Project Read Foreword

Poetry at Maguire Facility

I met a poet in jail with a tear tattooed under his eye, who introduced himself by way of a poem about the ocean and the morning air. This is perhaps how underlying narratives of incarceration are reclaimed by an expanse of grace. This was the space I occupied when I visited Maguire, and in the context of jails and inmates, it was a space that was equally liminal and sacred. Beyond this context, there was scarcity and violence, and everyone else is an outsider. 

Poetry, however, great connector that it is, knows no walls or bars or fetters or strangers. By its very nature, it “makes things,” so that by the time a poem is crafted or read or heard, something has shifted—whether perspective, intention, person, or the earth’s rotation, it is an act that is especially significant for the incarcerated person (poet) and his/her/their reader. Argentinian educator Cristina Domenech explains, “Breaking the logic of language also breaks the logic of the system under which they’ve learned to respond. So a new system appeared, new rules that made them understand very quickly, — very quickly — that with poetic language they would be able to say absolutely whatever they wanted.”

At Maguire, Bill Burns’ poetry class has learned to write in form, a practice that most accomplished free verse poets recommend, to better understand language as a tool and framework for self-expression:

Philip T.’s alphabet poem, “Recipe for a New Life,” reads like a mnemonic device, or like hard-won rules of moral behavior:

Always be closing/ Beware of friendly lies/ Cut out all excuses

Zachary V.’s conversation poem, “To My Brother,” poignantly emulates the natural flow of human thought and dialogue:

How you doing, Bro, it’s been a lil’ minute./ I just wanted to talk with you even though you’re gone…

Julio R.’s “If” poem, “If You Love Me…,” is rhythmic and tender:

If you love me, let me know./ Tell me everything and don’t let go…

Jesus C.’s list poem, “Things I Don’t Like,” skillfully and cathartically inventories the speaker’s fears:

The demons that haunt me at night…/ All the B.S. that happens on site…

For the incarcerated, “there are words that are virtually forbidden, like the word time, the word future, the word wish,” according to Domenech. However, in these following lines by Ian B., poetry takes the shape of hope, so that everything becomes conceivable, unambiguous, and within reach, like rain:

I am mostly made of water./ I understand that so are you./ I say that we are water falling from the sky as rain. 

My visit at Maguire facility coincided with the class’ narrative poetry writing exercise. It was where I wrote my poem, “Fireborn,” which subsequently underwent many revisions. The poem’s original arc is barely perceptible in the final version, and the poem itself has transitioned into a more open form. But what makes poetry so vital and worthwhile is its ability to reimagine the world. In our shared space, I thought it fitting to write about what grows after a conflagration. If indeed to be a poet, “you have to go to hell and back,” then I was determined to see what rises from the ashes, every seed and sage and the poets of an age.

From The Best Poems: From 22 Anthologies of Unlocked Voices, Poetry of Incarcerated Learners, edited by Bill Burns. Project Read, 2020.

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