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Bringing Poetry to Prisons

It’s rare, if not completely unheard of, to hear a recent college graduate speak about the social responsibility that compels him to reach the community at-large as well as the individual spirit.

And quite possibly, it’s even more unique to hear this from a young poet, one who holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from the Wharton School of Business coupled with a bachelor’s degree in Urban Studies from the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.

And so, I introduce you to a good friend of mine, Cortney Charleston, a man who embodies a beautiful truth: philanthropic and volunteer work should not be solely reserved for more glamorous and older generations.

I asked Cortney to detail his personal artistic journey that brought him to this understanding, and how his two years of service spent hosting poetry workshops at the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center (PICC) have affected him and can indirectly, I hope, change our own personal beliefs about service.

Victoria: From looking at your educational background, it’s interesting that during your college career you became a poet. Could you explain that journey and how you came to pursue poetry?

Cortney: I suppose having a business degree and an interest in poetry would surprise most people (not to mention the fact I did not take an English course during my entire tenure at Penn), but for me, it was a very natural progression.

During my Freshman Year, I was going through a tumultuous time. I was struggling to find my niche on campus, I was lonely, romantically frustrated, and my family life began to deteriorate. My grades dipped and my extracurricular involvements were not giving me the escape I needed. I needed a way to work through my trials.

Poetry was not initially a consideration. I happened upon it by chance. A friend of mine was visiting Penn in the spring semester, trying to decide between coming there or going to Stanford. I decided to show him around and take him to [see a spoken word performance on campus by] the Excelano Project. I had not seen the group at that time; I had only heard rumblings around campus. Quite frankly, I walked in there and was blown away. It was at that moment I thought poetry might be the outlet I needed.

I started writing at the close of the school year, and found that words came together more easily than I anticipated. A year later, I was a member of the Excelano Project working alongside the people who inspired me to write. Crazy.

Victoria: How did you get involved with the Youth & Self-empowerment Project (YASP)?

Cortney: I got involved with YASP during my junior year, making visits with [the president of the Excelano Project]. When I joined Excelano, a few members were already engaged in these prison poetry workshops. I wanted to get involved because I had always loved being able to participate in any type of community service, especially when I realized many of the students incarcerated likely resembled me. Even being there would be a chance to model an alternative lifestyle for them in the event they were released. It turned out to be a remarkably fulfilling experience for me to carry through my last two years of college.

Victoria: Can you detail a typical day volunteering with YASP?

Cortney: YASP workshops occur weekly on Saturdays. Usually, I make one to two visits a month; other volunteers led workshops on the remaining days (some poets, some musicians, or other artists). In the two days before the workshop, I would get together a lesson plan. I would try to frame it around a thematic discussion or use of a poetic or literary technique. Either provided a chance to structure writing time in the workshop.

In the morning, I would wake up and make sure I have all my materials. A YASP staff member would swing by to pick me up from campus around 11:30. We’d get to PICC around 12:00, sign in, check our belongings and head into the facility to see the guys.

I’d open with an introduction of the topic, and try to get a discussion going. Trying to get the guys to participate is a struggle sometimes, but it’s a good rule of thumb to encourage it at all times. This part of the workshop could last from 15 minutes to 40, depending on how interested everyone was. I just had to feel the pulse of the room. After that, I would introduce the writing exercise, which would relate to the theme or technique discussed.

I’d leave time for writing, and stop the writing time with 10–15 minutes to spare in the workshop so that everyone can share what they wrote. I also did the exercises. During that time, music is playing on [an] iPod, and the guys often chat and tease one another. It’s a good time to really get to know them because that’s when their personalities start to come out.

Once we finish up, they head back to their cells, and [we] pack up to go to Riverside Correctional Facility, provided there are female juveniles there. Those workshops are always smaller, so I try to adapt the plan done with the guys at PICC to suit them, whether it be the content of poems I bring in as illustrative examples, or changing the method used to encourage participation so it works with a smaller number of people.

Victoria: Why do you feel like these types of artistic partnerships are important?

Cortney: It relates to my philosophical beliefs regarding art. It plays a significant purpose in human existence, and it has for thousands upon thousands of years. It provides catharsis and needed commentary on what it means to live.

I believe that artists have a social responsibility to discuss the various challenges that we face because of our humanity, if only to encourage people to reflect on them, and possibly take action to correct them. This can be on an individual level or societal level. Because of that, I feel YASP does a great deed by bringing poetry into the prisons. It’s primarily an advocacy organization against the incarceration of juveniles in adult facilities in Pennsylvania, but it recognizes the arts to be a powerful mode of self-expression, and a vehicle of progress.

Victoria: How has this experience shaped you personally and your work?

Cortney: Honestly, it has just given me a sense of fulfillment. I am happy when I feel I am doing something to help other people, and this definitely delivered on that promise. It has influenced my work by inviting additional discussions of race into my pieces, and it has made me more willing to tackle controversial issues through verse.

On a personal level, it has made me cherish my life that much more, and to appreciate that I have taken advantage of the opportunities that were afforded to me. It also has made me be more diligent in defending those who did not have the same opportunities, and therefore, may be forced into actions that are frowned upon.

We are all flawed as people, so I’m not going to label these people as bad simply for committing a crime. The world isn’t black and white.

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