How can I combine my passion for the issues of education equity, prison abolition and youth solidarity in one poem written in one thirteen-minute sitting? If you had asked me before 7pm Sunday night I wouldn’t have been able to tell you, but as the sky changed hues we all straggled into a warehouse in North Oakland and sat down in semi-comfortable chairs for the Uniquely Yours workshop. We opened our notebooks and Peggy started feeding us prompts. A few new folks but most of us veterans of this workshop, coming almost every month and forming close-knit bonds around shared expression. I had something on the tip of my tongue but I couldn’t taste it, couldn’t form it into the words that I wanted. My muse felt like an astronaut suspended in deep space with nothing to hold on to.
Then Peggy read the poem “Purple” by Alex Rotella and gave us the prompt, “Write about a moment when you were discouraged, or encouraged, or when you discouraged or encouraged somebody.” In this workshop it is assumed that everything we’re writing is fiction, even if it’s not. This gives us the freedom to write the truth while maintaining anonymity in our own experience. In other writing workshops I will write a piece and people will ask me about it as if the narrator is really me, Alec West, in real life, and the story I wrote was something that happened to me. Outside of Green Windows, I have to stop people and say, “This story is not about me.”
I don’t want what I say in a story or a poem to affect the relationships I have with my friends, my family, my readers, or the community at large. Outside of Green Windows, this happens whether I like it or not, but within the safe space that we all create together, I can write whatever I want, plumbing the pits of my soul for something I would never admit to my closest friend. When I share those secrets with the people around me through my writing, they nod and listen and tell me what they liked about it, then we move on. It never has to enter the relationships I form with those people outside of the workshop and it never leaves the room. With the safety afforded by Green Windows I can write freely and do the kind of self-exploratory work I need to do among others in my community who are doing the same thing.
I wrote this piece that night, based on that prompt. I thought about how discouraging it is for a teacher to have one of your students, someone much younger than you, die. I’m not revealing whether I’ve had that experience or not, but you can judge whether my writing resonates with you, and you can feel it if it is authentic.
To Be Judged
by Alec West
At twenty-four I was young to be a teacher whose student had died. Ricardo had what you would call a magnetic personality. He was tall and solid with long hair that descended to his shoulders like the coned branches of a pine tree. He wore the jail uniform like any piece of clothing you would wear. He seemed to have an air of acceptance of where he was and hope for where he was going. Both of these combined with patience, faith that he would get there, that took confidence. I only remember him really writing one piece in all of the writing workshops we had. He attended a lot of them, as he was in jail for six months after I got there and I don’t know how long he was in before.
Press play. Three months after he got out, a car crash. Ricardo was a passenger and he was dead. I’m not sure if he was 18 yet or not. I wrote in his obituary: “Almost as sad as his young death was how long he had to spend in jail.” Overall, Ricardo spent two and a half years in jail after he skipped out on probation to get a job so that he could support his family. A vast number of the people you will meet in jail are not there for their original crime, but for a violation such as staying out too late, or not checking in with their PO, things that are not illegal but could wind them back up in the system. Often these people are leading positive, productive lives and trying their best, but one misstep led them off track.
How many people are lost to parole violations, not even real crimes? How many are trapped behind walls when they could be connecting or creating with us? What if you were judged and your whole life was determined by what you did or what happened on your worst day?
There is a scene in the movie, “The Mustang” when a therapist asks a group of prisoners incarcerated for violent crimes,
“How long from the idea of the crime to the committing of the crime?”
30 seconds. Fifteen seconds. Ten seconds. Less than half a second. The men answer with certainty as though a game show is asking them what they had for breakfast.
Can you judge the entire character of a person for an action committed without making a decision?
Do you feel safe?
I’m young in my teaching and I’ve only had one student die. I’ve known teachers who have lived through the deaths of several of their students. The loss we feel is mixed with blinding injustice as the world becomes a little less colorful, a little less vibrant, and we all become a little less powerful, despite the efforts we as teachers put out every day to keep the fire burning in our students’ hearts. Our students get snuffed out. We put our dreams into these children, and these children give hope back to us. Then, the system takes these children, takes them away from the rest of us. I am a teacher and I am in my twenties and I’ve had a student die. You can judge whether I am too young or whether this is too much, but this is the world we live in. I’m not ready to make a judgment about the world, and Ricardo will always remain perfect in my memory.
