Prisoners become poets in Lansing
It’s a speed trap here,” cautioned Arlin Buyert. “You have to watch out, or you can get a ticket.”
To avoid breaking the law, Buyert slowed his white pickup truck to a 20-mph-crawl through a quiet residential area — a street well traveled by friends and families going to the Lansing Correctional Facility to visit incarcerated loved ones. The turn signal’s loud tick-tock punctuated the silence as Buyert turned the wheel to the left and directed the truck down a dark road toward the state prison. Stars suspended in the inky sky gradually disappeared as a cluster of bright lights instead illuminated the cold winter night.
Buyert, a 73-year-old soft-spoken Leawood poet, quick to flash a gentle smile, has a standing Thursday night date with a small group of men serving time. Members of his poetry class, an Arts in Prison program, have committed crimes with consequences that far outweigh a traffic ticket, but Buyert explained how the convicted use the written word to tap into self-expression behind bars, in a bleak environment that is by its nature minimalizing and demeaning.
“The class has evolved into much more than just writing poetry,” Buyert said. “It’s a place where men build self-esteem, support one another and listen. I stress with them to be honest. An honest poet is gut-wrenching.”
As the truck pulls into the parking lot by the complex of institutional-looking brick buildings, shiny waves of barbed wire surrounding the abandoned prison yard glint under the light’s harsh glare. Nodding his head toward the intimidating razor wire, Buyert acknowledge the power it has to physically trap humans, but its inability to corral the human spirit.
“The wire keeps inmates in, but it can’t keep their poetry from getting out into the world,” he said.
To prove a point, Buyert referred to one of two anthologies of poetry written by Lansing inmates that he edited. Titled “Open to the Sky, Volume Two,” the cover of the 37-page book features a picture of an expansive blue Kansas sky at sunset, framed by the menacing wire.
“That photo illustrates the very notion of captivity,” he said, heading toward the prison entrance, “but the big sky also leaves you with a sense of freedom. These prison poets are freeing themselves in many different ways with their words.”
Buyert, a former Navy pilot, flight instructor and self-avowed pacifist, began writing and publishing poetry when a therapist suggested it might provide healing following his wife’s death eight years ago.
“Dorothy and I were married for 42 years,” Buyert said. “It was a difficult experience.”
Spilling his emotions onto paper proved beneficial as Buyert grieved the loss. Kris Kvam, a longtime friend he married six years ago, also encouraged Buyert to explore the realm of prison ministry.
Arts in Prison Inc. is a nonprofit founded in 1995 by Elvera Voth, a local music educator. The organization’s inaugural program, the East Hill Singers, comprises a group of male inmates who sing alongside volunteer community members. Art, theater and writing classes followed the choir’s formation, and today Arts in Prison is a comprehensive arts program serving several locations, including Lansing Correctional Facility, the Osawatomie Correctional Center and the Topeka Correctional Facility.
Buyert began singing with the East Hills Singers; four years ago, he was approached about a vacancy in the Arts in Prison poetry program.
Buyert’s venture inside the Lansing Correctional Facility has progressed into more than simply working with incarcerated men 24 Thursday nights each year.
“It’s remarkable,” he said. “A remarkable, impactful, spiritual experience with these men. The class gives them an hour of light every week before they go back into the darkness.”
Making his way toward the minimum-security unit where the prison poets gather, Buyert’s tall, lanky frame clad in khaki pants stood out in stark contrast against drab blue prison-issue clothing worn by inmates milling around. Striding through the yard with an air of familiarity, Buyert admitted when he first started coming to the prison, he felt a sense of uneasiness.
“I wrote a poem about it, ‘Across the Yard,’ ” Buyert said. “As a visitor, all you walk in here with is your ID and nothing more. You’re under scrutiny. It took some getting used to.”
Buyert exchanged pleasantries with two poetry class members who joined him — JoAnna Ramsey, a transgender woman, and William Johnson, an older bearded man carrying a notebook. A guard unlocked the door to a small room outfitted with a semicircle of scarred tables and a dozen metal chairs. An overhead fluorescent light cast a yellow glow, and inmates filed in, laughing, hugging Buyert, chattering with one another.
Some, like 35-year-old Wise Hayes — incarcerated at Lansing for 19 years — were already seated, directing their attention to the podium where Buyert would stand for the next hour, guiding and encouraging them, studying well-known poets with them and fostering an open forum for discussion and criticism.
Avrin Chapman, at least a foot shorter than Buyert, gave him a quick pat on the back and found a chair next to Marc Showalter, an inmate shuffling through pieces of paper with handwritten poems neatly arranged in front of him. Buyert began promptly at 7 p.m.
