Tackling the Classics

By Rachel Wicks

From what I understand, the vast majority, if not all, of the CLTL programs concern themselves mainly with using books as a mean of facilitating change. However, literature isn’t restricted merely to the pages that can be bound to the spine of a book.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, literature is defined as “written works that are considered to be very good and to have lasting importance”, yet nowhere in that definition does it state the requirement that the literature must come in the form of a novel. Sure, when people think of literature in general, the image that typically comes to mind is a book, but literature can be plays, poems, songs, and so much more.

Therefore, I wonder, should CLTL meetings occasionally branch away from the classic literary novels they usually teach from and aim to involve other forms of literature?

There are certainly plays that are well established within the current literary canon, such as The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, Lysistrata, or anything by Shakespeare, so delving into the discussion opportunities that these plays provide would still fall neatly alongside the CLTL’s usual modus operandi of “sticking to the classics”.

Also, considering the fact that what helps make the CLTL sessions and reading assignments so powerfully effective is that readers can relate to the characters in their fictional scenarios, the characters in plays are no less relatable or emotionally exposed than Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea, John Proctor in The Crucible, or Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities.

The same can even be said of the many examples of poems already within the standard literary canon. Although poetry can sometimes lack a main character and lean more towards description, poems are never without emotion, and connecting the reader to what they read is what allows for the CLTL to actually accomplish its mission, changing the lives of real people.

However, if the CLTL were to expand its reach into the current literary canon, this still brings up a deeply important, and often overlooked, question: Should the CLTL explore literature beyond the standard Western literary canon?

As Westerners, it is sometimes easy to forget that what we consider to be literary classics is essentially a list compiled and upheld by those with a strong preference and inclusion into Western society. However, looking back on the history of literature, much of what the world considers to the literary “firsts” are of Eastern origin. The first novel is considered to be The Tale of Genji, written by noblewomen Murasaki Skikibu in 11th century Japan, and two of the oldest poems in the world are Ramayana and Mahabharata, both of Indian origin.

Therefore, with so much of the Western canon already explored in most educational or literary circles, why not expand into the Eastern canon? It’s one thing to read the usual “great American novels” and gain an understanding of the ideologies that stem from those books, but diving into the Eastern canon can also help to expand one’s worldview. It can open one’s eyes to even more that this tiny planet provides while also emphasizing the idea that, despite differences found across oceans, perhaps there are some human fundamentals in literature that naturally create the emotive bonds that the CLTL encourages and depends upon.

Now doesn’t that sound like a way to change a life through literature?


Poetry as Treatment

Richard Gold founded and runs the Pongo Teen Writing Project, a writing therapy nonprofit that works with teens who are in jail, on the streets, or in other ways leading difficult lives. An award-winning, published poet himself, Richard has taught remedial English and run a writing therapy program he developed at Children’s Hospital in San Francisco. The Odd Puppet Odyssey, a collection of Richard’s own poetry, with illustrations by his wife Celeste Ericsson, was published by Black Heron Press in 2003.

Poetry can heal traumatized youth. It also creates a community of openness, connectedness, and strength, which helps treatment providers. In the Pongo model, poetry particularly serves teens who have a hard time expressing themselves. Here is a poem by Payton (pseudonym), a first-time writer in juvenile detention:

I am 15 and I am lost don’t know
what to do.  lost because I get no love.
lost because I messed up my life.
lost because my dad left for some
women.  lost because I got caught
up in gangs.  lost because I lost
real friends my family.  lost
because I screwed my life
up.  lost because I lost
respect and trust.  lost
because I am a kleptomaniac.
lost because I don’t show enough
love or respect to peers or elders.
lost because I am always in detention.
lost because I got nowhere to hide.
lost because I got no guardians.

This young man not only wrote with insight and feeling about his life, he was also excited and proud to write. He shared his writing with others, youth and adults in juvenile detention. He discovered a new skill and a new way to address life’s difficulties.

In this blog, I’d like to give the quick context of the Pongo Teen Writing Project, suggest benefits I’ve observed in 20 years of doing this work, and finally give some insight into the Pongo methodology and resources.

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SpeakOut! Writing Workshops: Meaningful Change Through Language and Story

Stephanie Train is part of a facilitation team that leads a creative writing workshop for incarcerated women at the Larimer County Detention Center in Fort Collins, Colorado.  Stephanie has been involved in the SpeakOut! program since spring 2008.  Every Wednesday night she looks forward to sharing her writing space with the detained women who courageously pour their souls onto the page.


Kayla Parry is an undergraduate English major who has been co-facilitating weekly writing workshops at a residential facility for at-risk youth since early 2009. She enjoys helping the young men and women disseminate their powerful and necessary words among the community.


Tobi Jacobi is an assistant professor in the English Department at Colorado State University and the director of the Community Literacy Center.  She has been working with incarcerated women writers and training SpeakOut workshop facilitators in an effort to situate literacy education as a tool for social change since 2000.