Do you feel safe?
Alec West is a teacher, activist, and author of What Happened When I Stopped Watching TV, his first book, available on Amazon. He lives in Oakland, but is moving to Richmond, and was born and raised in the East Bay. You can find him on Facebook: on instagram @alecwestwriter510, or writing in a local cafe.
Our blogger this month, Roxanne Rocksteady Jones, first attended a Green Windows writing workshop in 2010 and has consistently written with us at every opportunity since. We asked her why she keeps coming back.
I keep coming back to Green Windows because I really got motivated when Peggy first invited me to the class to get over past things and express myself more.
While I was taking the class, I went to a women's group and we had incense and candles and meditated and were asked to take whatever was on our mind and bothering us, from childhood to early age to teen to young adult to adult, and write it on a piece of paper, then read it to ourselves, then ball it up. It made me get rid of what was bothering me. I had been feeling like I had been tortured since a little girl. But as I wrote, I released things through the tears in my eyes, from my stomach, my belly, to my lungs to my throat, releasing it, throwing it up, freeing myself. So my writing is more like a journal: Instead of using my voice, I'm using my writing, screaming so the world can hear me. Instead of marching in the streets with the 99 women's march, I'm the 100th woman, marching with words.
Young women, girls and teens are speaking up with their voices. You know, some people can't speak. Some people can't hear or talk. But they can read with their eyes. Reading, and other people reading your poetry or stories, is inspiring in either a happy way or sad way. They can learn to relieve what is bothering them, too.
Now I'll hand a person a pencil, ink pen, or crayon and say, "I would like to hear your story. Would you like to write it down?" People think homeless people want money or food. Some people just want people to hear their story, to sit and listen, or release something, or just be quiet together. So asking them to tell their story, what's bothering them, they are like. “Oh, I just wanted you to hear this." Sometimes it doesn't make sense, but I don't care. They just want someone to listen. Most people don’t have time.
For 2019 I would like for the city of Oakland or Green Windows to have an open mic where women, men too, but women, can say what's on their mind or what they went through, or what they want to release. Then we can give each other hugs after and let each other know we are loved no matter what gender, race, color or nationality.
When I think about the violence done to people of color and queer people, I want say, “No matter your gender, we are praying for you, be strong, keep your heads up, know that you are loved. I hope they catch the racist haters out there who try to torture you. We are going to kill them with love because love is what makes the world go around.”
Below is a piece of writing that I wrote in a Green Windows workshop. It was published in the 10-year anthology, Writing from Green Windows.
Who’s Your Daddy?
By Sister Roxanne Rocksteady Jones
Trick or Treats
Who’s your daddy?
Ok! Soul Sisters
Girls, here we go
Dancin’ to the beat of Aretha Franklin
and Lady of Soul, Diana Ross
and Lady Sings the Blues
Here near downtown Oakland
the block of 22nd, Telegraph and West Grand Ave
which is now called Uptown
Here on the sparklin’ psychedelic rainbow dance floor
in this ol’ ol’ ol’ red brick building
used to be the Pancake House
which is now called Disco City
Shakin’ our money maker
as the mens would say
Shakin’ what your Mama gave you
Shakin’ our bootays
Droppin’ it like it’s hot
Girls just wanna have fun
Actin’ like our Mamas’ drinkin’ brandy
Vodka with pineapple juice
Laughin’ havin’ fun
Cryin’ talkin’ about the good good ol’ days
about the no good men who almost stole our hearts
Rememberin’ the good good good ol’ ol’ ol’ days
When our Mamas was also on the dance floor
Partyin’ and shakin’ their old money makers
Their groove things
Their asses, as the ol’ men would say
Drinkin’ brandy with milk
7 Up with Courvoisier
Vodka with orange juice
Gin with apple juice
Dancin’ to the Temptations
Gladys Knight and the Pimps
Dancin’ til’ the funkadelics the freaks
Come out at night
Droppin’ it like it’s hot
and our Moms cryin’ about our no good daddies
on the dance floor
as the Godfather of Soul, James Brown
Sings the number one song
I like the girl with the hot pants on
She can do the boogie woogie all night long
Oh my God, he’s singin’ about my Mama
who’s your daddy?
