InsideOUTLOUD : finding freedom and healing through creative writing

By Jenuine Poetess

we wrote about freedom
him and i
next to each other on
cold metal chairs
attached to tables
affixed to the floor
[if it doesn’t move, it can’t be a weapon] 

we wrote about freedom
him on the inside
me on the free 

he wrote about life
beyond his four walls
beyond a judge and jury
beyond a CO and a watchful eye
always watching
always waiting
for him to mess up 

i wrote about life
beyond cognitive confinement
a liberation of consciousness
the incarceration of ignorance
sentences served by the masses
for life
without the possibility of parole 

we listened to each other
talk about freedom
him with one eye out the window
following a bird’s flight
high above the curling razor wire
me with two eyes on him
a boy becoming a man
finding the keys
to set himself

I wrote this poem one evening after returning from the Therapeutic Creative Writing circle I lead at a Texas Juvenile Justice Department correctional facility.  I started facilitating the InsideOUTLOUD circle in April 2016, but the conception and dream began long before—over a decade ago—and before that, the first inklings of such a program began to formulate in my mind over twenty-five years ago when I was an adolescent.

My initial rudimentary ideas started to take shape during my season of life in Los Angeles.  I was working as a mental health clinician providing therapy to teens throughout LA county in schools, community centers, and probation offices.  I often incorporated creative process into therapy sessions and saw the value of integrating various expressions into the healing process.

During this time, I was also cultivating my own craft of poetry and spoken-word arts as I engaged in the thriving poetry open mic community in East LA, Downtown LA, and Sylmar, CA.  As I became a part of different community art spaces, I saw the correlation between expressive arts and healing process unfold.  The two are undeniably and inextricably entwined.  I met one of my mentors, Luis J. Rodriguez—who is now a life-long dear friend and creative collaborator—and we talked about his experiences as a former gang member and how poetry and visual arts saved his life—literally—and lit the way for him to make a life outside the barrio.  He writes of his experiences in his two memoirs, Always Running and It Calls You Back, but beyond those books over coffee with him and Trini at their kitchen table, or over pupusas at a local cocina, we talked about the need for safe spaces of expression for youth who are inside the justice system.

I also read True Notebooks: A Writer’s Year at Juvenile Hall by Mark Salzman in which he documents his experiences of working with the InsideOut Writers program in the LA County Juvenile Justice System.  Reading his reflections and excerpts of the kids’ writings was an affirming validation of everything I had been dream-scheming over the years.  My love for the written and spoken-word arts coupled with my clinical background became the nexus for my Therapeutic Creative Writing program.

I currently facilitate this program at the Klaras Center for Families and at a Central Texas TJJD facility on a weekly basis.  We engage in creative writing—any genre, any style—off a prompt picked out of a list or bag by each of the youth.  Sometimes we do specific creative writing activities such as metaphor poems, or writing challenges such as determining a set of words that everyone has to incorporate into their story, poem, lyrics, or reflection.  There are very few rules save one most important rule: we never dis our own or others’ work.  After we write, each person is encouraged to share/read aloud their piece—myself included!  There is never a requirement to share, always an open invitation.  Part of the process is learning how to listen to each other, how to give constructive feedback—both in content and form, and how to receive the affirmations of others.

he spoke about death
dark shadows shrouding his face
 red everywhere
 blood dripping from the noose he drew around his own neck
 the word “mistake” tattooed across his self-portrait
 over and over and over again 
questions written
 around his face 
haunting him
“do i matter?”
“does my momma love me”
“who would miss me”
i choke back my tears
i am not there to cry 
he doesn’t need my sorrow
i thank him for entrusting me with his truth
i tell him what his words mean to me 
i tell him how glad i am he joins us every week
i thank him for what he teaches me
a smile breaks out across his face 
i feel it in my marrow
“I taught you something, Ms.?” he asks
“Always.” i affirm
we take turns drawing layers of a mandala 
a collaboration 
a connection 

The therapeutic element is indirectly woven into every aspect of the circle—the relationships, the process, the content.  Directly, I created over 70 intentionally directed prompts which address various aspects of life, development, feelings, and experiences to prompt reflection.  I engage conversation with these Brave Young Voices about the content that comes up in their writing, we talk about what it is like to struggle through anger, grief, injustice, family and community violence, the choices they’ve made, and the choices that lay before them.  I talk about how the practice of writing and creative expression in and of itself is a healthy coping skill.  As they write, youth learn how to find language to articulate what it is that is swirling inside them so eventually, instead of fists or f-bombs, they can use poetry, stories, and journal entries to express themselves.  We also talk about how the page can be a mirror that helps us to know ourselves more deeply and truly, and how when we know ourselves authentically, we can be more firmly grounded in the path we choose for ourselves, unmoved by peer pressure and outside influences.

At the end of a recent circle at TJJD, one of the boys said to me, “Ms.!  It’s the strangest thing I don’t really get it, I feel so much better after writing.  I was all mad before you came.  But now, it’s like all calm in here.”  He pointed to his chest and gave me a nod of approval, “You alright, Ms., you alright.”

I choked back my gratitude tears as I smiled and told him that is exactly why I come do writing circle with them.

They might make more mistakes.  They might return to the lives they lead that got them caught up in the streets.  They might struggle through the justice system into adulthood.  Poetry might not change the world.  But for a moment, every Thursday afternoon, they are free on the page.  They have hope.  They see a shining reflection of who they are and who they could be.  For a moment, there is someone who shows up in loving kindness and holds safe space for their healing through creative expression.  And to me, that is everything worth anything.

(Poems, InsideOUTLOUD, and Brave Young Voices, are original content of Jenuine Poetess © 2016).

Jenuine Poetess August 2014Jenuine Poetess is an artist, visionary, and community organizer. In 2010, she founded In the Words of Womyn (ITWOW)an international, grass-roots, written and spoken-word arts project with chapters throughout Los Angeles, CA; Waco, TX; and Lebanon.  Jenuine is the founder of Waco Poets Society and co-founder of the Central Texas Artist Collective.    She writes, organizes, and creates rooted in the fierce conviction that holding intentional space, access, and opportunity for all people to foster their creative health is a matter of justice and is a vital asset to the sustainable thriving of communities.  She currently lives and poems in Central Texas where she enjoys finding new ways to disrupt the homeostasis of her city.  You can contact her at: j[email protected].

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email [email protected] for more information.

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