Poetic Reentry: Becoming Himself, Not A Character

Jonathan Young poses in front of his gym beside a large tire reading Rising Phoenix Transformations in Northfield, Ohio.
Jonathan Young opened his own gym, Rising Phoenix Transformations in Northfield, Ohio. [Margaret Cavalier / Ideastream Public Media]
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This story is part of a series called Poetic Reentry, featuring the voices of formerly incarcerated men reading poetry. Please visit the main page for the series at http://www.ideastream.org/poeticreentry.

Before Jonathan Young began writing poetry through the ID13 Prison Literacy Project, he spent a long time trying to "fit in" with others around him.

"I took on a character — really uncommunicative, tough enough not to be messed with — that wasn't really me, but it helped me survive," Young said.

He'd been imprisoned for robbery in connection with a heroin addiction. Eventually, as he weaned off the drug, he began to take an interest in more positive pursuits at Lake Erie Correctional Institution, where he was incarcerated.

"Eventually, I just got tired of being angry and depressed," Young said. "I started working in the library there, and then started getting involved with some of the programs," including ID13.

That was when he truly began to see to the other side of imprisonment, he said.

"Putting my my feelings on paper, I started to learn a lot about who I actually was, so I didn't have to portray a character," Young said. "I didn't have to, you know, pretend to be somebody that I wasn't when I got out."

He now works as a personal trainer, and recently started his own gym: Rising Phoenix Transformations, in the Cleveland suburb of Northfield. He's also married and a father.

When clients hear about his past, they're invariably surprised, he said.

"Everyone will say, like, 'I never would have known. I never would have known that you went to prison, that you were involved with gangs. I never knew I would have known that you were a drug addict.'" He paused and laughed. "I'm like, 'OK. Cool. So I really have been making the progress that I think I've been making."

Young doesn't write as often as he did in prison. Poetry is an outlet for darker feelings for him.

But he still revisits his old notebooks from time to time.

They're a reminder, he said, that "my darkest day today is nothing in comparison to my darkest times using."


"Disaster Pieces," by Jonathan Young:

Disaster pieces, these pieces of me,
Shattered and screaming, ruthless demons, they're teeming
Whispering reasons to pick up this needle
Got me fiending, but I won't feed them.
My heart is pleading for that one drop, but I know it won't stop.
I'd be filling up on the never enough
Till all I'm left with are these empty bottles, left looking for their empty promise.
Peace isn't waiting for me at the bottom.
I've seen the bottoms of these bottles enough times,
Looked into this melted down liquid mirror,
So quit trying to pillage my mind with all your lies.
Just keep to the shadows. Stay in the night.
Because even at my weakest moments
I can see today there is always a light.

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