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Focus On Basics

Volume 7, Issue D ::: September 2005

The Critical Poetry Project

Giving Voice to the Oppressed

by Pauline Geraci
An inmate stood at the microphone and read a poem by another inmate, who was in “the hole” (segregation). Afterwards, Reggie Harris, a visiting poet, asked if any of the inmates knew where he could find more poems by the guy in the hole. From breast pockets, men pulled poems their absent friend had written. “This is why I come into these spaces,” Reggie said, “Where else do you find guys carrying poems around with them?”

In the Beginning

Teaching offenders is challenging. Many of those I teach dropped out of school in the 9th or 10th grade due to boredom. They need variety or they lose interest quickly. They also live in a regimented culture. They are told what to wear and eat; what time to eat, wake up, and sleep; when to participate in recreation; when they can make phone calls and to whom; when family and friends can visit; what they can or cannot receive in the mail. As a corrections educator I try to grab their attention and then maintain it. I do so by providing activities that not only stimulate them intellectually but also engage them emotionally. I have found that activities that connect them to members of the outside community work well.

I met Reggie Harris in 2003, when he came into the prison to speak and perform some of his poems as part of the Character Education class we offer. Harris is the co-founder of “in the belly...”, a nonprofit collective of artists who perform and conduct residencies and workshops in prisons, substance abuse rehabilitation centers, shelters, and alternative schools. I was awestruck by his work and the students’ reactions, so I decided to apply for a $3,000 grant through the Education Minnesota Foundation to start “The Critical Poetry Project” with him. Harris wrote a grant proposal and received an additional $3,000 from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council (MRAC) to supplement my grant. The grants paid for visiting artists, supplies, videos, books, and music CDs to help students learn to study poetry critically and to improve their writing and public speaking skills.

Why Poetry?

“Oppression, according to Augusto Boal, is when one person is dominated by the monologue of another and has no chance to reply” (Gewertz, 2003). Inmates are told what to do and often cannot reply unless they want to end up in segregation. “I feel more comfortable in the circle of poets than I do sitting in the visiting room with some of my family, because the visiting room is so restricted. I don’t care how hard you think you are — gangster, killer, drug dealer — you want to express yourself,” commented an offender. Poetry provides them with the opportunity to express themselves and to address important issues. Spoken word poetry, performed aloud with more of an emphasis on performance than on printed forms, has been particularly effective with my students. It is known as a populist form, performed by male and female speakers and readers of all races. It inspires people who, in their pasts, have found poetry to be irrelevant. According to Miguel Algarin, founder of the Nuyorican Poets Café, a spoken-word venue in New York City, spoken word poetry, or “rather the poetry of the nineties, seeks to promote a tolerance and understanding between people. The aim is to dissolve the social, cultural, and political boundaries that generalize the human experience and make it meaningless” (Miazga, 1998).

A Spiritual Encounter

by Sarith Peou


Vorn and I walk eastward

As the KR directs

And search for Vorn’s family

And reach Wat Chroy Ampil

Where the smell of dead humans is

Thick, and I hope my body is home

And I’m only here in spirit

When we enter the temple

And more dead bodies are strewn

And weapons, uniforms, and amulets are

Strewn like my hope for my nation

Like my hope for my world

And free, terrified, we find no monks

And we hear no one except

The cicadas’ buzz and the still leaves

The spirits of the dead possess me

And the cicadas’ laugh and mock

Like ghosts, my silent cry of fear

And pain I can’t release, not even

To Buddha whose defeat is before my eyes.

I pray to my mother, without a result

And demons overpower me, terrify me,

Poison my blood, tear out my soul

They have power I cannot fight

And I want to surrender and obey.

I could sing. I could dance.

I could cry. I could laugh.

But please let me do it peacefully and without fear

But they don’t want my surrender

They want my destruction


Sarith Peou is a survivor of war and Khmer Rouge genocide that ravaged Cambodia when he was a young boy. He escaped to a refugee camp in Thailand in 1982 and was resettled in the United States in 1987. He is now an inmate at Minnesota Correctional Facility Stillwater, serving a double life sentence. He has been writing his memoir and poems telling his war and Khmer Rouge experience.


The offenders I teach represent a number of racial, ethnic, linguistic, and social class groups including Native Americans, Asians, Hispanics, African Americans, and Caucasians. Some speak Spanish, others Khmer, and some Ojibwae. Some of the students grew up on welfare or on the reservations. Some come from middle-class families. They come from various geographic locations: large cities such as St. Paul and Minneapolis and rural areas such as White Earth Reservation. Many were educationally disadvantaged before they came to prison. Most or all have taken advantage of educational opportunities offered here at Stillwater and attained their certificates of General Educational Development (GED) or college diplomas. They live together with the men on their unit, eat together, go to recreation together, and go to school or work together. Their social connections are limited to their unit. I hoped poetry would have value as a tool for creating community and unity among diverse groups of male offenders; I wanted it to enhance the social interaction between racial and ethnic populations in order to reduce conflict. I wanted poetry to help students learn how to attain and improve their academic skills and cultivate positive attitudes about themselves.

