Writing Program at Macomb Correctional Facility Gives Voice to the Incarcerated in New Anthology

“Absent But Present: Voices from the Writer’s Block” tells the experiences of the incarcerated in Macomb Correctional Facility. A former prisoner and a poet who facilities the weekly poetry program at the prison explain the power of writing while behind bars.

A new anthology of poetry is giving a voice to Michigan prisoners.

“Absent But Present: Voices from the Writer’s Block” is a collection of poetry from the weekly Writer’s Block poetry workshop at Macomb Correctional Facility. Sales from the book will go back into the program, which has been on hold throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When I’m writing, I’m free. I can write what I want to write. I can feel what I want to feel. Writing is the equivalency of freedom for me.” — Kenneth “Bear” Tello

The program is over a decade old and was originally launched out of the University of Michigan’s Prison Creative Arts Project. Today, it’s co-facilitated by poets Walt Lucken, Dennis Teichman and Kristin Palm.

“I’m a member of the group like anybody else, but I’m obviously coming in from outside and have access to resources that others don’t have,” says Palm.

Collaborating with incarcerated members of the group, Palm pulled together the work featured in “Absent but Present.” The anthology offers powerful work that runs from heartbreaking reads to finding a sense of humor in the joyless setting of an institutionalized correctional facility.

“The amazing thing to me is how once we get into that room, it doesn’t feel like there’s an outside world or an inside world. That’s the best two hours of my week. I never laugh harder. We all feel our emotions pretty intensely,” says Palm. “Nobody can touch anybody, so to watch someone you love dearly sharing something so painful and not being able to hug them or give them a pat on the shoulder, that’s hard but that’s for two hours of my week. For these guys, that’s every day of their life for anywhere between a dozen years and a lifetime.”

Listen: Kenneth “Bear” Tello tells his story — from incarcerated 16-year-old to published poet.

Courtesy of Writer's Block / Kristin Palm
Courtesy of Writer’s Block / Kristin Palm

Kenneth “Bear” Tello was part of the Writer’s Block poetry program for over a year and half.

He was incarcerated for 21 years, first entering the justice system when was just 16 years old for armed robbery alongside additional charges stemming from the same incident. He’s been released for about nine months and is originally from Jackson, Michigan.

“From start to finish, it was a disaster,” explains Tello, who says that he was smoking weed, drinking, guns, drugs — “the whole nine” — while staying on the honor roll in school.

“I struggle with that decision every day,” says Tello. “I know the man I am today. I would never put my mother through what I put her through.”

Once incarcerated, Tello maintained his lifelong love of writing, eventually finding a new outlet via the Writer’s Block facilitated by Palm.

“I’ve been writing poetry, short stories, writing in a journal since I could write. Poetry has always been a part of my life. When I can’t get it out of my head or I can’t express it the way I need to vocally, I write it down and it becomes a release.”

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  • Ryan Patrick Hooper
    Ryan Patrick Hooper is the award-winning host of "In the Groove" on 101.9 WDET-FM Detroit’s NPR station. Hooper has covered stories for the New York Times, NPR, Detroit Free Press, Hour Detroit, SPIN and Paste magazine.