Never a Bad Seed

This is a column I wrote a few years ago about the documentary I made, Young Poet Incarcerated, which led directly to the founding of Lost Voices…

It was a pretty good line in a really good poem, entitled “Look At Me,” by a seventeen year old African-American poet named Donald. This young man was theoretically every bit as dangerous as he was gifted; he was incarcerated in the WJ Maxey Boys Training School as a violent offender.

Who’d have thought good crops
Could come from a bad seed?

I was working with Donald on a documentary called “Young Poet Incarcerated,” helping him polish some of his work and rehearse it before we rolled the camera. We had been given some money by the National Endowment for the Arts through the Michigan Humanities Council and the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, to cover some of the costs of making our movie.

The idea of the film was to let Donald use his poetry to give the world a glimpse into how a kid gets himself locked up before he’s old enough to vote.

As with all of Donald’s work, there were some other powerful lines in that poem;

No cradles, no cribs
I was born in a casket
Living to die
Though I survived among the savages.

or

There is a rose
But with their eyes closed
All they grabbing
Is thorns.

But as we worked our way through each line of “Look At Me,” my mind kept wandering back to those words;

Who’d have thought good crops
Could come from a bad seed?

Finally I asked him, “Donald, are you telling me that you are a bad seed?”

“Oh, yes,” he said, “I always been bad.”

“All your life?”

“All my life.”

“You were born that way? A bad seed?”

“Yeah. I been bad all my life.”

“So you’re telling me that a little baby is born evil.”

“Oh no, a baby is born in the image of God…” He stopped and looked down at the floor. “Oh.”

“I think maybe that line needs a little work.”

“I guess so.” And then we went on to work on another poem.

A week later Donald and I were working together again, and we made our way back around to “Look At Me.” This time he pulled out and unfolded a different piece of paper than the one he had been using. “I did like you said. I did some work on this since last week.”

“Let’s hear it.”

And he began to read. When he got to the “bad seed” line he paused and looked up at me, and then kept reciting, giving me the new line from memory.

Who’d have thought good crops
Could come from a bad seed?
Never a bad seed
Only bad dirt.

It is fairly common these days for people to compliment me for the work I do with the kids. When this happens, I always feel kind of embarrassed, and find myself struggling to find ways to explain to them that I simply feel blessed to have the skills I have, and to get the opportunity to put all those gifts to use like this.

I only wish that I could let them in on exactly what it was like when Donald spoke those words and smiled, looking at me through eyes that were at once seventeen and a thousand years old. If those people could feel what I felt in that moment, I would never have to explain a thing.

You can see the entire mini-documentary, Young Poet Incarcerated, online at http://lostvoices.org.