Red Wing Correctional Facility

Along the bluffs, the limestone Main Building
has the manner of 19th century discipline
and retribution for somewhat small juvenile
wrongs. The wrongs are greater now, I’m thinking,
as I get buzzed in, escorted through several doors,
and taken in an unmarked car about half a block
to the room of boys, black boys, laughing and strutting,
and I’m there to talk about poetry and life, so I start
with Walt Whitman, to blow out the pipes because
you want to blow the dust out of that old church music
to find one’s own song and Walt is the best, and the boys
are listening, each of them listening, from Chicago
and New Orleans and Minneapolis, listening as I read
“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and they are right there with Walt
right there with his voice which they already know somehow
and I suggest what poetry can do, that it can cross mountains
escape prisons (they laugh like yeah sure) that words
can go to the stars and back and by breathing Shakespeare’s sonnet
you can inhabit Shakespeare’s very vocal chords. So,
we’re going along like this and I mention The Soul not in some
religious sense but in the sense that each of us has a Soul, that sense
we get in a moment that there is something magnificent in us
that is not us but somehow is and the boys are listening very
closely to my words from each of their places around the table –
Omar, Ken, Josh, Jordan, James – and I get them in the mood
to write and they start writing, some in small precise script,
some in blocky letters, some in flourishes that end
with a celebrity signature and now I have them read
their favorite poem of the poems they’ve just written and now
they read their second-favorite poem until they’ve read everything
they’ve written today and I say Big voices, men, let’s have these
big slow voices and they get courage in their words each one
of the words they picked and I ask them to write a poem called
Red Wing and they moan a poem called Red Wing which is
the facility within which they are to be corrected and I have them
begin with The River, then The Trees, then The Stars
and they say unremarkable things about the river and the trees,
and the stars they never see because it’s always too late for stars
or too early and the lights, the lights are always too bright.

From Troubadour International Poetry Prize.