––Jordan A. Y. Smith
In the middle of a pandemic of historical proportions, it’s easy to sink into despair. It’s also precisely now that we can turn to poetry that transcends the toughest conditions, to find ways to remember that humans are always between our screaming births and the existential unknown of our deaths, while walking a hysterical tightrope of life’s various oases and alligators. It’s a perfect time, I think, to update ToPoJo’s readers on a project we’ve been developing––about poetry workshops held in prisons in the Japan and the U.S.
Prisons have long been the birthplaces of poetry. Whether as places where penitence sinks in, or where resentment festers, or where political resistance is steeled (as with Public Enemy’s “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” or Reginal Dwayne Betts, “Bastards of the Reagan Era”), for any human, time alone with one’s thoughts can yield powerful expressions. Recent years have seen a handful of projects aimed at bringing poetry into prisons in various ways, two of which caught my attention for their focus on juvenile institutions—whether prisons or so-called “detention facilities.” What kind of poetry do imprisoned or “detained” children write? What can poetry do to help them? What can their poetry teach us? How can it move us—both at the level of emotion and action?
In Japan, Poet Ryo Michiko, originally raised around Tokyo/Kanto though currently a 15-year resident of the Nara area, ran an education program at Nara Juvenile Prison from 2006-2017 in which the child inmates had the chance to try their pens and voices at poetry and other forms of expression.
Ryo’s first encounter with the prison marked her memory with an odd admixture of the strong and stately Meiji-era brick architecture and anxiety about what kinds of things the inmates had been sentenced for––which turned out to be a litany from drug abuse to murder. That first visit in September 2006 was to check out the architecture, but she ended up walking into an exhibition of the inmates’ creative work—art, writing, and more. She ended up offering a poetry course, which the prison officials allowed at the rate of one per month.
Her pedagogy was aimed at creating a safe space, without judgment, without expectations—particularly important for children who had never experienced elementary school, had been physically abused, or had suffered sustained neglect. One of the early units focused on creating poems centered on colors. A child came up with the simple poem:
I chose white, because the sky is blue.
The poem stood out, and Ryo appreciated the intrigue of its ambiguous subject—who chose white, and in what sense? The answer begins with the poem’s title, “Cloud,” but there is more behind the symbol. After getting up the courage to read the poem to the group, the child, known by the initial "D" in Ryo’s book What Spilled Over was Kindness, asked if he could explain something about it. D explained that it was the seven-year memorial of his mother’s death. Even though his mother had always been weak and in poor health, his father used to beat her. D had been too young at the time to do anything to protect her. Before she died in her hospital sick bed, she had told him, “When things get tough, look up to the sky. Because I will surely be right there.” The poem had been the boy’s way of thinking through his mother’s perspective, or so he imagined based on her dying promise.
Another child remarked, “I’ve never seen my mother, but after reading your poem, whenever I look up at the sky, I feel like see her.” Others shared very similar feelings.
Over time, Ryo and the class developed a practice of offering some positive words for each poem, but some poems were harder to praise. Take this poem, “My Favorite Color” (すきな色):
My favorite color
My second favorite color
As generous a critic as Ryo has become, she was still stumped. One of the kids saved the day, raising a hand and offering, “Hey, I loved how you told us not only one color you liked, but two!” Other young critics agreed. Something as simple as learning two whole colors another human likes. The smallest bits of personal information feel all the more precious for those not used to sharing with others, or who have been denied the opportunity to become accustomed to the practice of building bonds with others.
Ryo’s work with children in the currently closed Nara Juvenile Prison deserves our full attention, and this blog is the beginning of a series of engagements with it. The next follow-up will be with BBC Radio 4, in an upcoming program co-produced by Anishka Sharma of BBC and myself, putting Ryo Michiko into dialogue with poet and professor Seth Michelson in the U.S., whose poetry writing project with children in detention centers for undocumented immigrants shows the universality and urgency of the problems surrounding incarceration—how much room there is for improvement in our systems, and how important it is for all of us to take action to ameliorate the long-term damage prisons can inflict on the most vulnerable humans, exacerbating the issues they are supposedly designed to solve. (See Seth Michelson’s book Dreaming America at Settlement House below.)
––posted from the Shinkansen train from Tokyo to Nara, with audio engineer Darin Dahlinger to begin our interviews for the program…
Reginal Dwayne Betts, “Bastards of the Reagan Era,” Bastards of the Reagan Era (Four Way Books, 2015).
Seth Michelson. Dreaming America: Voices of Youth in Maximum Security Detention (Settlement House, 2017).
Public Enemy. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Def Jam, 1988.
Ryo Michiko (寮美千子), Afuredeta-no-ha yasashisa datta (What Spilled Over was Kindness) (Nishi-nihon Shuppan, 2018).
Christopher Soto. “Poetry in the Age of Mass Incarceration: Challenging the Dichotomy of Innocence Versus Criminality.” Poetry Foundation Blog, September 25, 2017.