Author’s note: I believe in the power of writing. Words on a page travel forward through time, finding people who need them. And, of course, writing heals the writer too. That's been true for me, again and again. I learned about the program Underground Writing, and Matt Malyon, who started it, when I was researching story ideas for our Skagit Valley Connects program. I reached out right away. It happened that they were about to publish a book of poems, many of them written by young people who were incarcerated. The poems were direct and stark, insistent in their power. I sat with Malyon for a few hours, listening to his story, listening to him read the stories of the young people he teaches. I hope you'll hear a few minutes of those stories and that you'll be as moved as I was. (This story originally aired Jan. 31.)
Matt Malyon is a chaplain and a writer who spends nearly every Wednesday afternoon with kids wearing orange jumpsuits. They meet in the Skagit County Juvenile Detention Center, where they read poems and song lyrics together. And, they write together.
Malyon says he also tries to introduce the kids to writers they can relate to, such as a an award-winning one who learned to read in prison.
“That’s really important for the kids to see,” Malyon said.
The rapport Malyon and other teachers build with the kids, he stressed, is key to the success of the program.
“I think it has to be an embodied awareness that you’re there to connect, and that you’re there to form a relationship with a student, even it’s just one workshop,” Malyon said.
Other places that invite Underground Writing in include a YMCA teen shelter and a club for migrant students in the Mount Vernon schools. There’s also a workshop at the jail for adults.
Most workshops have about a dozen students every week, though sometimes it’s only one or two. No matter the size of the class, the teachers share literature and offer writing prompts. Sometimes a student only attends one class. Other students have worked with them for years, staying in contact even after they are no longer incarcerated.
Malyon says the literature they choose runs the gamut. It can be ancient, or it can be a poem written by an Underground Writing student at a different location. His goal is to broaden the horizons of the students he works with, and to amplify their voices to the wider world.
To that end, Underground Writing has just published a collection, called “What No One Ever Tells You.” It includes poems from students and essays from Malyon and the writers who work with him.
Listen to the full story above. Below is an extended version of the interview with Malyon.