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‘Sound of Us’ tells stories Northeast Ohioans want to tell — in their own voices.

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

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

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."

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.

This story is part of a series called Poetic Reentry, featuring the voices of formerly incarcerated men reading poetry.

Justin Glanville is the deputy editor of engaged journalism at Ideastream Public Media.