What does poetry mean to you?
It’s taking your imagination off its leash, my mind screaming at the audacity of reality. A trinity of truth, reality, and ugliness in a congregation of expression. It’s freedom with a chin up and a tear drop. It’s the Rosetta Stone of our souls.
What do you hope to accomplish as the first Prison Poet Laureate?
Bring awareness. Wake the people up in society that have been sleeping on our feelings. I want to bend, break, and set bars so high the next poet has no choice but to limbo. I hope to be a megaphone for the voices that are ignored behind these doors. I want my words to walk me home. I want to make everyone that supports me proud. I want all our words to sound loud to selective deaf ears….even when we whisper.
How do you speak for Florida prisoners through poetry? Can you speak for Florida prisoners?
I speak creatively, with purpose, and with the authority that authorities don’t grant us. I’ve studied these walls, these men, and the design of this system. I’m a reporter in a war zone, witnessing the casualties of our communities. I speak for the gentlemen, gangster, and ghettomen doing their best to survive, and outgrow these cages. Their experiences, combined with mine, is the propelling force behind this pen. I just happen to be the designated driver, and I have the entire D.O.C. in my backseat…. I hope they have their seatbelts on.
What inspired you to being writing? Were you a writer before you were incarcerated/before Exchange for Change?
The first time I shoved my pen on paper, was in the county jail. Collect calls are expensive, and a good family will never admit to burdens. Besides, it’s easier to hide pain behind a pen, rather than over a phone. I was young, the ink became tears. I had to release my mind, that’s the first thing that will lock itself in a box, and isolate itself. I had to free it. Funny thing is, a lot of those letters never made it to the mailbox. Until I met this girl who was locked up too. She handcuffed my attention. I wanted to woo her, I wanted to be different. I stepped in to myself, and showed her my spirit’s body language. I was writing her poetry before I knew what poetry was. And that same girl became my wife…. That some goooood poetry, huh? ☺
How did you get involved with Exchange for Change?
They posted a sign up sheet for a creative writing class in my dormitory. The pen and I had fell out a few years before. But curiosity kept tugging at me, and my wife kept telling me to sign up ‘cause there was gas in my pen. I was at a pivotal point in my life. My mind was clustered with words and seeds. Thoughts caught inside a storm. So I figured I’d take the class, patch up the holes in my soul’s umbrella, and let my thoughts come out to play.
What effect has Exchange for Change had on you?
It created a playground for my thoughts, a platform for me to stand on. My imagination was getting a suntan, my writing hand a manicure. E4C is a writer’s church house, I got baptized in ink, and I’ve been faithful to my words ever since.
As a Miami native and poet, what does O, Miami mean to you?
It’s an honor. It’s like being drafted in to the pros. I mean, I’m beating ear drums on the street. I was introduced to O, Miami about three years ago. They attended an E4C graduation. I was nervous around them, I couldn’t think of any poetic pleasantries. I did a piece, they were receptive. They remembered my words. They’ve seen me evolve and grow as a poet. Now I’m glowed up, and representing the city I was born and raised in. There’s so much talent in Miami. So many gifted faces and races…. And O, Miami has been unwrapping these treasures for the city to see. They’re the star on top of the Christmas Tree.
O, Miami believes every single person in Miami is capable of reading and writing poetry, how does this resonate with you? Do you believe there is poetry in everyone?
Yes, but it’s vulnerable, it’s the bashful side of us. It’s the funhouse mirror reflection that makes you giggle or gag. Everyone is a poet, they’re just unsure of it. It’s like being in a classroom, and knowing you have the right answer. But you’re scared to raise your hand, or shout the answer out because of fear of being wrong or misunderstood. Then someone else in class yells the answer out, the same answer you had. But they received the attention you desired, just for being bold enough to speak their mind.
You wrote of your prison experience that “eventually this cage robs your memory bank of everything you once held sacred.” What are things or persons in your life you hold sacred? Does writing help you connect with them?
My family, my sanity, E4C, and the few good memories I’ve kept safe. It’s so easy to lose everything in here, even yourself. Everyday is a workout. You gotta keep up with your mental push-ups, and stay strong.
