Today was the fifth of 7 poetry sessions with a group of incarcerated young men.

We are coming close to the end of the sessions. Today I wanted to work on something a bit more poetic, more sensory. I also wanted to get them to revise some of their previous work. Last night I went through their folders (I bring them back and forth with me each time) and picked two of the strongest pieces and typed them up. But I didn’t give them to them right away.

I put some words on the board, strong and positive words. Then we brainstormed sensory words grouped under the five senses.  After that I read to them from the Book of Qualities by J. Ruth Gendler. Their assignment was to pick one of the positive words and describe it as though it were a person using as many sensory details as they could. This was very hard for them, to use their imagination in that way. They couldn’t grasp the idea that courage or joy was a person. They couldn’t imagine what love would taste like.

Then they asked for another word to be added to the list.


I wrote FREEDOM on the board and soon the room was quiet while they wrote. I haven’t read their papers yet but I did walk around and read a bit while they were working on them and I think some of them did quite well.

After that I handed out their typed poems and talked to them a bit about revision. I told them it was important to make sure that they used just the right word in order to make sure that the reader understood just what they wanted to say. We talked about the difference between the right and the almost right word. They weren’t totally convinced so I didn’t expect much work out of them but they surprised me. Most, if not all, of them made changes to at least one of the pieces.

Then it was time for art. I’d say it was their favorite part of the day but not because they all love art but because it is more freeing, more chattering going on.

I had planned on bringing back some of their previous art pieces and letting them continue to work on them but instead I brought something new. I handed each of them a hand mirror (I got permission first to bring in the mirrors) and told them today we would draw self-portraits.

The reaction from them was totally unexpected.

Not about the drawing.

About the mirrors.

Where they are being detained there is one mirror in the center of a public place and it is more like a piece of polished metal with scratches on it. They line up in front of the tiny shiny spot every day to try and shave. When I gave them the mirrors  I gave them a chance to see themselves as they are now for the first time in a very long time.

I watched their guard drop, as they laughed, running their hands over the top of their hair, checking out their sideburns, and of course, popping zits. 🙂 Then they teamed up, holding one mirror behind another so they could each see the backs of their necks, their ears, their tattoos. It was an unexpected party time, boys being boys, talking about how good looking they were.

Eventually I got them to focus on the drawing part of the assignment and they started using the mirrors to try and sketch themselves. I don’t think any of them are in danger of being identified by their portraits when we put the display up in the museum but after some initial struggles, they all seemed to get into it.

The sad part of the day was that there was an incident with one boy that caused the guard to remove him from the class. I may not have agreed with the reasoning behind it but I know that they have to stick to their rules.

There is also one boy who, for the last three sessions, has shut me out. He didn’t at first. He participated just fine. Now he is fine with everyone else but suddenly he is anti-me. I don’t know what happened, if I said something to him that was taken the wrong way or what. He starts to work, then as I come around he scratches it out. He is the most gifted artist in the class but now he won’t draw when I am there. I asked him today, what I had done and he just shook his head.

I said, “Okay, you’re mad at me, I just don’t know why.”

And he said, “Yep.”

It hurts. But I need to let it go. I only have two sessions left with them.  I know I am doing my best. I am bringing in experiences and giving them chances and listening to what they want to say, to write, to draw. I am lighting candles that I hope will flame into something positive for at least some of them.

I can try, but I can’t touch them all.