‘Why is it so hard to pray, yet so easy to sin?’
The line between humor and brutal honesty can sometimes get thin during the Franklin County jail’s poetry slam
The mood was lively at The Franklin County House of Correction on Dec. 13, the date of the second annual Poetry Slam organized by writing and poetry instructor Jim Bell. Twenty inmates and 11 staff gathered in the jail’s library to hear 10 contestants compete in three rounds of readings to determine this year’s winner. Five staff members took on the role of judges, holding up cards with point values written on them after each reader.
Bell, a pole-vaulting instructor and track and field coach at Pioneer Valley Regional School, teaches memoir and poetry writing four days a week at the jail. Last year’s slam was such a success, he said, the poetry class decided to do it again.
“The guys are psyched,” Bell said.
As the slam progressed, the men joked and egged each other on. “Uh-oh,” some of them said when last year’s winner, Aaron Anderson, stepped to the podium. When Bob Pervier tookw his turn, many began to sing “Bob, Bob, Bob …” to the tune of The Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann.”
“I paid them to do that,” Pervier joked, then introduced his poem by quipping, “This is for all the people at the Orange Courthouse.” Pervier’s poem, “Orange Christmas,” used the rhythm and rhyme scheme of Clement Clarke Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas” to tell the story of an imaginary jailbreak on Christmas Eve. Inmates and staff alike laughed at lines such as, “The Blues were shining off the new-fallen snow …” or, “I ran to the back door to sneak out the rear, just to find the Athol PD. So the coast wasn’t clear.”
But the room quieted when other poets spoke about lost love, addiction, incarceration or politics. Dwight Belisle’s “Party with Liberty,” described Lady Liberty’s “make over” as a partying runway model. “She gave up that 60s look/ turning in her long dress for a mini-skirt …” the poem asserts, and ends by asking, “Please, Mrs. Liberty come home.”
John Pinard, whom the men greeted with hollers of, “Mooose,” introduced his poem by saying, “This is about the girl that I’ve loved for the past 20 years. Her name is Lady Heroin.”
“When we met, I fell in love with you,” Pinard’s poem begins. “You brought me warmth and comfort/ Then you used my brain for money scams … You sank into my bones./ You put my soul up for sale.”
“I miss you,” the poem ends.
Sometimes the line between humor and brutal seriousness was thin. Jason Cuomo, who had shaved all but a strip of hair and drawn curving flame patterns on his head with water-based paints, quipped, “Can I get judged on hairstyle?”
Cuomo then proceeded to read a poem that was a devastating litany of people he’d lost to drug addiction. Referring to one friend who died as a result of an overdose, Cuomo wrote, “I just hope he was high enough he didn’t feel any pain.”
In the last round, defending champ Anderson read, “My Letter to the Lord,” in which he asked, “Why is it so hard to pray, yet so easy to sin?”
“So can you help me; I ask this of you,/ You help everyone else, will you help me too?”
Anderson read his poems with a rolling beat that borrowed a little of rap music’s swagger. And though the judging’s point system was far from scientific, it may be this delivery that won Anderson, yet again, first place in the slam.
Anderson accepted the first prize, a copy of “The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry.” At more than 2 inches thick, the book is a compendium of work by what editor Alan Kaufmann calls in his introduction, “versifying Robin Hoods.”
“That book changed my life,” Bell said of his choice for the slam’s prize.
In “The Outlaw Bible,” Bell discovered poets whose work had a similar edge to his own and gave him the courage to keep writing poetry. And poetry is of fierce importance to Bell.
“You never know, maybe someone’s poetry leads to rehabilitation. It worked for Jimmy Santiago Baca,” Bell said.
Baca, now a well-known New Mexican poet, spent his youth and adolescence on the streets of Albuquerque until he was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in maximum security at 21. Baca learned to read and write in prison, selling his early poems to fellow inmates for cigarettes. After he sent poems to “Mother Jones” magazine, editor Denise Levertov began to correspond with him and helped to find a publisher for his first book. Baca has gone on to produce 12 books of poetry, four novels, several documentary films and to lead writing workshops for inmates at men’s and women’s state prisons.
Bell shares Baca’s belief in the redemptive possibilities of writing.
“They have a lot of time on their hands and not a lot of positive things in their lives,” Bell said of his poetry students. “They get off on being good at something.”
This year’s Franklin County House of Correction Poetry Slam winners were: Aaron Anderson, first place; Bob Pervier, second place; Dwight Belisle, third place.
Find out more about Jimmy Santiago Baca at: www.abqjournal.com/venue/450002venue04-09-06.htm
Find out more about Jim Bell’s poetry at www.slateroofpress.com/Bell.html
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She has a studio in Greenfield. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Books submitted for Trish Crapo’s column must be written by a Franklin County poet and/or published by a Franklin County press. To submitted a book, mail it to Franklin County Poets, The Recorder, P.O. Box 1367, Greenfield, MA 01302, attention, Adam Orth. Or, drop it off at our office, 14 Hope St., Greenfield. If you have readings coming up, please tell us. Questions? 413-772-0261, Ext. 276, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org