Where It All Happens

Minnesota Correctional Facility Stillwater (MCF-STW) is Minnesota’s largest close-security institution for adult male offenders. Approximately 200 of the 1,300 offenders participate in educational programming. The average age of offenders is 34. Of the population, about 50 percent are people of color. Approximately 72 percent of the population has received a GED or high school equivalency, data documented by Minnesota’s Department of Corrections. Approximately 70 percent of the prison population has committed violent offenses.

At Stillwater, a 13-member staff offers adult education services in basic literacy, adult basic education (ABE), preparation for the GED, vocational training, English for speakers of other languages (ESOL), life skills, and college courses available through correspondence and the Corrections Learning Network (CLN).

I am the Literacy 3 instructor: I currently work with 25 men each morning and another 25 men each afternoon for three hours, and conduct an evening literacy class once a week for men who work during the day. At the time I started using poetry with my students, I was helping offenders raise their reading and math skills and get their GEDs. About a year ago, I started working with offenders who have their GED or high school diploma and wanted to move on to higher education.

Starting the Poetry Group

After we received the grant, I posted a flier in the education department to see who would be interested in joining a poetry group. I met with 30 men from the various literacy classes who responded to the flier. Since 1994, I have written and received more than 15 grants. Because of this and what the grants have provided in equipment and learning materials, the students were ecstatic to learn about the new grant that supported Reggie Harris’s participation in the program.

I explained the project and the time involved. Criteria were minimal: Students could be at any academic level; they had to have an interest in poetry and the ability to come for two hours on Tuesday evening and three hours one afternoon a week. That reduced the group to 20 members, which became the core Stillwater Poetry Group (SPG). All but one have their GED or high school diploma. Three have an associate’s degree; only four have a reading level below grade 13. The group fluctuates in size somewhat because men go to segregation, go home, or transfer to another prison. As in everything we do here, flexibility is the key.

The Workshops

Reggie Harris was the middle man in planning the workshops. During a planning workshop, the inmates submitted themes that interested them: manhood, fatherhood, American dreams and nightmares, and the value of a man or woman. Then Harris contacted artists to set up dates for them to come to the prison, connecting artists to themes he felt were of interest to them and pairing them with offenders, including some who had never written poetry before. The outside artists e-mailed poems and suggestions for the workshop to me to pass on to the offenders and in turn I e-mailed work by offenders to the artists for critique.

We ended up having an artist visit once a week for three hours over the course of almost nine months: spoken word artist Desdamona, writer J. Otis Powell, musician Douglass Ewart, actor James Williams, improvisationalist Mankwe Ndosi, meditation teacher/writer Jon Passi, poet Emmanuel Ortiz, and filmmaker Rachel Raimist. All these artists were involved in poetry in one form or another.

SPG member David Doppler, who considers himself a visual artist, took on the job of offender facilitator of the SPG, collecting poems from the offenders, placing them on a floppy disk, and handing it to me to e-mail to the outside artists. Offenders do not have access to e-mail, the Internet, or outside lines of communication while in the education department. Not only did Doppler help prepare for and run workshops, but he also helped edit poems for others back in the cell block where he and the offenders live. Sometimes, he and the other SPG members who live in the same block got together to produce group poems.

The community artists had never met members of the SPG until the actual workshops. The first workshop was cofacilitated by Doppler and Harris. The theme, which Doppler came up with, was The Message of Our Poetry. “I started thinking about what is the meaning behind our writing. We can’t just come down here and throw stuff together because it sounds nice, it has to have a message,” he said. Doppler helped create a lesson plan including readings, questions, and discussion and writing prompts. Readings included “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and “Message to Messenger,” by Gil Scott-Heron. Other readings were original poems by Doppler and Harris. Discussions revolved around these questions: Are self-development and social change one and the same? Is there freedom of expression? Is there freedom in voicing your truth? Who is the messenger and what makes a message relevant? During the discussion, a question was asked about “Who gets to determine who the messengers are?” Most of the offenders commented, “The multi-media.” Another question was, “Can everyone be the messenger?” One inmate replied, “No, I think you only listen to certain people. We don’t pay attention to people who are nothing.” In the end, participants decided that anyone could be the messenger, because if you can speak or write then you are a messenger. Students then wrote using writing prompts such as “I write because…,” “My voice trembles when…,” or “Freedom is…”

The workshops were held on Thursday afternoons. The SPG then met the following Tuesday evening for two hours to make sure everything was ready for the new workshop as well as to share and critique some of their poetry. Tuesday night is usually recreation night or the night when inmates have an opportunity to make phone calls to loved ones. Giving those activities up showed the extent of the workshop participants’ concern for their own work, interest in poetry, and genuine commitment to each other’s writing and development. They now consider themselves as artists and writers. According to Doppler, “We have a community providing for, nurturing for, and caring for one another. It’s not just about writing but caring for each other’s problems.”

