The Poet in Prison

Angelic Smile
The love in my heart is not enough to save me.
I will carry the weight of your death upon my shoulders forever.
I’m killing myself one kiss at a time, in a lake of tears: a mirror
I see a reflection of heaven so far away. I will hide my heart from the world.
As devils dance, while angels smile
I’m lost to the light of your angelic smile.

Zach Ross slowly makes his way down a hallway that leads to what looks like an interrogation room. The sound of his ill-fitting plastic slippers, loudly rubbing against the shiny tiled floor, is the only sound in the building.

The dimly lit room’s only redeeming feature is a small window that frames beautiful misty and green rolling hills in the background. A more sobering scene is in the foreground: a grassy yard outlined with a tall chain link fence; a long single-file line of young men walk slowly across, watched closely by the guards. There are 6-foot men with big bulging muscles. And there are the puny 4-and-a-half foot boys who look like they should be playing on the monkey bars at an elementary school playground.

Zach is neither.

Dull gray walls spotted with plaster, a black metal desk, and one empty chair awaits Zach’s arrival. The sound of the shuffling slippers crescendo and then the flop-haired, crooked-tooth man/boy slinks into the empty chair. He wants to be here. He personally asked for the visit. I abided.

Zach seems used to the drill. He is calm and, regrettably, at home. He looks down at the floor and then out the window; back and forth, rarely catching the eye of the man with the notepad across the 4-foot wide drab desk. His wire-rimmed glasses habitually slip down the bridge of his nose. I tell him my little boy’s name is also Zach. He nods.

Eighteen-year-old Zach is in prison.

He won’t reveal exactly what got him here. He doesn’t have to. I quickly connect the dots. It’s safe to say what Zach did to land him in the big house, surrounded by other 12-to-25-year-old offenders also in custody of the Oregon Youth Authority, was serious. Very serious. The facility features more locking doors than one first-time visitor can count. Cameras abound, as do walkie-talkies on the hips and in the hands of beefy staff, announcing the every move of each resident and visitor.

Zach admits to “anger issues” and a tough time growing up. But he quickly fesses up that simple anger doesn’t land most people in prison at such a young age. And with that confession, the philosopher — and the artist and poet — begins to unexpectedly emerge.
“My parents did the best they could,” Zach says. “But other people, not so good.”

Zach was molested by a close family member beginning when he was 10-years-old. He told, but his family didn’t listen. The creep continued to violate young Zach a couple of times a week for a year. Eventually they busted the guy, photos of young Zach filled his hard drive. He’s in the penitentiary for 10 years. He gets out in two years though, a free man. It bothers Zach but he won’t elaborate.
“I don’t want him to come around me and my family members,” Zach says, shaking his head side to side.

Zach didn’t have much of a chance at a smooth transition into young adulthood. Chronic sexual abuse was followed by a diagnosis of Autism — Asperger’s Syndrome to be exact — at 13-years-old. He is beyond intelligent, with near-genius IQ, but socially handicapped, and with not an ounce of trust in humanity.

Despite his ill fortunes as a youth, society expects him to get along and do the right things. But he has struggled, and still struggles, with living up to that expectation.

“I’m still working at trusting people,” Zach sighs.

THE DREAM

Zach is looking at transitioning out of this prison. He’s excited, he says. And anxious. The real world, or half the real world, awaits his arrival. A half-way house will be his next stop if — big if — he makes all the right decisions and stays out of trouble until his release. He’s known to get angry and explode. Serious consequences typically follow and they tend to keep him in custody longer than not.

This young man has big hopes and dreams. He wants to work for the video conglomerate Pokeman when he’s older. He’d like to be a video game designer. Pokeman helped him through a tough time in his life, he explains. The characters never left his side. They never talked back. They never yelled. And they always listened to him, Zach says.

He goes on about the videogame.

Clearly, these Japanese characters are quite possibly the best thing that ever happened to Zach as he grew up. Nothing else, animate or inanimate, elicits such adoration as Zach unrolls his life story. It’s difficult to write that on my notepad as I glance out the small window, wondering how I would have faired in such a place when just 18.

Zach changes the subject and wants to know if I’ve read his poetry.

