Prison Poetry in Tumultuous Times

This post was written by NCTE member Cruz Medina.

When the lockdowns started, I had to cancel a trip to San Quentin prison with some of my first-year college students.
In previous years, the students who attended the Shakespeare workshop with inmates felt transformed by the experience of reading and performing sections of The Merchant of Venice and other excerpts. In the bare portable building on the far side of the prison yard, the students saw the power of lyrical language to provoke insights as the men spoke about their own lives and life choices that contributed to them ending up in prison.
At the conclusion of the workshop, the men thanked us for spending our Sunday morning with them, saying the workshop helped them feel like they weren’t forgotten. During pandemic lockdowns, I have reflected on the connection lyrical language and poetry have to social justice through their power to humanize and to be forms of expression for incarcerated persons.

Santa Clara University students with professors Maura Tarnoff and Cruz Medina

At this moment when the world feels imprisoned by the pandemic, poetry can provide new ways to think, to see, and to make sense of these tumultuous times. In “Coming into Language,” poet Jimmy Santiago Baca communicates his experience of becoming literate in prison. Baca explains that he gravitated toward poetry because it affected him differently; he writes, “I believe something in my brain or something in my nervous system was impacted by poetry, by the way the lines and the words were arranged” (qtd. in Baker 23).
While teaching poetry, sometimes focusing on appreciating the lyrical quality, tone, and structure have to be enough; however, culturally relevant poetry and writing like Baca’s can ring the bells of social justice with messages that echo the language and spark a pride in “culture that was previously unknown” (Medina 272).
Cruz Medina with Ana Castillo in Santa Fe in 2016
I enjoy fearless Latinx writers like Ana Castillo because her experiences echo my own as Latinx. In her memoir, Black Dove, Castillo details how her son suffered from depression and got involved in an unarmed robbery.
Castillo explains, “Mi’jo had been depressed for a very long time and as I came to see it, had turned to drugs to self-medicate” (184). When her son was imprisoned, he began reading and writing more.
From a distance, Castillo encouraged her son’s writing: “He embraced the experimental prose-poetry style. . . . Mi’jo had become enthusiastic about literature, writing, and even acting” (192). Through our Zoom and Webex portals, we possess the potential to encourage students through our enthusiasm for the writing and literature that inspire us to feel more human.
Recently, I asked a class to read an article by Erec Toso about teaching poetry in an Arizona prison. Toso argues that incarcerated people are like Carl Jung’s idea of the shadow, the hidden parts of our consciousness that humans hide. He includes examples of incarcerated writers’ poetry that are full of original metaphor related to their parasitic dependency on drugs like heroin or inhumane relationships they’ve experienced with loved ones.
Toso says the writing works best when the unconscious shadow becomes visible and readers see incarcerated people as “the leftovers when opportunities ran dry” rather than as the monsters represented in popular media (20). Students in my class responded well to the poetry in Toso’s piece because they understood that the heavy feelings incarcerated writers describe could not be as accurately communicated in regular prose.
Poetry reconstructs the world though the syntax of verse, thereby communicating in a language of emotions that readers and writers feel as true, more so than the clickbait headlines to which we’ve become callous from doomscrolling. In virtual classrooms, mediated through screens, our quarantines similarly afford us moments to sit with poetry and reframe our missed connections with the outside world.
After all, better understanding the hardships we all currently face is and will continue to be an important part of not just the human experience, but also the process of returning to the normal experience of in-person interactions when social distancing is no longer necessary.
For more, listen to Cruz Medina’s interview with Ana Castillo for the This Rhetorical Life podcast:
Further Readings
A Place to Stand by Jimmy Santiago Baca. (Open Road and Grove/Atlantic, 2007.)
“Coming into Language” in Working in the Dark: Reflections of a Poet of the Barrio, by Jimmy Santiago Baca (Red Crane Books, 1992, pp. 3–11.)
“Jimmy Santiago Baca: Poetry as Lifesaver” by Rob Baker in The Council Chronicle (March 2008)
Black Dove: Mamá, Mi’jo, and Me by Ana Castillo. (The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2016.)
“Teaching Jimmy Santiago Baca” by Cruz Medina, in Latino/a Literature in the Classroom: 21st Century Approaches to Teaching, edited by Frederick Aldama. (Routledge, 2015, pp. 271–74.)
“Lifting the Lid: How Prison Writing Workshops Shed Light on the Social Shadow,” by Erec Toso, in Community Literacy Journal (vol. 2, no. 2, 2016, pp. 19–26.)

