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Poetic Reentry: For Cleveland Man, A Chance To 'Speak Up, Be Heard'

photo of Sam Stokes
Margaret Cavalier
Ideastream Public Media
Poet Sam Stokes poses with his granddaughter Ivy in Cleveland's Luke Easter Park.

Sam Stokes had barely written a word of poetry until one night in his prison cell, as much out of frustration as inspiration, he picked up a notebook and a pencil.

"I just wrote down how I felt about the situation," Stokes remembered.

From there, he kept going.

"It became an outlet for me to be able to express things that I felt like I couldn't say or I shouldn't say as a man, as a person," he said.

Many of his early poems were a way to unpack what drew him to become involved in street violence in his youth. Stokes spent about 20 non-continguous years incarcerated, starting when he was 10.

"My growing up wasn't a bad growing up," said Stokes, now 49. "I was adopted by two people that were wonderful. My father worked for the East Ohio Gas Company. My mother started her own daycare business. Like I say in one of my poems, I was never a dude that had to be in the streets, but I was looking for friends, for brotherhood."

Sam Stokes reads his poem "The Sun That Refuses To Shine." [Margaret Cavalier / Ideastream Public Media]

More recent work zooms out to reflect on systemic racism and the disproportionate imprisonment of Black men compared with white men.

He's now been free for about 10 years, and — as pandemic restrictions allow — he reads his poetry in neighborhood bars on Cleveland's East Side, where he lives, and at Captiv8, a downtown bar where he's a regular performer. His stage name is Sam The Ghetto Poet.

"I see (performing) as not just making a change in my life, but hopefully making change in others' lives, too, by being able to relate to some of the things I've been through," he said. "Writing poetry doesn't have to be lucrative, but it sustains my soul."

"The Sun That Refuses To Shine," by Sam 'The Ghetto Poet' Stokes

The feeling of despair covers me

As the world's energy enters my

Inner entity, disrupting my already

Fragile energy. The waves of

Emotions, the torrents of pain, the tears

That fall like rain. I know I'm

The vessel to withstand and chase the rain

Away... All I have to do is step from

Behind the clouds... Yet something

In me refuses to step up and step out.

I think I'm afraid to let the world

Really see me, not wanting the watchful

Eyes and scrutiny... Yet my past life

Was filled with such things...

Maybe I just don't want to go through

That again. Yet, I still am because

Of the "Sun" others see in me

And yet for all my bravery I

Cowardly choose to hide behind

The clouds. I refuse to chase

The rain away... I'm afraid!!!

So I remain the sun

That refuses to shine.
Copyright 2021 WCPN. To see more, visit WCPN.

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Justice matters is a statewide reporting project including WKSU, Ideastream Public Media, WOSU, WOUB, WYSO, WVXU and the Collaborative NewsLab @ Kent State University. Have something you'd like to share with us on this? Email us at justicematters@wksu.org.

Justin tells stories of Northeast Ohio’s people and also helps them tell their own stories through Ideastream Public Media’s the “Sound of Us” initiative.