Staking Claim to Beauty & Power in San Fran's Men's Jail

Journal Entry
January 20, 2017

Twenty men of various ages, ethnicities and accents squeezed into a small room offshooting the housing unit’s common area. Most of us shared a love of visible tattoos, my first observation. The day had started with the television broadcasting the inauguration, and I was nauseous from the emotional overload. Assuming I wouldn’t be the only one, but cautious to be overly political just in case, I’d prepared a workshop that might be considered “uplifting.”

The theme of our session was I Believe: Staking Claim to Beauty and Power in a Troubled 2017.

Truth is, I was skeptical of my own ability to shake out of despair. But as soon as we began our intros, I knew there was no where else I could have been more powerfully on such a powerless day. I knew, because I’d experienced it many times before, that in a powerless space — well, that's exactly where I would touch hope. I would grab hope’s face and kiss it — a feeling I worried might soon be hard to access.

And so, we wrestled with Gregory Orr’s mini-essay, The Making of Poems. He opens with a line we all nodded to, I believe in poetry as a way of surviving the emotional chaos, spiritual confusions and traumatic events that come with being alive. We read Assata’s Shakur’s Affirmation and Elizabeth Alexander’s Ars Poetica #100: I Believe. Many  of us were struck by the same stanza in Michael Blumenthal’s I Believe:

I believe that no one is spared
the darkness,
and no one gets all of it.

And then, of course, we wrote our own declarations. We all tried. We really tried to put something of worth into the air.

This was my best attempt:

I believe that a circle of men, tattooed and dressed in blinding orange, might be the ones to save our world, and yes, yes, triple yes they saved me this morning after I watched the television become God, for real this time.

Remind me, again, that I believe in poetry’s small feet. How it slips through nearly unnoticed, or quietly throws a rope over the ledge, or lays down a red carpet over the wet mud and welcomes us to lay down into our most luminous skin. Let us flood the streets with our gold so bright it’s misnamed as sinister.

Look, even if we don't get a poem, we know we will leave this room better, whatever that means, right — or full of light, as we’ve established — and that the divine in me, tattooed clear up to the neck, will bow down to the divinity in you.

After a lunch break I returned as the entire housing unit’s residents were gathering in the plastic chairs arranged into audience. 50 men in bright orange jumpsuits looked curious at best, if not bored or suspicious in anticipation of this “poet from New York City." And I’ll admit it, okay, I was pretty nervous. I’ve never performed in front of solely men, never mind in a jail setting. So, I faked it. I began to sing.

The audience warmed immediately, clapping along. One of the precious moments that caught my eye was a younger man who attempted to make a small joke of my presence, a common reaction to discomfort, not knowing how to receive me. He reached his eyes to snag on other’s but was met only with stern faces that offered a wise lecture.

They said without speaking, "look, in a world where you encounter the same faces day in/day out, where days can be excruciatingly boring, where maybe we’ve been dismissed or dismissed ourselves and certainly judged, watched every moment of every day — a visitor’s desire to cross the barbed walls means a whole lot. We miss you, is what visitors say when they come in from the outside. And they mean it, even if they speak from a projected mouth — our loved ones are talking through their presence."

Pretty quickly the young man assumed the same body language of openness, after briefly turning his eyes down and swallowing, a little embarrassed. He joined us.

As imagined, the story goes that I was respected, cheered for and thanked — quite astonishingly, for example, by an elder who said I’ve always wanted to write my memoirs, but have never known how to start, until today, listening to you. But soaring above even these sky-high sentiments, of course you already know that the most profound part of collaborative readings is when workshop participants open the necessary space to carry energy beyond our afternoon.

In a transient setting such as jail, unfolding this emotional space is a tricky ask — but arms never need much twisting. Silenced throats are generally ready to shout. Over half of our workshop read, some who shocked the audience because “man, that dude never even speaks!”

We started slow and quiet, but as anger and fear and loss of joy and joy began to shake out, the sounds of being moved swept across the room, shouts of encouragement when the reader paused to gather their words or emotions, grunts of recognition, laughter. Sometimes an absence of sound gripped the room, the full-bodied quiet of profound respect. Men beyond our workshop took the makeshift stage, old raps and memorized poems spoken from the core, one after the next emerging from the crowd until we all exhaled, filled to the brim, then emptied. As we do with creativity, we transformed the space.

When it was all said and done, the doors closed between the men and I, each retreating to their shared cell. Instead of bars or solid metal, in this jail it was glass that stood between us — a human fishbowl, and a sharp reminder of the lines set down between us. I struggled to meet their eyes as I waved goodbye, walking towards an entire world that, even as it feigns it's freedom, is in desperate need of poetry. Behind these walls we touched a place somewhere beyond the physical plane, those rare moments when we feel what it really means, spiritually, to be free. In connection. Honest. And that is hope, indeed.

Remind me, again, that I believe in poetry’s small feet. How it slips through nearly unnoticed, or quietly throws a rope over the ledge...

Here is what the guys said:

It was a good experience and exercise to expand our creative writing squad.

Blowin’ up the block, this workshop rocks. Dostoevsky from the streets, waves upon the rocks. For today my edges have smoothed away — a soul’s journey with my mind free to play!

I am not a poet, and I surely know it. My voice is loud, mental telepathy… I’m not forgotten, embracing the stage of solitude, at times… I think not.

The class was awesome, very motivational, inspiring, empowering. She is a great teacher and I think I might have wrote something decent, which is great! Thank you!

I really appreciated this class. You’ve opened my thoughts and new doors. Words from others were very inspiring to m. Key words I kept thinking of were inspiration and meaning.

I love all the poets and the call of all! Keep it up.

I’m pleased and greatly honored to be in the presence of such a beautiful woman and a great American poet such as Miss Caits Meissner.

My happiness and future hope is that we can all help and strengthen ourselves no matter what the circumstances are. And I appreciate all the unity and strength of this group.

Never have I participated in a writing workshop, and this won’t be my last. You uncovered a gift and exposed a great many truths! One of which is that I’d love to do this again. Thanks!