Three rounds. Three potential chances to be heard, to communicate through poetry their hopes and imperfections, their struggles and journey toward mental freedom.
A literary rampage, as inmate Shaheed Khaleel Hamza called it, to reverse the stereotypes and misrepresentation.
The first-ever poetry slam at the Lincoln Correctional Center, for people inside and outside, was Wednesday, and five judges elevated two of the dozen participants — both from the inside — to the top of the writing and performance pyramid.
The room was not tight and dimly lit and wrapped close around the writers, like you might expect for a poetry reading. It was, rather, a prison gym, high-ceilinged and bright, with a backdrop of athletic images and exercise equipment. No one seemed to mind the venue. They were energized by the opportunity.
Slam poetry started in Chicago in the 1980s with teachers, young people, construction workers, nerds, jocks.
For the correctional center, the rules were as follows: Poems could be on any subject, in any style. Sampling, quoting from someone else's work, was allowed, but the totality of the piece had to be the writer's own. No props. Each round meant a new poem. Three minutes was the limit.
Memorization and performance energy meant more points.
Members of the audience were encouraged to snap their fingers to communicate solidarity, agreement, understanding as the poem was recited. And they did. They identified.
Gina Keplinger was first to recite, because she is a person of her word, because she is a poet in her own right, from the Nebraska Writers Collective. Because she led the once-a-month Writers' Block class at the prison, and now is teaching it again.
She performed "Explaining My Mother to Depression, after Sabrina Benaim, after RJ Walker."
Then the dozen men and women followed in the first round, to compete and be judged, but in a good way, by five informal poetry magistrates scoring them on verse and performance.
Inmate Jose Rodriguez began with "The Ride."
Jermaine Jackman performed "A Letter to Poverty."
"... I know you were happy when I ate noodles and hot dogs five days a week because my mom could barely hold down a job and raise three hard-headed boys all on her own. ..."
Rashad Washington wrote about the dream of being free: "So just know that people can judge you and try to define your future, but it's up to you to find your purpose in life. It's up to you to prove them wrong. There is injustice in the state of Nebraska and one day it will be exposed so another kid will not need 80-120 years for a mistake he made before age 25 when his brain wasn't fully developed."
They are interrupted at times by a horn sounding, and a voice distorted by volume telling something to the someones who need to know.
The poets go on.
And they are narrowed to five in Round 2 and then to three finalists.
At the end of Round 3, Ryan Boyland of Bellevue, a lab technician at the Creighton University School of Medicine, had come in second. He created this first-round image with "Creation Suite:"
" ... And on the eighth day he rose and stretched and yawned
and named this place 'heaven'
Just for us
and we named it home.
Here we don't say that we become angels
because we never stopped being Holy.
And we don't fill our poems with the names of dead Black children
because they're right around the corner.
And the name Trayvon is unremarkable. And Emmett is unburied.
And here we don't call them alive
because here, we have never known death.
Here, every jump shot goes in —
Every batch of mac and cheese is baked to perfection —
the sweet potato pie is always hot and crisp —
Fathers always make it back from the corner store.
Mothers never weep,
The streetlights never come on,
and the children can play outside until their bodies melt into the night sky.
Here, the people make the most beautiful constellations —
Here we are beautiful.
Here we are —
Here we be
And somehow, that
Poetic justice was served to two inmates — Hamza and Terron Brown — who tied for the top spot.
Hamza delivered his prize-winning work with musical vocal percussion.
"... I'ma poet, and I ain't never
had a ghost-writer.
went from a thug
to a Tightfisted-
upon my reflection
equals my imperfections,
we all got 'em
without it, it's no-
and in this life
tomorrow is not a guarantee,
so when I leave
my poetry is a part of me.
and my words they reflect
what it really B*
look deep, 'N you'll find-
a poet. ... (ready to die)
just to kill the pain. ..."
After the competition, Hamza said he inherited his hip-hop artist skills from his dad, who performed R&B jazz.
"But my mom was my inspiration. She was the backbone of the family and through her dreams I created my own dream," he said.
Mondo we Langa, who entered prison as David Rice, and died after serving 44 years, was one of his writing mentors, he said. And he reads a lot, including John Henrik Clarke, writer, historian and professor.
Hamza is 54 and has been in prison since 1985. He developed his poetic style there. His biggest venues, though, until now have been in the prison clubs he attends.
"This is amazing. This is a chance to showcase what you work on in the room, in the mirror," he said. "I'm trying to just have fun with it. Enjoy it. And I really appreciated the other writers, what they did.
"I enjoy words. And I enjoy writing. And it just shows that you're never too old to learn. ... I'm still hanging in there with the young guys."