ZEPHYRHILLS — Inside the prison, the poets paced with eyes closed, murmuring stanzas into the air. They thumbed through notebooks, searching for the right poem for the occasion.
"I was going to do Conjure Man, but that piece has 'penis' in it," Reggie Eldridge lamented. He wondered if he should say the word.
Jennifer "Xzotiqa" Johnson-Allums was pensive. "You don't want to do a poem that's going to make the guards feel like we're trying to cause an uprising."
"Or get Lizz not invited back next time," added Adrienne Nadeau.
At that moment, Elizabeth "Lizz" Straight was hunched over a table, scribbling a lineup for the Thanksgiving performance the group was about to give.
For the past four years, Straight, 29, has traveled the state bringing poetry to whatever prison would let her in. She calls it the Poetry Is… Prison Tour, named for the late-night poetry show she hosts on WMNF-FM 88.5. This was the third time she had visited the Zephyrhills Correctional Institution. In these forays behind the razor wire she has found an audience she never expected, and a mission that was just as surprising.
"This whole time that I've been involved in this since the first prison has really changed the whole direction of my life, and it's the reason that I'm still in Tampa," Straight said.
Soon the group — six poets and a guitarist — was escorted into the prison chapel. They sat in the first two rows, their panic buttons clipped to their belts. One hundred fifty men in blue scrubs filled the pews around them. The chaplain said a prayer, an inmate offered a rhyming poem as an introduction and then Straight stepped up.
She wore a red T-shirt with an elephant on the front, skin-tight black jeans, black boots and a bracelet made from tiny photos of the slain rapper Tupac Shakur. This was the moment the men had been waiting for: the woman they call The Queen was about to speak.
"I'm only doing one poem, no matter what y'all say," Straight said.
And the inmates booed playfully. When the room fell silent, Straight began reading a piece she'd written especially for them.
"I am imperfect," she began.
• • •
She didn't plan this career.
She studied journalism, wrote fiction and poetry on the side and one night in Tampa accidentally entered a poetry contest that she thought was just an open-mike night.
She won. And she kept winning. Journalism faded and by January 2005 she was hosting the WMNF show at 11 p.m. on Saturday nights.
The came another surprise: As many as 50 letters a week from inmates at various local prisons. Straight's new fans took her by surprise.
"I didn't even know that they could have radios that late and listen to them," she said.
The inmates wrote that they'd never known poetry could be the types of things Straight played on her show — politically charged poems and verses set to music. They said her show had inspired them to express themselves on pen and paper. They begged her to come perform.
For Straight that was impossible: She had no car. On air, Straight was known to gripe about having to bum rides or take taxis to make it to the station. But then Jerrod Jones, an inmate at Hardee Correctional Institution, sent his wife to the radio station to deliver $300 cash to Straight. The woman told Straight to use the money for car rental, gas or whatever she needed to get to Hardee. No more excuses.
In August 2005, Straight borrowed an old Buick from her then-boyfriend's mother, paid the woman for her trouble and embarked on the 90-minute trek to Bowling Green.
• • •
Straight arrived alone on the prison yard, a 5-foot-4 1/2-inch woman standing before 1,400 male inmates.
"It was a sea of blue shirts," she said. "And brown faces, for the most part."
Jerrod Jones, the inmate, ordered the prisoners to part so Straight could walk through. They announced her arrival with four words: "The Queen is here."
"I have been more nervous performing in front of college crowds than I was being at that prison," she said. "They made me feel so welcome and so at ease."
Straight spent eight hours on the Hardee recreational yard, performing half-hour sets of her poetry.
"That's when I knew that that's what I wanted to do with my poetry," Straight said. "I had never had a vision before as to what I wanted to dedicate my craft to."
In February 2006, Straight decided instead of embarking on her usual Black History Month college circuit that she would go to prisons instead. She cold-called institutions and offered to perform for free. Most agreed.
Some of her friends asked to come along. The poets pooled their gas money and set out for Hamilton Correctional Institution near Jacksonville.
In its four years, the Poetry Is… Prison Tour has made more than a dozen stops at prisons across Florida. Straight's fan mail has included the occasional marriage proposal, which she politely but sternly rebuffs. She writes back to almost everyone, with the exception of those who have molested or murdered children. Straight sometimes gets a chilly reception from prison officials, but she shrugs it off.
"The only thing that I have changed is my level of confidence," Straight said. "When I walk in there, I don't feel like (the guards are) doing me a favor by letting me come there. I feel like this is my calling right now, so I have every right to be here."
• • •
At the Zephyrhills Correctional Institution, the performers commanded the inmates' attention with musings on Jesus and second chances and fireflies. The inmates shouted "Amen!" and "C'mon, sistah!" They said, "Take your time," when a poet forgot her lines. They gave a standing ovation after each performance.
When guitarist Sylus Green performed a call-and-response song, they participated. At one point, the group sang an a cappella rendition of the Temptations' Papa Was a Rollin' Stone. Even the staff, ever vigilant in the front row, tapped their toes.
Then came a half-hour of open-mike time. Inmate Harry Dean, a stocky 53-year-old whose past includes forgery, armed robbery, aggravated battery and homicide, closed his eyes as he belted out the song I Come Here Today Looking for a Blessing. Frank Mills, a child molester, sang My Tribute (To God Be the Glory).
Straight is not under any illusions about who these people are. She knows a sob story when she hears one, but she believes poetry restores humanity to a system that sometimes strips that away.
Next year, Straight will complete her bachelor's degree in English. She'll use it get a full-time job teaching prison GED classes, which she hopes will be her ticket to volunteering to lead poetry workshops for inmates. Within the next seven years, Straight hopes to secure grants to open an art-based halfway house that will teach newly released prisoners job-hunting skills while allowing them to express their talents in poetry, music and fine arts.
On the chapel stage, she closed her poem:
"Let us backtrack to the beginning of the lesson, where you all are not a metaphor or a statistic, and this is not a poem, but a rare gift wrapped in the guise of a paradigm shift.
"Sinners and saints salute the same saviors, so I carry no repentance, for I have been able to change lives serving sentences. And no matter who's working against this, my drive is relentless.
"Who knew I would be one to whom God would give this kinship? Because I am imperfect.
"Nothing more, nothing less than what you see on the surface. And sometimes, I still get nervous.
"Except now, because of you, my journey has a purpose."
News researchers Will Gorham and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Dalia Colón can be reached at (813) 225-3112 or [email protected]