Poetry offers freedom to express for inmates _lowres

Photo provided by Olivia Pass -- A group of Louisiana State Penitentiary inmates, members of the Angola Poetry Group, gathered Feb. 18 to welcome Creole poet Mona Lisa Saloy, of New Orleans, whose trip was sponsored by the arts nonprofit, A Celebration of Literature and Art. The Poetry Group meets quarterly at the prison.

Creole poet Mona Lisa Saloy, of New Orleans, conducted a workshop Feb. 18 for some of the inmates at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola who are members of the Poetry Group.

Started by Angola librarian Linda Holmes about three years ago, the Poetry Group had been a dream of hers and some of the inmates. The first guest at the group’s inaugural Poetry Night was Ava Leavell Haymon, Louisiana’s poet laureate from 2013-15.

“We set our goal high by inviting Ava and were ecstatic when she agreed to attend,” Holmes said.

Poetry Nights are held once per quarter, and Saloy was the group’s second well-published poet to attend.

Members of A Celebration of Literature and Art, a nonprofit arts and humanities group in West Feliciana Parish, have attended other gatherings by the group.

“CLA has been very supportive and encouraging to the guys. ... This event is extremely important to them,” Holmes said.

At the first poetry gathering, one of the inmates told Holmes it was the best night he’d spent since becoming incarcerated.

Prior to Saloy’s visit, collections of her poems and a CD were ordered for the prison library, so the inmates could read her work ahead of time. About 35 inmates showed up for the visit, eager to meet Saloy and to hear her recite some of her poems.

“After a generous introduction, I read from my work to a hushed room. These readers and writers of poetry did not just listen. A good group of them knew my work by heart, literally mouthing lines from my poems,” Saloy said. “Even the emcee quoted poems from both of my books throughout the evening. What a delightful surprise. They even gave me two standing ovations.”

Saloy added that she was just as impressed by the original work written by the inmates.

Larry Miller, CLA member, and Olivia Pass, CLA president, also attended the workshop.

“All my preconceived ideas about inmates just fell away in the face of their warmth and talent,” Miller said. Pass, who has attended other Angola Poetry Group gatherings before, agreed with Miller.

Holmes said she was pleased with the results of the most recent Poetry Night, adding, “It gives the offenders a venue to express themselves in a positive and creative way. These evenings also create a sense of community and belonging. Reading your own poetry aloud can be a humbling experience, so you must have a degree of trust in your audience, and these men have learned to bond together and trust one another through the power of the poetic word.”

Members of the group have asked both Saloy and Pass to return and conduct another poetry workshop for them in the future.

Saloy was one of five presenters at the ninth annual Writers and Readers Symposium sponsored by CLA on Feb. 20.