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A Morning For Prisoners

Dateline: 12/30/97

Listen up. Edwin Torres has got a story to tell, of his trip bringing poetry into St. Thomas Prison:

We’ve been brought to The St. Thomas Correctional Facility by Rene Heidecker, the presenter who booked us here for a week of community based workshops and performances.

We get to the prison and are introduced to Louis Ible Jr., the reigning and 4-time Calypso King, who will be the MC for the event. Before being taken upstairs we’re told that no one has ever been allowed to entertain the prisoners, in the history of the prison. . . EVER! Real Live Poetry is the first form of live entertainment-as-culture to enter these walls. As Dana would say, UNNNN-believable.

As we get off the elevator the head guard welcomes us to the prison, then checks us for weapons. A judge from the Justice Department (a woman Everton would be flirting with at tomorrow night’s dinner) is already there with a photographer & a reporter from The Daily News. A cameraman & reporter from Channel 8 News are also on their way. . . . This is a big deal. The prison warden shows up with an entourage of three people, guards or something. . . . I didn’t know who they were but the holding area was getting crowded.

At this point, Louis is asking me about the group and what kind of show we’re planning on doing. He’s shy and unassuming, and doesn’t usually emcee. When I ask him how he usually handles this sort of thing he says sweetly, “I don’t know, I’m an artist just like you.” Meanwhile, the head guard is asking

Real Live
Poetry is
the first. . .
to enter
these walls

us to put our valuables in a locker as Rene is talking to the warden, the judge, and the press. Their voices start getting loud as the warden, a short woman with shades on, points to Dana. . . who was wearing a dress. On anyone else it might’ve been a dress, with Dana’s long legs it was more of a shirt and we knew what was coming next. “Her. . . she is dressed IN-appro-PRI-ate-ly!”

For the next 10 minutes this was the topic of conversation. The warden was concerned about the prisoners and Dana performing “whatever she does. . . I dunno what she gonna do!” We looked at each other slightly dumbfounded and amused. Here’s the warden picturing Dana, this young assertive TALL woman, doing some sort of somersault-strip-show while reciting a poem. . . . I’d pay to see that! There was no time for Dana to go back and change. What if she switches dresses with Rene, who is shorter than Dana but was wearing a “proper” long dress that would at least cover a little more leg. Dana’s dress would probably fit Rene. . . we need clearance for her to change here. What if we just get a prison sheet which she could wear like a sarong. O.K. good idea.

So another 10 minutes is spent waiting for a sheet to cover Dana’s legs. Dana whispers to me, “and I thought I WAS wearing something conservative. . . UNNN-believable!” Meanwhile, between his dreads and my moptop, Everton and I were sharing a bad hair week and were happy that the prisoners’ libido would be diverted from us to Dana.

While waiting, the photographer arranges us into a very casual staged shot. At this point Channel 8 arrives and there’s a lot of activity here. The warden & entourage leave, and the head guard finally says, “Alright, let’s just go like this!” Finally...Dana shall go sheet-less, one battle won. All of this had diffused any tension there might’ve been at the outset. . . but it comes back when we get to the courtyard.

We’re outside now, where the prisoners exercise and get some air. A courtyard with concrete walls and a fenced-in sky. An island breeze comes through, letting a glimpse of morning happen here. Ten picnic tables have been set up by a slanting wall in the shade. Sunshine filters through the courtyard. Guards follow behind us. We talk about how the prisoners will be situated and where to make the stage. Excitement building with nervousness.

I have too many poems with me and don’t know what kind of “message-poems” to read -- feel pretentious that I have to think that way -- always overthink what I read -- need to get off this tangent. I go to Dana who’s considering reading a poem from Aloud: Pete Spiro’s poem, “Cause and Effect,” which is about being poor and ending up in prison. I see Everton looking at a lot of his poems too. Maybe I should read something from Aloud, something funny like one of Pedro Pietri’s telephone poems. . . . I’m really nervous just sitting there waiting.

and good

The guards radio each other and let the prisoners in. They enter from the other end of the courtyard wearing orange fatigues and slowly make their way closer. Some are angry, some just don’t want to be part of this. We find out they weren't told about this until
that morning, so of course we’re a disruption to their day. They gather around the picnic tables and look at us slowly. I’m careful to look at them without fear but feel sad. . . imagining wasted lives, young and old. As the spectrum of freedom has arrived here, side by side, us and them.

Twenty men settle around us, no separation. . . just guards and good faith. Another 15-20 prisoners are brought in from the other end. They’re quiet when they first come out, until they see sheet-less Dana and the other women in the group -- and start mumbling, pointing, dreaming. Now there are 40-50 prisoners, about 35 sitting at the tables, on the ground, another 15 scattered throughout the courtyard. A very big guard with sunglasses and a frozen stare gets up in front of the picnic tables and crosses his arms. . . this is our stage he’s on and I wonder if he’s staying put.

The head guard introduces us as guest speakers in that position-of-power tone and tells the men to behave themselves -- if they don’t want to be here they can leave! Imagine if that’s how all poetry readings began. . . . Anyway, I feel the walls going up before we’ve even started. He introduces Louis “4-Time Calypso King” Ible Jr., they scatter applause, Mister Sunglasses steps to the side, and we’re on our way.

