Free Verse: 3 Poets on How Words Can Heal
June 15, 2022
While completing my Master of Fine Arts degree at Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia, I became interested in the metaphor that compares prison to mental illness because of how often I heard it in people’s speech, and read it in literature, most often by individuals who had never experienced prison. And the people who used this metaphor the most were white, upper-middle class, and either Christian or nonreligious. The experience of prison is often a perspective left out of interfaith conversations as well as societal conversations in general.
As much as I love interfaith spaces, people who enter interfaith spaces can do a much better job including the voices of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people; especially with a lot of religious/nonreligious conversion happening in carceral spaces along with interfaith chaplains engaging in carceral spaces more and more. Interfaith spaces must also include these voices by compensating the people sharing their stories — and compensating them well.
Despite living in Maine — a predominantly white state mostly filled with nonreligious, Catholic, and some Jewish people — I recognize that it is often Black people, LGBTQ+ people, Muslims, and folks struggling with mental health who are disproportionately incarcerated here. I interviewed three Black formerly incarcerated poets about the use of prison as a metaphor for mental health in our American lexicon and commissioned pieces about their journey with mental health. As a Christian who believes the Gospel’s teaching as an inspiration for restorative/transformative justice and mental health care, it meant a lot to me to engage with Joseph, Raymond, and Stacy and their poetry.
Each interview began with a word association, and the words that came up the most amongst three formerly incarcerated poets were “slavery,” “cages,” “prison,” and “jail.”
Joseph’s interview was the only one done via Zoom along with me. He said, “I’m willing to power through, I’m willing to power through,” when it came to the questions asked. He has found poetry as therapeutic and medicinal. He plays with metaphors a lot in his poetic work. He said that as someone who has experienced prison, he said that his mind was the one place that saved him. He personally cannot compare prison to mental illness for that reason and uses poetry to show that “my mind wasn’t locked in a box … [it helped me] think outside the box.” He doesn’t appreciate people who have no experience with the prison industrial complex, particularly being incarcerated, using the “prison equals mental illness” metaphor.
Joseph Jackson is Director of Leadership Development at Maine Inside Out, an organization that uses original theater to build community, develop youth leadership, and create dialogue both inside and outside of Long Creek Youth Development Center, Maine’s juvenile correction facility. He is also Executive Director of Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, and Campaign Advisor of Maine Youth Justice. In 1995, Mr. Jackson was convicted of manslaughter, and served 19 years. During that period, he founded the Maine prison chapter of the NAACP, and earned associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, both summa cum laude, from the University of Maine at Augusta. When Mr. Jackson enrolled in the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program in Creative Writing, he was the first prisoner in the state to be selected for a graduate program. In 2015, he earned a Master’s Degree from University of Southern Maine. A published poet, Joseph Jackson was on the Advisory Board of Freedom & Captivity, a humanities project that examines the impact of incarceration and offers public opportunities to imagine alternatives. In a 2018 article for The Guardian, Mr. Jackson wrote: “I do this work because years of liberal studies and distance allowed me to make sense of the unfathomable world I experienced. It is a world in which abuse is relentless. It defies comprehension.”
Maya Williams (ey/they/she) is a religious Black Mixed Race suicide survivor and the seventh poet laureate of Portland, Maine. Maya was a Better Together Coach as an undergraduate student at East Carolina University, is a recipient of the Interfaith America Alumni Interfaith Leadership Fund and is an Interfaith Innovation Fellow along with creative partner Mia S. Willis (they/them). Mia and Maya co-host the video essay series Dying/Laughing, a live action and animation discussion series dedicated to speaking candidly about suicidality and confronting its representations in entertainment media. You can find Maya as one of three artists of color representing Maine in The Kennedy Center’s Arts Across America series and more of their published work on mayawilliamspoet.com. Eir debut poetry collection, “Judas & Suicide,” is available for pre-order via Game Over Books. Maya encourages people to support Maine Inside Out and Rise & Shine Youth Retreat.