In 2000, I was 23 and struggling to find myself in a sea of death row madness. The madness wasn’t just from the inmates there, and their stories, but from the situation itself. Basically, you grew or you stagnated. To grow was to progress and to stagnate was to regress. There is no in between. On death row you are either pushed up or sucked down. It’s just how it is.
Every man sought to find his way. Some found it through religion, some through humor, some art, others writing. There was always a vehicle. A process. A bridge that helped you cross over that sea. Some were able to cross that sea and move on to another form of journey. Some never got started. And others either got stuck on the bridge or fell over the side.
Just three hours before Kenneth Foster, Jr. was scheduled to die by lethal injection in 2007, for a murder he did not personally commit, his death sentence was commuted by Governor Rick Perry and reduced to LIFE in prison without parole. Kenneth Foster drove the getaway car in a botched robbery-murder.
When facing this hellacious situation, men needed stability, if not peace (peace, of course, being the ultimate attainment). Each man usually evolves/revolves back to his source — whatever drives a person and thrives within him. It’s something that is ancient, old, infinite — like the universe we spawn from.
As a youth I had always been a natural orator; I loved to read and write when in school. English, undoubtedly, was my favorite course. In church I always participated in the Christmas and Easter plays, memorizing scripts and verses in front of the congregation. It seemed natural.
It came natural. Sadly, it was an uncultivated talent. Unfortunately, for me, it was something that no one ever taught me how to utilize. There was no guidance for me down those artistic highways. Though never extinguished, the coals would burn low inside me.
On death row, in 2000, those coals would be ignited. Elder brothers were always encouraging the newcomers to spend their time wisely, to do something constructive and not be written off as a mere execution stat. These elders, through study, introspection and application, had the ability to see the potentials in others. Through their wisdom they had the ability to recognize the talents in others and, being dedicated to the cause of redemption, they invested in those who had that potential within them. I’m honored to say that I was one of those observed and selected.
In the middle of a dialogue one day, which was one of these brothers putting in work on me, I was asked if I had ever considered writing poetry. In 2000, I didn’t recall seeing or hearing poetry and knew I hadn’t written any. But this brother knew I had talent at writing, so not only did he ask me, but he encouraged me. He said, “Write something! Leave your mark!”
Because these dialogues of challenging, urging, digging can sometimes last weeks, I took to the task. It honestly didn’t take much. There was no need of a sermon, it was the sheer spark of it that was enough. The buried seed only needed to be watered.
Over the course of the next 2-3 months I composed my first poems. At the time, through brothers sharing their poetry and also poetry books, I thought I knew the basics of poetry: It was symbolic language and rhymed.
I dove straight in. I ended up writing around 22 poems non-stop. I was determined to “do something.” So with the support of family I contacted a printing company for 100 copies of a book. I selected 17 poems to go in this book, which I named “Tribulation’s Eyes”. It was a modest attempt, but I was proud of my efforts. When I got to hold my own book in my hand it gave me a sense of being, relevance to the world. Regardless of how good the work was — honestly, mediocre at best — it was mine. I did it.
Little did I know where I was venturing. What began as “something to do” would turn into a full-blown love affair. But, it takes time to turn an escapade into a passion. It takes work, detail, affection. Poetry is no different than a living being — you must take your time, there must be patience to sit with it and listen and observe, you must be soft at times and firm at others. There must be dedication, discipline and determination. It’s something that you must continuously cultivate — like a garden. It’s what I began to do.
If it was poetry related – I read it. If someone had one to recite — I listened. I learned to pay attention to language usage and expression. I learned to see, and feel, things from other people’s perspectives. Through that, from a cell, I experienced other countries, struggles and visions. Through that vulnerable openness, I gained strength. Poetry not only took from me, but it gave back. It was not a selfish partner. It was a rewarding one.
Though all architects are masterful, not every architect builds everything. He who builds a cathedral doesn’t necessarily build (or want to build) skyscrapers. He who can soar at basketball can’t necessarily soar at baseball. In my belief it has more to do with a “calling” than ability. We are invested to soar along different routes at different heights. The vulture soars at high altitudes but comes low to eat the carrion. The eagle soars at the same heights, but feasts only on the most succulent of meats. There is a purpose behind every creature.
During my search through the poetic world I’ve read it all. Enjoyed some more than others. It was necessary. It’s necessary to expose yourself to the unknown, to taste the many fruits so that you may know what is delectable to you. I was able to read it all through the love of poetry that was carried by those around me. Quite frankly, poetry was sacred. Books were shared. If they were ripped, they were mended. A mistreated poetry book could turn into a full-fledged scolding. Poetry books were treated as being as precious as the Dead Sea Scrolls. They went from hand to hand, they were tied on lines and relayed up and down prison floors. Nothing ever stops the drive of humanity. Those words carried something. We knew it and we wanted to experience it.
Through the years I spent time with the likes of Langston Hughes, Alice Walker. I’ve stretched into other lands with poets like Thich Nhat Hahn, Suheir Hammad. I’ve gone back in time to absorb those that wrote about bigotry that I could never imagine and I’ve read all the great-spoken word artists that benefited from their work like Jessica Care Moore, Asha Bandele, Saul Williams. And I was enchanted with the rest of the world by the greats like Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni and the Queen Poetess that would become the adrenaline in my veins — Sonia Sanchez.