Louis gets up and says “Hello. You know, I didn’t want to be here!” -- at which point, a prisoner from the back stands up and yells “ME TOO!” He’s escorted out making noise and gestures. Louis’ point was that he knew a lot of the prisoners from his neigborhood and childhood. And to see them inside was sad for him. He said that maybe these visiting poets could show them another way.

I took that to heart. Discovering poetry had been a healing force in my life. . . and here I was in a position to share. . . I think I was overthinking again! Louis starts by reciting the lyrics from one of his songs, “Still In Da Back Ah De Bus”, a moving, self-empowering song using Rosa Parks as an analogy for taking control of your

to perform
frills. . .
the frill

life. He transformed from a shy, inept host to a passionate performer. The prisoners really liked it, then Louis introduced me and I’m lost. Don’t know how much poetry to do -- or explanation about using poetry as a tool for liberation, etc. Stuff that sounds good now but at that moment, I just decided to perform without frills. . . I AM the frill.

“Peesacho” seemed just right to break the oppressive mood -- they loved it. Did a quiet poem - they listened. Did “Color Love Blood” - they sort of listened. . . realized halfway through that I was traveling a road they knew too well but just finish it “POW!” -- silence. They appear condescended to (in my mind) I feel really incomplete and out of place and just say “thank you”. I feel that I lost my confidence, gave in to my nerves and that I failed miserably. . . I was only on for 7 minutes.

They applaud politely, as I sit down and prepare to cheer Everton on. Louis introduces him and he recites beautiful poems about his mother, about being a misplaced Jamaican in cold NYC. I relaxed as I laughed and listened with the rest of the audience. Pretty cool, how we slip from spotlight to audience so quickly on these trips. Everton read for about 15 minutes and went over really great. Then, of course, the prisoners’ piéce de resistance: sheet-less Dana.

Louis introduces her and as she stands up, a ripple comes across the ocean of orange fatigues. The guys start smiling, slapping each other five, wishing, and dreaming as Dana starts. Right off the bat, she hits them with “Religion,” a sexy love poem which leaves very little to the imagination. . . embracing “the meat” of her womanhood. . . verbally. . . confronting what EVERYONE in that courtyard was thinking. . . no sarong could’ve covered this up. . . she was on, she was there. . . “now ain’t THAT religion!” All the guys went crazy. . . applauding, whooping. With that, Dana was flying, she did about 20 minutes and got a resounding standing ovation. Louis gets up and says how about a hand for all of us. Then asks if there’s any questions for our guests. A guy sitting on the ground, at mini-dress level, raises his hands and says, “Yeh, can we get one more poem. . . from HER!” pointing at Dana. They all laugh, Dana says sure and does her Chaka Khan poem. I noticed that she didn’t scream “her crotch” the way she usually does. . . not wanting to stoke the embers of impropriety. . . as well as not wanting to get ATTACKED!

a ripple
comes across
the ocean
of orange

She finished and sat down. The prisoners were just sitting there, smiling, looking at us in appreciation. Louis was back up there asking if anyone had any poems to share. At which point we also tried to encourage some participation. After a few guffaws, one guy stood up to read.
But he didn’t read a poem, he just wanted an opportunity to go onstage and thank us for coming. He sat down as we were still looking for the poets we know must be there. Some of the guys sitting right around us start asking us questions respectfully. Hard to believe these people are criminals. My mind toggles good-bad switch as they start asking if they can write to us.

Suddenly, the men are yelling for this one guy making his way to the stage. He’s a crowd favorite with wild out-of-control dreads, found out later he was a murderer and that his brother was the one taken away at the beginning. With a very heavy accent he repeats the thank you the first guy said, but with his own twist, then sits down. The crowd cracks up. Everyone’s feeling pretty loose. We finally get a prisoner to give us a poem. Tall guy, gets up. . . everyone goes shhhhh. He says he’s been writing “for eight years now and I bet none of you knew that.” He then recites from memory a poem with the refrain “from my bosom to yours” about his mother. He has a very quiet voice but the poem is very strong and to the point. When he’s finished, the men just erupt with applause and cheers. One more guy gets up and says, “It’s hard being in here for a lot of us. We have family and friends outside and it’s good to know that we are not forgotten. Thank you and Bless you.”

A dialogue happened this morning. A conversation between understanding and possibility. It’s the same story wherever we go, people are nervous about what might happen when repressed people are presented with the possibility of freedom. A freedom of words, of mind, a freedom as elusive as the sky outside their own

Does ground
give way
if you stare
at walls
for too long?

window. Be they students or writers, repression appears in many forms. In this case, with prisoners. . . it’s very physical, it surrounds us. It’s concrete and wire fencing. It’s anger and fear. It’s a separation beyond class or color: it’s freedom or jail, us or them. People choose their jails. Freedom can be a jail, a wall to see through. Does ground give way if you stare at walls for too long? Separation must be dealt with, when confronted with none. And all this, just a product of the environment I was in. What I know from having been in a prison, for just two hours. A lifetime for me, a morning for prisoners.

--Edwin Torres

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