“Good evening,” Buyert greeted the seven inmates. “Tonight we’ll read some poems, share original poems from last week’s assignment and review details for next week’s poetry reading.”
Despite the sparse, secured surroundings, the easy conversation and camaraderie could be mistaken for a college class until Buyert described what be the first-ever Arts in Prison public event to be held the next week at the Johnson County Central Resource Library in Overland Park.
“Mr. Hayes and Mr. Chapman, you’ll represent your colleagues next Tuesday,” said Buyert, who addresses the men formally by their last names out of respect — something often in short supply in prison, where inmates are usually identified by a number. “And four former inmates will be there, too, to read poems.”
It’s the first time that Arts in Prison poets would have a platform for their work outside Lansing’s thick walls. As part of the Thomas Zvi Wilson Reading Series, Hayes and Chapman — accompanied by the Lansing warden, Rex Pryor; Lansing executive officer Brett Peterson; and several guards — would join former inmates Adam Rhodes, Marty Robinson, Carl Misner and Johnny Duncan, who lives in Wichita and was released from Lansing just a month ago. Thirty-one poems would be read at the event, a collaboration between The Writers Place, based in Kansas City, and the Johnson County Library.
“We’ll do a dress rehearsal at the end of class,” Buyert promised, delving into poetry with the class.
Poems were read aloud from “Jail Time,” a collection by University of Kansas English professor Brian Daldorph, leader of a poetry class at the Douglas County jail in Lawrence. Daldorph’s poems reflect his experiences as a result of spending time with inmates held for trial, serving time for misdemeanors or awaiting transfer to prisons for felony convictions. He has joined Buyert’s class before as a guest speaker and will attend again in March.
Inmate Gino Wilson recited “the walls,” a poem by Daldorph, in a strong, confident voice:
this man I know
never got out of jail
even when they released him.
this man I know
didn’t want to get out
even when they released him.
he marked on the wall
each day in jail
and got sadder and sadder
as his time came to an end.
this man I know
carries his walls with him
wherever he goes.
this man I know
might be sitting in a car
or in a bar or on a park bench,
but he has his walls up
and if you get too close
you’ll run right into them.
this man I know
never gets out of jail
and sits all day, all night
inside his walls.
“Powerful poem,” Buyert said as the group paused to reflect on Daldorph’s work. “Anyone want to discuss it?”
“It’s not the place you’re at that confines you,” Wilson said. “It’s a battlefield of the mind.”
“There’s a fear of breaking away from prison,” Chapman said.
“It’s about the state of mind for a prisoner,” Hayes said. “You can get too used to being institutionalized and become psychologically bound.”
“Being on the outside of prison doesn’t necessarily mean you’re free,” Wilson jumped into the conversation again.
Buyert crossed his arms, intently watching, occasionally nodding his head, listening to his students’ reactions.
“At lunch today, a former inmate told me he got more respect inside the walls of Lansing than he does in Kansas City,” he said. “He’s having trouble adjusting to life outside the walls.”
Ramsey, scheduled for release this summer, paused from a crocheting project to voice concern about the unknowns outside her regular prison routine.
“I’m afraid how the world has changed,” she said. “In here, there is no variation. The consistency of change out there frightens me.”
“The unknown,” Buyert reassured, “is a human fear.”
Buyert asked Wilson to read another poem, “Mad Poet,” from Daldorph’s book. The inmates dropped their heads, concentrating on one of the poem’s last lines that Wilson took care to accentuate: “There ain’t no God, how could a God make me?”
“Will you read ‘Mad Poet’ one more time for us, Mr. Wilson?” Buyert asked.
Wilson read the poem again, slower:
When I ask him about his first wife,
he says she died a long time ago.
I ask him where she’s buried
and he taps his skull, “In my head.”
I ask him if he minds being in jail
and he says he likes the routine.
“You always know where you’re supposed to be.
No surprises.” He says some guards are OK.
They bring him motorcycle magazines
and listen to his poems about his life,
all of them signed, Mad Poet.
All his poems are about time:
“It’s all we’ve got here,” he says.
“Rich men got a little of it,
poor men got a lot.”
I ask him if he counts down days
and he snickers, “Towards what,
getting out or going to heaven?
There ain’t no God, how could a God make me?”
Asks if I’ll listen to his poetry.
Jacob Waldrup — whose five-line poem “Lessons,” about the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father, would be read by Daldorph at the library event — debated the poem’s meaning with Hayes: Is it about atheism?
