White Walls: Poems of Incarceration and Recovery

The following poems were generated by workshops led by Underground Writing, a nonprofit organization that leads creative writing classes in migrant, incarcerated, recovery, and other at-risk communities in Northern Washington. I belong to this group. The first poem in this section comes from C., a boy in the Skagit Valley Juvenile Detention Center where I teach, who is seriously smart and charming, as well as powerfully reflective. (Note: names used for contributors here are dictated by their wishes and their circumstances.) Many, though not all, of my students belong to gangs, something that was also true of several of my cousins. I mention this fact in class one day, but the group looks at me blankly. I am older, I teach, I don’t wear an orange jumpsuit; in their eyes I come from a different world. On top of this, I have brought to them poems from a Chinese poet, Xu Lizhi, who worked at the infamous FoxConn sweatshop in China for fourteen hours a day making electronics, slept packed in a dorm with other workers, got paid little, and had no ability to leave. Xu killed himself at twenty-four, which I do not mention to my students.

Xu and poets like him wrote poems of confinement and despair, sending them out on cell phones, their only means of communication with the outside world. I had no idea how my group, many held by forces outside themselves in confined social groups, would react to a poem from such a distant culture. “I swallowed an iron moon,” Xu wrote. I ask my students what they have had to swallow. C.’s poem, with its vivid images of the orange jumpsuit he must wear to my class (along with booties, and hands crossed behind his back as he and the others are led in single-file), caught at me. These two young men, Xu and C., did indeed cross half the world and speak to one another. If people read his poem, C. told me, they would know something important about him, as he now knew something of the soul of Xu Lizhi.

Underground Writing believes encounters with literature, and, primarily, learning to bring up what’s deep inside you through writing, can prove restorative. I often read student poems full of helplessness and despair. I praise and honor these, but often ask them to “flip the script”: imagine yourself five years from now; who would you be if you became what you wanted, if you didn’t have to swallow anymore? It’s surprising how much time it can take my students to imagine that possibility. Will writing about it cause them all to become that person? No, but it might help. And at least for a little while, as we read aloud together, we honor that bit of light inside of us.

For more information on Underground Writing, and to donate or help in other ways, visit http://undergroundwriting.org/.

SUSANNE PAOLA ANTONETTA is Editor-in-Chief of Bellingham Review.