By Matt Malyon
Ted, a local youth, was booked in Juvenile Detention on July 8, 2015, the day of our first ever Underground Writing workshop. In November, Ted and I began to meet regularly on Mondays for an hour. Inside a locked 8 x 6 room, with security cameras and heavy doors, Ted began to share about his upbringing in a middle class home, the conflicts that began to tear his parents apart, and the present-day entrenched isolation within his immediate family. This familial decline led to a spiraling sense of self, and subsequently assisted Ted’s descent into depression, drugs, and criminal offenses.
Unable to discuss the details of his case (per his lawyer’s advice), we conversed around and near the subject. And Ted continued to attend Underground Writing workshops.
Feedback from Ted’s public defender was extremely encouraging for our program early on: after beginning to regularly read and write, Ted’s whole outlook changed. In fact, it helped him get off antidepressants. And Ted was indeed excited about writing. We talked a great deal about fiction and poetry. (He enjoys reading Sherman Alexie and Steinbeck, Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson and Jimmy Santiago Baca.) We looked over and edited his many short stories in progress. One day, almost like a confession, he told me he’d written his first poem. Youth are not allowed pencils in their cells . . . Ted told me he’d written the poem in soap on his mirror.
This image has haunted me for over a year. I can picture the scene in which Ted has just completed his poem. I see him, in his orange jumpsuit, gazing into the mirror at the reflection he has so often been terrified of, angry with, and ashamed of: himself. But this time he’s seeing himself with words striped across his body. Unlike the black vertical bars of a cell, these are white and horizontal, words appearing almost as stabilizing bars that he can grasp. As he gazes at the lines, proud of the poem he has created, Ted sees himself embodied in and through words, a revision in progress, a version of what could be.
“. . . attending words, revising lives” is our program’s tagline. And I believe this is happening—word by word.
Some of the student writing I’ve read over the past year suggests an inability for students to picture a better future—sometimes any future at all. They feel stuck in the present moment. Underground Writing aims to facilitate encounters with good literature and to provide generative writing prompts that allow students to re-view their lives. We hope to assist in the restoration of each student’s imagination.
“What does this image remind you of?” I ask, holding up a piece of paper for the students to view during a workshop in Juvenile Detention.
Ted smirks and looks across the table at Diana and Mary.
“Bars,” he says. “Right? Prison bars.”
“Yeah, prison bars,” Diana says. Mary nods in agreement.
We talk about living in a cell. The youth—ages 15-16—describe it as “a dark hole, a pit, a—”
“That’s vivid,” I say. “Hold up, though, because I want you to write some of this down.”
I hand out “The Face of a Cell,” a poem written by a youth in Seattle’s juvenile detention system. We each take a turn reading—“If my cell were a person . . .” it begins.
The first writing prompt: write a physical description of your cell. The results are varied: “I’m behind the red metal door . . . locked until the guards unlock it . . . staring at the off-white colored walls, off-white color floors . . . I realize if I don’t stop running, I will keep ending up behind the red metal door.”
I transition the group. “Sometimes we need to see in a different way, to have our vision altered—right?”
Ted furrows his eyebrows and tosses his head slightly back. “What?”
I pull out a piece of paper. What do these remind you of?
After a pause, “Lines, or like the bars turned sideways,” Diana says.
“Right,” I say. “Now watch this.”
Out from behind the image, I slide a paper with a Reginald Dwayne Betts poem in couplets that mirrors the horizontal bars.”
“Whoa,” Ted says, leaning forward. Diana and Mary smile and gaze at the image.
“This is a poem in couplets, or what rappers might call ‘bars’. When we view things differently—say, hard situations like being inside Juvenile Detention—they can start to become something else. And we can do that sort of thing through writing.”
Our second writing prompt: revisit your cell in your mind and write about the feelings and thoughts you have there.
The students read the results from their notebooks: “I think about gettin’ out . . . Sometimes I feel no one pays attention to what I want . . . I think that I don’t belong here.”
“Let’s transition to another scene,” I say, handing out Czeslaw Milosz’ poem, “A Gift.” We discuss the narrator’s life, the way he’s chosen to see things, and his sense of the future.
After five minutes on the poem, I show the students a final picture. It’s the same as the second image, but with a single dark line on each side of the horizontal bars. There are a few guesses and confused looks.
“It’s a ladder,” I say. The kids sigh and laugh. “Difficult things can help us see differently, even better.”
“Makes sense,” Mary says.
“For the final prompt, I want you to take the writing you’ve already done today and climb up it, as it were, so that you can see a future for yourself . . . and then I want you to write about what you see there.”
“ . . . looking at the sky, thinking about myself,” Ted writes, “ . . . I think I’m a good kid.”
Mary begins, “I think I can graduate. I always try my best . . .”
In a fitting conclusion, Diana shares last: “I want to climb out of the hole I’m digging myself and see what I can accomplish . . . I want to see myself getting past all the things I’ve been through and not let them define me anymore.”
Matt Malyon founded and directs Underground Writing, a literature-based creative writing program serving migrant, incarcerated, recovery, and other at-risk communities in Washington’s Skagit Valley through literary engagement and personal restoration. His poetry has received a Pushcart Prize nomination, and has been published or is forthcoming in various journals. He serves as a Mentor in the PEN Prison Writing Program, and recently founded the One Year Writing in the Margins initiative. His long-form essay about Underground Writing—“The Stories We Save May Include Our Own”—is forthcoming in Iron City Magazine, Issue No. 2.