Cruz Medina is assistant professor of rhetoric and composition in the department of English at Santa Clara University. Medina teaches writing for the first generation college student program (LEAD Scholars), a bilingual writing course, and courses on digital writing. His book Reclaiming [email protected] Pop: Examining the Rhetoric of Cultural Deficiency (Palgrave 2015) addresses issues of citizenship, education, and politics related to Latinxs in the US.

It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

Poetry Is the Light: Children Need to Let Their Words Shine

This post was written by NCTE member Valerie Bolling.

Amanda Gorman. In the short time since most of us heard her poem, her name has been emerging continuously from mouths across the globe. When the topic of the Biden/Harris inauguration enters a conversation, Gorman’s name, like the light she refers to in The Hill We Climb, immediately illuminates the space. Gorman delivered an inaugural poem that will be quoted and revered for years to come.
I was as impressed as everyone else by the brilliance and eloquence we all witnessed, and, as an educator, I viewed this experience through another lens as well. I saw the possibilities for lessons. Yes, there are lessons that we can learn by examining the lines of the poem and applying them to ourselves and to the occurrences in our world. Lessons about how to maintain resilience and hope. Lessons about connection and community. Lessons about language and word play.
I was inspired to consider The Hill We Climb from the point of view of this two-part question: How does Amanda Gorman’s poem model for us why we should teach poetry and, perhaps more importantly, why students should write their own poems?
Poetry is the surest way to allow students to celebrate themselves—who they are, what they enjoy, what they care about, what they wonder about, what gives them hope. Therefore, we must provide a classroom experience immersed in poetry.
The left column in the chart below describes different types of poems that my elementary and middle school students have written. The right column shows examples of how The Hill We Climb reflects a conglomeration of elements in these poems.

Not only can The Hill We Climb serve as a mentor text for young poets, but Gorman used mentor texts of her own. She shared that she was inspired by tweets she read in reaction to the Capitol insurrection, used references from Hamilton, and read speeches by famous orators, such as  Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln.
Can you recognize the evidence of mentor texts in these lines from The Hill We Climb?
We will rise from the golden hills of the West.
We will rise from the windswept Northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution.
We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the Midwestern states.
We will rise from the sun-baked South.
This is certainly reminiscent of King’s I Have a Dream speech and Angelou’s poem Still I Rise.
What a wonderful example for students to see that even the greatest poets use mentor texts. And, yes, Amanda Gorman is inarguably one of the greatest.
The ultimate truth: The real reason students should write poetry is for sheer enjoyment! I’ve never had a student who wasn’t excited about writing poetry. Sure,  a few may be reluctant at first, but once they realize they can write about whatever they want in whatever way they want, they become poets.
Poetry is the truest form of equity. Students who struggle with more traditional writing assignments experience success writing poems. They build their confidence writing poetry and can then transfer those skills to other forms of writing. Even in an essay, they can infuse poetic language.
I still remember the first poem one of my ESL students wrote. She had recently arrived from Austria and didn’t know English. Her first poem was “Ha Ha Ha!” She used simple language and the repetition of “ha ha ha.” When she read it aloud, the class laughed along with her. It was an instant hit!
I’ve seen poetry heal, too. Students have written about a cat who died, a grandmother with Alzheimer’s, a friend moving away. When sharing their poems, they connect with their classmates over shared experiences, and I’ve been able to connect with them in a new way, too.
Finally, children should write poems because poetry is about more than the words on the page. It’s about the sound and delivery of the words. Will you turn your words into a song? Will you rap? Will you recite spoken-word style?
We want a poem’s words to flow forth and shower us with wisdom and awe. We want to hear them. And, in the case of Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, we want to hear them again and again.
I want to hear the words of all of our children. I want them to feel seen and heard, valued and validated. As an author, I want them to see themselves in the pages of books. Even more, I want them to write their own stories, and their own poems. When we listen to children read their poems, we learn things that we might not have otherwise discovered about them. To paraphrase Gorman’s words, poetry enables children to see the light and to be the light.
Additional resource: Here’s a lesson created by Greenwich High School teacher Rebecca Wilson: Inauguration Poem Analysis. It was inspired by and uses questions and resources from this PBS lesson.
Valerie Bolling has been an educator for 28 years and is currently an instructional coach for Greenwich Public Schools in Greenwich, Connecticut. When she’s not collaborating with teachers or leading the middle school humanities curriculum team, she writes picture books. Her debut picture book Let’s Dance! was published in March 2020. She has two books scheduled for release in 2022 and two more slated for 2023. Visit Valerie Bolling’s author website. 

It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

Connecting through Writing: A Collaborative Writing Project Inspired by the National Day on Writing

This post was written by NCTE member Carrie Conners and guest author Bethany Holmstrom.

