First Stop: A Women's Jail in Western Mass.

If you’re feeling what I’m feeling these days, stories of hope are needed — fuel to keep our collective fire burning as we figure out what to do now.

I am proud and grateful that you each chose to support stories of hope, and though only hours, they are rich, full hours where reality pauses long enough to envision something different for ourselves, personally and collectively.

This is the gift you allowed me to bring to The Western Massachusetts Regional Women's Correctional Center this past week. This is the gift you allowed the women to give me, in order to bring this story to you. We are creating waves.

I hope you read this story.

This first stop on The Humans That We Are prison poetry tour was exactly what I’d imagined when I first began to put this project on paper. Thanks to the support and efforts of the organization Voices From Inside, I began Tuesday morning at 9am sharp, sitting at a table with eight women who consider themselves writers at various stages in their creative journey. I led us through an exercise that has become a go-to in my repertoire: Love Letter to Self. 

The workshop lasted until 11 am, a packed, hearty two hours, and it was vibrant, deep and textured. But what struck me most was the reflection after we shared our new pieces. “It’s really hard to write positively about myself at all”, a writer shared, "thank you for having us do that.”

The women signed the upcoming reading program for me to show our donors. I am proud to share with you their brief reflections (bear with the ones that make me a little nervous that it sounds like I’m gloating):

“When women come together,” one woman wrote, “it is never nuthin’ less than awesome."

  • Thanks for being inspirational and sharing with us.
  • Caits, you are heavy. Very heavy.
  • Thanks so much for coming here. It’s all good for us. Really is.
  • Amazing group! Caits is very talented and amazing!
  • Caits, thanks so much for this amazing opportunity. I love your work and working with you!
  • I wish you could come on all Tuesdays, but either way, I love your poetry.  Thank you.
  • Thanks for everything Caits — for today, and for all you do everyday. I know your spirit will continue to inspire us all for a long time to come. And best of luck with the rest of the tour! P.S. Come back!

I spent the gap between performance and workshop decorating a hall with Katie, a teacher and facilitator with Voices From Inside, whose generosity and excitement propelled this whole experience to be as special as it was.

We hung crepe paper from the ceiling and ran out of breath blowing up balloons: one on the back of each reader’s chair. I had fun drawing faces on them with a thick black marker. It’s amazing what a little color can do to cheer up a grey room.

Then, the reading. The room was full of women who joined us as audience members, as well as a handful of staff. Before they entered, our readers jittered their nerves, practicing poems at the podium. I promised them I would mess up at least once in my reading (in fact it was closer to five times), which seemed to help insert a little ease into our air. Performance is nice, but it’s about the words at the end of the day, you know? The excitement was nearly touchable, tangible. Then, we began.

I had the honor of reading for 20 minutes to a silent room. It was that full, robust silence when the audience is focused and generous with their attention. Then each woman read two poems, cheered on loudly by their peers — an eruption of joy! The pride swelled! More than one person said, it doesn’t feel like jail right now. At the end, each woman came up with an encore: their love letter to self. We left elated. 

In the car today with my Dad, we listened to a recent Fresh Air podcast with Johnny Cash. Terry Gross asked him about his prison tours — I hadn’t realized the extent to which Johnny visited prison audiences with his music long before recording Live From Folsom! He expressed that he’s never had (major paraphrase from me) the kind of engagement, whooping, excitement at a performance than he got in prisons.

I laughed, knowing that feeling well. There is a hunger for connection and art, and where there is a hunger, that’s where creativity springs up on the strongest legs. Cash got it right: where there is hunger, there is profundity and a transformational movement of spirit. And that spirit is buoyant and has a blessedly loud mouth. And thank God for that.

Thank you, from me and from the women we got to serve. Of course, you already know, they served me, too.  

A special bonus: the night before the reading I had a public reading at Northampton Poetry Slam. Two women in the reentry/recovery programs through Voices From Inside came along, and one read for the first time on the mic! It was a pleasure to learn about how they are growing in their writing and now giving back to others in their community.