Poetry in maximum security prison: Phil Kaye at TEDxFoggyBottom

Poetry in maximum security prison: Phil Kaye at TEDxFoggyBottom

Translator: Ivana Korom
Reviewer: Denise RQ Phil Kaye: Hi everyone.
(Audience) Hi. My name is Phil,
and I am a spoken word poet. If you are sitting wondering
exactly what that might mean, that's OK. A lot of times, people ask
what I do for a living, and if I say, "Oh, I'm a poet," they think that is some sort of cute euphemism
for "I'm filling out job applications." (Laughter) But that's actually not true. I spend a lot of my time working with schools, organizations,
and communities, performing and teaching spoken word poetry
to people of all ages and backgrounds. A lot of that work is
through an organization called project VOICE that I co-direct with a wonderful friend
and an amazing poet, Sarah Kay. So I want to start today off with a poem. It's about my grandfather. Today is a special day for me because, even though he passed away
a few years ago, today is his birthday. The poem goes like this, "My grandfather is not a strong man, but he knows what it means to build. In 1947, after he and my great-uncles
returned form the Second World War, they opened up an army surplus store. They called it,
'Union War Surplus Store.' Their slogan, 'From the battleship
to a hunting knife, we have it, or we'll get it.' My grandfather was not a strong man, but he kept his word. The place was half store,
half encyclopedia; packed, all the way to the ceiling, with odd objects that somebody,
somewhere, might want. Steel toe boots, fire resistant overalls, a Czechoslovakian dental kit from 1947. Packed, all the way to the basement, with people that somebody,
somewhere else, might forget about; but not here. Like Richard –
Richard who did not work there, but showed up every Sunday afternoon
in his full military uniform. Never bought a goddamn thing." (Laughter) "But once, brought his little girl,
held her hand, said, 'This is what it smelled like
when daddy was a hero.' My grandfather was not a strong man, but he kept us safe. We walked together in the park one night, and a jagged man,
with more tattoo than skin, walked up directly
to my grandfather and said, 'Hey, old man! My pops used to take me
to your store as a kid, and you shook my hand once,
like I was a man. I still remember that.' My grandfather's office was upstairs, but he liked to work down
on the floor, lent anybody a smile. Everybody called him, 'Cheerful Al.' With his big belly,
bald head, long, gray beard, little kids would see him
and go, 'Santa Claus!'" (Laughter) "Six years after Union War
Surplus Store opened its doors, my grandfather had a son, my dad. He is not a strong man,
but he knows what it means to build. One summer, when he was a teenager,
he worked at the store, built a door in the back;
it's still there. Forty years after Union War
Surplus Store opened its doors, my father had a son. I am not a strong boy, but I'm trying to learn
what it means to build. One summer, when I was a teenager,
I worked at the store, built this display that went
all the way up to the ceiling. The same ceiling where my dad
taught me to identify things, 'Oh, this here? This is
an old American bombshell. You may want to hold it,
but be careful not to hurt yourself.' 'Oh, her there? She is
a young American bombshell. You may want to hold her,
but be careful not to hurt yourself.'" (Laughter) "Soon after my father built his door,
he walked through it, built his own half encyclopedia;
made my grandfather very proud. Soon after, I built my display,
I ran up to my grandfather's office, showed him what I had done,
'Very good, Phil. Very good.' When I asked him what to do next, he handed me an old piece
of paper, a beat-up pen. When I asked him what to do with it, he shrugged his shoulders and laughed, and I began to build
the only way I know how." (Applause) Thank you. (Applause) Thank you. So that's just one example
of spoken word poetry, poetry that's meant to be performed
as opposed to read on a piece of paper. Sometimes, people ask about
the writing process of spoken word poetry, and it's not that different
from creating something else: there are drafts and revisions and hopefully, a group of people
who you trust to give you some feedback. And it's a little bit
of what I wanted to talk about today. I want to rewind for a little bit. It's 2006, I've just started college, and I've been doing
spoken word poetry for a few years but only taught a few workshops. I find out about a volunteer opportunity to teach spoken word poetry
in the local prison system. A friend urges me to sign up, so I do. And to be totally honest, at the time, I don't really think about
what I'm getting myself into, I don't think about the nuances
of being a privileged kid from the suburbs going into a maximum security prison. But some version of it dawns on me,
driving over for my first workshop, holding on to the steering wheel,
thinking to myself, "Who the hell do I think I am?
What do I have to relate? Will they take me seriously?
What could I possibly teach these men?" When I finally get into the workshop,
the inmates come in one by one. There are 16 of them. We shake hands, we go around
and introduce ourselves. There is Marcus, who is here because
he wants to write a poem to his wife for their anniversary
coming up in a few months. There's Graham, who's never tried
poetry before but likes rap and is willing to give it a shot. And then, there's Tim. Tim leans back in his chair,
but his shoulders are tense, eyes frowned, he looks directly at me and says, "My name is Tim,
and I'm just here to listen. But I'm curious, how much do they pay you
to come in and teach us like this?" I tell him the truth:
nothing, it's volunteering. And he nods his head and says, "OK." Fast forward.
It's four weeks into the workshop. Guys bring in work
about all sorts of topics. Some write only about prison, the routine, the waiting, the smell of their bunk bed. Some guys never write about prison. They write about their families,
about their neighborhoods, the curried goat at the corner store. Some write about their innocence,
some write about their guilt. But anytime someone reads,
everyone else is quiet. There's a guy in the workshop named Gabe. Gabe is Italian. His heritage comes up
all the time in his work, his roots are important to him. One time, after getting feedback,
he looks around, and he says, "You know, I've never taken advice
from a non Italian before (Laughter) it turns out you guys
are all pretty smart." I see it happens slowly: the walls between us start to crumble,
we are not strangers anymore. I see in week 5, when the guys start to sit next to people
they didn't know before the workshop. Or week 7, when they've got so much positive
feedback for each other, they've got to write it down because we don't have time
to get to all of it. Or week 9, when they start quoting
each other's poems. I'm still an outsider, still a naive kid working in a prison
with guys more than twice my age, but I appreciate the fact
that they share their community with me, let me be just who I am
even if for only a few hours a week. It's my first experience
being in a community of writers, knowing what it's like to have a group of people
that want to make you better. I learn what it feels like
to tear some soft part of yourself, give it to a group of people
to gently mold it, hand it back to you
better than they found it. It's a maximum security prison, the last place I'd ever thought
I'd learn to let my writing be vulnerable. Fast forward. It's week 11; not everyone in the workshop
has brought in poetry to share. Tim is the most thoughtful source
