Out Of Juvenile Corrections, Poems Of Fury, Loss — And Lingering Beauty

May 28, 2016
Originally published on June 15, 2016 10:48 am

It has been nearly a month now since National Poetry Month wrapped up, but don't let the calendar fool you: All Things Considered still has some unfinished business with the month that was.

That's because, just a few weeks ago, NPR's Michel Martin checked in with the Words Unlocked poetry contest. The competition — launched in 2013 by the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings — drew more than 1,000 poem submissions from students in juvenile correctional facilities across the country.

Here's how the final judge of the contest, poet Jimmy Santiago Baca, broke it down then.

"They have a national program where kids submit their work, and they go into literacy programs in the facilities," Baca said. The students' work "goes to several judges, and ultimately it gets to me. And I have to pick the winners out of the top 15 poems."

Well, Baca and company have now picked those winners for 2016. After three rounds of reviews, two poets emerged with a tie for first place: C.R., from Utah's Salt Lake Valley Detention Center, and Kevin, who is at Duval Academy in Florida.

Because they are minors, NPR could not use their last names, but the poets themselves did us one better — they recorded their winning poems for us.

Below, you can find those poems in full, together with audio of the poets winning their work aloud. And you can read more of the Words Unlocked finalists right here.


I feel the heat in my body like I am bathed in sun.
Palms sweaty. Muscles tensed. Tears well up.

I won't let them run.

My face red, the flames of fire, angry thoughts screaming louder than the screeching of a vulture over a traveler's carcass.

I look for a way to escape the flames, but I am trapped in a box.

Punching white walls as jagged as rocks, my knuckles bleed.
I want to shout behind the green door that won't let me out.

Alpha, Bravo, Charlie – to me they're all the same. I feel more like the number on my file than my real name. When I speak to my father, I leave ashamed. I try to do my best but anger, stress, sadness are hidden in my chest, heart, soul.

Group homes, proctor care, secure facilities hanging over my head like a
knife swinging from a rope.

They try to dissect me. I guess they're curious.

I don't even understand: Why am I so furious?


Visions of joy slowly spiral
into view, mid-slumber

Desire always hits hard

I remember the paleness of her features,
recognize her desperate pleas

but I'm lost
like the first chances
I will never get back

I lie in bed, consumed
by her breathtaking smile

I reach out

as she drifts further and further away

I awake from my slumber
hoping to see her
by my side

Reality hits me hard
like a hurricane in mid-August

strikes me like the uppercut
I wasn't expecting

fills my body
with a familiar, pulsing pain

All I can see
are the white brick walls

plain

The tree branches sag
outside the bars of my window

The scenery brings me back
to a small town in North Dakota,
a place I found comfort

I think back to hiking up a hill
on a beaten path overgrown with vegetation

I remember my grandpa,

remember our first tee-off
under a sky of velvet,

how proud he was
when I scored my first par

But I'm still here

on the top bunk,
a cold, dull slab I call home

spine-shivering

I strain to see them
from behind these numbing bars

There is beauty in the struggle
I must remember that

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's been about a month since we said goodbye to National Poetry Month back in April. But we still have some unfinished business. I'm talking about a poetry contest called Words Unlocked. The contest was among young people serving time in juvenile correctional facilities across the U.S. Writer and poet Jimmy Santiago Baca served as the final judge. We talked with him about the contest last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA: Kids submit their work, and they go on to literacy programs and facilities and stuff. And they go through several judges, and ultimately it gets to me. And I have to pick the winners out of the top 15 poems.

MARTIN: Santiago Baca has a powerful story about his first interest in poetry. He was once an inmate himself. He says a book of poetry literally saved his life. He strapped it to his body to protect himself from being stabbed in a prison fight. But afterwards, he looked at the book and the poems more carefully.

BACA: I was astounded by their beauty and their eloquence and how the arrangement sort of made me feel happy. And that's how I got into it. It saved my life.

MARTIN: Now Santiago Baca hopes the power of language will change the lives of other young people. So let's hear from the winners of the contest. Two poets tied for first place. We'll hear first from C.R. We can't tell you his full name because he is a minor, and he's at Utah's Salt Lake Valley Detention Center. Here's just part of his poem titled "Furious."

C R: (Reading) Punching white walls as jagged as rocks, my knuckles bleed. I want to shout behind the green door that won't let me out. Alpha, bravo, Charlie - to me they're all the same. I feel more like the number on my file than my real name. When I speak to my father, I leave feeling ashamed. I try to do my best but anger, stress, sadness are hidden in my chest, heart, soul.

Group homes, proctor care, secure facilities hanging over my head like a knife swinging from a rope. They try to dissect me. I guess they're curious. I don't even understand. Why am I so furious?

MARTIN: That was C.R. and his poem "Furious." The other winner of the Words Unlocked poetry contest is named Kevin. He's at Duval Academy in Florida, and here's a part of his poem called "My Reality."

KEVIN: (Reading) I lie in bed, consumed by her breathtaking smile. I reach out as she drifts further and further away.

I awake from a slumber hoping to see her by my side. Reality hits me hard, like a hurricane in mid-August, strikes me like the uppercut I wasn't expecting, fills my body with a familiar pulsing pain.

All I can see are the white brick walls, plain.

MARTIN: That's Kevin. His poem "My Reality" tied as one of the winners of the Words Unlocked poetry contest. If you'd like to hear the full poems by the winners and read them, too, you can find them at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.