Doppler explains, “In a prison environment inmates are forced to develop defenses. Putting up walls in order to protect emotions and reputations is the most popular way to deal with anyone when you are incarcerated. Some attempt to meet their social needs in gangs and cliques or try out some new religion. But many find themselves even more alienated and build even stronger defenses.”

Evolution of Criticism

An important part of the poetry writing process is giving and receiving criticism. I always try to be as honest as I can with my critiques in the regular classroom and with the SPG — sometimes to a fault. Nonetheless, at first, no one wanted to offend anyone by being too critical. Members read their poems to the group and then each member offered critique. Most would say, “That was a great poem, or good job.” As the men gained a certain comfort level, critiques became more honest. The visiting artists facilitated this by sharing their inner selves through their poetry, by role-modeling critique, by talking to the men as fellow artists, and by treating them with respect. The men commented, “This is the only place where we can be honest and share openly.”

A great example of honest critique happened about three months into the project, when the men rehearsed for a spoken word presentation. They organized into small groups and read their poetry while the others listened, then discussed how best to present their work. The men no longer held back their thoughts. One inmate shared a poem that used a negative word about women. Other SPG members quickly spoke up about how they felt. “I know you can do better than that. We have mothers, sisters, girlfriends. We don’t need to be using that word,” responded an inmate.

The day of the spoken word event was filled with anticipation. The men had practiced so hard to memorize their work. In corners of the room you could see them, eyes closed, lips moving as if in silent prayer, going over their poems. Several of the men asked if I could provide some water because their mouths were becoming dry.

The event was a success. After each man performed his poem, the audience clapped. The men were patted on the back and congratulated. Some of the men even garnered a standing ovation from the enthusiastic crowd. Dan Frey, one of the outside poetry volunteers, commented, “The men performed with closed eyes and clenched fists. The men spoke of their lives, their anger, and their sadness. It was totally transformative. You could see eyes light up and high-voltage smiles emanating from their faces.”

Everyone involved with the SPG discovered that poetry enables them to express anger about life, about prison, about the system, about families. “I didn’t intend to write poetry ever. I didn’t have any interest in poetry because it is so abstract. But now I understand it better because it gives me another avenue to create,” remarked a member.

Another member stated, “Before I got involved with the SPG, I wrote poetry but not for some time. When I joined the SPG, it rekindled my writing of poetry a lot because I have another way of expressing myself on a larger scale other than personal communication like writing a letter or talking.”

In one workshop, outside artist Mankwe Ndosi talked about moving through pain, not just writing about it. “I can’t keep blaming my parents; it’s time for me to take responsibility to transform myself,” remarked an offender.

Another inmate, almost in tears, revealed for the first time, a personal side, “Our history has to start from me (referring to his son). I’m here for 20 years of my life for some stupid thing I did and now I can’t be a father to my son. I have asked him, ‘Do you realize why I am in here?’ He tells me he does but I have never told him I am in here for killing a man.”

The men also learned about each other and their cultures. During a workshop about borders, an inmate wrote a play about crossing the Mexican/American border. He started out by talking about his Latino heritage and shared a poem about his mother. Then he had every SPG member play a part, including me. After the play, outside poet Emmanuel Ortiz told the men, “Our stories are not told in high school textbooks or in libraries; we survive culturally though the oral tradition.” Afterwards the men discussed what kind of borders they find in their lives. One inmate commented, “We encounter borders everyday. Everyone has their own groups, Black, White, or Hispanic. We only hang with the same people in our groups. It’s like walking into a different neighborhood just four cells down.”

