the tenacity
of a winter weed. In every word I write
I can feel the presence of her beauty,
the strength of her faith, and the
peace and freedom in her welcomed death.

I never heard from my aunt again; she passed on a few weeks later. However, her youngest son wrote me shortly afterward. He said that his mother called him a few days before she died and read him a poem that I had written about our grandmother. He said he really wasn’t into poetry himself, but he thanked me for giving his mother a little joy during a time when she was in such pain. Not only did she call him, he said, she called every person she knew and read that poem. To the academic world, “More Than a Name” means nothing, and prison poetry is not worth a mention in their high-art minds. But it meant something to a dying old woman reliving memories of someone she loved, and would soon join in the next world. To me, this poem served a social function—because it meant something to another person at a level of emotional understanding that we all need at one time or another in this life.

I cannot speak for everyone, but there are times when I read a good poem and become envious. One of my favorite professors taught me to take this envy and use it in a positive way. He suggested that I find poets that I liked and emulate them (without plagiarizing, of course), that in doing so it would help me find my own voice. Margaret Atwood’s “This is a Photograph of Me,” a poem narrated by a dead girl who had drowned, was just the type of poem that affected me in the aforementioned way. My poem, “This is a Picture of Me,” is about the loss of innocence—narrated by a child lost in the shadows of youth:

It was taken during the time of day when the sun shines
through the living room window creating a glare, so it
might be a little blurry around the edges. That’s me,
right there in the corner, behind the Christmas tree.
It’s hard to see me, you have to look through the branches,
around the decorations, and then put the pieces together.
I’m sitting there listening quietly to my sister talk to
her imaginary friends that live in our walls (she’s the
pretty little redhead, right there, in the center of the
room). I’ve tried, I can’t hear the voices, but it makes me sick knowing she does.

It’s the same sick feeling I
get when I see the way he looks at her after he’s had a
few too many (our new stepfather—he’s the one taking the picture). It’s easier to see me if you pretend the tree’s
not there. That’s what I do. You see, this picture was
taken the same year I learned there wasn’t a Santa Claus.

I have learned that it is usually better not to write poems that are completely autobiographical, so I added elements to this poem that I could experience like the reader would. You see, my little sister is really a blonde, and as far back as I can remember, we never had a Christmas tree.

Twenty-eight months to go and I’ll be eligible to reenter society. But I’ll have something I’ve never had before—new eyes with which to maneuver through life. A new addiction if you will, a new journey that I have begun inside this cave. I have entered a place in the mind that I like to call the “poetry dimension.” It’s like I’ve entered into a kingdom of words in which my ideas, images, desires, and hopes that all humans possess but cannot always express, can be revealed to the world. Or at least the world that each of us as individuals lives in.