Everywhere solitary prisoners begin to create the words of the new dialogue.

– Octavio Paz, 1949

The poet in him flounders in a morass of lies and distortions about his conquered people. He loses his identity with mankind and self-consciously struggles to regain his one-to-one relationship with human existence.

– Luis Valdez, 1971

This, in itself, is enough to bring the charge of anomaly. Some would even argue that “poetry” is an antithesis of “penitentiary,” a truly contradictory juxtaposition. Yet, like Tupac’s relentless rose that defied the oppressive density of concrete, prison poetry continues to penetrate the barriers of stone and steel.

Just as the seedling had to find the crack in the concrete – the weakness in its structure – in order to take root, the prison poet discovers the weakness in the island of isolation – the pen. And with the pen, the condemned prisoner”s poetry takes root on the page, growing as he grows, seeking the liberation of liberations: Creation. Even in the Bible, that most ancient work of poetry, does it say: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Thus was the Word the spark of Creation.

This inspired insight is also to be found in the ancient genius of Mexican culture; specifically, in the Sun Stone, that twenty-five ton work of artistic brilliance which has come to symbolize our sacred past. For it is within the Sun Stone that we find what Luis Valdez called “the natural poetry of our people.” There, at the very center of the Stone, which captures the Mexica conception of the cosmos, is the Sun – the heart of the galaxy – depicted as a face. Out of his mouth emanates a “tekpatl,” or piece of flint, manifested as his tongue – the hieroglyphic symbol of speech (the Word). Sparks from the flint brought flames, flames brought fire, and fire brought Light. And light, in the Mexica universe, was wisdom, was the Word, was Creation.

It is not by mere chance in this cycle of poetical symbolism that, in the Nahwatl language and eloquent conception of our ancient Toltec forbearers, poetry was described as Xochicuica, “Flower Song.” For poetry, like the flower itself, seeks a connection with the force of creation in the sustenance of the Sun’s light.

So it is also true of the poet.

It is here that the prisoner recaptures his “one-to-one relationship with human existence” – through the liberating power of the Word.

No steel bars, no stone walls, can stop the will of the word. It will always find the crack in the concrete, grow toward the light of its Creator Sun, and flower.

I once saw crawled upon a solitary confinement cell wall, where one would expect to find the inanities of tribal warfare, a poem written with a “security crayon” by an anonymous soul:

After all this time, they want us to stop.
But since they can”t, we will not.
Torture me all you want…
I will continue.

The words were faded; it was obvious that the prison staff had tried to scrub them off, to hide them, repress them. But the words would not go away. I laughed at the beauty of the situation, which called to mind something Jimmy Santiago Baca has written:

When the wall is painted over, the words push through the paint
        like prisoners’ hands
                                through prison bars

I laughed some more. And then I wrote a poem. Rebellion lies behind prison walls. Its name is Poetry.