on Waterways
Poetry Workshop
at Island Academy
D. Nurkse

I've been very impressed with the aptitude for poetry that students at Rikers Island displayed during my visits in May and June of 1998.

Students showed a passionate interest in the classics: I think of Spanish-speaking members of Ms. Grant's class' response to Federico Garcia-Lorca's Romance del Emplazado and Casida de las Palomas Oscuras; or Darnell's remark that "Langston Hughes is keeping me alive here." Unquestionably, they were capable of appropriating great literature to enlarge their own worlds.

The aspect of appropriation is what interests me most. Students are able to move beyond their immediate worlds to the universals of literature; but when they themselves are recognized as creators, their approach to the world of books becomes empowered and personal. Darnell dreamt of being remembered as an author: in fact, he recognized that the written word was the only effective way he could realize his goals. He stated that the chance to write and publish poetry was, for him, the "the real reason I'm here" and that the opportunity to publish a chapbook was "the most important thing in the world" to him.

It may take a future generation of educational theorists to fully recognize that students often write at a level radically different from their reading skills -- or oral language skills; the insight is radically counter-stereotypical. Damian, for example, argued the point eloquently, explaining that he wrote all the time in prison as a way of coping, but that verbally he couldn't always maintain distance from peer pressure, or incorporate reflection and inner silence into his conversation. Many other students, including Charles and Pedro, proudly identified themselves as "poets" -- (several students specifically said they themselves were "not poets") -- and had the eloquence to back it up; I think of students writing on the theme of "home" and identifying it as reunion with parents, the harshness of prison life, the challenges of the neighborhood, a utopia without technology and the temptation of drugs "like how the Indians lived," or the stark "under the ground."

Many students, most articulately Darnell, considered themselves substance abusers, and identified poetry as a possible lifelong means of realizing themselves in the world, developing a sense of personal merit and self-observation, and a productive sublimation of tension in creative action, in the face of the cycle of dependence and instinctual action. Darnell spoke to a profound sense of marginalization in the lines "come to think of it, in death I might be better off/this world has never known me"; in his own words, poetry gave him hope to transcend his powerlessness, perhaps to be known by a generation more interested in listening, if this generation ignored him. This possibility offered at least a potential way out from the conquer-or-be-conquered bind he felt himself in with respect to his immediate prospects outside prison.

So the appropriation of the written word was not only an entree into the world of academics, but also, for the student, a way of claiming and owning his own emotions, not just living a life perceived as a consequence of the actions of others, or of unalterable external forces.

The process of writing, being recognized as a writer, accumulating a body of work, and being published, is transformative because it represents a completed emotional journey in lives full of interruptions -- a journey that is completely self-willed, begins in a moment of radical inwardness, and ends with a measurable objective accomplishment. A vision becomes fact.

I was struck by the power of creative work to forge community among the students. Charles, for example, was the first to praise Darnell, and to see his Waterways chapbook as a personal "inspiration" for writing; at least three times, I head a student tell a peer, "I didn't know you could do that." Students are clearly in need of an opportunity for self-realization that doesn't happen at the expense of peers, but creates common experience, and the possibility of a group identity as makers rather than victims or destroyers.

Poetry, at times, gave students a chance to address key psychological issues and try to find common ground -- or common areas of difference: to work as peers towards a standard of objectivity.

A specific example would be several dialogues on the role of the "father". I remember a passionate discussion in Ms. Grant's class; one student recalling that "my father hit me/like a boxer" but justifying that act, another almost crying as he confronted his own experience of abandonment: "he only comes around for a few days."

Elsewhere, Pedro described realizing his distance from his father "when another man took off his belt/and hit me": this is language that appropriates a moment of harsh epiphany, and makes art of its negation. I would have liked to see us connect this dialogue with an exploration of the self as father, given that reality in many students' lives.


The ultimate touchstone of the students' engagement with writing is the urgency of their personal artistic statement, and the revelation it brings us of our own need for their poetry "in a free land of barbed wire."

Notes on Workshops at Frederick Douglass Literacy Center

In four workshops, I saw young writers gradually overcome diifidence and the sense that writing consists of a set of problems to be mastered according to a formula only available to the privileged.

Many writers entered their own texts slowly, tentative at first, later self-assured. I think of Junior in Mr. Canale's class, who sat in the back and initially declined to participate, but finally became the prophetic voice of this group of students, even insisting that others keep quiet during the round of collective readings. Junior interpreted the theme "Tomorrow" with a poem of great power, beginning "the same sun/ a new father/ black men/ still killing black men/ for vanity."

Rastafarian and Moslem students became very comfortable reading poems which validated their particular identity in the class, and, one hopes, assuaged the contradictions between academic success and loyalty to traditions not recognized in normative curricula.

I was particularly struck by another shy young man, also deep in the back, who interpreted the theme "Write about someone you admire" with a poem beginning "I would admire you/ if you did not ask me to write poems/ because they make my mind feel like a tiny chessboard/ and I do not know the rules." His participation increased dramatically after he was coaxed to read the poem. I think it represents the way art allows students to incorporate their own anxieties and sense of a burden of disinheritance in an academic activity, rather than abandon their own sense of self in order to "succeed" at tasks which remain fundamentally external. The poem is, obviously, beautifully articulate, imaginative and self-aware, as was the response of a young woman who wrote "I admire/ myself/ for the way I dress/ the way I carry myself. and most of all/ the way I speak."

Consistently, as time passed, students became willing to see their writings as works in progress, which they could hone from their own resources, rather than as inspired fragments. A high proportion of students' questions, therefore, were voluntarily, rather than passively, directed to the mechanics of the writing process.

D. Nurkse

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