Where a poem comes from, where it goes, and—on a good day—what it may do…
My friend Johnny Stallings, who invited me into several Oregon prisons to share poetry, told me how, after the pandemic lock-down began, he had a phone call from an inmate, Rocky, who said “Johnny, we’re used to confinement on the inside, but you’re not. Are you okay?”
The imprisoned person on the inside is worried about the free person on the outside. This touched me.
So I wrote a poem from that story, in the voice of an inmate calling his mother, and sent it to Johnny, and he put the poem in his Open Road Foundation’s “peace, love, and happiness newsletter” that goes to many inmates, and to others. In response, Rocky wrote back, and Johnny passed on his message to me.
Inmate Calls Home
Mom, I been all night worried—
this virus thing, they say it gets everywhere.
So don’t go out, okay? Get food, sit tight.
Read. Just read. You like that. Make calls.
Not great, I know. You love those friends.
Nights, I hear you tell them things.
Mom, I been worried—cabin fever. Yeah,
on the inside we’re used to that. Lots of practice.
Time just turns like a silly dancer, you watch it.
But Mom, what you gonna do with all that time?
No visits, no go where you want, no bench
in that park you like.
Nights, Mom, no worry. No worry,
okay? Me, I’m good. I’m so good.
In response to “Inmate Calls Home,” Rocky wrote to Johnny:
I was flattered that after speaking of my concerns about all of you, Kim sent that poem.
In it, he really incapsulates with words the way we think and feel.
So, friends, in these difficult times, I say cherish the stories you hear. They help you understand what we are living now. And write the stories that touch you, and then send them forth, somehow. By this, you help the story that helped you help another. This is not a literary calling, but a human calling. While we suffer this together, you share “the way we think and feel.”
As my wise wife said, by writing you talk back to all the darkness with a little light.
Note: This poem appears in Singer Come from Afar, by Kim Stafford (Red Hen Press, 2021).