The evening that I attended the poetry reading for the Prisoner’s Poetry class was the first time I had ever been inside a prison. I was so excited to hear first-hand from these passionate people. At first, I was nervous to go in front of all these folks and speak, but the student who volunteered first was so confident and entertaining, that I instantly became comfortable. It was a chance in a lifetime to be able to engage with strangers and share a love for words. The beauty of it was that the only thing that had connected us was this passion for language; otherwise I wouldn’t have gained such meaningful insight.
Professor Uggen received his M.A. in Spanish and his Ph.D. in Inter-American Affairs from the University of Miami. At his time in Willamette University, he has led a trip to Ecuador so students can both explore the culture and learn more about the Spanish language. You can tell his fighting spirit is something that he build before his academic ventures. He was a boxer before becoming a professor and taught boxing classes in the Oregon State Penitentiary. From the Prisoner’s Poetry team and our students, we thank you for donating some of your books.
Welcome to Prisoner’s Poetry! As the Co-Founder I am honored and delighted to share my experiences in and outside of the prison.
I’ve been teaching at the Oregon State Penitentiary for six months now and a lot has happened since Rei and I first thought up this idea after a poetry class we had together last spring. We’ve had to get clearances, write proposals, lesson plans and syllabi. Early on we stopped keeping
track of the time spent on Prisoner’s Poetry because it would have been too much of a chore. Our reward is measured in poems, engaging conversations, and when a student uses vocabulary that we taught them to discuss a poetic form they learned in our class. It has been an amazing journey so far, and there’s more to go.
What started out with two people and dream to make a small difference in the lives of the prison community has grown to include six committed and beautiful people. Our team is a small slice of the Willamette community, but even so, our hearts and aspirations are large. We are dedicated
and passionate about poetry, self-expression and social justice. We take pride in our work and strive to spread the influence of Prisoner’s Poetry throughout Oregon and the United States. Our hope is that the work Prisoner’s Poetry does will not only offer a form of rehabilitation and self
expression for the prison community, but also strengthen the ties between the greater community and the incarcerated.
Thursday night was our first night teaching after a three week hiatus. There had been a small breach of protocol on behalf of one of the inmates and we had not been let in. Rei and I were becoming anxious and ready to get back to our class. It’s crazy how much I missed going through that metal detector, those triple locked doors, and teaching our students the basics of poetry.
It was great to see the guys again and greet them all by hand. They are always so enthusiastic and so grateful. But I hope they understood that I am learning more from them then they ever can from Rei or I by myself. My favorite time is when we workshop each other’s poetry, because that’s when we get to hear what inspired their work, and offer suggestions on how to make it better. I am often struck
by the humanity and honesty found within their writing. I am always conscious of that fact that had I been born into a different family or in a different neighborhood I could be sitting in their same spots. When class is over and it’s time to leave I always feel exhausted, but I can rest easy knowing that I’ve done my best to try and make a small difference in the lives of these men.
Rei and I exited into the dark evening, discussing what went well and what needs work. Our steps echoed on the penitentiary sidewalk, I looked up and saw the stars, picked out Orion’s Belt, and felt my spirits lift. I can’t wait to go back next week.
“The first step toward change is awareness”-Nathaniel Branden