What response have you gotten from those close to you about your new title? What does your family think about your writing?
I’m still trying to fit in to the Laureate title. I feel like I’m being tailored, and the few people that are aware of it, think it suits me just right. They want me to represent, they have confidence in me, and because of that, I won’t let them down. At the same time, I haven’t really mentioned the title to too many people. I’m kind of shy when it comes to my achievements. I’d rather keep my trophies in the closet. As for what my family thinks, they’re proud of me. But most of them don’t dig too deep into my poems, they say it hurts too much. Especially my wife, it reminds her of her time in prison. There’s nothing bright about this place, nothing fun about being oppressed and forgotten by the rest of the world. My words are for society, I’m trying to show them something they don’t know, and it’s difficult to explain prison if you’ve never been incarcerated…but I’m doing it.
What has been your biggest challenge as a writer?
I’m not known for pushing the envelope, I’m known for pushing the whole mail truck with my words. So my biggest challenge is knowing when to pull back. Our words in here are censored, there’s consequences for certain content. No one, or anything, likes to be called ugly, and my pen could be brutally honest. I would love to remove society’s veil, and snatch lady justice’s blindfold off and make her stare into our faces….but I’m not in the position to safely do that. So my pen’s forced to play peek-a-boo with truth. I have to constantly remind myself that.
What are you most proud of?
My mother’s strength, my wife’s love and commitment. My son’s intelligence and with my family, my close friends, E4C, and all my students….but never myself. I’d rather make people proud of themselves instead of proud of myself.
Who do you read? Who are your favorite authors? What other Poet Laureates do you read?
I’ve read a lot, sometimes I think I’ve read too much so I’ve slowed down, and if I do read something, it’s usually from a new author. I’m into giving chances, considering I want one. I try not to absorb too much of one’s work as to not let it influence mine. I’m not too familiar with too many Laureates, and that’s simply because we really don’t have that kind of access. Although Amiri Baraka is definitely a truthful poet I appreciate. I’ve also have had the privilege of sharing work and sitting in workshops with Aja Monet and Tongo Eisen-Martin. They’re constant reminders of poetry having purpose. My favorite poets are good men sitting in prison. Luis Hernandez (R.I.P.), Chris, Chin, Dante (L.S.), and some of my students that used to be hesitant to get behind the mic. Now they approach it with an appetite and take flight….(I hear you Juan.) I’m proud of those dudes, and I’m thankful for being able to share mine with them.
How can the PPL transform the stigma against incarcerated writers?
By being active and becoming involved. By voting, signing petitions, proposing laws to help us. By listening to us with unbiased ears. By promoting change and highlighting the last 5 letters in commUNITY. By accepting that as long as they ignore the problems within our society, they are part of the problem. There is a lot of them in here serving a lot of time for a mistake.
What advice would you offer other writers in prison? Other minority writers? Other “voices with no multiple choices”?
Stay true to yourself and your words. The audience sits in your heart, not the crowd. Here’s a recent example: One of my spoken word students is openly gay. When the semester first started, he was putting in work and producing some good pieces. But they weren’t having any impact. I think he was worried about the backlash he would received from the rest of the class. He was tip-toeing around his truth, his inner self. My advice to him one day during class was: Everyone in here knows you’re gay, some might not like it, but it’s the truth. If you’re gay, your pen can’t be straight. There’s inner conflict, you’re lying to your audience. So they’re not feeling it. The following week he came back to class with a revised piece and read it. The whole class was engaged. When he was done, finger snaps, desk taps, and hand claps. Now his pen and him had found understanding, so his words rang true. You just have to be real with yourself. Your words create worlds for peoples imagination to visit.
How has writing helped you cope with prison life?
It’s been an outlet. A way of separating myself from the oppression, isolation, and regret. A lot of us feel the same way about a lot of things. Just in different ways. So technically we’re not alone. We’re just unsure of how to show it. Besides, a writing pen is the only weapon we’re allowed to have in here to kill time with. My pen is my psychiatrist, my paper a couch of thoughts, and my words are an evaluation of myself and things around me. I cope because I hope that I’ll make it home one day. Until then, I’ll remain human just like you…and survive. Taking it one day at a time. Like a line in a journal.