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Tyehima Jess poetry in prison
Tyehimba Jess talked about the famous
folk and blues singe Lead Belly's two
prison terms and how he channeled his anger into his music while incarcerated.

Bringing poetry, and hope, into prison

By Paul Grondahl

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tyehimba Jess held 72 prisoners spellbound for more than two hours with an animated performance of his poetry, encouragement about their writing and a frank discussion that ended with Jess imploring them to take advantage of every educational opportunity during their incarceration.

“Read as much as you can,” Jess told the inmates, a diverse group of men who ranged in age from their 20s to their 60s. They sat attentively in rows of plastic chairs in a room that serves as the chapel. Several prisoners made notes in composition books. Jess wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the cover art of Kurt Vonnegut’s book “Breakfast of Champions.”

“Get as many certificates and degrees as you can while you’re in here,” Jess said. “That opens locks inside of you. Building up your mind and gaining knowledge is ultimately what frees you.”

They applauded the poet for those words of advice and twice offered spontaneous standing ovations for Jess, whose delivery bore the cadence and passion of a preacher.

Tyehimba Jess poetry in prisonPulitzer Prize-winning poet Tyehimba Jess talks with Derik Smith, UAlbany English professor and poet before the poet's reading and discussion with prisoners at the state's Greene Correctional Facility in Coxsackie, NY

Jess visited Greene Correctional Facility, a medium-security state prison in Coxsackie, on September 14. He visited under the auspices of a first-ever collaboration between the New York State Writers Institute at the University at Albany, the not-for-profit Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison program and the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. It is part of the Writers Institute’s new mission to expand community outreach and to bring the power and beauty of literature to marginalized and underserved populations.

Jess led a seminar on the writing craft that afternoon on the UAlbany campus and performed at an evening poetry performance that included poetry read by several UAlbany students as part of the Writers Institute’s visiting writers series. Jess volunteered his time for the morning prison visit. Writers Institute director Paul Grondahl and Derik Smith, a poet and assistant professor of English at UAlbany, accompanied Jess for the prison program. Jess read from his two critically acclaimed poetry collections, Leadbelly and Olio, which won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. “You’ve got to understand the significance of him winning the Pulitzer Prize, which puts him in a line with the greatest poets in history,” Smith said in his introduction. “He’s doing stuff on the page that’s never been done before. This dude could be getting thousands of dollars for a reading and he’s here talking to you for free.”

Tyehimba Jess poetry in prison
Tyehimba Jess performed with the cadence and passion of a preacher and twice received standing ovations from the prisoners during his two-hour visit.

The prisoners seemed particularly interested in the poet’s recounting of the poetic inspiration he took from the life of Lead Belly, born Huddie William Ledbetter, son of a Louisiana sharecropper who became an influential American folk and blues singer and guitarist of the early 20th-century. He also was incarcerated twice. “What got him through his years in prison was channeling his anger into something productive and uplifting, which was his music,” Jess said.

Jess performed a poem that included singing portions of Leadbelly’s song “Pick a Bale of Cotton,” originally sung by slaves toiling in the fields. The poem built to a breathless crescendo of repetition and staccato singsong phrases and when Jess was finished, the prisoners rose from their chairs in a standing ovation.

In a question-and-answer period, an older inmate recounted memories of picking cotton in Tennessee as a boy, alongside his mother, filling a small pillowcase she handed him while she packed a large burlap bag. Mother and son sang songs to make their toil more enjoyable under the scorching sun. “I believe the world needs more storytellers like you,” the inmate told the poet. “Thank you for coming to speak to us.’

Tyehimba Jess poetry in prison
Poet Tyehimba Jess reads from his acclaimed collections
"Leadbelly" and "Olio" for 72 inmates in the medium-security prison.

Jess offered context to his poems that included extensive historical background about the harsh conditions faced by slaves, the mocking exploitation of black culture in 19th-century minstrel shows and the institutional racism inherent in that form of entertainment. A hush fell over the inmates, a racially diverse group that was predominantly African-American, when Jess recounted his research that chronicled the names, dates and places of 133 black churches across the U.S. that were burned down during a century of hate crimes.

“His poetry was fascinating and it gave me hope,” said Eddie Robinson, 48, who helped start a book club in prison and is working toward an associate’s degree in behavioral science with the goal of becoming a social worker.

“It was remarkably vivid. I felt he took me inside the Harlem Renaissance,” said John Wendell, 37, of Harlem, who is in a pre-college academic program.

“It was very inspiring and it was probably the first time I really understood poetry because his writing was accessible and told a story,” said Robert Decker, 57, of Oceanside, Long Island, who is studying for an associate’s degree in behavioral science.

“I’d never been interested in history before because it was boring, but he made it come alive,” said Francisco Martinez, 28, of the Bronx, a pre-college student.

All the inmates are part of the Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, a privately funded program that provides courses for 500 students in six state prisons. Over the past 15 years, more than 600 prisoners have earned associates and bachelor’s degrees through the program and the recidivism rate of its graduates is less than 4 percent – compared to a national recidivism rate of 67 percent among all prisoners.

“It shows that education works and it has a redemptive power with prisoners,” said Joel Jimenez, Hudson Link’s academic coordinator in the Greene Correctional Facility. “Our studies have proven that the higher the degree those inmates attain, the lower the chance that they will be coming back to prison.”

Jess told the inmates he would mail copies of his poetry books for their prison library and for discussion in their book club. He shook hands with the men before they left and reminded them to stay the course with their class work.

In the parking lot, outside a tall fence topped with razor wire, Jess paused to take in the emotional experience of his morning session with prisoners. “That was amazing,” he said. “They were very thoughtful and asked great questions. I think they taught me as much as I taught them. It was an honor for me.”

Smith, who has taught at Greene through Hudson Link for a few years, added: “Some of the smartest students I’ve ever had were prisoners.”

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Paul Grondahl is the director of the New York State Writers Institute at the University at Albany