W&L professor elevates voices of incarcerated, undocumented youth

In a new book, Assistant Professor of Spanish Seth Michelson highlights poetry gathered from imprisoned children as part of a Fall Term 2016 course

Emma Derr

Last week, Washington and Lee professor Seth Michelson unveiled a collection of poetry written by youth incarcerated in the second highest maximum-security prison for undocumented children in the United States this week.

A group of students, staff and community members gathered in Leyburn Library on the evening of Nov. 7 to hear about Michelson’s experience and listen to students read some of the poems.

During Fall 2016, a group of W&L students in the “Poetry and the Politics of Immigration” class traveled to the prison with Michelson. They held weekly poetry workshops to help the incarcerated youth learn to use their words as tools for introspection.

Michelson, who previously worked in a New York state men’s prison, said working with undocumented minors was very different.

“They are incarcerated in a new country with a foreign language and unknown customs,” Michelson said. “How could their experience be anything but traumatizing?”

Michelson said many of these undocumented children were orphaned in some of the most dangerous places on Earth and raised within the Mexican drug cartels. They are now held in isolation for crimes related to their border crossing. Michelson said the children have experienced unthinkable traumas.

With no foreseeable way out of the prison system after a dangerous and lonely international journey, most of them commit self-harm or attempt suicide.

Michelson’s poetry class, however, offered them both a greeting to a different world and a lifeline.

Michelson and his students attempted week after week to convince these children who have little or no hope of attaining amnesty to take a chance on the group and let themselves transform worlds with their words.

Even though a third of the children in the prison were illiterate, they would dictate their thoughts to Michelson and his students. Michelson stressed to the children that they could still be poets.

One 14-year-old boy showcased his talents in a poem titled, “Yo tengo un sueño,” or, “I have a dream,” expressing his hopes to one day be surrounded by people who care about him.

“These children carry detailed dreams of fabulous futures, dreams of becoming chefs, rappers and teachers,” Michelson said. “They have unbelievable courage, resilience and stamina.”

Although the work is emotionally straining, the W&L students expressed excitement about going to see the children. Michelson said when the youth heard them entering the facility, they would begin to cheer, “Poeta! Poeta! Poeta!”

Michelson said the whole atmosphere would begin to “thrum with palpable energy” as they formed a sense of trust and community.

Erin Ferber, ‘18, was one of Michelson’s students who visited the prison. She said that they would thank her for being present and and listening to them.

“They are stripped of their identities in prison,” Ferber said. “Every time I would go, I could taste metal in my mouth. It was a harsh environment with harsh consequences.”

Many of these children had never owned their own book before, but they all received a copy of the publication they helped to write.

Michelson is traveling to New Mexico next week to read some of the poetry in the collection.

All of the proceeds of his work Dreaming America: Voices of Undocumented Youth in Maximum-Security Detention will go toward legal support for the youth who wrote the poems.

As he ended his discussion, Michelson urged the audience to consider the issue of immigration in the world today and connect with the deeply humanizing words in the book.