Zach is but one young gay man in the prison system. There are too many others. But he just may be the only one who is a published poet. And that is what not only makes Zach unique, but gives him hope. Poetry keeps him going; keeps him in the game when he might otherwise consider throwing in the towel. Suicide often crosses his mind.

So Zach writes it out. He’s been writing for two years. Writing poetry helps him stay the course. And the universe may well be saying “Yes!” His work, “Angelic Smile” won an honorable mention in a recent poetry contest and was published in Creative Connections. It’s now a hardbound book.

There are a lot of kids out there with a desire to publish juvenile poetry. Zach’s writing may be more than that. But he’s modest about the recognition, though clearly proud.

“It was good. It was awesome,” Zach says, showing more emotion than usual.

Almost every day Zach sits down and writes. He’s prolific, he says, writing his poetry on school-style lined paper, often with crumpled corners. The poetry sooths him, even though its themes are dark — often macabre. Most adults don’t like his work, he says as he begins reading “The Rainbow’s Children” aloud, sans any emotion or inflexion in his voice.

In your disgusting society of hate, We were outcasts, We were the unwanted, The abused, The hated. No more are we those things. We are the children of the rainbow. We stand tall. No more hiding who we are. No more hiding who we love. We are stronger for the abuse your society puts on us. We are wiser than our so-called parents. We are more open-minded than our “peers”. We are no longer going to sit in fear of your abusiveness. We are going to turn our backs to “society” and tell them: “We are done with you and your hatefulness.” We will not be abused. We will not become our abusers. We will live in peace. Now is our Time to break free. To build our own society, separate from the hateful societies of the earth.

The writing reflects Zach’s life, if not just his inner and mostly unknown life. He’s depressed. No doubt about it. Zach says so. He is bored in prison. He is sleeping too much. The staff doesn’t like it. He can’t control his anger. He says so. He’s sad.

A BETTER LIFE

Coming out at 14 resulted with more drama in his life. He lost friends and some family couldn’t deal, he says.

“It’s no fun to be an outcast,” Zach says.

Life went on. Until it didn’t.

That’s when Zach did what he won’t talk about; the thing that had Zach moving from one facility to another for over a year. That’s when the thing that happened landed him in ill-fitting slippers shuffling along long corridors and behind scores of locked doors with fences holding him twenty-four/seven.

Zach wants to do good things now. He wants to live well and to “do no harm,” as he puts it in his Wiccan-inspired life philosophy verbiage.
But that is questionable. Zach himself is not entirely sure he can change. The rage is right under the surface. The eventual explosion is apparent, even to a stranger.

“I really hope it goes well,” he says about his remaining time before release, eyes on the tiled floor.

While he questions himself, he is clear about what he wants in his life. He brightens up when he talks of his idyllic future: adopting kids in the system who have struggled like he has, owning a Victorian house, and a Husky or Chihuahua. He loves dogs.

Noticeably absent from Zach’s wish list is love — a man. But young Zach suddenly shows his more grown up and wise side.

“Important, but not necessary,” he glibly says. We both simultaneously smile widely.

As we rise to say goodbye the dad in me wants to grab Zach and hug him. A part of me wants to break him out of prison and make sure he gets to where he needs to go in life. My heart is heavy leaving him there after he spilled his guts onto the metal desk and into my notepad. I opt for a firm handshake instead, looking Zach in the eye. “Keep writing,” I say.

“If I could get through to somebody … get (my poetry) out there … it might do some good in the world,” Zach says. “That’s my whole goal.” Zach turns and walks out of the small room. His slippers slide along the floor.

I get into my truck; I can’t drive fast enough to get home to hug my kids.

Jonathan Kipp

About Jonathan Kipp

Jonathan Kipp, Just Out’s owner and publisher is a native Oregonian and has a background in niche magazine publishing, advertising, marketing, and journalism. His career includes a 2-year stint as a reporter for Just Out where he covered controversial stories about the Oregon Citizen’s Alliance, The Portland Police Bureau, The Boy Scouts of America and the about-to-change Burnside Triangle. He has a BA in Journalism, a BS in Biology, and is currently pursuing an MBA. Jonathan and co-owner Eddie Glenn have been life and business partners for 18 years. Today Jonathan and Eddie are dads of two young children.

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