of feedback in the classroom, but hasn't brought in
any of his own poetry. I don't know whether to press him on it. In workshops like this, there's all kinds of reasons
guys don't bring in work, from learning disabilities
to reading and writing issues to fear of ridicule or even violence
outside the classroom. But at the end of the workshop
on the eleventh week, Tim asks if we can walk together. I tell him "Sure." But I realize, as soon as I say that, that the only walk from the workshop
to the exit is through the prison yard. Walking through the prison yard together
is a significant act. Our friendship in the safety
of the classroom is one thing, but in the public view of the prison yard,
it's a risk for both of us. For me, there's a danger of looking
overly friendly with the inmates, something that the guards don't like
and can even shut the workshop down over. For Tim, there's a risk
of looking like a suck-up, a reputation that can have
very real and damaging consequences in the social structure of the prison. But we are two workshop collaborators, trading ideas,
trying to make each other better, so we open the door and begin walking
across the prison yard, in step, slowly. And to my surprise, Tim asks me why I haven't brought
any of my own poems in yet. (Laughter) Maybe, maybe it was because I was
inexperienced as a facilitator, or maybe just a little lack
of self-confidence, but I didn't think anybody would notice. I tell him that I've been stuck. He tells me that he is too. So we make a pact to each other that the next week, we're going
to bring in a piece for each other, even if it's short, even if the other person
is the only person to see it. I remember the best piece
of writing advice I ever got, which is from my ninth grade
English teacher named Arly Parker. Mr. Parker said that when you sit down
to write the first draft to not be scared but to imagine
a head on your shoulder, the head of someone who thinks you are the greatest writer
since Shakespeare, and to imagine what they would say
as they are reading your writing. For me, that person is my mom. God bless her, I could draw
an ugly stick figure on a dirty napkin, and she would say,
"This is the next big thing." (Laughter) What Mr. Parker was teaching me to do was listen to that voice
in my head that says yes to all my crazy ideas, to all our risks. And then Mr. Parker said, "When you sit down to revise,
to write your second draft, you have to imagine
another head on your shoulder of someone you respect,
but who can give you critical feedback." For me, it was another English teacher
named Mr. Clemson. Mr. Clemson and I
had a great relationship, but he was tough on me. As I read through the piece,
I could hear him going, "This part doesn't make any sense." "What are you trying to say here?" "This line is not nearly
as funny as you think it is." And with that, Mr. Parker taught me
to take risks in my first draft and see which of those risks
actually paid off in the second. The following week,
at the beginning of the workshop, Tim slid me a piece of paper. I slid him one too. And the next week,
he slid me two pieces of paper. And the week after that,
he shared it out loud. And the week after that, so did I. Fast forward. It's the final week of the workshop. Everyone has brought in all the pieces
they worked on over the semester. I see a room full of smiling men, each with a small stack
of wrinkled paper in front of them. Tim's stack is a little higher than most. And we go around the room, trading poems,
pulling away our breastplates, letting the others peer in. And I realize,
halfway through the workshop, that for most of these poems, that will be the only time
they are shared aloud. And I realize also that, up to that point, I had only written poems to share, for people to say "Good job,"
for YouTube hits, for a room full of applauding hands. They were not writing for recognition,
they were writing for the sake of writing, to figure things out,
for the promise of self-discovery. Tim volunteers to read a poem. It's about paper, about how wonderful it is,
in a place like prison, to have a space where you can see
your own thoughts, hold them in your hand. We share poems about all sorts of things. There's a poem about
learning how to whistle, a poem about first kisses, a poem about the joys
of a good, long, well-timed fart. (Laughter) We share the dusty corners of ourselves, the parts no one asks about, the things that don't show up
on a police record or an artist bio. For that moment,
we are 17 men sharing poetry, not defined by our age or our past
but the four walls around us. Last year, I traveled
thousands of miles sharing poetry, but some of the most
talented artists I know rarely leave a prison cell. It's something I do not forget,
an unfair reality I carry with me. At the end of the last workshop,
Tim asks if we can walk together. I tell him "Sure." We open the door
and walk across the prison yard. Tim asks whether I will remember him.
I tell him "Of course." He says, "Well, kick some ass
out there. For us." And I tell him, "I will try." And with that, I wanted to end
with one last poem, a poem I started working on
when I was working in the prisons. Thank you all for being here,
thank you all for listening, it's been a real, real honor. "My mother taught me this trick, if you repeat something
over and over again, it loses its meaning. For example: homework, homework, homework, homework, homework,
homework, homework, homework, homework. See? Nothing. 'Our lives,' she said, 'are the same way.' If you watch the sunset too often,
it just becomes six pm. You make the same mistake over and over,
you'll stop calling it a mistake. If you just wake up, wake up, wake up,
wake up, wake up, wake up, one day you'll forget why. 'Nothing is forever, ' she said. My parents left each other
when I was seven years old. Before their last argument,
they sent me off to the neighbor's house, like some astronaut
kicked out of the shuttle. When I came back,
there was no gravity in our home. I imagined it as an accident. But when I left,
they whispered to each other, 'I love you.' So many times over
that they forgot what it meant. Family, family, family, family,
family, family, family. My mother taught me this trick. If you repeat something over
and over again, it loses its meaning. This became my favorite game. It made the sting of words evaporate. Separation, separation, separation. See? Nothing. Apart, apart, apart, apart. See? Nothing. I'm an injured handy man now. I work with words all day. Shut up. I know the irony. When I was young, I was taught that the trick to dominating language was breaking it down, convincing it that it was worthless. I love you, I love you, I love you,
I love you, I love you, I love you. See? Nothing. Soon after my parents' divorce,
I developed a stutter. Fate is a cruel and efficient tutor. There is no escape in stutter. You can feel the meaning of every word drag itself up your throat. S-s-s-ss-ss-separation. Stutter is a cage made of mirrors. Every 'What did you say?',
every 'Just take your time, ' every 'Come on, kid. Spit it out!' is a glaring reflection
of an existence you cannot escape. Every awful moment trips
over its own announcement again and again and again until it just hangs there
in the center of the room as if what you had to say
had no gravity at all. Mom, Dad, I'm not wasteful
of my words any more. Even now, after hundreds of hours
practicing away my stutter, I still feel the claw of meaning
in the bottom of my throat. Listen to me. I've heard that even in space you can hear the scratch
of an I-I-I-I-I-I-I love you." Thank you all very much. (Applause)

