"I don't write."
That's what I've been hearing for the past year leading writing workshops with young offenders and those awaiting trial in open custody. These kids are detained in group homes - we're talking bedrooms and couches as opposed to cells and bars, with constant supervision, though not by armed guards.
Every session with a new group starts with this non-writing waiver regardless of participants' backgrounds or the nature of their charges. First they have to size you up, figure out whether you're scared or a know-it-all - or someone just doing a gig.
"I don't write." It's a challenge, declaration and litmus test all in one, but it leaves room for hope. It's not, "I won't write."
I've become the artistic mentor for these challenged youth since I received a call in 2011 from the literacy group Now Hear This! It had just begun a writer-in-residence program with Operation Springboard, an organization that runs youth justice residences. Soon after, I found myself sitting in a room with four uninterested-looking young men.
Hip-hop is my way in. Like most of us, these cats have their favourite writers. Their names are Jeezy, French Montana or Juicy J instead of Poe or Hemingway, and that makes no difference to me. Metaphors are still metaphors, and the range of human emotions hasn't changed in the last couple of millennia.
"You mean I can write a rhyme?" Sure, I tell them, or a poem or a paragraph of prose. Whatever you think is the best way to say what you have to say, to tell your story.
"Nah, man, I can't tell my story. It's too real for the paper, y'know?"
Ah, but that's the beauty of poetry and fiction. You can say what you have to say without telling on yourself. After all, this isn't a confession; this is art. It doesn't even have to be about you or anything you've done. It's just about expressing how you feel.
"But I don't know how to write poetry."
And just like that, the session goes from being about whether they are willing to write to deciding on the best techniques.
In the end, they talk and write about family, poverty, racial profiling, friendship, loyalty and girls, and other things important to them or that they think are cool. The one thing they generally don't talk about is what got them to custody in a group home. One of my favourite pieces is a poem written from the point of view of a field annoyed that children are playing soccer on it.
It seems that once these young people realize that the gift of communication belongs to them, to be wielded in the way of their choosing, all we have to do is sit back and be amazed.
J-WYZE (Jelani Nias) is a spoken word and hip-hop artist and former radio DJ. He performs November 22 at Revival with other Now Hear This! facilitators at the CD launch of Sentence: A Collection Of Words And Lyrics From Young Offenders. See descant.ca/now-hear-this.