Feeling freedom: Poet laureate helps Martha’s Vineyard inmates write

From left: Demetrio Garcia, Fan Ogilvie, and Brian Gromoshak. — Photo by Donald Rose

Some inmates at the Dukes County House of Correction in Edgartown write poetry as a way of creating something from their jail time, changes that they can carry forward in living their lives after incarceration.

The poetry program began in 2009 as a weekly instructional series. It has led to two editions of inmate work. The first volume was published in 2010.

The latest edition, “Poems from the Gray Bar Hotel Volume II,” is a compilation of 38 poems, essays, and a short play, work that challenges the public perception of people in jail, and more importantly, the self-perception of the inmates as authors.

The point of the poetry writing exercise is to help the mostly poor, mostly young, and racially diverse incarcerated men to live full rich lives after jail. Recently retired education facilitator Katy Upson created the program, now in its fourth year. In 2009, Ms. Upson asked Fan Ogilvie, West Tisbury’s 
poet laureate, to work with groups of inmates to write poetry and prose.

This month, Brian Gromoshak, 31, and Demetrio Garcia, 20 are expected to be tried in Dukes County Superior Court on charges that include armed robbery, assault and battery, breaking and entering, larceny and possession with intent to distribute marijuana. If convicted, both men could be sent to state prison.

The two were arrested together October 19, 2011 and charged with a knife-point robbery of marijuana and cash. Both men have remained in custody at the Dukes County Jail since their arraignment in Edgartown District Court last October.

Both Mr. Gromoshak and Mr. Garcia were on probation for earlier crimes when arrested.

Mr. Gromoshak is well-known to several Island police departments and has a criminal record on Martha’s Vineyard and in Florida, where he previously lived. In April, 2009, Mr. Gromoshak pleaded guilty to breaking and entering, in connection with a series of burglaries at Edgartown houses.

Mr. Garcia is also well-known to police. In October 2009, he was sentenced to 2.5 years in the Dukes County House of Correction, after pleading guilty to the robbery of an Island taxi driver at knife-point in Oak Bluffs.

New expression

Both men are in the jail poetry program. The Times recently sat with Ms. Ogilvie and Mr. Gromoshak and Mr. Garcia to discuss the program and its effects on the men who use it.

Mr. Gromoshak is a big man with slow, thoughtful speech. Mr. Garcia is wiry, intense man given to the rhythmic staccato of his beloved rap genre. Both men were raised in Florida.

They appear somewhat awed by their ability to communicate, create, and be respected for their art. They see positive reactions from an outside world that shuns them as felons but respects them as authors as a healthy tonic promising them a brighter future.

Brian: “I did some poetry before Fan came in, but she gave us perspective on other people and poetry. She gave us more to write about and something positive to look forward to.”

Demetrio: “It was exciting. She had new topics every week she came in. I did poetry and I write music – that’s where I want to go with this. It felt good to express ourselves… In 2009, my first time doing time, it helped. I felt better, it made my stay here a little better. Made me feel I accomplished something.”

Brian: “Say you go to hospital. But you’re in handcuffs so people look at you differently, look down and shun you. They don’t know you, what you’re in here for, whether you’re doing good time. With this program, we belong to something positive to put yourself into. Reading my poetry at the awards ceremony I could see that other outside people heard me. The sheriff heard me.”

Demetrio: “I feel like we’re better people. Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m in here but that I’m writing in a place I dream about, that I want to be. The first compliment I got in here, at an awards ceremony, made me feel like I wasn’t just an inmate, that I wasn’t being seen that way but like people were seeing a real human being.”

Brian: “Definitely makes you want to be better. You do poetry, it’ll make you look at yourself in a different way. Once you put it on paper, you have a different view of yourself. It’s real. This jail gives us a lot of tools to do that.”

Demetrio: “Definitely help me to have a different outlook when I get out. This reaction to my work, even in here, gives me an idea of how it could be in the world. It’s another chance for me.”

Brian: “I’m not looking to satisfy myself all the time. I want to please other people; it’s not all about me. I think I’m a better person because I have looked into myself through writing. I’ve already put that into motion. I want a peaceful life, not always being in a jam.”

Demetrio (studying Mr. Gromoshak): “This is coming from a guy who was mostly in the hole [solitary confinement] here. Then one day he told me ‘I’m tired of being in the hole.’ For me, really, I developed the work for Fan, for the people in the class. Like Brian’s stuff. I never would’ve [predicted] that coming from him, those kinds of expressions. I wasn’t pushing myself, people pushing me now. I’m going to push myself. What is different is that I’m going to achieve what I’m dreaming about.”

Hard lessons

Ms. Ogilvie appears as a sort of elegant, ethereal pixie, comfortable in the literacy salons of New York and Paris. That might be, but she is a pit bull about the future of her students as people and artists.

“I worry about them when they get out,” she said. “We work together in this ‘safe’ environment. Then, one day, we just turn them back into the world without support.

“My job is to make them see how to make diamonds out of crap. To change a negative perspective. Jail is difficult, but they have time to think and the freedom to write. Your body may be in jail but not your brain. Your brain is free.

“In the beginning, I think they got a kick out of me because I was so stupid about a lot of things, but I learned from them,” she said. “For example, I learned that rap, which I detested, is really an intense poetic form. You can see how that works in second volume pieces by Demetrio. You can hear it in Quincy Young’s ‘Inside Jail.'”

Dukes County Sheriff Michael McCormack is responsible for the program’s existence. It fits with his overall approach to corrections that prisoners will soon rejoin society.

“It allows inmates to express their inner feelings,” Mr. McCormack said of the program, which includes weekly sessions on a six-month cycle. “Often lack of life tools, particularly anger management tools, is a factor in criminal behavior. This work is therapeutic, allowing participants to put inner feelings on the table, so they are not festering, which can result in behavioral issues. It’s a wonderful program, now in its third year.

“My job is to provide our inmates with tools to modify their behavior and prevent them from returning. An empty house is the best house and that’s our goal. Tools that enhance wellness of body and spirit, including education, are important.

“The issues that emerge and the character traits that come through are amazing. We’d never had an outlet like this before, in my opinion, until Katy reached out to Fan.”

“Don’t Judge Me” by Demetrio Garcia

I started off alone in this world not knowing what life brought,

Then I learned the life of the streets, is that my fault?

I can tell I need a lot to save my soul, but am I a lost cause?

Because out of everything I know this is what I thought, that chasing happiness and money was the main plot, and that God is the only one who can judge you,

But I guess not.

So, when they see me they think bad never good thoughts,

But never judge ’em back, to me that’s a good spot,

‘Cuzz judging people is heavy on your shoulders and I have enough on top,

So, before you judge me, look in the mirror and judge yourself,

Why’d you stop?

I look in the mirror and I can stand to see myself.

And, let me guess, with you, your reflection mocks.

“Incarcerated” by Brian Gromoshak

Sitting, thinking, dreaming about

All the times when I get out

Taking a stroll in the breeze or sitting in a swing under a tree

With the sun on my face and forever forgotten without a trace

Because, on the beach or in the shade

Wherever it is

It’s always better than being in this place