MSUToday
Published: Feb. 7, 2019

Students connect with the incarcerated in poetry course

By: Kara Dempsey dempse47@msu.eduContact(s): Morris Arvoy RCAH office: (517) 355-0211 arvoymor@msu.edu

Going to prison is not usually what you think of when college coursework comes to mind. But it’s exactly what a group of students in Michigan State University’s Residential College in the Arts and Humanities, or RCAH, have done. 

Guillermo Delgado, academic specialist in community and socially engaged arts in RCAH, leads a course that goes beyond the conventional poetry lesson. Delgado and RCAH students venture to local prisons, such as the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility and the Michigan Reformatory in Ionia, once a week to speak face to face with inmates.

Delgado explained the importance of the face-to-face experience with no technology interruptions.

“You can’t be stuck in your head in in this class,” he said. ”Mass incarceration, and the stories and conversations with the folks it impacts the most, requires that we pay attention. Flexing this muscle can create the potential for an awakening for everyone in the class.There are no phones or screens to get distracted by… no looking it up on Google to save you. It’s just what you bring to the table - the conversations with others and simple writing and art materials.”

The creative outlet for the incarcerated has had a tremendous impact on their lives, as well. Delgado said inmates will tell him the experience has made them feel human again. 

“Students learn that art matters and that it can be a powerful tool to ignite change in broken systems and one’s own life,” Delgado said. "I’m not saying art will save you, but as humans, we need hope to survive and excel. Art is hope. And hope allows us to imagine something better for our world.” 

One of Delgado’s students, senior Cecilia Galvan, has been interested in the course since she first arrived at MSU.

“You can't have strong preconceived notions about what type of people are in prison and that they all behave the same way,” she said. “I think T.V. and media really distort some information regarding behavior in prison facilities, and while some of the stories are true, there are inmates who are not like the described representations.”

Senior Arzelia Williams even explained that while they were learning from the inmates, the inmates were also learning from them.

“One of my most interesting stories (from the course) is hearing how someone finds out that they are a poet or what poetry is,” Williams said. “We had a guy in one of the classes that read the Quran. In his opinion, he wasn't a poet and the poems provided just wasn't something to grasp his attention.

“We talked to him a bit about the connection of poetry and religion to the culture and introduced him to a poetry form known as ‘Erasure’ that was eventually the style that he used to perform at the first poetry slam.”

The RCAH LookOut! Art Gallery will be hosting ”Rituals to Seed Clouds with Crystals“ from Feb. 25 to March 15, featuring work by Delgado and poetry and art by the incarcerated adult and youth with whom the RCAH course partners.