Colorado Poets Center E-Words Issue #4

Poetry in Prisons: An Interview with Jim Ciletti

Hearing that poet Jim Ciletti of Colorado Springs was working with prisoners, the CPC wanted to find out more. This is an e-mail interview with Jim.

King: What do you “do” in a workshop with prisoners?
Ciletti: I use the battery cables of various prompts to make the sparks fly and help them jump-start their writing. I hand out pages of poems that I think they can relate to, and also show examples of Jim Cilettihow the line, images, senses, metaphor, typography, voice, etc. work in a poem. Then I give them time to write, and then read some of these first drafts out loud. We all make suggestions and I use this time to “teach” a little, say the difference between prose that explains, like a recipe, and a poem’s image that lets you taste the cherry pie.

King: Is there a set schedule of a few days, weeks, months? How many are involved at any one time?
Ciletti: We usually have 12-15 men, pretty much the same men each week. We meet man to man, writer to writer, with no discussion of crime, what the person is doing time for, etc. I have no idea and want no knowledge of what they are incarcerated for. My only goal is to help them find and express their unique voice and talents through creative writing.

King: How long have you been doing this and with whom?
Ciletti: I drove to Walsenburg every Thursday for three years until I had a shoulder operation that prevented my driving for that length of time. Now, after recuperating, on Thursdays, I go to the Fremont Facility, a medium security facility, in Canon City.

King: What are the differences between such a workshop and a college or high school course?
Ciletti: The differences are mainly regarding content. I wouldn’t talk about, say, marital relationships, intimacy, etc. with high school students, but we openly discuss this with the men. Basic language exercises are the same, but the way I explain things may be a bit different – some men have not graduated high school and some have graduated college. The men are really hungry to learn practically beg for a dictionary of their own. The men have a lot more experience to write about, so “man to man” there’s a lot more we can talk about, write about.

King: What are the rewards of such effort? What attracts you to this work?
Ciletti: The biggest reward, and what attracts me to this work, is that I can see the progress and growth in my fellow human beings, fellow writers. When you see a grown man stand up, not open his mouth for two to three minutes, see his throat all choked, and then finally read his work, and then he tells you this is the first time he’s ever read before anyone, or found words for what he feels – well, that’s almost a sacred experience to be a part of and a catalyst for.
Furthermore, language is ultimately the basis for good choices, a logic. These men are in prison because they failed to make good choices, failed to follow a logic of success, failed, some of them, to even have enough words to create a value-logic of good and bad and then choose the good. They’ve already proven that education during incarceration is a key ingredient to men not coming back to prison. The emotional education they grow through in struggling to create poems and stories – well, that is just as important as or even more important than the 2 plus 2 education.

King: What’s the goal, yours or theirs?
Ciletti: My goal? Help them to find their voice and grow in their humanity, their writing talents. Of course, exposing them to the joy and beauty of poetry, language, literature. Their goal: To find their voice, participate in something meaningful in a very difficult place in their lives.