A few weeks ago, I attended the Fall Read-Around held at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility. The event is held annually and organized by writinginsideVT, a program of the South Burlington Community Justice Center.
It was a rainy, dark evening when I walked up to the jail and buzzed to be admitted. This was my first entry into the facility and every facet was new to me—from removing most of my layered formal work attire such as my scarf, jewelry and watch, and suit jacket to the succession of electronically controlled doors.
Once inside with my fellow visitors, we sat in a circle in a large room amidst inmates and program coordinators and volunteers. We were each given a small pad of paper, a pencil, and a program. Then, the program began with self-introductions and a found poem.
This was the first time that I had heard of a found poem. The poem had been constructed from the prior meeting of this group of women, when the lines from various poems, which had resonated with each woman, were collected. They were then pieced together by a program coordinator into a new poem.
The evening opened with this found poem:
You Can’t Tell Who I’ve Become
I thought I had no choice
of survival in a troubled world.
I find myself in limbo,
a long road ahead once again.
Where will I go next?
What paths will I be led down?
What will become of me?
Will I grow like the tree?
I’m troubled daily
by how things change
one into another.
In a matter of seconds, it can be over.
I feel my soul cry,
feeling suspended between places
Upside down, I came to rest,
the branches that held
the inevitable end
a friend who didn’t know my roots.
I silently prepare myself
for change lingering on the horizon.
I sit at peace within myself.
My toes point straight ahead,
the best survival skill I have learned here.
It’s time to blaze a new trail,
one step at a time.
His light guides my every step—
misunderstandings uncoverd and love
courage and faith in myself.
Nothing stays the same.
Even the trees know to shed their leaves
though I’ll never shed the skin of guilt.
I have died, too.
my nuclear family dissolving.
The days here are nothing I could consider
everything in black and white.
When my feet are firmly planted at home
is when I’ll see color,
sun peeping through the leaves.
I won’t be the only one
slowly returning to full function.
I cut. I change.
A powerful poem created from the resonating lines of each woman’s own writing.
We were then instructed to write down lines or phrases, as more than 20 poems were read aloud by their authors. Many were emotional. Some were funny and some spoke of thoughts that had crossed my mine also. Topics of courage, self-worth, fear, monsters, love, building bridges, persistence, and healing were threaded through the readings.
We then shared the phrases that resonated for each of us—in a “popcorn-style.” Each person speaking a phrase when it felt right. What resulted was a powerful shared “found” poem—full of emotion and energy; completely engaging each of us. The spoken words hung in the air as phrase after phrase was added and some repeated in an echo effect.
The monster is alive.
He’s only just surviving.
I’m scared to death,
but try to do the right thing anyway.
That’s what a mother does.
The world batters me.
I become more stealthy,
So many layers peeling back,
exposing the truth.
It is lonely not belonging to myself.
I need to belong to myself.
Why didn’t I make my own choices?
Why didn’t I make my own choices?
The sing-song patter of the phrasing finally slowed to a stop and with the sound of a simple bell, the evening was almost over. But before we left, one of the incarcerated young women asked to share some final words that she had written, while we were creating our found poem. She was beaming from ear-to-ear as she read the following.
Thank you for coming into this place
after working all day,
to listen to our writings
about our pain and glory.
When you have your own families
and your own stories,
your time is appreciated.
Your attention fuels my confidence.
I’m proud to be somebody again,
on this side of the fence.
You’ve made us feel important,
like we have some worth too.
Despite all our mistakes—
obviously we’ve made a few.
People like you inspire us to change
when others have locked us up in this cage.
You may have been the difference tonight,
in someone giving up or having success.
We are here for one another.
Thanks for seeing our best.
The women come together for these restorative writing sessions weekly, and their work is shared twice a year with invited guests. Writing from the program has also been collected and formed into a book. To learn more about the South Burlington Community Justice Center or this program, visit www.sburl.com/cjc.