James Brown, Father of Soul
Goin’ back to the good good good ol’ days
Trick or Treat
Who’s your daddy?
I’ve been writing with Green Windows for about 4 years now. I met two of the regular attendees at a coloring club meetup. I was feeling brave enough that day to venture out of my normal routine to do something like that, and holy hell am I glad I did. My first night there I heard writing like I’ve never heard before. Not like the crap they made me read in school, not the forced-to-sound-like-this writing from my creative writing class in college, not what I always thought poetry “should” sound like. I heard real, raw, authentic voices from real, raw, authentic people. We were writing at Chapter 510 then, and being in a space that could hold the creative energy for youth helped me work through some shit. It also inspired me to start a group at the elementary school where I worked using the same method that we use at Green Windows after reading Pat Schneider's book about the AWA method. Listen to some writing by an inspired 10-year-old sometime. It changed my world.
This group of people has become more than just a creative outlet for me. It’s where I sort out all the things inside and around me and find a way to feel all the feelings and have other people witness me doing it. It’s become a group of fellow soul travelers, friends, mentors, and family. I honestly cannot imagine my life without it.
When Peggy offered to take me on as her apprentice, I was beyond honored. I told her that no matter how busy my life can get, I’m learning how to make time for the things, the spaces, and the people that feed my life. What would be my life be without them anyway? Green Windows and the community of people that are part of it fit all those categories. As a therapist and someone who’s participated in and facilitated healing spaces for years, I can confidently say there’s something really special going on at Rock Paper Scissors every 4th Sunday of the month.
Writing a blog post means I’m sharing my work, too. I thought about adding a fun poem, one that invokes a laugh or at least a chuckle. Maybe one of my short pieces about my mom’s tomatoes or my brothers’ paper towel karate belts or how my dog looks at me when she pees or the time I met a human bunny rabbit on the Lost Coast. But the bravery of folks to speak truth inspires me everyday to speak mine more, and lately I’ve been encountering too much of that bravery to keep crawling back into my cave where it all feels easy and protected. I shied away from true tales of horror inflicted on women and children for many years, because it reminded me too much of mine. Maybe that’s where you, reader, need to be right now, and so I’ll give the disclaimer that this is not a fun piece. It’s a part of a journey, the part where it’s all super thick forest with no map, no machete, no rope. Hopefully, hearing a piece of my story will give you strength to write yours.
(more about Lena)
men teach me to like rape
by Lena Nicodemus
ferns & nitrous ice fog on the cold sand
a fallen tree trunk
lifting up on hips & lifting up of t-shirt
a stupid fucking visor hat
and when you look at me you look nervous
but I don’t say no
your hands are cold up my shirt & you
push your tongue too much into mine
but I don’t say no
you stick your hand down my pants
root around for whatever loose change
you’re looking for
and I remember we’re at where people who
go off trails can find us,
not far from the shit food of the national parks lodge
and I still don’t say no
later I say no and I laugh but I’m not sure I’m joking
and you hardly stop to check
I’ve been taught for my whole life to say
yes yes yes
I don’t imagine myself saying no or
why I would
the stories I hear from the couch are
always the same
men getting robbed at gunpoint and women getting raped
and then there are the stories where it’s little boys and girls
and the guns are your cousins
and I guess both guns could be your cousins
and I used to be scared of the word
and have to spell it out when asking friends
if movies had
I could watch them and
I don’t watch anything other than
the office it feels like anymore
because getting surprised by a rape scene in a movie
I thought was rated PG-13
and really 13-year-olds can watch this?
it’ll knock me out and before long
i’m scared to go out or even ride my bike anymore because
all the hey baby’s and looks feel like rape
because when i feel triggered it’s like
I’m being raped
but since I was young,
men teach me to like rape
men teach me to call nonconsensual sex “kinks”
and “it got a little rough”
and stopping to ask me once for a safe word neither of us use isn’t consent
and anyway girls can’t consent to sex only women can
and you didn’t invite a woman back to this apartment, did you?
