August 28, 2016
Sunday, 5:00 p.m.
Letter #450: The Power of a Poem
Before coming to prison, I didn’t enjoy writing very much. The tediousness of it discouraged me, and I never liked the look of a blank page staring back at me as I tried to figure out what to write first. If asked to help with a writing project, I would offer to help edit the project once it had started, saying I’d prefer not to create the initial content myself.
Eight years later and thousands of personal letters sent, I have a slightly different perspective. For one thing, my modes of communication are severely limited: phone calls and letters are the only means by which I can reach the outside world. For another, I just might have started to enjoy the writing process. Don’t get me wrong: the blank page is still daunting, but I’m getting used to the idea of writing needing to be an integral part of my life.
While in my twenties, I often wrote little songs to honor someone’s birthday or anniversary, or songs for a business or for a special event. I liked the joy it brought people, but I especially liked the challenge it gave me to have to create the original piece in a short amount of time. I’d often push myself to more extreme time challenges, including once when I wrote “Daylight Donuts” while in their bathroom and a Cracker Barrel jingle while waiting for dinner to arrive as a patron in their restaurant.
These tunes were usually meant to just entertain for a moment or bring a bit of joy to compliment a special event. Recently, my skills in songwriting have been put to even better use, as God has blessed me with some opportunities within my dorm to help guys speak encouraging words into their families.
It all started when one guy asked if I could think of something for him to say in a birthday greeting to his 20-year-old daughter. I asked about her and found out that she hadn’t written to him in a year and a half. I offered to write her a poem expressing how he felt toward her, and he was thrilled. Thirty minutes later, I gave him something that moved him to tears, and he carefully wrote it into a beautiful card for her.
A couple of weeks later, another guy (who would parole in just a month) wanted to send a card to his three children to encourage them. He just so happened to ask the first guy if he had any good poems he could copy and put into a card. The first guy said no, but that he knew a guy who could write one.
The second guy approached me and sheepishly asked me to please help him out with a nice poem for his kids. I immediately agreed, of course, and told him that no, he shouldn’t pay me.
Just as I used to do years ago, I found out as many details as possible about my subject matter and then sat down to write. The one major difference? I prayed before writing, asking God to use my words to bless the recipients as well as the man giving the poem. Just knowing that my words would be the words bringing hope and healing to some children who miss their dad brought a sense of how profound my little project really was.
I spent an hour on the poem, writing it out neatly for the very grateful dad, who had bared his heart to me about his hopes for his family relationships. Not five minutes after delivering it to him, I had his neighbor standing next to my bunk asking if I could help him with a big problem he had, answering two questions about love that his girlfriend had just asked him. I have never had a conversation with this latest guy, mind you, and now he’s coughing up personal information I never wanted to know, including the fact that he goes by “Big Daddy” and she goes by “Li’l Mama.” Yeah, thanks for that. I think I assumed correctly that he wouldn’t take it too well if I began calling him “Big Daddy” in the dorm, so I wisely refrained, though it’s difficult not to think it every time I see him.
Big Daddy’s poem was the longest I’ve written in quite a while; it took me just over an hour. Immediately after I dropped it off at his bunk, another guy sidled up to my bunk with a shocked look on his face. We’ve known each other for a few years and even performed together (he’s an electric guitarist) a few times, but he didn’t know I write lyrics. He raved about my latest poem and then said he’d like one for the girl in his life. This is outa control …
As my position in the music program here is now firmly established, I’m realizing how much of a need there is for original music, especially songs that speak specifically about certain topics. That way, when we are called upon to perform for, say, the Anger Management Class graduation or the Thinking for a Change Class graduation, the song we perform can fit the theme of that particular class. Different for me is that instead of writing a song on the day of the event, I’ll need to write it well ahead of time, in order to then also arrange the song and practice with the band prior to the performance.
Recently I got to perform one such original piece for the Pre-Release Class graduation, a song I called “Time.” A fast-paced song with a driving bass line and catchy melody, it was received well by the wardens and teaching staff, as well as the members of the small graduating class, who were impressed that a song had been written specifically for the occasion.
I enjoy music, and I’m grateful to God for letting me have meaningful music in my life through the church services and choir practices I play piano for five days a week. But even more enjoyable and far more meaningful to me is when my writing can bless a life, when my music can bring a message of love or hope. I didn’t expect to do this in prison, but can we truly anticipate what our great God wants to do?