The youngest inmates of Rikers Island have plenty to worry about: their pending court cases, resolving their charges, when they might reunite with their families. More immediately, they worry that the guards will spontaneously search their bodies and cells.
Yet on a recent morning, Jackie Sheeler, who leads poetry writing workshops at one of the jail’s four schools, encouraged the young men there to worry about other things, like putting their thoughts into verse.
“I know you had a lockdown this morning and you’re in jail, not to mention you’re in summer school,” she told the 14 students in her class at Horizon Academy, a high school at the jail for inmates ages 16 to 21.
Lamenting how hard things can sometimes be, she added that “some of my best writing has come from the worst times of my life.”
Ms. Sheeler, 48, a dark-haired woman with black tattoos resembling vines snaking up her arms, was invited to teach at the jail by Marty Flaster, an English teacher at Horizon who had seen her appear at a poetry reading series she moderates at the Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village.
He wanted to pay her for her time, she said. But knowing Horizon had a shoestring budget, and a dearth of visiting artists, Ms. Sheeler suggested that she be named “poet laureate of Rikers Island” as her reward.
“The idea kind of came to me out of the blue,” said Ms. Sheeler, whose latest collection of verse, “The Memory Factory” (Buttonwood Press), was published in 2002.
With no one else clamoring to be chief poet of the city’s largest jail complex, the Department of Correction had little reason to object, although a spokesman pointed out that the position was not an official one. Ms. Sheeler was named to the post at the Horizon graduation ceremony in late June. Within days, she had updated shoutedword.com, her Web site, to take note of her new title.
“She really gets to them,” Gloria Ortiz, the Horizon principal, said of Ms. Sheeler’s students. “It’s not above their heads. She touches on issues that affect them and she makes writing fun, which it’s what it’s supposed to be.”
Ms. Sheeler said that poetry and writing in her youth helped lift her above poverty and drug use. Growing up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, she said, she had an “abusive” and “racist” father who kept her mother’s Puerto Rican heritage a secret.
“I’d sit in the windowsill in my room and cry and write these pathetic little couplets,” Ms. Sheeler said. “I would go to the page to figure out how I felt.”
Between smoking marijuana and drinking beer in a nearby park, she found time to attend English classes at Lafayette High School. She said a beating by her father, provoked by her kissing a black man, was a “real turning point for me in terms of wildness.”
She began having sex, using harder drugs and exploring Greenwich Village. At 16, she discovered Poez, a street performer in Washington Square, and Sylvia Plath.
“Between Poez and Sylvia Plath, who I really didn’t understand because of the density of her language, poetry wasn’t just writing poems, there was this whole other wild place you could go with it,” Ms. Sheeler said.
She lived in several communes before she met a man, a heroin addict who had been imprisoned for burglary. Although “heroin was supposed to be off limits” when they decided to be married, “once we took that limit off the table, it was off to the races,” Ms. Sheeler said.
“I went down further and faster than I had ever done before.”
In “Witnessless,” published in “The Memory Factory,” Ms. Sheeler described her courthouse wedding in October 1987 as “blurry with methadone and bad coke.” The couple lost their apartment and panhandled to support their addiction, she said. In July 1989, her husband disappeared. By the end of the month, she had entered drug rehabilitation, and the couple divorced three years later. Her former husband committed suicide in 1995, she said.
Upon her release from rehab, Ms. Sheeler threw herself into the arts. In addition to writing her collection of poetry, she has edited “Off the Cuffs: Poetry by and About Police,” which was published in 2003 by Soft Skull Press in Brooklyn. She is also the lyricist for the Manhattan rock band Talk Engine and maintains a regional poetry calendar at poetz.com.
On the recent morning at Rikers, Ms. Sheeler entered a series of checkpoints and was escorted into a classroom, where her students trickled in after the lockdown. She began class by explaining poetry’s relationship to hip-hop and cracking jokes on the “dead old white men from England” who were poetry’s primary audience 300 years ago. The young men were energized.
“The best poetry is jail poetry,” one of the students remarked. “Because that’s where you let out all your feelings.”
“I think the best poetry comes from pain,” she replied.
Like many of the students, Anthony Ayala, 20, used a free-writing exercise to delve into the gloom of incarceration.
Give me light
Life is light, but
Will I be able to see it
If I got released from prison
Then my light will be a given.
“When in rehab, or when in prison,” Ms. Sheeler said, “and you’re with people who basically have nothing, if you can bring that gift in self-confidence, that ‘aha’ — that’s what it’s all about to me.”
Ms. Sheeler, talking about her workshops, added: “In all the groups, there’s this inherent human fear of the blank page. This is about self-expression, and helping the students past those type of barriers. Helping them to understand that punctuation and spelling are not necessarily about good writing, but getting some good images on paper, getting the words out there.”