“All these words
for love…all these ways to say believe…”
—Reginald Dwayne Betts
On the first day of my public speaking class, I took 14 poems and laid them face down on a lacquered desk. 14 poems by 14 poets. All pieces that matter to me, have helped shape my life in some way. I told my students at the prison to come up, one at a time, and grab the poem on the top, no peeking. I had no idea who would get which poem. I said read that poem in your hand to the class. Out loud. They did. Much starting and halting. Beginning again. Stopping again. What does that word mean? Wait, this is about what? After all of them completed their task, I said: Do not lose this poem. It is your poem. And by the end of the semester, you will recite this poem to me, and this class, by heart. It will have transformed into your own.
There’s no way that’s possible, said one. Others smiled while shaking their heads, eyes quickly catching other eyes. Mr. Bellows, a former Marine, stared at me as if trying to look right through me.
I had my students recite familiar songs and nursery rhymes in unsuspecting ways: ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ in a whispering, evil voice; ‘Hickory Dickory Dock’ as if terrified, looking back and forth over your shoulder; ‘Happy Birthday to You’ sarcastically. Afterward, I asked what they remembered about the exercise.
“Yo, I seen Shorty bouncing around and shit like a creeper,” said Mr. Hendricks, pointing at Mr. Macaya.
“Oh yeah,” I said. “What else?”
“We were all acting like we were crazy,” said Mr. Tuskey, a man from Chicago who was afraid parole would send him back to a community he no longer knew.
“You’re right,” I said. Then I turned and wrote ‘Attitude Over Aptitude’ on the whiteboard. “Sometimes,” I said, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.”
The men were up practicing their Descriptive Speeches: describe someone, someplace, or something that impacted your life, good or bad.
Mr. Waters got up and spoke about his stepfather ‘Rooster’, a country western singer who played at the Gilley’s night club from ‘Urban Cowboy’ fame. Mr. Waters remembers how he was allowed to sing with Rooster and put out a pickle jar for tips to a packed house. Mr. Waters was five and the audience ate it up. Later, as Rooster slipped deeper and deeper into alcoholism as his dreams of a gold record wouldn’t materialize, he became increasingly abusive to Mr. Waters and his mother.
After years of torment, Mr. Waters, then 21, went to visit Rooster for a night of drinking. He brought a case of beer and a fifth of Jack Daniels. At the end of the night, Mr. Waters went into the bathroom and took out a long hunting knife, ready to go back into the living room and kill his stepfather. He looked in the mirror, breathed out once, and said “I’m ready.” When he went back into the living room, knife behind his back, Rooster was coughing hard and wet into a handkerchief. When he pulled it away from his mouth, it was covered in blood.
“And that’s when I knew God would do my work for me,” Mr. Waters said to the class. So he sat down next to Rooster, patted his shoulder, and finished his beer instead.
Mr. Russell went next. He is a large man, shoulders like wide, metal rollers in a factory. Wiry black beard, white Kufi hat tight around his shaved head. He said on the night he was transferred to a new penitentiary 15 years ago, his sat up listening to a man being raped in the darkness two cells down. His own cellmate just lied there, not saying a thing.
“He wouldn’t talk to me. He wouldn’t say a thing as this man cried for help. I kept thinking ‘Why won’t you say anything? What am I doing here?’”
Mr. Russell converted to Islam in the coming weeks and says it is the one thing that has saved him, even now. Afterward, I thanked the men. I told them they were growing more and more comfortable speaking in front of each other. That their stories were powerful, and they, courageous.
Packing up and getting ready for the transfer back up the hill, Mr. Kinney, who’s a dazzling painter and has completed dozens of portraits of the men, utilizing different shades of violet to highlight their cheekbones, said “Mr._________, you’re no CO. Because you know why? Because COs don’t save lives.” I didn’t know how to respond, so I just said what you’re supposed to say when given a gift: I thanked him.
For four months, between all the exercises, challenges and setbacks, small victories, the men practiced those poems I gave them. All 14. They studied. They spoke. They whispered their poems. They filled our small room with great sounds as they stretched their words into creation. Sometimes in groups. Sometimes to themselves. For Mr. Cortez, I rewrote many of the words to his poem “I Have Good News” by Tony Hoagland phonetically, as English is his second language and he didn’t graduate high school in the Dominican Republic, (a baseball career derailed at age 16).
There was much struggle for the men, there were many who quit, said they would try again, and then quit again. Only to again try.
But in our last class together, what power in their presentations. What ownership of language. These poems, all along, were more theirs than I even realized. Or planned.
Mr. Rialto, who previously had never read a poem in his life, joked before we started that Galway Kinnell’s “Blackberry Eating” had become his poem of seduction. Of lust. “I recited it to my girl on the phone the other day, replaced blackberry with a very different word.” He smiled. The men in class let out a satisfied howl.
And Mr. Waters, who bravely recited “To Myself” by Franz Wright. During the semester he informed me he was incarcerated for manufacturing and distributing meth, was an addict himself. He openly wept in class in front of the men during one of his speeches—the one about Rooster—as he thanked them all for being vulnerable, and for allowing him to be the same. When Mr. Waters said: “and the catastrophic dawn,/the nicotine crawling on your skin—/and when you begin/to cough I won’t cover my face,/and if you vomit this time I will hold you:/everything’s going to be fine” I believed him. The dignity in his eyes.
And Mr. Russell, who read Jim Daniels' “Wheels”, about the speaker’s brother always waving in photographs from behind the wheel of a car or truck or motorbike. We all learned in class just the other night that Mr. Russell’s younger brother died at age 13 because he snuck out in the family car and crashed at 100 mph. When Mr. Russell looked at us and said “my brother's feet/rarely touch the ground-/waving waving/face pressed to the wind/no camera to save him” we realized the poem was now a kaddish.
And Mr. Tuskey knew firsthand of the gangs in Chicago but vowed for something better for his two children when he gets out, read Kazim Ali's “Rain”. And when he recited with such force “I am a dark bowl, waiting to be filled./If I open my mouth now, I could drown in the rain./I hurry home as though someone is there waiting for me./The night collapses into your skin. I am the rain.” I was both thrilled and mesmerized because there could be no way he was lying.
And Mr. Cortez? He read every line of Hoagland's poem as a plea: “The dark ending does not cancel out/the brightness of the middle./Your day of greatest joy cannot be dimmed by any shame.” And when he finished I put my hands together and filled the room with noise. As did the men. And we were happy then; bound together by something closer to love.
Listen to "Fuzzy" by Grant Lee Buffalo, selected to accompany Christopher's work, below:
“Voice” is from CHRISTOPHER LOCKE's (he/him/his) forthcoming memoir WITHOUT SAINTS (Black Lawrence Press—2022). Other essays have appeared in The North American Review, JMWW, The Sun, Poets & Writers, The Rumpus, Slice, Atticus Review, Moonpark Review, Jet Fuel Review, and New Hampshire Magazine, among others. He won the 2018 Black River Chapbook Award (Black Lawrence Press) for his collection of short stories 25 Trumbulls Road, and his latest book of poems, Music for Ghosts, is forthcoming in 2022 from NYQ Books. Locke received the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Award, and state grants in poetry from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts. He has been nominated for Best of the Net and The Pushcart Prize many times.