Can Poetry Save a Life?
for the poet Derek Anderson
William Carlos Williams, in “Asphodel that Greeny Flower,” makes the confident and profound poetic statement, “it is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack of what is found there.” In 1998, I did not know this poem, nor the fact a William Carlos William ever existed, but to be fair, I didn’t know any poems or poets when I entered Seven Locks Detention Center in Montgomery County, MD, facing a slew of felony charges. I was subsequently held in this county jail for almost two years trying to resolve the numerous cases against me before I would take a plea deal and be shackled and shipped on a Bluebird bus to the state penitentiary in Hagerstown, MD. Three months before my sentencing date, on a whim, I decided to escape the boredom of routine and signed up for a poetry workshop offered by a volunteer group of writers from New York City. I didn’t really expect anything from the experience, other than getting out of the block for a couple of hours. I mean, I was reading and writing prose to pass the time away in my jail cell, but poetry was an outlier, something not on my radar. I never attended a workshop of any kind, except in 1981, in a Cook Hall dorm room at Howard University when my man Dukes, who was from Miami, showed a group of young entrepreneurs how to cook powder cocaine into freebase rock.
Two poems were introduced to us during my first poetry workshop that would eventually send me on a journey through which I am still traveling. We read “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters” by Portia Nelson, which in its essence is a five-part poem about the paths human beings often choose in life, or how we continuously go down the same path only to realize it is a dead end. The other poem, by the poet Jayne Cortez, talked about the power of the pen and language. In one section she writes, “…so I tell you whoever you are/plastic pen, paper dictionary.” These words resonated with each one of us in the workshop, because we each held jail-issued clear plastic pens in our hands and were in possession of white legal pad paper and a small dictionary. I managed to save the handouts from the workshop, and although I no longer have the poems I created from the experience, I still carry the feeling of achievement, of being able to see past the physical bars that tried to define who and what I could become, through poetry. I did not have to be the definition of other people, of society’s expectations. I left the workshop understanding poetry could perhaps save my life, if I gave it a chance.
In 2007, during a reading with poets Cara Benson and Carol Graser at the Behind the Egg reading series (at the Capital District Federation of Ideas) in Albany, NY, I read a sequence of poems on the time I spent at Roxbury Correctional. After the event, Cara approached and invited me to come visit her creative writing class at Mt. McGregor Correctional Facility. Turns out, Cara started the program in 2006 as a requirement for a teaching practicum and kept it going on a voluntary basis. She thought I would be a perfect fit to come and engage with her students. Before attending the workshop, I was asked to be a featured reader in the Speak Out Poetry Series, which was held twice a month in the prison chapel. That day, as we approached, I took note of the wild turkeys and deer that dotted the landscape to the facility, which sat on top of a mountain with snaky roads, as Cara negotiated snow, ice, and the brutality of winter in her car. After arriving, I immediately went through security—emptying my pockets, getting the wand passed over my body and the suspicious looks by the guards in charge as they thumbed through books they would never read.
The series was hosted by an inside-person, Sean Dalpiaz, who would eventually become a close friend after he was released. The event was perhaps one of the most powerful readings to witness in person. To see these guys confidently walk to the podium, read their crafted poems and receive handclaps and cheers, holding on to the hope that poetry gave them, was something that not only burned a fire inside my chest, but the experience gave me hope. During my time working with the guys at the Mt. McGregor workshop, it became clear poetry, or the news from poetry, along with the news in their poems, was a form a rehabilitation and reconciliation with the past and a promise of a future. We didn’t talk much about incarceration poems or poems from those once on the inside, like Etheridge Knight, Jimmy Santiago Baca, or Ricardo Sanchez, though they loved them and were very familiar with the work. These guys were more interested in poems that took them outside of their physical and mental location, and often their poems were a reflection of this thought process. Many stood out as capable poets who could make an impact on the current literary landscape. Sean Dalpiaz, Derrick Anderson, Celestial, Coda, and Melvin Williams were names hard to forget, and I never have. With that said, Coda was the one that I thought could have a manuscript of poetry published during the time we spent together because of the way he saw himself in relationship to the world he had known. Coda’s craft and attention to the small poetic details were amazing and he could literally transcend the cage that held him, effortlessly. Unfortunately, Coda is still locked in a system that may never give him a second chance.
