Volume 28, Number 4, Winter 2006

Showtime at Racine Correctional Institution Library

By Wendy Cramer, Librarian, and Sandy Rieckhoff, Teacher Assistant, Racine Correctional Institution (RCI)

Looking out the window, you could see a steady sea of green moving in fast-frame animation toward the Education Building. As the sea came closer, you made out individual men, some with heads down, some talking animatedly, some strolling, some arms pumping, legs jumping in eagerness to reach their destination ... a poetry slam.

Already waiting in the Racine Correctional Library were a band of four musicians, strumming guitars, singing softly, all instruments going in solo practice that joined in a discordant harmony that should have been a song all its own. White lights draped the bookshelves, softening the room, bringing down the high ceiling, transforming the area marked with stage and seating into a relaxed, inviting theater. Twelve men were at the front of the staging area, some seated in chairs, contemplative and focused, others pacing, trying to burn off the excited energy, the nerves, the fear. Two staff members stood at the door, braced for the flood of men headed their way. Other staff members milled about, checking last minute details, greeting the crowd.

And then it was show time.

The musicians pulled together in a mellow, jazz fusion style as a hundred men reached the library door, waited patiently as one would at an exclusive club, while two women, dressed in black, checked for the name on “the list.” No name, no entry ï¿Ã‚½a sigh of relief as the name is found, then it’s into the inner sanctum. Programs in hand, the men take seats or stand in small groups, anticipating what is about to come.

And finally she appears. A tall, attractive woman with a commanding presence, and what she calls in one of her own poems “flying hair and caramel colored skin,” steps to the microphone and kicks off RCI’s first ever Poetry Slam. The applause is deafening in the small room; even the open windows do nothing to release the noise. With one quick gesture, Dasha Kelly, Milwaukee author/poet/business owner silences the crowd and lays down the ground rules for the poetry slam, a spoken word competition. Poetry slams are happening all over the world, and now, here it is, at RCI.

Then one by one, the twelve men take to the stage, some needing to reach deep inside for all the courage they can muster to be able to speak in front of the crowd, others looking like they live for the performance and the attention. Most have memorized their poems; all perform from the heart. Scores from five judges selected at random from the audience are greeted with mixed results, some are booed, others cheered, but the poet is always applauded and given respect. “It ain’t easy puttin’ yourself out there like that” one of the audience is heard to say. “Give it up for him, man, he’s keepin’ it real!”

And keep it real they did. At the end of the night, certificates were awarded to all of the men who had participated in an earlier workshop, special first, second and third place certificates with accolades were presented to the men with the top three scores. Then there were sighs of relief that it was over, questions about doing it again, congratulations to the men who were part of it, music in the background and ice cream cones in everyone’s hands. As the men reluctantly left the fantasy coffee shop and headed back to the unit, the staff dropped into chairs, exhausted, taking a minute’s breather before tackling the job of securing the place. Dasha Kelly sat at the officer’s station, signing programs for the men as they exited, congratulating them on being a part of the evening, and encouraging them to continue to work on their craft or support those who perform.

The twelve performers and eighteen others had participated in a workshop earlier that Tuesday, an adventure of creative exercises peppered with advice from Dasha Kelly, an expert in her craft. To conclude the workshop, all of the men performed while judges whittled the group down to those last twelve standing, the poets who would compete before the crowd. Those twelve men now comprise the “Scribe’s Circle,” whose charge is to host an open microphone venue for inmates poets on a monthly basis. Dasha Kelly, committed to the possibilities opened up by this first Poetry Slam, assured the men that she would provide a nationally touring poet for each of the monthly events.

At the end of the night, the men at RCI went back to their cells still swaying to the music, holding on to visions of twinkling white lights, reliving lines from poems about love, life, wrong choices, memories of childhood and mom. And the twelve performers walked back, heads propped up high with their newfound confidence, pride in accomplishment, commitment to a cause, and common bond.

If your institution is interested to doing something similar, please contact Wendy Cramer for more information.

A special thanks to the powers that be at RCI for making this event a reality and to Dasha Kelly for the many hours of work she put in to give the participants their fifteen minutes of positive fame! The “slam” was held as a fund-raiser for Victim’s Rights Week and all donations from the event are earmarked for the Women’s Resource Center in Racine.