Lessons Learned

Even though the grants are coming to an end, the SPG still wants to continue. The group and I have learned a lot this year. The group suggested that next time we have one artist come in four times a month instead of a different one each week, so they could get to know the artist better and work through a theme more fully. Because we are in a prison we did encounter some difficulties. Most of the outside artists like to hug when they greet others. I didn’t realize this until they hugged the inmates. We ended up having to institute a no hugging policy and just shook hands for greeting. Sometimes we had to work around lock-downs: when the cell blocks where the offenders live are quarantined so that officers can go through their cells searching for contraband. When this occurred, we had to reschedule the workshop. Difficulties arose when artists brought in restricted items. I had to write a letter noting everything the artist would bring in for the workshop, including, for example, the name of the CD or book and how many. Sometimes an artist decided to bring in another CD or five books instead of two. Prison officials are not very flexible because of security: if it wasn’t on the event letter, it could not be brought in.

Appropriate for Lower Skill Levels

Even though the SPG members have higher skill levels than most adult basic education students, this type of activity would work well with students who are preparing for the GED. Students learn a broad array of writing skills. They learn to organize their thoughts and express them creatively. Not only do they improve on grammar and spelling but they also increase their vocabulary. They learn to use the rhyming dictionary, hip-hop dictionary, and thesaurus. Students can incorporate what they learn about history and political science into their poems.

Benefits for Participants and Programs

The SPG has had a big impact on the local community. The Center for Media Arts in Minneapolis hosted a Spoken Word fundraising event for the SPG, featuring a videotape of the SPG group during their workshops, their poetry, and artistic collages depicting their poems. More than 100 people attended, including the offenders’ parents and relatives, community members, and local poets. One parent came up to me in tears, saying, “The SPG has been the best thing to happen to my son while in prison.” Recently the SPG’s work has been displayed and presented at the Macalester College Sixth Annual African American Studies Conference on “Incarcerated Intelligence: African Americans and the Prison Industrial Complex.” The SPG’s work is also being presented in Chicago courtesy of the Illinois Arts Council, by writer, director, and actor Michael Agnew.

Within the prison community, the SPG has led others to poetry. Part of the grant included videotaping of all the workshops to produce a video later that could be used for presentations. We also taped the spoken word event and played it on our in-house educational television station for the rest of the institution to view. We had more positive responses from the other offenders about what they saw. Requests to join the group came in as well as requests to play other, similar videos. Since then, the SPG has received letters from offenders asking for information on how to improve their writing skills, where they can get published, or if there are any more openings in the group.

Evidence of Success

You could say the SPG is a success by the number of poems that got written, the goals that were met, or by the Best Practice Award it received from the Correctional Education Association. In the end, however, the students are most eloquent about the impact: “It is something positive in here amongst all the negativity.”

“I would recommend this so others can open up and share things they hold inside. This workshop can bring truth and understanding to all participants.”

“These workshops have helped me to open up.”

“This is one of the best ways to foster positive rehabilitation.”

“I wish we had more time for these workshops. I think it is kind of funny that someone in prison would request more time.”

Poetry did all of the above and much more. Men wrote and shared poems about their culture and upbringing. “We built a community of guys who otherwise would never have talked to each other,” commented one poetry student.

Another noted, “When I listen to you people talk, I see just how much we all have in common. I am just happy to be here to listen and experience this.”

As David Doppler wrote in the March 2005 issue of the prison’s newspaper The Prison Mirror, “The SPG quickly transformed into much more than just writing and discussing the rhythm and verse of poetry, but rather a place where the real life issues that lay beneath the surface of the poems could be openly discussed without the fear of ridicule.”

The men wrote more, read more, and engaged more in discussions. One offender, a victim of torture and a survivor of Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia, came to the group with the idea that he could not write poetry. He was very shy and hardly spoke. Today, this same man is one of the most prolific poets in the group and is not afraid to speak up about his work. “Poetry gave me a way to write away some painful experiences. It’s hard to write those experiences. I have to feel the emotions again. But when I get it onto paper, I feel like, wow, I’m happy.”

At the start of the project, another man mumbled in a soft voice, with head down, while he read his poetry. Gradually he listened to the encouragement of others and now he speaks loudly, with confidence. According to Dan Frey, community volunteer for the poetry group, “It has been interesting to see them mature as writers. You can see them go through some of the same things you went through as a writer. They are really passionate about putting words to paper and sharing them.”

Gewertz, K. (2003). Augusto Boal’s ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’. Harvard University Gazette. Retrieved March 9, 2005, from http://www.hno.harvard.edu/

Miazga, M. (1998). The Spoken Word Movement of the 1990’s. Retrieved March 9, 2005, from http://www.msu.edu/~miazgama

About the Author
Pauline Geraci has worked in corrections education for 11 years in Florida and Minnesota. She is a literacy trainer for the state of Minnesota and a reading comprehension trainer for the American Federation of Teachers. The author of Teaching on the Inside, she is also a Lt. Colonel in the Army Reserves. She currently teaches college preparatory classes and adult basic education at Stillwater Correctional facility.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL