Poet Abdul Ali and filmmaker Tim Ouillette during the filming of the video “Carcereal Humanism.” Photo courtesy of Tim Ouillette

“As I’m sitting here quarantined, I use it to my advantage

Confused times, but there has been no damage

A relieved sigh from a wounded bandage

I feel so calm like it’s easy to manage, but

Many would differ ’cause they can’t really stand it.”

Adbul Ali is an educator, poet, activist, performer and now subject of short film “Carceral Humanism.” Photo courtesy of Tim Ouillette

That’s Abdul Ali, the Portland-based educator, poet, activist, performer and now subject of “Carceral Humanism,” a short film made with Portland filmmaker Tim Ouillette. Taking its title from Ali’s poem of the same name, the 6-plus-minute film – a poetry video, if you like – is Ali’s recitation of his piece, shifting ground as he speaks from locations from Peaks Island’s Battery Steele to East End Beach to downtown Portland’s graffiti wall. That’s where Ali concludes his spellbinding work, the poem’s final words still echoing with the film’s sparse synth accompaniment as the young Black man strides out, a parting peace sign waved in hopefulness that his words have been heard at a time when they’re most needed. 

“A failure is what society illustrates is my fate

It’s not about the choices we make

It’s about what’s given on my plate.”

Ali savors that final shot, explaining that Ouillette’s camera caught just the image he was hoping for. “With the bricks and the chains, it looks like jail if you film it right.” Ali, who spent a year and a half at Long Creek Youth Development Center starting when he was 17, knows that feeling. Speaking about it, his words carry as much weight over the phone as they do in verses, on film. 

Having attained his GED while at Long Creek, Ali went on to attend Southern Maine Community College (with an interlude at Ohio’s Columbus State Community College), and now works – a lot – with organizations dedicated to helping others coping with life during and after incarceration, as well as those fighting against the systemic forces designed to oppress people like him. An Artistic Director of Maine Inside Out, which uses theater to bring the plight of the currently and formerly incarcerated, Ali also works with Maine Youth Justice, the Young People’s Caucus, and USM’s Opportunity Scholars, which helps formerly incarcerated youth attain secondary education. I may have missed a few. 

“How do you ignore something that’s so suppressed?

Maybe because you’re not the one that’s being oppressed.”

Speaking of his own poetry (more of which can be seen on his YouTube channel), Ali says that seven years of working with the incarcerated informed his style. “So many stories,” Ali says, “And the same rhythm, constantly.” In “Carceral Humanism,” Ali’s voice finds its rhythm in biting words and passionately reasonable tone, a combination that, interwoven with longtime filmmaking pro Ouillette’s evocative widescreen visuals, produces a rivetingly understated effect. In the poem, Ali describes the self-stifled anger of young Black people speaking out about the injustices all around them, saying, “If we speak out we’re wilding/So we tend to keep silent.” 

Ali’s hardly silent about Portland’s “Tale of Two Cities” when it comes to its immigrant communities, as well that facing minority and low-income white communities across the country. (Ali came to Maine from Ethiopia when he was three.) Taking its theme from the ongoing, nearly year-long pandemic that’s ground Maine (and America) to a clawing-at-the-walls halt of isolation, fear, and lockdown tedium, Ali explains that he – and Maine’s other minority populations – may have been more prepared than others. 

“When people are asking how they can deal with this, how they can’t leave home, how it’s eating them alive, I think of the reality of living in a Black person’s body in Maine,” says Ali. “The reality is, you’re always watched. If you feel judged walking into a store with your mask on, that’s the closest thing you’ll feel to a Black person walking into a store any time.” Adding the parallel to imprisonment in his poem as “You can’t live and you can’t escape,” Ali hopes that this shared cultural trauma can help some Mainers understand better how life’s opportunities shrink due to circumstances imposed upon them from beyond their control. 

“While we’re in this predicament, let’s remember to be appreciative

Lots of things we have taken for granted

Like the structure and opportunity that you are handed

Isn’t the same for every child that has once been stranded

While the public eye has been blinded and vanished.”

For Ali, currently working with Maine Youth Justice to close down Long Creek and redirect its budget to redressing conditions that draw young people into trouble in the first place, “Carceral Humanism” is a deeply personal plea for Americans to recognize how outside forces can warp a life – and how only by recognizing our shared humanity and responsibilities to each other can we as a society overcome a mess of our own making. 

“We need to start looking into what it means to be an abolitionist,” says Ali, “Not to literally abolish everything, but to re-imagine our systems.” Noting America’s world’s-highest incarceration rate, the school-to-prison pipeline (summed up nimbly in his poem as “from detention to detention”), and the ongoing revolt by (mostly white) Americans against making even the most insignificant sacrifices to protect their fellow citizens from a deadly pandemic, Ali deftly makes his case in “Carceral Humanism” that we have to start realizing we are all in this together. I’ll let him sum up.

“Now that we’re all on the same planet

I hope you see it from our end

And finally understand it.”

“Carceral Humanism,” poetry and performance by Abdul Ali, filmmaking by Tim Ouillette, can be seen for free on YouTube. Find more of Ali’s truly striking work (poetic and otherwise) on Instagram (@humblephilosopher2020), Twitter (@humblephilo2020), or Facebook (AliAli). Ouillette’s work can be seen at his company website, MunjoyHillMedia.com.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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