43 thoughts on “Poetry in maximum security prison: Phil Kaye at TEDxFoggyBottom

  1. this is by far the best TED talk I have listened to. This is one very talented young man. So engaging and mesmerizing!!!! Bravo!

  2. It was all just absolutely beautiful❤ Sarah & Phil can truly inspire anyone, at least very defintely me😍 I hope I write poems as beuatiful as these ones someday😘

  3. "Repetition " is my favourite poem so far ;waiting for the best ⏳⏳,cuz yeah Phil you can do it 👊

  4. I still remember the day when I was ushering as you and Sarah came to perform at The Sheen Center in NYC! GREAT JOB MAN!!

  5. Hi guys! I am doing a university project with Diego Astore an Italian writer. We want to publish a collection of his works. I need some support on the facebook page. Please like and share! https://www.facebook.com/dIEKE17/

  6. There seems to be a renewed interest in the spoken poetry in recent times,
    and of course in the U.S., it is very interesting,
    It has the popularity of stand up comedy and depth of poetry together.
    I like it.

  7. "some real talent the rarely came out of prison"…. Why don't u help them? Stack it on a book, sell em, and let us buy it…

  8. How does he know all this from memory?   I know a 5 line poem by Nicholas Rowe from memory, called 'The Brave' but I can't compete with this!

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