Over the last two years at LaGuardia Community College-CUNY, we have embarked upon campus-wide collaborative writing projects to emphasize our shared connection as writers, no matter our discipline, major, or position at the college. We wanted to celebrate the ways that writing is vital to all of our lives through collective efforts.
In the fall of 2019, LaGuardia Community College celebrated the National Day on Writing for the first time. As part of the celebration, students, faculty and staff at the college were asked to respond to the prompt #WhyIWrite on posters across campus, the Library’s “Question of the Week” board, Twitter, or emails sent to Carrie Conners, the event organizer. Conners took the 365 responses and composed, “Why LaGuardia Writes,” a collaborative list poem divided into 33 sections of 11 responses each, in honor of the 11th annual National Day on Writing.
Sections of the poem were read aloud by students at a Writing Open House—students could choose from stations of writing activities, including six-word short stories and surrealist language games—on the day of the celebration and shared with the rest of the college community afterwards.
The responses range from pragmatic (“If I write, I remember more”) to romantic (“To say, ‘I love you,’ to my girlfriend”) to therapeutic (“To heal our scars”) to funny (“For a cramped hand”) to profound (“To remind myself that I have a purpose”). On the posters, people began commenting on other’s comments; those comments and the collaborative poem as a whole demonstrate how writing connects people and has the power to build community.
In October of 2020, LaGuardia had its second annual National Day on Writing celebration. Bethany Holmstrom organized the celebration, and the theme of the collaborative poem was “How Does Writing Keep You Connected?” to reflect distance learning and the power of writing to sustain relationships while physically separated. After gathering responses from over 100 students, faculty, and staff using GoogleForms, Holmstrom stitched together lines and phrases to create five stanzas, loosely clustered around themes.
Even in the midst of a public health crisis, the contributors found solace in writing, saying that it kept them “Sane, whole, and connected to humanity: / grounded, reminding me to breathe / at times when I am not able to.” The actual celebration occurred—like so much else during the pandemic—virtually. At the Zoom celebration readers shared the first five stanzas of the collaborative poem. Celebration attendees were then asked to contribute more thoughts on how writing kept them connected, in the group chat or verbally. A sixth celebration-stanza was created from these contributions, with a final reminder to our community that:

words are my eternal power
though there are many languages
feelings and ideas connect everyone—
a reminder that history is vast
and my griefs and joys join me
to a universe that continues to unfold.

Holmstrom also created a website which features both the 2019 and 2020 poems, as well as readings from LaGuardia’s Creative Writing faculty and alums, video writing workshops led by Creative Writing faculty, and writing prompts to provide students and faculty a toolbox of inspiring writing resources whenever they want to access them. This page features both collaborative poems. 
Although these collaborative poems were college-wide projects, faculty at the college have also used them on a smaller scale in their classrooms. As a beginning-of-the-semester ice-breaker, one faculty member shared “Why LaGuardia Writes” with students and had them write and share their own reasons for writing. Another shared “How Does Writing Keep You Connected?” to energize a composition class at the midterm and to encourage them to think about the importance of writing beyond the classroom.
After the college moved to remote learning in March of 2020, Conners used the collaborative writing technique with her Introduction to Creative Writing class to help sustain a sense of class community by creating a poem together. The course emphasizes observational writing, but since the city was the epicenter of the pandemic at the time, most New Yorkers were staying home as much as possible. So the students were asked to write a line about something that they observed from their window to compose the collaborative list poem, “Out the Window I’ve Seen.”
Here are its closing lines:

People trying to live normal lives in abnormal times
A spring that never sprung; the leaden sky wrapped around the Sun like an N95 mask
An empty street filled with the sounds of birds chirping and squirrels scurrying about
A mural with the words Love and Hope graffitied onto it
My Earth, looking back at me.

To read the poem in its entirety, see The LaGuardia Community College Library “COVID-19 Story Project” in its Institutional Archives.
Collaborative writing can build community, across campus, in a traditional classroom setting, or when physically distanced and learning asynchronously. The practice emphasizes that writing is not a solitary, isolated endeavor, and that one of its highest purposes is to help people connect with one another.

Carrie Conners is a professor of English at LaGuardia Community College-CUNY where she teaches composition, creative writing, and literature. Her research focuses on contemporary American poetry, and she is also a poet. Her poetry collection, Luscious Struggle (BrickHouse Books, 2019), was selected as a 2020 Paterson Poetry Prize Finalist.  
Bethany Holmstrom is an associate professor of English at LaGuardia Community College-CUNY. Read more about her scholarship, writing, and teaching at 

It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.