POETS & WRITERS IS MORE than a magazine. We are a nonprofit organization that puts money directly into the hands of writers who give readings and lead workshops in museums, prisons, homeless shelters, libraries, and senior centers. Your subscription to Poets & Writers Magazine supports the all-important work of cultivating literary activity in urban and rural communities throughout the United States.
Instigator the Enlightenment
Amy J. Cheney is a librarian and advocate. She has served preschoolers, middle schoolers, adults in county and federal facilities, students in juvenile halls, non-traditional library users, and people of color for more than twenty-five years. Cheney’s six-word memoir is: “Navigator of insanity, instigator of enlightenment.” Her theme songs are “Short Skirt, Long Jacket” by Cake and “I Can See Clearly Now” by Jimmy Cliff. For more information, visit her blog, Reaching Reluctant Readers, at writetoreadbooks.wordpress.com.
I am a librarian at the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center, in San Leandro, California. I work for three bureaucratic monoliths: the probation department, the county school department, and the county library. That’s a lot of rules, regulations, protocols, paperwork, forms, and chains of command. Chaos inevitably ensues as a result of all of those attempts at control. In the midst of that is Poets & Writers’ Readings & Workshops program.
It’s amazing. It’s unbelievable. It’s functional! It’s easy! I fill out a form online, soon I hear back from Poets & Writers, and a few days before a planned workshop, a check for the writer arrives in the mail. If only more of life were like this.
Over a period of ten years, Poets & Writers has enabled me to bring numerous writers to talk to the youth here. We’ve had well-known authors as well as others who are lesser known but perfect for my locked-down population.
For instance, Jerry McGill, author of Dear Marcus: A Letter to the Man Who Shot Me (Spiegel & Grau, 2012), was shot and paralyzed when he was thirteen years old. The shooter was never found. Deborah Jiang-Stein, author of Prison Baby (Beacon Press, 2014), was born in prison addicted to heroin. Her memoir was fascinating to our girls. In talking about these books, we were able to touch upon issues that are very real for the kids, but not often brought to light.
Another example is Ron Glodoski, who self-published the ironically titled How to Be a Successful Criminal: The Real Deal on Crime, Drugs, and Easy Money (Turn Around Pub, 1998). Glodoski led the young people in a life-changing experiential workshop that explored verbal abuse. He asked them to remember names they were called by their dads, moms, brothers, sisters, grandparents, teachers, and so-called friends. The list the kids generated included lazy, worthless, a mistake, slow, lowlife, good for nothing, fat, ignorant, ugly, conceited, crazy, crack baby, and retarded—not to mention the standard curse words and the mean racial and sexual put-downs.
His exercises guided them in remembering the first time someone called them a name and how they felt. Many of the kids remembered being spoken to this way when they were five, six, and seven years old. One wrote, “When my mother called me these names my heart felt broken.”
After the session, one kid wrote to Glodoski, “Wutz craccin Ron? I’d like to thank you for inspiring me and opening my eyes. Everything you said made sense to me. I’ve been to a lot of these type things but this is probably the only one that I listened to the whole time and made me feel different about things. I also read your book and I liked it a lot. I read it thinking I was gonna get knowledge from it and I did but in a different way than I was expecting. THANK YOU.” One teen advocated for Glodoski to return, but another said, “I would not recommend that Ron come back because if we paid attention today then there would be no one here to listen to him.”
For many, the kind of self-reflection that Glodoski led them through is entirely new. It may be the first time they’ve ever thought about the way they’ve been treated and the way they treat others. Through this work, participants start to understand the power of words. Words have had a potent impact on my own life. When I was a rage-filled teen, I was forced—at least that’s how I remember it—to hear Maya Angelou speak in a church basement. I was furious, but as the program went on I felt my defenses crack, and something that had never been available to me opened up inside. I’ve worked for fourteen years with hopes of providing others with such a powerful experience.
The modest funds we receive from Poets & Writers make this possible, creating opportunities for incarcerated youth to encounter books and authors—encounters that are invaluable in terms of hope, inspiration, contemplation, freedom, and provocation.
Photo Credit: Alexandra Merrin