I thought it was time again to share some of the work I’m doing in the local juvenile hall (Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center). For the last nine years, I’ve volunteered with the magazine The Beat Within doing weekly writing workshops in the hall and editing the writing for publication. I also facilitate a 5-week poetry workshop once a year in an English class in the hall for the Oakland Public Library, leading up to the Oakland Youth Poet Laureate application deadline (February 5th this year!). With Green Windows, I’m now regularly facilitating a weekly writing workshop with youth in the hall who have graduated from high school. Traditionally, these youth do nothing while their peers are in class. Probation staff in the hall took it upon themselves to organize classes for them: Anger Management, Financial Literacy, Gardening, Sex Ed, Chorus, whatever a staff can offer. You can read more about this program in this blog post from last June.
These writing workshops, all of them, have gotten harder over time. I’m not sure why but I have two thoughts: 1) There seems to be more kids who have a really hard time maintaining focus. And the amount of time they can focus is less and less with more and more kids who seem to not ever focus at all. 2) The discipline in the hall has gotten more lenient, which in a big way is a good thing. But it means the kids can go through a whole program and/or a whole class talking to each other loudly, not working, without any consequence or reaction. I have no authority, so I try to convince, cajole, reward, adapt the work to the individual and sometimes guilt-trip by telling them why I am there.
I am there to get their own thoughts and imagination on paper. And I am disappointed when I don’t, because it's a loss for me and for the world that might read them. But just being there matters. Even the most recalcitrant writers ask me when I’m coming back. They thank me in the end for “helping me express myself.” They’ll chat with each other about their cases and gossip about their girlfriends through the whole workshop and then tell me that the workshop will help them be creative and control themselves in their future. All of this can happen and be true. I am always drawn back to the idea that just being there, regularly, even relentlessly, and determinedly demanding of them to be their true selves on paper counts. Who do they count on to show up? Who is asking them to be true to themselves?
I’d like to tell you about the young people I get to meet. Here, now, I’ll tell you about two very different people.
Kalani has focus and tries almost every time, almost every prompt I give him. He can write short, powerful pieces that make the reader understand a little better what it feels like to be an incarcerated young man facing an uncertain future. He also has a remarkable imagination, able to create both characters and settings that go well beyond his personal experiences. The themes in his fiction, though, are always about family bonds and trying to care for family amidst scarcity, violence and addiction. He has written about the challenges facing a boy simply coming home after school and about a man hunting in the wilderness to get food for his family. Strong bonds between brothers reoccur in his fiction. In all the years I’ve been doing writing workshops in the Alameda hall, I have met few young people with this versatility of talent or this willingness to do real, challenging work.
A judge (not a prosecutor, thanks to California Proposition 57), recently decided to put Kalani back in juvenile court, to not try him as an adult and send him to adult prison. This is a victory. I do not know why Kalani is locked-up, though I know it’s serious. I never ask. These young people are not their crimes. Kalani is intelligent, creative, thoughtful, and kind. He prioritizes his family and he tries new things to better himself and broaden his world. Why would I need to know more?
Nia is 18 and has been told for months that she’ll be sent to a group home soon. She wants to go home. Why any of that needs to happen when she’s a legal adult, I don’t know. Group homes lie about interviewing her when they haven’t. She is angry. I would be angry too. She is in a class full of young men who miss their girlfriends. She’s a young woman who is easily charming and easily charmed but clearly she draws bold lines around herself. Nia is quick and clever and wants books and poetry with language that doesn’t bore her. She is a clear and precise writer and writes quickly. Every day she’s not in the mood to write, and almost every day she does anyway. One day she said that she was too angry to write. I said, “Write out your anger, don’t hold back, don’t worry about being appropriate, you don’t have to show it to me or anyone.” She did and said she felt better afterwards. In her evaluation she wrote, “I learned that writing down my feelings really does help me cope with my time.”
Please feel free to reach out to me with any questions about this work, or if you'd like to volunteer with The Beat Within.
Below, you ‘ll find two pieces of writing from Kalani, one from Nia and a piece I wrote in one of these workshops last Fall.
- Peggy Simmons
I’m scared because I don’t know what to do
I’m scared because I only have 1 life not 2
I’m scared because they offered me more time than I lived
I’m scared because I have no control in life
I’m scared because I can’t trust no one
I’m scared because the ones you love will hurt you
I’m scared because no one looking out for lil’ bro
I’m scared because I’m not living at home
The room I was in was small
fit about 5 people at most
But the room had AC so it was never hot inside.