“I like the format of the poem — that he’s asking the prisoner four questions,” Hayes said. “It leaves you at the end wondering if he believes in God or even if there is a God.”
“But he talks about heaven,” Waldorp countered. “He believes, but doesn’t believe he’s going there.”
The men agreed to disagree, and Buyert moved on, calling on Waldorp to read two of his new original poems, including one about how “freedom starts in the pen.”
Hayes liked the ambiguity of Waldorp’s words: Does “pen” refer to prison or the instrument used to write?
“Do you find freedom in your words?” Hayes queried Waldorp.
“A little ambiguity goes a long way,” Waldorp laughed, tapping his pen on the table for emphasis.
Showalter read a still-untitled, unedited poem he recently finished.
“A symphony of silence releases my fears,” he read, continuing with the line “deep freeze of life.”
Buyert commended Showalter’s metaphor and then invited other inmates to comment.
“It’s the first poem you’ve written that shows hope,” Wilson said, locking eyes with his fellow inmate. “That’s good.”
“I like how your poetry has evolved,” Ramsey said.
Johnson revealed that his motivation for joining the poetry class isn’t necessarily to write poetry, but to gather fodder, inspiration and different viewpoints for the short stories he crafts.
“I hope you don’t mind,” he said, looking around the table, “that I include some of you in what I write. I don’t name names, it’s kind of a composite of attitudes and personalities.”
“As long as you share that royalty money some day, man,” Hayes joked.
The hourlong class wrapped up with a dry-run reading by Hayes and Chapman in preparation for the next Tuesday night at the Over land Park library.
“Give the poem silent respect before reading it,” Buyert coached. “Make eye contact with the audience, speak slowly, loud and clear.”
Hayes and Chapman took turns reading their assigned poems. Chapman asked his classmates for feedback.
“Good eye contact and diction,” Waldorp said. “That’s why you guys are representing us.”
Class dismissed, the inmates hugged Buyert — who is unaware of what brought the men to prison — and shook his hand.
“Thanks, bro,” Chapman said, reaching up to embrace the tall, lanky frame.
The poetry program is an exercise that allows inmates to be part of a group that gives and receives criticism in a positive way, explained Leigh Lynch, who has served as Arts in Prison’s executive director for four years.
“They reach into their souls and do tough inner reflection,” Lynch said. “It’s therapeutic, putting their thoughts and feelings down on paper — a way to work out issues. The first time I sat in the class, I was immediately struck by the intellectual level of conversation and that the inmates were even politely disagreeing with one another.”
For many who go through Buyert’s twice-yearly 12-week poetry classes — some inmates have been with him since he started at Lansing — Lynch has observed an organic metamorphosis, a point at which participants realize they are more than the sum of their crimes and discover emotions that were locked up.
“Some men come away with a new realization of ‘this is who I am,’ and it’s different from what they thought,” she said. “It can be life-changing for inmates.”
Like Buyert, Lynch doesn’t know what crimes inmates have been charged with. Although it’s public record, she firmly believes it’s not relevant to Arts in Prison’s mission of inspiring positive change.
“It’s not about what did you do but who you are as a human being,” said Lynch, who sings with inmates as a member of the East Hills Singers. “Sometimes inmates’ poems hint about their past mistakes. But I never ask them. It doesn’t define them.”
Arts in Prison stays in contact with former inmates through the Mentoring 4 Success program, an initiative first envisioned by Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback. The volunteer program helps inmates released from the prison system transition back into society by pairing them with a former inmate.
“They get connected to people who care about them,” Lynch said. “It helps promote success outside the prison walls.”
According to Arts in Prison, the recidivism rate at Lansing is about 50 percent, but for inmates who enroll in one of the arts programs, it drops down to about 10 percent.
A 30-year employee at Lansing Correctional Facility, Peterson has witnessed firsthand the power of various Arts in Prison projects, including the East Hill Singers and poetry classes.
“These are guys who participate in lots of positive things at the prison,” he said. “They figure the more things they can do, the better off they are. Success is a collective thing. … Who knows what one activity causes somebody to have some realization that he has the ability to be successful in life?”
Peterson, who has attended nearly every East Hill Singers performance, said when the choir performs in public, there’s a palpable respect between the audiences and inmates.
“I see it every time the choir goes out into the community,” he said. “For the inmates, one of the most important things Arts in Prison does is give them an opportunity to do something many of them have never done before — be part of a team, count on each other, be treated well in the community and receive kindness. It gives participants an opportunity to see people in the world who are doing well and accepting of others.”
