Poetry and Progress at a New York Probation Office

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The audience watches as Napoleon Felipe as he recites a poem

Roxanne L. Scott

The audience watches as Napoleon Felipe as he recites a poem Scott

NEW YORK — In a probation office waiting room in the South Bronx recently-discovered poets performed  to celebrate the second edition of Free Verse, a poetry journal consisting of the work of people from probation. The setting was fitting since the poets were first encouraged to write when they were sitting in probation office waiting rooms across the city.

The madcap black, red and white-covered journals, titled “Free Verse 2,” brightened the gray walls of the waiting area. The journal, which includes poems of young people discovered in the probation office, was designed by Carin Goldberg, whose work includes album cover designs for Madonna and book covers for Kurt Vonnegut. This edition of the journal contains 80 poems selected from more than 400 submissions.

In an often dull, bureaucratic place like a probation office, it’s difficult to imagine that poetry is an immediate need. But Poet-in-Residence and Editor-in-Chief of the journal, Dave Johnson, said he can’t think of something more urgent.

The second edition of the Free Verse poetry journal. Cover designed by Carin Goldberg, who has created album covers for Madonna

Roxanne L. Scott

The second edition of the Free Verse poetry journal. Cover designed by Carin Goldberg, who has created album covers for Madonna Scott

“I think of all art forms, poetry is the most democratic art form of them all because it doesn’t take any money,” Johnson said. “Anybody can use a pencil or his or her own voice. It allows the opportunity to give voice to a myriad of emotions and beyond that I think that’s empowering.”

Guinean immigrant Abu Tahiru Sillah, 24, has been with the program for a year. He has seen the publication of first and second editions of the journal. Sillah said Free Verse has helped him organize his thoughts. At first he didn’t see himself as a poet even though he wrote his thoughts on paper and in his phone.

“Now I stand as a great poet,” he said after completing his performance. “I’m proud.”

Johnson, who teaches poetry at the New School, drummed-up support for the program by coming to the probation office and handing out poems to people waiting to see their officers. The theme of the poems was, “What are you waiting for?” It wasn’t easy at first, he said. He remembers the sardonic reply from many of the men and women in the waiting room: “You know what I’m waiting for!”

Despite the skepticism he encountered, Johnson encouraged them to start writing their feelings. He promised that if they wrote a poem they would see it scroll on the 22 television screens in probation offices throughout the city.

Once the contributors saw their poem on the screens, the Free Verse events were born. Now, every Thursday, men and women attend workshops to write poetry and receive feedback on their work.

Tamara C. Williams, 34, who runs Music Beyond Measure at the center, said she came to support the poets who are also in her music program.

“It’s really exciting just seeing them in their element and them being able to translate that into music for my program,” she said.

The program also hires writing and poetry apprentices to edit the magazine. The apprentices take the material they learn on Thursdays and teach it to others in the waiting room as well as community members.

Though Free Verse contributors are mostly clients at the probation office, it also includes work from officers, security guards and professional writers. Cassandra O’Neal, singer and keyboardist with Prince’s New Power Generation was excited to be a part of the program and performed at the event.

Andrew DeLeonardis, 21 and one of the apprentices, has participated in the program for about six months. His probation officer referred him to the program after she saw him writing in a book. He was hesitant to continue after the first workshop, but enjoyed the positive feedback he got from his work. Gradually, he started getting more involved.

“Every Thursday [that] I do show up, I see more progress, more progress,” he said of his poetry. He’s prideful in encouraging others to attend and write poetry as well. “Even if it’s only a couple of words, as long as it comes from your heart, that’s all that matters,” he added.

Tahara Lilly, 33 and a mother of two, was referred to Free Verse by her GED teacher. Lilly wrote pieces in the classroom and her teacher would bring it to Johnson. Lilly didn’t think of it as poetry, but simply as writing her life story. She remembered one day she had an outburst in the classroom. Her teacher threw her a notebook and pen told her to write down her feelings.

Lilly complied, and she started to calm down, she said. She learned the process of healing through writing poetry.

“I learned to put my stuff on paper and other people can learn and heal from what I went through, as well as myself healing from what I went through,” she said.

Noel Cuadrado, 55, has been on probation for 10 years and goes to GED classes at the center. He said,since being a part of Free Verse, he now shares poetry with his children.

“I just make it part of their everyday lives,” he said. “Whenever they’re feeling a certain way I tell them to write it down. It’s a family event now.”

Cuadrado has five months left of probation. He hopes the commitment he’s shown to the program will translate to the next step of finding a job.

“If I don’t have a job there isn’t much change,” he said.

Johnson isn’t naïve in thinking poetry is the only thing that can save these men and women on probation. The next step for Free Verse is creating “chapbooks,” small collections of poetry. Each of the apprentices would publish their own book.

“We put them in business so they can go out and do readings and sell those books,” he said. “We’re creating books and a micro-business. We’re putting them to work.”

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2 thoughts on “Poetry and Progress at a New York Probation Office

  1. I was a Probation Officer for two years, thirty years ago. If there was one trait that dominated my many clients, it was lack of empowerment. They felt defeated, caught on a treadmill of futility. poetry comes from the self, your inner being, and no one can steal it, or invalidate it. When you Own that inner sense of self and succeed in expressing it so that others go, “Yeah! Right on!” you’ve made a huge step at joining the human race as a PARTICIPANT, rather than an annoying project that has to be “fixed”. That sense of Participation is Gold on the long trip to recovery. I’m going to forward thus wonderful information to Probation Officers ai know ere in BC, Canada. Thank you so much for printing it.

  2. Dear Editor:
    It was very nice of you to write about Free Verse. It took a long time getting recognition, but Free Verse would not be Free Verse without Vincent Schiraldi and Assistant Commisioner Sharon Goodwin and Design Director of Former Mayor Bloombergs office, Lonni Tanner. Without them their would be no Free Verse