Not too long ago, Sean celebrated his 40th birthday as a free person. He’s been out for about eight years now and has integrated back into society, making positive contributions with impact in many different ways. I can also say the same for Melvin and Celestial. As we sat around the table at the Valley Stream, Long Island VFW, which Sean’s girlfriend rented to throw the celebration, memories of our poetry workshop at Mt McGregor flooded my brain, and I began to finally understand what William Carlos Williams was getting at in that often quoted small passage in “Asphodel.” But also, I wondered what was so special about this particular poetry workshop? What was it about poetry that saved these men’s lives and placed them on a positive path? Derrick Anderson is no longer with us, as he passed away unexpectedly almost two years after this release. Derrick did the most time and gained my respect when I learned he could have long ago been out of prison if only he had admitted to the parole board that he was guilty of his crime. To the end, Derrick maintained his innocence at each parole board hearing and held to his moral conviction when the thought of freedom loomed so near. In order to get close to the answer I sought, I reached out to Marcella Anderson, Derrick’s wife and rock while they were married. I wanted to honor his memory in some small way, so I asked Marcella a series of questions that only someone who was close to him would have known, in hopes that I would be able to share a piece of Derek with you, dear reader, as we both learn what it is about poetry that can change a person.
Randall Horton: What was it about poetry that helped Derek survive his time on the inside?
Marcella Anderson: Derek explained at first it was just a way to clear his mind and help with the injustice that had been done to him. Reading his own words gave him a sense of power and peace, a reminder that his mind was still sharp and capable of processing thoughts and feelings. Derek said he used poetry as a way to stay in a hole when his survival instincts was suggesting he become an animal, so to speak. Being in such a harsh environment, eventually Derek succumbed to those animal instincts and walked away from writing for a while, but not completely. Derek said he would have random thoughts and write them down on several different pieces of paper each day over several months, then eventually, clarity would come back and he would gather all the pieces of paper he had written on, resulting in a few amazing poems. Through poetry, Derek found a new sense of purpose which resulted in a few pieces being published in Ebony magazine. Poetry made survival possible. Derek survived and walked with pride!
RH: Many of the guys that came out of that group came home to lead productive lives, including Derek. What was it about poetry that helped him in that ever-changing process?
MA: Coming home after 31 years, poetry allowed for a place where Derek could put his anger and bitterness to rest while allowing him to look past the stares and wonder of inquiring minds, and that he did survive! Poetry helped him stay centered and grounded. Derek would tell me, in life there are social classes; however, poetry removes all margins of class. Having a poet’s mind allowed Derek to see, feel, and ultimately present himself with dignity, which he conveyed to other people when they tried to judge him for having been incarcerated. Derek also would often tell me that poetry can hypnotize the harshest of critics and this allowed him to thrive in environments that saw him as a felon. Poetry let him live under the radar of judgment and scrutiny and allowed him to be seen and heard and not judged.
RH: What was the most memorable thing about Derek’s poetry workshop on the inside?
MA: Derek would tell me that it was being around like-minded people, and feeling a sense of camaraderie that he loved the most about the workshops. The workshop became a place where hope was truly alive. Derek told me that he would always feel like a child on Christmas morning while waiting for the guys to check over his new poem and give him feedback. When the workshop instructor referred to him as Derek Anderson the poet, he felt like King Kong and at that point, he realized the sky was the limit, even if he would have to be behind the walls for the rest of his life. Derek was going to make sure he touched someone's life the way this poetry workshop had touched his. When Derek was released and able to share the stage with his poetry instructors, he told me that was one of the best feelings ever.
Randall Horton is the author of the poetry collections Pitch Dark Anarchy (Triquarterly/Northwestern University Press, 2013), The Definition of Place (Main Street Rag, 2010), and The Lingua France of Ninth Street (Main Street Rag, 2009). His honors include the Bea Gonzalez Poetry Award, a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship in...