Michigan poetry class lets students collaborate with inmates
IONIA, Mich. (AP) — Diarra Bryant shot and killed a man inside a Detroit apartment when he was 17.
It was 1996. He and his accomplices forced the dead man’s brother to sign over the title of his car, according to court records. They were caught attempting to get their hostage to take money out of his bank.
Sentenced to life in prison, Bryant has been incarcerated for the two decades.
On a Tuesday in December, Bryant was on a stage inside Ionia’s Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility alongside a dozen other incarcerated men, performing in a slam poetry contest that was also the culmination of an arts and humanities class at Michigan State University.
“Damn you,” his poem began. “I see through it like the brightest morning sun that shines through your eyelids, interrupting your sweet dreams and stirring your soul.”
The performance was the brainchild of Guillermo Delgado, an academic specialist with Michigan State University’s Residential College in the Arts and Humanities. He offers a class each semester where students visit the prison and work with the men inside on different kinds of poetry, the Lansing State Journal reported.
Bryant noticed the flyers posted in the prison’s common area in the fall of 2016. It advertised a weekly poetry workshop, which piqued his long-held interest in creative writing.
“I was afraid of my pen though,” Bryant said.
When locked up, Bryant said men like him put up walls to shield any sensitivity from those around them. By the second or third week of the workshops, those walls collapsed thanks to the prodding of Delgado. Some of the men call him Dr. G. or Mr. G.
“You feel that sensitivity from Dr. G, and you have no other choice but to let your guard down and become human again,” Bryant said.
The class brings up to a dozen MSU students inside the prison weekly to host poetry workshops for select prisoners.
Among them last semester was Arzelia Williams. She was prompted to take the class by the connection between one of her passions, poetry, and incarceration, which has impacted her family. Two of her family members have spent time behind bars.
“Within their poetry, some took up topics related to neighborhoods when they were young, the criminal justice system and the decisions they had made,” Williams said.
As part of the class, the MSU students work with the incarcerated men on zines — self-published periodicals — as well as on weekly assignments like writing haiku and free-verse poems.
The men who want to participate must go at least six months without a misconduct write-up, said Deputy Warden Scott Yokom. That creates an incentive for good behavior among the inmates while giving them a non-violent outlet for their feelings, Yokom said.
“We’re with them 24 hours a day, seven days a week, some of them for their entire lives,” he said, noting that the benefits extend beyond those who participate, extending to staff as well as fellow prisoners.
“I’d rather have someone devoting their time to writing poems, learning to read and write and interacting with others rather than negative behaviors like fighting or insolence,” Yokom said. “We see no negatives to this program.”
Working with men who’ve run afoul of the law is a personal endeavor for Delgado. His childhood bedroom window in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood faced Cook County Jail. His play time was spent in the structure’s immense shadow. He visited cousins and uncles who’d been incarcerated after getting caught up in gang activity.
“When I proposed this class, someone asked me innocently, what makes you think you could do this,” Delgado recalled. “I wanted to say, ‘I’m from the hood, I grew up with folks who were in prison or had family that was.’”
While working with people with disabilities five years ago, Delgado met a woman who wowed him with her skills. Asking where she learned to paint, Delgado learned she’d done so while incarcerated. She told him that she started out by licking Skittles and then using them to paint cards for fellow prisoners to purchase. That connection led to Delgado hosting arts workshops for teenagers housed in the Ingham County Youth Center.
Shortly after starting that program, Delgado unearthed a letter sent to MSU’s Residential College of Arts and Humanities poetry center by a jail administrator in Ionia seeking the university’s involvement in art workshops. He jumped at the opportunity.
It’s a two-way street, Delgado said of working with incarcerated men; while he and his students are open to helping prisoners express themselves through art, they have to be willing and open to doing so in front of their fellow inmates.
Like Yokom, Delgado believes in the power of poetry as a constructive activity for those inside. He also sees his work as an effort to bolster the chances of the men who will one day leave prison.
“I think it’s in our best interest to allow people in prison to advance themselves through education so, when they get out, they can be productive members of society.”
Claire Bogrow was among the first students to take Delgado’s class, her interest piqued by the title of the course, “Poetry in Prison.” The 21-year-old senior had never talked to an inmate prior to the class.
“It was very nerve-wracking and very intimidating to think about what you are going into,” Bogrow said.
Despite initial jitters, Bogrow said, she learned a lot about preconceived notions. She remembers talking to some of the inmates about going to protests at Standing Rock and her mother’s concerns about driving to South Dakota in the middle of winter.
“They were very much on my mom’s side,” Bogrow said.
In May, Bryant was resentenced to 35 to 60 years after the Supreme Court reaffirmed a previous decision that people who commit crimes as juveniles shouldn’t face mandatory life sentences.
Kristin LaVoy, an attorney with the Michigan State Appellate Defender Office who represented Bryant, said she was shocked. Bryant had several letters of recommendation and had a good record while incarcerated.
“I’d be surprised if he’s even remotely close to the juvenile he was,” LaVoy said.
He’ll be eligible for parole in 2033, according to the Michigan Department of Corrections.
“I can pinpoint the exact moment in my life where I made a decision that caused me to go backward,” Bryant said. “I tried to relive it, but I can’t reverse it. You have to forgive yourself and move on to the next day.”
Information from: Lansing State Journal, http://www.lansingstatejournal.com