I remember this room because most of my teachers
wanted me in detention
instead of being in their class.
The room walls were all beige with desks all facing the wall.
So 2 days ago
I spent my 18th b-day
in a jail cell. Ever since I turned 13
I always dreamed
about my 18th B-Day
and how I would have
the sexiest dress on
with the baddest heels.
The longest red
hair and makeup
to die for.
My 18th b-day
was supposed to be
the happiest day
for me. Instead,
once I woke up
I had to
stand in a door
and wait for somebody
to pop my door.
I had to sweep,
down my cell.
I was being talked
rather than talked
I never imagined I would spend
the best day of
my life in a jail cell.
I Want Your Expressions
I want your words to come from your bellies
I want your words to come out colorful and complex
I want your words to shatter your shells
So we can really see you
We need to really see you
I want your words to hit us in the gut
I want your words to show us new lights
I want your words to shatter our blinders
So we can really see you
We want to really see you
We are stuck, each of us, between walls
Walls built between people, between neighborhoods
We can’t see each other
We pretend the world is the world within our walls
We live small. We live blind. We live selfish.
Tend our gardens and ignore the smoke on the other side.
I want your words, I want our words to explode
So we can see each other.
- Peggy Simmons, (Written in the last Fall 2017 workshop in the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center SEEP workshop.)
I remember a few years ago, I was going through childhood stuff as I started to move the last of my things out of my parents’ basement, and I found poems I wrote when I was probably in the 5th grade. I wrote a few that were what I thought poetry was supposed to sound like, a few that were what I thought cute girls were supposed to write about, and then there was this other one. I was really passionate about the wild world as a kid. I was part of a project that same year where my friend and I raised money to help protect snow leopards. I used to keep a sticker collection, like most 90’s babies, and the front cover was a tree frog. I had a budding monkey stuffed animal collection, and anytime I could, I escaped to the woods behind my house, where no one could hurt me.
I’m a trauma therapist for children and families at an elementary school. A lot of what motivated me to get into the work I do was my own trauma as a kid. I was sexually abused by an older neighbor who also bullied me in front of other kids from age 5 to 10, and my family had a lot of dysfunction, to say the least. School, the woods, books, writing, my own fantasy world: These were what kept me alive. I was that kid who could read and walk through the hallways from classes--to this day, my peripheral vision is on fleek.
This poem I found was about big construction vehicles rolling through a beautiful, pristine rainforest; ugly, metallic machines attacking the sweet greens and damp brown of the earth and bright red of a flying bird leaving its disappearing nest. The animals began to run until the snakes hissed back. The snakes hissed back and led a revolt and the animals turned around and took down those big machines with all the power of them standing up for the protection of their home.
I read this poem, and I knew that the part inside me that, 15 years later, started my own personal revolt against my abuser and the environment that broke my heart and my innocence, started it with this poem and the teacher that asked me to write it and wanted to hear me read it.
I read this poem, and I knew that I wanted to be the person who would ask others to write about how they would start their revolts and then help them start them.
Today, I’m lucky to get to hear those stories and to help re-write them so that the suffering, the cycle of abuse, stops. I try to remember to never underestimate the power of a poem, a metaphor, a story.
When I found Green Windows last year, I was ready to write more of my story, and Peggy and the group of amazing people she manifested every month kept me coming back and writing more. The writing below is an excerpt from a book I’m writing based on my own story and all the stories I’ve heard throughout my lifetime.
Excerpt from Frontera
by Lena Nicodemus
Mama helped Jo learn to stitch when she was old enough to hold the needle and the circular frame. It went in and out to the speed of their singing of songs that neither were old enough to fully understand. Jo would often overshoot the needle and accidentally stab herself in the pad of her index finger.
“Ow!” She would pull her hand back as the costura became tinged with a little red dot of blood.
“Los errores son parte del aprendizaje,” Mama said then, something Abuela had taught her, something that Jo would tell her own children someday as a bookmark for moments of flawless idiosyncrasy.
When the phone rang for the last time, it was months after the accident, and Grandma May lay flat on her bed with the orange curtains pulled closed at any time of day. Stale café and pan sat cold on her nightstand, next to a picture of Grandma May and Grandpa George with Mama, who looked up at her two smiling parents with no expression.
