Incarcerated poets get together weekly at Writer’s Block, a poetry writing workshop at Macomb Correctional Facility outside Detroit. Eight inmates file into a conference room. Dressed in navy and orange jumpsuits, they greet everyone with affectionate handshakes.
Processing through poetry
Individually they craft something lyrical out of experiences that are often dark. Together they grapple with loss, their childhoods and incarceration through poetry.
They go around the room, each poet stands and faces the group to read. Raymond Hall, who goes by Umar, goes first. His poem is called “Suicide Chronicles Volume IV: What could I say to stop a man from crying?”
I saw a man cry today / because reality set in
Seeping gradually through his conscience / and the contents had him boxed in
Said he ain’t feel free since nine maybe ten / and every thought is an angering experience
I saw a man cry today
In this excerpt, he’s describing the moment he realized a young man he liked from another prison block was having a hard time.
The majority of the men in the workshop have been convicted of homicide. Six of them are serving life sentences and four of those were convicted as juveniles. Michael Brown is one of three volunteer facilitators who comes to the prison for Writer’s Block.
“I would let any one of the guys in our group watch my child,” Michael says. “I would let them babysit. And I know what has transpired in the past, and that’s the power of poetry.”
Another facilitator, Jonathan Rajewski, says whatever these men did shouldn’t restrain their voices.
“I mean, the fact of the matter remains that they’re people,” he says, “and they shouldn’t necessarily be stripped of their ... ability to write, think, read, speak. They shouldn’t be deprived of that based on a mistake they made. In some of these cases, they didn’t make a mistake at all. A couple of these guys maintain their innocence.”
One poet who does not claim innocence is James Fuson, who goes by Jay. He’s one of the most prolific writers in the group. Jay writes in tiny font, cramming dozens of poems onto a single page. He’s got spreadsheets and color coding to help him find the one among literally thousands of poems he’s looking for in his folder.
He writes small out of necessity.
“Because if I did everything in a regular font, regular size, it would probably take up the bottom of my footlocker,” he says. The footlocker is the main space inmates have for personal property.
Jay is 21 years into a life sentence. He killed his grandparents when he was 17. They were raising him because his mom died of a heroin overdose. His dad was abusive and later died in prison. As it stands now, Jay will die in prison, too. But he thinks he’s ready for a shot at parole.
“I see the person I am now, clear thinking, reasonable, rational,” says Jay, “and I don’t think that’s something new. I think that was always there within me. I just only had to discover it.”
He says he discovered it through exposure to new ideas when he was transferred to a facility with arts and education programming.
"It actually made me realize that there was a whole new world opened up to me, and that prison was not a barrier, it was just something to work around," says Jay. "Prison doesn’t stop anything.”
Now Jay is a published poet with a book of haiku and more than forty print publications.
Get to know the poets better
Check out Incarcerated Archive, a collection of Writer’s Block member’s poetry.
Hear Writer’s Block members read their poems in full below.