The Johnson County Central Resource Library’s community room was nearly empty at 5:35 p.m., 25 minutes before the poetry reading was slated to begin. Buyert paced the room as library staff finished assembling plastic chairs and refreshments — including a cake replicating the cover of “Open Sky.” Buyert’s two prison anthologies and other poetry books, which would be offered for sale, were displayed on a table.
“I’m a little nervous,” Buyert said, glancing around at the activity and rows of empty chairs. “I hope we get a good crowd.”
By 6 p.m., more than 200 people, including Arts in Prison supporters, volunteers, mentors, writers and the curious filled the space to standing room only. Buyert surveyed the room from the stage, flanked by four former Lansing inmates and Chapman and Hayes. He smiled before welcoming the audience and introduced Daldorph, who was standing at the back of the room, as the first reader. Daldorph shared Waldorp’s poem of abuse, “Lessons.”
big leather strap
crying, begging, pleading
hope the pain goes away quickly
Audience members wiped tears from their eyes, applauding Waldorp’s honesty and Daldorph’s delivery of a painful poem.
Buyert then invited Adam Rhodes, a former Lansing inmate, now a resident of Kansas City, Kan., and manager of an apartment complex, to the microphone. Rhodes launched into an autobiographical poem, “The Journey,” that paints a vivid picture about an openly gay inmate who endures jeers and unsolicited and unwanted advancements and judgment from other prisoners:
An open homosexual walks into prison.
Undaunted by the cat calls, he leisurely strolls to his cell.
He feels the hungry eyes of predators
burn upon his back as they stalk their prey.
He reaches out for companionship,
a friend to share his time.
Eager men line up to meet him
and he naively lets them in.
He thinks they’ll be his friend
they approach him …
People mock him from afar, snicker behind his back.
“He’s funny” they say.
“He’s got sugar in his tank.”
They cast their fears upon him
and he wears them proudly, defiantly,
like Joseph’s many-colored-dream coat.
Death knows no bounds, prison is no exception.
Mothers, fathers, grandparents — the reaper always wins.
He hears their voices screaming, howling in the night.
“You can’t be … you know it isn’t right.”
He works diligently to be accepted, acting out familiar stereotypes,
daily reminded that he’s a sissy.
His causes are not civil rights.
He listens to viewpoints he cannot grasp in hopes
Of creating tolerance, of changing at least one mind.
At the end of the reading, there was an audible collective gasp from spectators, followed by hearty applause. Rhodes then read poems by inmates not released for the event — pausing each time as the audience reacted to the sometimes angry, often bittersweet, always emotion-packed words.
Former inmates Robinson, Misner and Duncan took turns at the microphone, reading their poetry and the work of currently incarcerated Arts in Prison poets. People wiped their eyes as they listened to poems about a dead son, an abusive father, harrowing post-traumatic stress disorder following a tour in a war. Poison from old wounds and heartfelt, authentic remorse filled the room. Poets and the audience are vulnerable to the raw emotions and the brutal honesty of the words being shared.
Chapman and Hayes memorized their poems and cast unwavering gazes to audience members, many sitting in rapt attention. Hayes recited “O’PressIon.”
Sixteen-year-old boy in a prison made of stone,
a sentence of life, still, O’PressIon.
Silent in the darkness, no one to call on the phone,
and a heart filled with grief, still, O’PressIon.
Pain is hard to deal with, so much family gone,
never to return to life, still O’PressIon.
Stand above or below, walk together or alone,
let fear come and go, still O’PressIon.
The hourlong program concluded with Chapman, Buyert and Hayes doing a group reading of Buyert’s “Not to Worry” from “Open to the Sky, Volume Two,” a piece addressing the unexpected kinship and trust he has gained from inmates he teaches.
Teaching poetry at Lansing Prison
I started out as “Mr. Arlin.”
After several sessions
I progressed to “Arlin.”
Then one night,
Thunder in the hall:
you gonna pay.”
Thud, bump, groans, door slammed, running feet. Quickly I’m surrounded —
And something more:
“Don’t you worry one damn minute Bro.
Ain’t nothing happening in here
Over my dead body.”
With thanks for Psalm 91
“For He shall give his angels charge over thee,
to keep thee in all thy ways.”
As the audience offered a thundering standing ovation, the prisoners, mentors and teachers bowed and smiled and began autographing the poetry books that contain their personal revelations about life behind bars — and the hope that exists beyond the curly razor wire at Lansing Correctional Facility.
Buyert disappeared into the crowd, accepting accolades and praise for helping broken men cast off and ignored by society to find their voice — and the courage to use it.
For more information about Arts in Prison, visit artsinprison.org.