“Vente, vente,” Grandma May beckoned. “Vente por aca.”
Her hands are wrinkly and dry. Jo opens the nightstand drawer & takes out the oil, rose, and sandalwood, with corn oil to make it last longer. She rubs Grandma May’s hands. She closes her eyes. She remembers the Sunday school teacher telling them the story of when the ladies, implicitly whorish, washed Jesus’ feet. Jo imagined washing the Sunday School teacher’s feet while he read the story over and over on a loop, incessant and dull. She imagined playing that game where you dart a blade between the webbing of a hand, and doing that to the Sunday School teacher’s feet. She would take the dullness of that blade and slide it between each of his toes as she made him breathe in and out and keep quiet.
The phone rings, and the attic is oddly silent.
The phone rings, and Jo becomes aware of her mother’s radio two floors down, reverberating through the dry, wooden floorboards. The phone rings, and there’s no one on the other line.
The birds of paradise at the edge of the property swivel in the air, being put off by the helicopter blades.
Tomás holds the curling edges of the burning books until they get too hot and he drops them, one by one.
The kiddie pool full of the ceniza of 1000’s of words and letters by underpaid and over-emotional authors starts to melt from the heat. He goes for the phonebooks as well, burning “Aguilar” to “Zafón” and “air-conditioning repair” to “yard waste removal.” There is a book with leather skin, a book with a note written in blue on the inside cover.
Please call me when this is over.
I love you, I miss you. Please come home.”
The signature is illegible, the P.S. unreadable.
The title of the book is “Frontera”. “Border”.
(Originally posted on peggysimmons.net, May 11, 2009. I still volunteer weekly with The Beat Within. I've learned a lot and keep on learning.)
I volunteer with The Beat Within once a week, helping to facilitate their writing workshops in Alameda County's juvenile hall. I love it. I am inspired by the youth, the facilitators and many of the hall's staff. Experiences like this are an important reality check for me - reminding me of how much I don't know and don't understand and giving me opportunities to learn.
Two things have especially struck me in recent weeks from workshops in the hall. Firstly, in a discussion about what life on the streets costs (for issue 14.21) one young man said something like, "Everyone tells us to get off the streets. Get off the streets and go where?" The next week another young man wrote a great rap about being stuck in the "hood life" in which he mentions boys who have no socks to wear. (Marky Bo, page 26 of issue 14.22)
I haven't been able to follow up with the young man who said, "Get off the streets and go where?" So I don't know exactly what he meant. He might have meant, "with five kids in a 1 bedroom apartment, where else could we hang out but on the street?" And/or he could have meant that he and his peers see no other future for themselves, no other way of life but hustling on the streets. Because they have no example of other choices? Because they've been brought to believe it's all they are good for? Because the harsh circumstances of their childhood - home, health, education, violence, family - meant that nothing was built upon what was already a weak foundation? Like the shame and discomfort of going to school without socks. All or none or parts of these things might be true. But it doesn't matter what is true or what is not true, what is right or not right. If he believes there is no other life for him, how do we show him otherwise? How to we make it otherwise?
And how can I better understand what choices these youth think they have and actually have? How can I see better from their point of view? And how can I share what I learn with others who think of those kids as just criminals who stupidly make bad choices and should be punished accordingly, period?
Hearing and reading the writing of these youth, while reading and listening to lots of mainstream journalism too, reminds me of how most of us go through our days looking at the world from inside our own little bubbles. And judging from within them. We interpret what we see completely differently than other people from their own bubbles. And most of us, if not all, just can't see widely enough to judge others fairly. My work and my life are all about trying to find ways to pop, or at least widen, these bubbles. At least my own. I thank The Beat Within and the youth in the hall for helping me try.
by Meg Claudel
Lift my chin to the clouds, the heavens, the clouds
And wish or pray to wish for rain
To wash out the silence, the silence
He left me, behind the noise of highways
And trains at the intersection of 40th and Telegraph.
Dirty foot walks the broken streets
Dirty street breaks the feet of boys without socks
Boys without socks or gone to jail:
Boys without sunsets.
Boys with sunsets on the other side of the wall.
Broken sidewalks. Broken hearts.
