I park the car and take a deep breath, trying to expel the crazy levels of anxiety building in my chest. I’m outside a medium-security level women’s prison in Oklahoma, about to go to my very first in-person Poetic Justice class. I’ve been working with Poetic Justice for a little more than a year now during the pandemic – learning the ins and outs of over-incarceration, writing letters and poems to people locked down inside women’s prisons, and making friends along the way – but this will be the first time that I get to see the real magic of the work Poetic Justice does: the poetry classes. But first, I have to steel myself through the looming, silver barbed wire fences and swallow the sudden feeling of being very, very small.
Somehow, I make it in through the doors, get processed and patted down, and sit down to wait for the other volunteers. After about 15 minutes or so they come in – some I know, and some I don’t. The waiting room instantly changes after they walk in. The volunteers make eye contact with and even greet by name the nearby group of women in orange, striking up an easy conversation.
We’re late so we book it to the chapel – friends wave and greet us from the moment we step onto the yard to all the way inside the classrooms. We squeeze both the classes into one of the little rooms – it’s graduation night after all. Tables are broken down and put away to make room for everyone in our group circle. We take a couple of moments to debrief about all the chaos happening on the inside, about the things that set our hearts and souls on fire, about what drives us up the wall, and what gives us hope for the future.
Then the final projects start. One after another, poet warriors present these gorgeous, thoughtful, and bold pieces of art that they have poured their souls into. Pieces that incorporate both poetry and visual art, hard truths and storytelling, vulnerability and bravery. Someone has made an art piece out of disposable masks, and someone else has made pairs of hand-crafted earrings.
“This is for you, for us.”
At some point, Jax, Ash, and Sonia get up. As Sonia gets settled at the small keyboard in the corner and Ash straightens out their lyric sheet, Jax explains that she wanted to bring the other two in to sing what has been an incredibly important song to her and that they’ve tweaked it a little bit in what she hopes will be an anthem for the class going forward. “This is for you, for us,” she says.
There’s a soft, weighted pause as they look at one another, steadying themselves. Sonia puts her fingers to the keys, takes a deep breath, and begins to play. The beat is soft and constant, a repeated metronome slowly beginning to fill the room. Jax closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, and begins to sing:
“And I may have to die for this I fear…There’s rage and terror and there’s sickness here…”
My jaw drops – Jax’s voice has a power and a groundedness to it that makes all other noises outside the classroom disappear. The entire room is captivated, breathless as she makes it through the first chorus.
“This is our rally cry…I know it’s hard, we have to try….”
Ash brings in the second verse, their voice taking flight with the key change and carrying beyond the chapel walls. There’s a shake of emotion in their voice that steadies and evolves into a vibrato, a willingness to be vulnerable in this moment adding additional power to the words that they sing.
“There’s not enough rope to tie us down…There’s not enough tape to shut these mouths…”
Jax and Sonia jump back in at the second chorus, Sonia’s voice completing a three-part harmony. When the bridge comes, they take turns singing verses.
Jax sings: “You beat me, betray me.” Ash sings: “You’re losing, we’re winning.” Ash and Sonia’s voices merge to sing “My spirit above me,” and Jax jumps in for “You cannot deny me.”
The music swells, and their voices ring out in a triad of undeniable truth. My throat tightens and my eyes overflow with tears, as much of the other room does the same, moved beyond words at the realness of the situation these warriors find themselves in, and the resilience that they sing from.
“We’ll never surrender…There’s nothing, but victory.”
The room fills with the sheer power of their voices on the third chorus. Ash soars into a higher octave, Sonia brings the piano into a crescendo, and the base of Jax’s voices continues to ring out, anchoring it all together. Soon all of us in the room begin to sing with them, caught up in the magic of the moment, held together by the promise that the singers are making to themselves and to the others in the room. My voice is raw with emotion – wonder, awe, heartbreak, love, and hope – as I join in with the final chorus.
Wild Hearts can’t be broken…
“There’s not enough rope to tie us down. There’s not enough tape to shut these mouths. The stones you throw can make us bleed. But we won’t stop until we’re free. Wild hearts can’t be broken. No, Wild Hearts can’t be broken.”
The tempo begins to slow as the song begins to wind down, our hearts heavy with love and wiping tears from our eyes. As she plays the last few notes of the song, Sonia sings the last line of the song, softly and sweetly – like a whisper that carries across the room.
“This wild heart can’t be broken.”
The ending chord echoes, and there’s a breathless moment of silence. Then the room erupts in cheers and into a standing ovation from those who are able to. Over the next couple of classes, we have an opportunity to give the song the spotlight it deserves with microphones, a real stage, and a bass guitar part – courtesy of Zhayn, who learned how to play bass specifically for this performance. The three or four runs it takes to get it perfect are just as powerful, even interspersed with laughter and jokes.
I knew I had witnessed something magical, something powerful. Something I wanted to uplift and be a part of. I hope as I continue to volunteer and learn and grow, I can help make more of those moments (and the space to have those moments) possible.
By Cass Meador