I’m thankful for everything they had to say, and even more thankful for everything they made me feel and think about. Through this art, this history, we were witnessing the phenomenon of the impossible of yesterday becoming the possible of today.
All of this made my pen move, made me dig deep within and find that voice that had been there since my birth. And slowly but surely I began to produce materials that were unfamiliar to me. I was continuously astonished at the things my pen was manifesting. As I began to absorb the creativity and visions of poets before me, those things began to flow through me, and I also began to formulate my own. The mountains of information that was piling up in me began to geyser — spill out of me in poetic verse. Like a basketball player learning crossover tricks, high powered dunks, even-handed shooting, I learned the different styles to advance my writing ability — haikus, tankas, free verse.
Greater achievements developed as well. The international attention focused on death row made my attention extend internationally. I met people from all across from the world: England, France, Italy, Germany, Holland, Africa. My interest and curiosity led me to learn about those cultures, their struggles. And through my newly attained consciousness I began to make links between common oppression. While the forms varied — racism, classism, sexism — injustice existed in all corners of the globe. And the poet (not all, but so many) took up the flag of radical, soldier, teacher to speak these injustices to life.
Sam Brown, a famous Rastafarian poet, said, “I write a realistic form of poetry. I speak of the conditions of the people. Inequity of justice, religious masks and things like that. I write to reveal the oppression of man by man”.
Poets, no matter if they were spiritual, revolutionary or just in tune with life, knew that the power of the Word is miraculous, if not divine.
Poets like Pablo Neruda exemplified that. When poets became in tune with this power they realized that they carried not just a craft but a tool. Poet Leah Harris said, “Words have the terrible power to dehumanize and destroy, but they also have the tremendous power to heal and rebuild that which has been destroyed”.
I began to sense this as I walked through my poetic journey. I sensed the higher calling, the responsibility, the influence. I also recognized the danger in that. To ever oppose a corrupt Power That Be is to face a danger. Nance O’Neil said it properly: “We are rebels because those who govern us, often — blindly, no doubt — betray us”. In many places the life of the poet is not cafe shops and finger snapping, but war zones and bullets whizzing.
Lucille Clifton stood up and said it just right, “My poetry seeks to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”.
As the years passed and the experiences grew, I realized that poetry was not just art, but a social and political mission. What I felt was reinforced by Iraqi poet Abdul Wahab Al-Bayati, who suffered persecution and exile because of what he spoke to the world. Abdul felt it was the poet’s duty to resist oppression and partake actively in the struggle for political freedom and social justice. For him, poetry that is detached is self-indulgent. In 1968 he wrote: “I felt at that time that I should write to defend freedom and social justice for the poor. I understand commitment to be that the poet/ artist is demanded to his depth to be burned with others when he sees them burning and not to stand on the other side of the bank absorbed in prayer”.
While that may be too radical for some poets, it’s exactly what I feel. Revolutions are often born of tragedy. Sow a tragedy, reap an action. Sow an action, reap a result. Sow a result, reap a victory.
I never imagined that I could come to this point from poetry. I am now locked in to the cause of it.
Since I began writing poetry in 2000 (it’s 2014 at the time of this writing) I have written over 600 poems (and “Tribulation’s eyes” has been translated to French, German and Italian). Not all of those poems are fabulous or masterpieces, but they are the footprints I have left in the sand. They are a testament of what I have learned, what I have done, what I feel and what I envision for our world. For 7 years I wrote as a death row inmate and felt like Laila Al-Saih, who said: “You do not know how hard it is, transfiguring blood into ink.”
Video: On August 30, 2007, Texas Governor Rick Perry commuted the death sentence of Kenneth Foster, Jr. following a sustained grassroots campaign led by Kenneth’s family and anti-death penalty activists from Texas and across the country. This video was taken the night staff members from Texas’ death row transported Kenneth to the death house in Huntsville several hours ahead of schedule. As promised, Kenneth refused to cooperate.
The life sentence which I now face is no less painful. Now, however, my words are sharper, wiser. They have purpose. They don’t just zigzag across a page, but make laser accurate shots at desired targets. “It’s a poet’s task to coin the worlds we live by”. (Hannah Arendt)
What my future holds, I cannot say. However it is my hope to reenter society and exemplify the things I have said above; to live on the legacies of those I had admired. If my ink will ever dry up, I do not know. It is my prayer that it never will. For while I have written about almost everything under the sun, there is always a new wave, a new wind, a new day. Each day a rock is thrown in the pool of life to make new ripples. These movements and transfigurations must be documented and spoken about. They must be dissected for the everyday person to understand. We are here to emancipate, not incarcerate.
My walk continues. My discoveries expand. Regardless of genre, style, form — I am proud to call myself a poet. As Nathalie E. Ilium expressed — “I am from the cast out and the called in”. May this process allow me (and the other poets) to hold on to the better parts of our human selves. And maybe lead our readers to do the same.
As an African proverb says:
“The King fears only the poet. Thank God for the Poet”
Kenneth Foster is serving LIFE for Capital Murder in Texas.
We submit all comments to the author on a weekly basis, but if you’d like to contact this author directly, please write to:
Kenneth Foster, Jr. #1451768
Alfred Hughes Unit
Route 2, Box 4400
Gatesville, TX 76597