Sunsets are free, he says
Once again outside my paid-for window
Sunsets are free
Behind the lines, a steeple, the lines
Once again paid for, this view
This view all the better on the hill
Outside the walls where children know death
More death than I
Walls between free sunsets and children not free
Children already gone
Past my share of grieving
Your sunset's free, he says.
("Meg Claudel" is the pen name used by Peggy Simmons.)
(This poem is in the mural on 40th St and Opal St, Oakland CA and was first drafted on June 22, 2009.)
(These pieces are excerpts from the manuscript What I Want My Words to Do to You, a collection from seven years of Peggy's writing about facilitating workshops in juvenile hall plus writing from incarcerated youth from the same period.)
Bertrell Smith is an amazingly talented artist who practices in different media: painting, writing, music, video and more. He has been writing in Green Windows workshops for several years. We asked him to share some of his art as well as a few words about his artistic process. Thank you, Bertrell!
When I create a work of art a lot of things happen or don't happen. If I'm painting I might make a thumbnail drawing while listening to random recordings. I usually find an error, a dot or something, in the canvass and adjust to it.
When writing a rap I jot down a few ideas about the direction for the rap in general and hope I finish it one day. In general this is how I do what I do or what I'm trying to do in the creative realm.
I often question why on earth am I doing these things. Then I remember why and I proceed with caution. It's a way to travel without checking my baggage, I tell myself. I usually put all my materials in one area and plan to spend from a hour to a week or more discussing my problems with them be it the canvas, a musical recording, a piece of paper or video etc.
When I waltz into Green Windows to write, I do something similar. I ask, "Why am I here?" I eventually remember why, eat some pastries and unleash a tension on the page that I've been storing for such an occasion. Green Windows writing workshop in many ways mirrors my creative process. I wish I could find a workshop that helps me in the other areas with the same level of consistency.
- Bertrell Smith
By Bertrell Smith
(Written in a Green Windows workshop, January 2014)
Shut up don't listen to your sorry selfishness. The version of you at this moment of time will be thrown away. I am not playing with you. Ball it up and let the smell from it take you away. Don't talk back to me in predictable anger it will do you no good. I'm happy you are here with me in a dark sadistic way. Now leave all that you know quickly and sweep up the floors. The floor covered with images of your self you placed there in haste, Make a noise, A new one. Not joyful not bitter. Something mechanical and happy. It's not a request you can ignore. I'm commanding you to be a subject of little insight and much pity. You shall grow as I say you will. The descriptions of you will fade and be forgotten as has been stated in the writings on the floor. You will mop after you sweep. I will let you take time to feel horror or hunger, Only one. There is no out at this only in at this. It is not a riddle only a lapse of a memory you wish to forget. Slow down let the pressure inside. To go in .
The Alameda County juvenile hall has an amazing pilot program for incarcerated youth who have graduated from high school, called SEEP (Student Extended Education Program). Traditionally, and apparently in most juvenile halls, there isn’t much for the graduates to do while their peers are in class.
In the Alameda County hall, a small program was started in partnership with Merritt College to give some students college courses. This program runs on love and volunteers thanks to dedicated people like Amy Cheney (who Green Windows is honored to have on our Advisory Board and who used to be the Librarian in the hall) and Louise Anderson (Alameda County Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Commissioner [JJDPC]).
Besides this small college program involving a few youth and a few volunteers, there was nothing for the graduates until some JIOs (Juvenile Institution Officers, the Alameda County Probation staff who work with the youth in the hall) decided to create a program. Officer Nicole Perales and Officer Brian Bingham (who also honors Green Windows on our Advisory Board) started SEEP, with no funding, engaging other JIOs to teach classes on life skills, debate, cooking, gardening, whatever skills they could share. They needed to rely on people who had clearance to enter the hall, a proven track record to work with the young people and who wouldn’t require funding. This fabulous, desperately needed program, was also born out of love and runs on dedication.
Perales and Bingham have seen and supported my work in the juvenile hall over the years, running different kinds of writing workshops with Green Windows, for The Beat Within and with the Oakland Public Library for the Oakland Youth Poet Laureate program. They knew my love, dedication and clearance and asked me to run a series of creative writing workshops with the SEEP students. Thanks to generous individual donations to Green Windows, I was able to run this workshop for five weeks this past Spring.