The SpeakOut! writing workshops were established in 2005 as a collaboration between the English Department at Colorado State University and local justice and recovery facilitates in Fort Collins, Colorado.  Each week, SpeakOut! workshop leaders facilitate ninety minute writing sessions with adult and youth writers at four sites and focus on introducing issues of writing identity, genre, style, and technique.  The workshops are run twice annually in twelve-week sessions that align approximately with the academic calendar and culminate with a celebration and the publication of the SpeakOut! Journal, a set of creative and expository writings that distributed to the writers and across the region.  In the reflection that follows, two SpeakOut! workshop facilitators reflect on our workshop structure, curriculum design, and the emergence of powerful stories of experience.

On Workshop Structure

Stephanie: Each Wednesday, we bring a loosely themed lesson plan into the workshop. Sometimes we focus on the craft of writing, utilizing prompts that help teach specific poetic/narrative forms.  Other times we will focus on a cultural or sociological theme such as body image, gender/cultural studies.  We usually like to warm up with free writing exercises; the writers turn off their internal editors and write uncensored for a set amount of time.  Then we move into the writing prompts.

We like to bring in examples of poetry and fiction to read in class to give the writers an idea of our theme/topic.  For example, we’ve used Joy Harjo’s poem, She Had Some Horses in the past.  We will then ask the writers to create their own poem that begins with “she had some _____.”

Kayla: It is most helpful to get the girls focused on group by beginning with a warm-up poem or two. I usually always try to pick something that I know will catch their attention and help them transition from their leisure time that precedes group. We like to focus on themes, and each one must be something that will interest a group of teenage girls. It’s something that sometimes proves difficult toward the end of their stressful days. A memorable theme that my co-facilitator brought was poems and writing on beauty, a concept that can be difficult to overcome socially and culturally for girls of their age. The conversation and writing from that day proved exceptional because they had much to think about and say on the issue. We also mold many of our prompts in poetry from other poems we read in group.

On Successful Prompts

Stephanie: One of the most successful prompts we have in the workshop is a “letter to my younger self.”  The writers have produced some amazing, powerful, intense writing.  Some write about regret and poor choices in the past, but many address their younger selves in a loving, nurturing manner.  “Love yourself,” “believe in yourself,” are common phrases found in the writer’s work.

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CLCM Monthly Reader: November

Once a month, we feature relevant news, articles, and links about issues concerning criminal justice, incarceration alternatives, and the influence of literature on our lives. Click on the red text to open the site in a new window.

Check out our links below and give us your take on one or more of the issues they address. Have you read or watched something (a book, newspaper article, website, news clip, etc.) interesting lately? Tell us about it in the comments section!

Justice Transition CoalitionSmart on Crime: Recommendations for the Next Administration and Congress

On November 6, the 2009 Justice Transition Coalition released its recommendations for the Obama administration and members of Congress. From their site: 

After the 2008 elections, America’s policymakers will take a fresh look at the criminal justice system, which so desperately needs their attention. To assist with that review, leaders and experts from all aspects of the criminal justice community spent months collaboratively identifying key issues and gathering policy advice into one comprehensive set of recommendations for the new administration and Congress. This catalogue is the fruit of those labors.

The report calls for reform in fifteen key justice-related areas. Take a look at their recommendations for expanding alternatives to incarceration in federal sentencing guidelines and suggestions for juvenile justice reform.  




photo by David Levene for The GuardianShafts of Sunlight

In this article from the November 15th edition of The Guardian, Jeanne Winterson talks about the consoling power of poetry as a T.S. Eliot festival opens in London 

From her article: 

[When] people say that poetry is merely a luxury for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read much at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is….Art lasts because it gives us a language for our inner reality, and that is not a private hieroglyph; it is a connection across time to all those others who have suffered and failed, found happiness, lost it, faced death, ruin, struggled, survived, known the night-hours of inconsolable pain.

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Youth Uprising’s Poetry and Prison Project

picture-1Youth Uprising‘s Poetry and Prison Project is a youth-led citizen journalism effort that uses poetry to speak about the effects of mass incarceration on young people in urban America. The project’s multimedia study, Poetry and Prison features videos of program participants reading their original poems and discussing how writing poetry impacts their lives. 

One of the program participants, poet and researcher Alberto Perez, is interested in exploring the interactions between poetry and prison. In this short clip (2:45) Perez discusses how writing poetry gives those impacted by incarceration a link with humanity and a positive vehicle for the emotions they experience.


Perez has also written about the intersections between prison and poetry. In his essay “Poetry: A Means for Prisoners to Maintain a Hold of their Humanity” (published in the Spring 2008 edition of The Berkeley McNair Research Journal), Perez explains that individuals who enter the prison system undergo a “hardening” process whereby they learn to withhold their emotions. Writing poetry gives these emotions a safe outlet. As Perez insists, “Convicts who write poetry find that it enables them to privately connect with feelings that they must openly negate.”

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