Poetry Behind Bars: The Lines That Save Lives — Sometimes Literally Words Unlocked, a poetry contest for juveniles in corrections, has drawn more than 1,000 entries. Its judge, Jimmy Santiago Baca, says it was a poetry book that helped him survive his own prison term.
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Poetry Behind Bars: The Lines That Save Lives — Sometimes Literally

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Poetry Behind Bars: The Lines That Save Lives — Sometimes Literally

Poetry Behind Bars: The Lines That Save Lives — Sometimes Literally

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And we have one more story for you about the experience of being incarcerated. Now, you might remember that all throughout April we've been asking you to send us your poems for our celebration of Poetry Month. It's our Twitter poetry shout out. We've gotten a tremendous response, and we've been hearing your poems throughout the months.

Turns out we are not the only ones who've been celebrating National Poetry Month. In juvenile correctional facilities around the country, incarcerated youth have been participating in their own poetry contests. It's called Words Unlocked. And to find out more, we called up the man who is the final judge of the contest.

JIMMY SANTIAGO BACA: Yeah, my name is Jimmy Santiago Baca, and I'm a poet and a writer. They have a national program where kids submit their work. And they go into literacy programs and facilities and stuff. And they go through several judges. And ultimately, it gets to me. And I have to pick the winners out of the top 15 poems.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: My moves are premeditated like a chess game. Stop, wait. I hesitate to see the beauty of life. Like a steel knife in my windpipe, I stop breathing. Is change real?

BACA: I was just blown away by the high standards of the writing and by the depths of the emotion that was expressed in the poems.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Love is like an open sore. It burns while you sleep. It's like the snow on your feet, love as in pain and misery, not peace, like the storm on the beach. Love is like a raindrop on a dandelion breach. It makes it grow like a tree out of reach. Love is like a tsunami that crashes the house sold to the man that opens his mouth.

BACA: You would think that they were all the spawn children of Whitman or something.

MARTIN: Baca says he relates to these poems and poets because he shares their story. As a young man, Baca spent five years in prison. He was illiterate when he entered the facility. But while locked up, Baca discovered the power of words.

BACA: Let me tell you how it went down. When I got to prison, I had to fight this one guy, so I got a bunch of tape and I got a bunch of books that were on the library card and strapped them to around my stomach, and I went out to the yard. And when this guy pulled out his shank - and I was like wow, this ain't just a fight. This guy wants to kill me. So I'm all OK. Let's do this. So he lunged at me a couple of times, and he - and had book not been there, I'd be dead. It would've cut all the way to the tailbone.

But when I went back to my cell and I looked at this one book where he had gouged it about an inch deep - and it was a thick anthology of poets. And I thought wow, you guys saved my life. And when I began to read the words, I was astounded by their beauty and their eloquence.

MARTIN: And while the Poetry Unlocked (ph) participants might not be literally saved by poetry as he was, Baca believes the poetry they write now will serve them well on the outside.

BACA: Literacy is probably the foremost resource that they need in order to become successful human beings. To be able to deal with sorrow, joy, loneliness and isolation, the first step is you have to be able to put your feelings into words. And then you have to share those words with people, so it's a win-win-win-win all the way around.

MARTIN: That was poet Jimmy Santiago Baca, final judge of the Words Unlocked poetry contest. We also heard poems read by two inmates who we are not able to identify because they are minors. Their 2016 competition is wrapping up, and the winners will be announced next month.

(SOUNDBITE OF KANYE WEST SONG, "FAMILY BUSINESS")

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