Sunday, April 20, 2014
By Bob Keyes firstname.lastname@example.org
ALFRED — Marion Anderson has written for her whole life. She has always kept a journal, and often turned to the printed word to try to capture the confusion, rage and pain that she has felt in her gut for as long as she can remember.
Cassandra Farris says she felt uninhibited and found herself expressing long-silent feelings through a writing project at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham.
Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer
Marion Anderson talks at the York County Jail about her songwriting and the classes she took to learn the process while she was in the Maine Correctional Center in Windham.
Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer
Until this fall, she never really thought anybody cared about her feelings.
Anderson, a 33-year-old inmate at the Southern Maine Re-Entry Center in Alfred, helped write several songs that are part of a new CD and book project that gives a voice to adults and youths who are in Maine’s prison system.
“Beats and Bars” includes eight songs and an 80-page anthology written by men and women at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, kids at the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland and recently released youths at Main Stay in Portland.
“I think we all have a story,” Anderson said. “If I can reach other people with my words and if I can influence one kid in a positive way with my writing, then the mission is accomplished here on earth.”
Guitar Doors, the music education organization that created the project, will host a CD release party Saturday at Mayo Street Arts in Portland. Meghan Yates & the Reverie, as well as the Blue Lobster Troupe Community Chorus, will perform the songs. Members of the community will read from the anthology.
Anderson grew up in Bangor and has been in and out of trouble for most of her life. Drug addiction put her in jail for the first time, in 2009. She was sentenced to two years for burglary. She committed the crime to support her drug habit.
She got in trouble the second time because she couldn’t control her addiction after she got out. She has been back in the prison system since March, and is scheduled to be released next summer.
On the outside, she wasn’t partial to any drug. She liked them all, and went to any lengths necessary to get them.
Her habit began when she was young. “I didn’t feel like I fit in, I didn’t feel like I belonged. (Drugs) helped me fit in,” she said.
She was in and out of school, and did not graduate with her peers. She earned her GED in 2000, while juggling her desire to walk the straight and narrow path with the reality of her addiction, which pulled her down another road.
That struggle, and the demons it brings in the night, is a frequent subject of her writing.
“I taste your sadness resting on my face,” she writes in the song “The Loneliness of You.”
“I eat the chaos that consumes this place
“I need something here to fill the space
“Besides the misery of you.”
She sounds more hopeful on the song “Searching.” She wrote:
“You know I might have missed the ship
“But I’m swimming toward the light
“And as I’m chewing on these words
“I know there’s more to write.”
“Beats and Bars” is the 13th CD made by Guitar Doors. Jim Svendsen founded the arts group in 2009, and has spent the past five years working to let inmates across Maine express themselves. For this project, he teamed with Oren Stevens, a creative writing coach with The Telling Room in Portland.
“Beats and Bars” is a collaboration among many inmates. To start the project, Svendsen and Stevens met with kids at Long Creek, and helped them put their thoughts and feelings down on paper, in the form of poetry and other creative expression.
That writing then went to adult inmates at the Maine Correctional Center, who reacted to what the kids said and created songs based on their feelings. In that sense, all of the songs represent a collaboration among kids and adults in the prison system, Svendsen said.
The recordings were made in prison, with the inmates singing.
“We’re not trying to save the world here,” Svendsen said. “Our goal was to create a dialogue between the kids and the adults.”
That’s because 70 percent of the children of adult prisoners become prisoners themselves, he said, citing national statistics. “That’s staggering. These are not at-risk kids. They are beyond risk. They are already in the system. They’re looking up to adult inmates as their role models: ‘These people are cool, because they do not fit into society very well, either.’ ”
The hope is that the adults see something in the kids’ writing that reminds them of themselves when they were younger. They can then turn those thoughts into a song or story that might help illuminate the situation and offer a different perspective.
Although it is not unusual for arts groups to work to have inmates express themselves, working with prisoners to make recordings while they are incarcerated is less common.
The idea of helping the next generation is something that appealed to Cassandra Farris, 24, of Portland, who also is serving time at the Southern Maine Re-Entry Center.
She knows the prison routine well. She was convicted of a burglary to support her drug habit when she was 19 and sentenced to seven years, with all but two suspended. She did her time, got out and had a baby. A probation violation put her back in prison.
The child is now living with Farris’ grandmother.
She identified with a poem about heartbreak, alcohol and drugs, written by a girl at Long Creek. “That’s the story of my life,” she said.
Another Long Creek inmate wrote about helping his sister raise her three kids. They lived together in a trailer without heat or hot water.
Farris put herself in his shoes, and developed the theme by remembering “stuff that I related to in my childhood and in my past.”
The process of putting words to paper felt empowering, and the recording process gave her goosebumps, she said.
“The class brought me out of my shell a lot. I’m not shy, but I don’t like a lot of people knowing my hardships,” Farris said. “But that class, I was really uninhibited. I just let go.”
She felt like she was doing something to help the kids at Long Creek by listening to them and working with them to focus their writing. In the end, she likely benefited as much as they did.
Farris has spent a lot of time reflecting on her bad decisions and how she ended up in prison for the second time, with a 2-year-old on the outside.
“It’s no type of life,” she said. “It’s not living.”
By looking inside herself, she was able to say things she has never said before.
“I’m putting stuff down on paper that I have never said out loud,” she said.
Svendsen said the goal of Guitar Doors is simply to get people to listen to the inmates. This project is not about rehab, but about understanding.
Inmates are easy to ignore, because they are behind bars and barbed wire. But the vast majority of them are getting out. When that happens, we have to deal with them, he said.
“Whether we like it or not, these people are part of our society,” he said. “They are our cousins, our daughters, our uncles and our fathers, and they are coming back. The question is, are they coming back better or the same?”
Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:email@example.comTwitter: pphbkeyes
click image to enlarge
The Maine Correctional Center in Windham is where inmates Marion Anderson and Cassandra Farris recorded music for a CD of songs and stories written by themselves and by other incarcerated and recently released youths and adults.
Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer