By Juan Haines
Poetry has always had the ability to make me, unintentionally, think of things or someone in unexpected ways. So, when I pick up a poem, I am open to finding out what the writer is trying to say through the combination of words that have a rhythm or cadence that just sounds good to the ear. The subtle messages that are felt are those aspects of poetry that make me think.
Earlier this year, poet Jennifer Richter came to Zoe Mullery’s Creative Writing Class at San Quentin. There, I had the opportunity to listen to her read from her latest collection of poems from No Acute Distress (2016).
Richter is an interesting poet with an ability to put into words a battle with cancer as well as her life as a mother, wife and woman. When she combines these into the literary features found in poetry, the result is an extremely powerful voice.
Particularly, Hardy Boys Mystery #4: The Missing Chums is about her son and the effect 9/11 has had on her family. The poem’s meticulous and nostalgic look at her life gives particulars about what kind of mother she is and how she values her son’s perspective on life and death.
I also had a chance to review an anthology by Rosemary Jenkins. When I first met her (by telephone) we talked about comparing American prisons and Norwegian prisons. What I’ve learned about Jenkins is that she’s a very compassionate person who loves dogs and also loves her take on criminal justice policy in the online publication LA Progressive.
When I found out, additionally, she was a poet; my eyebrows went up in obvious curiosity.
Leticia in Her Wedding Dress and Other Poems (2005) surprised me with its illustrations and bilingual advantage. However, the most valued aspect of the anthology is that each poem has space for readers to put down his or her thoughts — genius! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve picked up a piece of fiction, nonfiction, or study material and seemingly ruined the book by margin writing. Leticia in Her Wedding Dress gives my thoughts space.
The poem Leticia in Her Wedding Dress honors the existence of someone special and gives readers an appreciation of how Leticia has impacted the life of those around her.
I also had an opportunity to drop by a class taught by Julien Poirier. He teaches every Monday, after chow, in San Quentin. He’s been doing this a couple of years now, and his tough take on the use of words in poetry became clear in his latest anthology, Out of Print (2016). He’s a no-nonsense writer who’ll tell you all about poetry; just like his book cover says, “Ask me a-bout my Poetry.”
When going through Out of Print, I was drawn to several poems, by title alone.
The 2nd Amendment Never Sleeps, written on the 4th of July, uses Middle America language and symbolism to bring irony to a West Coast liberal.
Investigation hit me as a journalist because of its connection to like-minded writers. Although Julien’s intent was to unite poets, the poem resonated with me from a journalistic perspective, and I took what was important for me.
All in all, these three poets have impacted me because of the way they’ve reached out to give incarcerated readers a portal into the world as they see it.
Any of the poems mentioned in this review can be sent to readers by sending San Quentin News a self-address stamped envelope.