The creativity of these brilliant and charming young people impressed me, as did their desire to engage themselves while locked up, despite facing uncertain futures or futures certain to contain a lot of time inside and while dealing with all levels of sorrows. Their writing shows they do not easily lose hopes and dreams and loves.
I hope to continue to offer creative writing workshops with these young people, in addition to volunteering weekly to run workshops with The Beat Within. Green Windows needs funding to offer them, though, please consider donating.
This whole post was written to introduce this one piece of writing, written in the last SEEP workshop. Writing like this implores us to offer these young people as many opportunities as possible to authentically express themselves. Our society has much to learn and gain if they do.
- Peggy Simmons
We were all born with the power of
changing the world, emotionally, mentally,
spiritually and maybe of course verbally.
I stand tall on this lovely morning
with my hands bruised from protecting
myself from the haters, eyes red & puffy
from praying and crying, my body slim but
using the bit of strength within my female body. Nobody should
be Judged from a record or a misunderstanding
mistake. We are human beings, please look at
us as one. If nobody wasn't born in different
countries then what is a world? Different
skin tones matter or what would be the real
definition of a human being including their tone
that comes out of their mouth? What’s coming out
of mine are the last words I am ever going to
preach for. They say, “what you do & say will
be used against you”. In the system some
can control themselves & get away, start over
until never again. It is another day that
can be brighter but Hey! What about the
others “maybe”? Can you at least feed us real food
here & there, take us to field trips in the “real life”?
Or cook what I enjoy, for I
think I still remember how to
use my hands. Stress really eats up our
cells and DNA including techniques, that nobody made him or me learn.
Again they say “get it together this is real life”.
Can I be loved one more time? Because that’s
the “real life” not the system.
17 years young now. 5 years pass -
I am free I could have spent the rest of
my life in there, but I did not go down like no
SUKKA, fight! Let your voice be heard
& the victim get on the stand! I am loved,
I started my own restaurant, I travel now.
One day when I am 50, miniature me’s will
be changing the world Amen.
After college, I started journaling. Everyday. I would write as a process of understanding myself better and as a way of saving my impressions of the world around me. I was living in Argentina at the time and there was so much I wanted to capture, to remember, as if writing letters to be opened by another version of myself in another time.
When I moved back to the States, my writing became infrequent for a time. I pursued other means of understanding myself, specifically studying plant medicine, movement and massage. At the time that I found Green Windows, I was six months into my studies in becoming a massage therapist with a focus on Eastern modalities. My teachers were training us to look for harmonies in the body, the things that were working well in our clients, instead of focusing on the seemingly hurt or broken pieces that were our clients’ major complaint. The belief is that by finding what is working well, and supporting that function, the body has more resources to heal itself.
When I found Peggy and the AWA method, I realized right away the natural pairing of what I was learning in school with one of the guiding principles of the AWA method: look for what is working well. I noticed that, in bodywork as in writing, this type of listening creates a safe place where one can reconnect. From here, we can go into the world a little stronger, more ready to adapt to life’s changes.
One of the first things I noticed about Peggy was her ability to reach into the depths of each person in a writing group and spark a match igniting a fury of inspiration, drawing out stories and characters and poetry that set free the writer in every person. The second thing I noticed was the diversity of the group. How rare that such an array of people could come together to create and share. And who was this woman who could speak to all of us? I had to learn more.
Building upon the common ground between my bodywork and writing practice, I direct a person’s attention towards harmony and what works to facilitate an environment that invites our most authentic selves to show up. In tuning our awareness in this way, we nourish ourselves and evoke what we wish to create. When we employ this way of looking for what is strong in a group setting, we begin to understand how Peggy can bring together people from such different backgrounds.
Still Peggy’s magic lies beyond the trust she has in the AWA method, or efficacy in facilitating it, but rests in her belief in and dedication to making this work accessible to each unique voice as fuel for radical conversations. Expanding upon Peggy’s example, I see that the unique voice can take many forms. I witness how the human body’s movement, like words, is a language expressing a unique story. And from my own experience of the creative flood after being in Peggy’s workshop, I realize that freedom of expression holds the greatest potential to liberate the human spirit, and it is precisely this liberation that drives me in all of my work.
- Jenna Frisch, Green Windows Facilitator, former Green Windows Apprentice.
Please submit a post about your experience in a Green Windows workshop or about social justice and artistic expression.