Flying over the fence
|By Jessi De La Cruz|
Poetry Project links listeners to Michigan prisonersThe microphones and speakers were turned on, but it wasn’t karaoke night at Grand Café Sir Pizza in Lansing’s Old Town. The typically boisterous atmosphere at the riverside restaurant quieted as local community leaders took the microphone Wednesday, Oct. 14, and read poetry by men and women incarcerated in Michigan prisons.
The mood was somber but hopeful at the third annual Prison Poetry Project fundraiser, put on by the NorthWest Initiative to raise awareness and money for its prison re-entry project, Advocacy, Re-entry, Resources and Outreach (ARRO).
The project helps recently released prisoners make the transition back into society, offering services from free bus passes to job search assistance to cell phones and medical insurance.
Although the poets highlighted at the fundraiser couldn’t be present, their verses were delivered by local community leaders such as New Citizens Press owner Rina Risper and community organizer Chris Singer.
The overall mood was festive, but the underlying messages were often sobering. The themes of wanting to be heard, remorse for past action, and loss of friends and family were woven throughout the night’s readings.
Marcus McKissic, executive director of the Stockbridge Downtown Development Authority, agreed to participate as a reader after visiting a prison facility with an ARRO employee.
“It’s a privilege to give voice to the voiceless, regardless of why they may be there.” said McKissic, who also read for the fundraiser last year. “People need to hear what it is like on the other side.”
Lansing poet Dianne Hicks-Flourry, author of “The Power of Love: From the Well of Life,” said she agreed to reading at the event because she was felt a kinship with the poets.
“It’s nice to hear their thoughts,” said Hicks-Flourry. “I feel connected.”
Some speakers read softly; others emphasized loaded words such as “freedom” and “innocence.” The audience responded in kind, sometimes with a soft echo of support, others with tears.
Listening intently was Debra Butler, who brought a variety of her colorful drawings and other artwork to the fundraiser to complement the spoken word. Butler connected with ARRO after being released from prison last spring. During three years of incarceration, she re-ignited her childhood passion for drawing and painting. She received support and encouragement from people in prison who saw her talent and fostered it.
“Art gives people a better outlook on life,” said Butler, of Burton, a suburb of Flint. “If I don’t do this now, I’m never going to. It made me realize my own value.”
Her experience fleshed out ARRO’s philosophy that human beings are a precious resource that should not be “thrown away” even if they have broken the law.
Even those who happened to be dining during the reading looked up from their pizza and laptops to listen. Soon all that could be heard was the phone ringing for pizza delivery and the swish of the door.
Many of the readers praised the unseen authors’ courage and openness.
Michigan maintained a prison population of more than 50,000 in 2008, a slight decrease from the year before.
“There are not a lot of programs that assist with basic needs,” said Peggy Vaughn- Payne, NorthWest Initiative’s executive director. Vaughn said it’s a pleasure to pass the creative work of ex-offenders to an appreciative audience.
In addition to its basic assistance, ARRO offers a range of services in areas such as housing, employment, medical coverage, mentoring and transportation. The group offers workshops, help for people who are filling various applications, a computer room, and an ex-offenders’ support group.
ARRO also accepts personal needs donations such as hygiene products. Vaughn-Payne encourages anyone who has recently been released from prison, or family members of those recently released, to call (517) 999-2895.
Freedom Through a Window