Words Unlocked Free Voices Of Young Offenders

Aaron Martin's poem, "Meth," won this year's poetry contest for youths serving time in correctional facilities. NPR's Rachel Martin speaks to Martin and his teacher, Kim DeForest.

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RACHEL MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Aaron Martin had a problem with crystal meth. And last year, at the age of 19, it was part of what landed him in a correctional facility with a sentence of 46 months, although his actual crime was texting explicit pictures of his underage girlfriend.

But today, Aaron Martin is known for something quite different. He is this year's winner of the Words Unlocked nationwide poetry competition for kids in lockup. Aaron attends a high school within the Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility in Grants Pass, Oregon. His instructor there, who helped Aaron with his poetry, is Kim DeForest. And she and her student join us now from member station KLCC in Eugene. Aaron and Kim, welcome to the program.

AARON MARTIN: Hello.

KIM DEFOREST: Hello. Thank you.

R. MARTIN: So, Aaron, I'll start with you. Your poem is called "Meth." Did this poem come pretty quickly to you?

A. MARTIN: Yeah. I sat in the classroom. I turned on some music. I just started jotting down how I was feeling and everything I was thinking. And after I was done with that, I just kind of filed it away in my personals box with all of my other papers. And that following week, Kim was - said, hey, we're doing this poetry week - a poetry contest. And everybody needs to participate. Everybody needs to read a poem.

And I wasn't to avid, at the time, about writing another poem. So I just said, you know, hey, I've got something on unit that I wrote last night. And I'm sure I can turn it into a poem, somehow. So then, after 15 to 20 minutes a day, for the next three days, I was just adding sentences, taking, you know, a little bit away. And, you know, eventually I came up with this. And I was like, you know, OK, this is good enough. This will get me in A.

(LAUGHTER)

R. MARTIN: And you won.

A. MARTIN: Yeah. I wasn't expecting it at all. I - honestly, I wasn't even going to turn it in. (Laughter) The next thing I know, about a month later, she comes in saying I've won the contest. Nationwide.

R. MARTIN: Can you read us the first stanza of your poem?

A. MARTIN: Yeah. (Reading) Meth is a wonderful thing. At least, it seems to be. It makes you so happy. You see things clear, and you feel so incredible, almost like some out-of-this-world superhero. Turning the pipe with your lighter underneath. Watching the puddle as it melts down from a crystal web of cracks, into a smoking, bubbling puddle. Rolling smoke up the stem, into your lungs, through your veins, straight to the brain. Exhale pure, white, buzzing, beautiful cloud carrying your worries away.

R. MARTIN: Beautiful cloud.

A. MARTIN: It's just when you burn it up, it's kind of like you're burning up your worries, you're burning up your stresses. And you inhale all that. And you just let it all out in this big, pure, white, clean cloud - well, looks clean. (Laughter).

R. MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah.

A. MARTIN: You know, cloud. And it's just kind of like, you know, you feel all of your worries come out with it. It makes you feel like some out-of-this-world superhuman being. But really, in the big picture, when you step back and look at it all, it's just tearing apart your life and taking everything away from you.

R. MARTIN: Had you written poetry before, Aaron?

A. MARTIN: Not necessarily poetry, but I do write a lot of music. Last - I'd say - three, maybe four years, I started writing my own songs - lyrics for my music, you know.

R. MARTIN: Kim, if I could turn to you - can you tell us about Words Unlocked and how you help people, like Aaron, tap into the creativity that's sometimes already there.

DEFOREST: It was a program that has curriculum with it online. And teachers can access it, and there's a whole month-long plan for poetry unit. They provide videos. They provide examples of different websites for students to look at. And then, we started it last year. And I didn't have too many students that wanted to submit their poetry to the national contest. They were a little fearful. And this year, I actually started out with the idea of really promoting that and trying to get them to think about publishing their words.

R. MARTIN: What has surprised you about how your students have taken to this or not taken into it?

DEFOREST: It was great to be able to show them the videos of the spoken word poetry because a lot of that poetry is written - if you want to say - from the streets. And so, for the first time, some of the students got to hear somebody's voice that was not unlike their own, but was told in a poetic format. And so it was a way for them to open up and to realize that it doesn't have to rhyme. It can be something that tells their true story in a way that, in normal school, we don't often get to be able to do.

R. MARTIN: You must be pretty proud, Kim.

DEFOREST: It's a great opportunity for our students to be recognized in a way that they usually aren't recognized, having the opportunity to have somebody think positively about something that they have done in the community.

R. MARTIN: So what you think, Aaron? I mean, you're pretty good at this, clearly. Are you going to stick with writing after you get out?

A. MARTIN: Well, probably not, you know, poetry, in this sense. But I'm definitely going to keep, you know, writing music. And, you know, I'll probably use the same methods that I used here, in this, to kind of get better at my songwriting.

R. MARTIN: Aaron Martin is this year's winner of the Words Unlocked poetry competition. Kim DeForest is an English teacher at the Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility in Grants Pass, Oregon. Congratulations, again, Aaron. And thanks to both of you for talking with us.

A. MARTIN: Thank you.

DEFOREST: Thank you.

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