Weird and Wonderful: Poetry and the Young Criminal Mind

My pal, Marilyn, has recently signed up for a stint with the young and the restless. That is to say she’s volunteering at the local detention facility for high schoolish offenders. Once a month or so she goes in with a team of crack poets, armed with little more than a thesaurus, to whip the little delinquents into literary shape.

I met up with Marilyn at the local Starbucks this past weekend. We got onto the subject of her volunteer work and it fascinated me. I thought I’d share the conversation.

Sue: How did you get involved in this program?

Marilyn: The group I represent, Berks Bards, is a grass roots organization with a mission to encourage area residents to write and share poetry. We meet at the GoggleWorks (in Reading, PA) on the first Thursday of each month to hear an invited poet read from their work and then we share our own writing. One of the regulars, Irv Westerfer, is on staff at Abraxas Academy, a facility in Morgantown which is a high school/home for juvenile offenders. Irv suggested the Bards expand their efforts to the youths, a number of which have committed violent crimes, and are now at the facility getting structure in their lives along with a diploma in the hopes that once they’ve done their time they can find a place in the world that doesn’t involve crime.

We developed a new program whereby a few of us go in and meet with a handful of the offenders who have been handpicked by the facility’s administration based on good behavior and a desire to learn to write. We’ve only had a couple of sessions but already are starting to see progress.

Sue: So what are the sessions like? What are you doing with these kids?

Marilyn: The initial writing workshop, though productive, was slow because the kids seemed reluctant to share their work. They were polite, but writing is usually a private affair for kids. I suspect that this group didn’t know whether they could trust us to honor their material. Plus, I’m not sure that anyone could write well in that setting. Cinder block walls and locked doors are daunting.

The second meeting, however, was a different story. We brought in a slam poet by the name of Egedeme (“rooster of the microphone”) whose electrifying performance inspired the kids. They came alive and suddenly were full of questions about writing and the performance process. In fact, we had planned that Egedeme would perform for half an hour and then the students would share their material. We didn’t get that far. They kept raising their hands. They kept asking questions. They wouldn’t let Egedeme go, he was that passionate and they were that inspired.

Sue: What do you think created the turnaround?

Marilyn: There was an immediate connection for the kids between what Egedeme was doing and rap music, which they love. Egedeme made a compelling case for writing—sitting down and doing some work—rather than improvising only, as is done with rap. It was amazing how receptive they were.

They had no idea there was such a thing as a rhyming dictionary. We told them about it and one young man went so far as to almost demand that Mr. Moyer, the Assistant Principal, get one for them. It was exciting to see such a turnaround. I think the young gentleman was a little abashed by his own boldness, but that’s the kind of passion I want to see fostered in these kids and it’s the kind of passion I think Mr. Moyer is thrilled to see growing among his students.

Sue: So what will you do now moving forward?

Marilyn: The next step will be to encourage them to share more of their writing with us. I have no doubt that with Egedeme helping us we’ll see some really good growth in these kids.

Sue: What has the facility’s response been so far?

Marilyn: Mr. Moyer has been the best. I couldn’t ask for a more cooperative partner. Irv had told us that the administration would purchase supplies and provide any equipment we deemed necessary and that has proved to be the case.

Sue: And how do the other Bards feel about the program?

Marilyn: Well, in talking with various members of the board before we agreed to go in, it was clear to me that most of our board members were over committed already. This had to be a project that didn’t tax our manpower, and in these lean times, didn’t tax our budget. Awilda Castro-Suarez was keen to go. Irv was lobbying hard for Berks Bard’s involvement and I was ready to try something new if these two were willing.

Beyond being overtaxed, I think some of our board members were afraid of what we might be getting ourselves into. This is a detention facility for young offenders and at first we only had Irv’s word that this was something we should undertake. On the strength of that, I was willing to try because it fit in with our desire to develop poetry groups at locations outside of the City of Reading. We try to locate poetry events in as many communities throughout the county as we can, but unless a core of people are willing to support that effort, it’s hard to sustain that many activities with just a few board members.

Of course all you’ll read in the newspaper about Abraxas is a report about why the police were called to such and such an incident. With that kind of PR, it’s no wonder that some board members were reluctant. Fortunately Irv, our insider, was pushing hard and Berks Bards is a very loosely run group. If you’re a trusted member of the board and willing to put the effort into a proposed project, unless it’s obviously a bad idea, no one’s going to stop you.

Sue: Good luck with this to both you and the kids at Abraxas. It’s a worthwhile project and rewarding for you and the kids as well. I hope you’ll send out progress reports and news of your charges’ accomplishments.

Marilyn: We certainly will. So far, so good. Following the next workshop on September 8th, which will be our third meeting, Egedeme plans on challenging the students to write, memorize and perform their own material at what will be our fourth meeting. No date has been set for that yet. Who knows what will happen, only good things I hope.

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Only good things, for sure. At any rate, there you are. Weird and Wonderful: young criminal poets. Getting into writing is never going to solve anyone’s problems by itself, but learning new ways of self-expression can add dimension to a young life regardless of where it’s lived. And it certainly can lead one to finding one’s place. In the end I suppose that’s what the kids at Abraxas need more than anything—a place in the world. Here’s hoping that the poetry leads them to it.

Sue Lange

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