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Poetry professor teaches prisoners to free their minds through prose

Loyola press release - March 10, 2014

Loyola University New Orleans English professor Mark Yakich, Ph.D., is teaching poetry to inmates in the Orleans Parish Prison—not to help them fulfill GED requirements, but simply for the sake of learning. Yakich teaches the classes as a part of the Orleans Parish Prison English Program, a humanities-based local prison education effort founded and directed by Delgado University professor and poet Nik de Dominic.

The 16-week classes are taught by visiting lecturers every other week in a tiny, bare classroom confined inside the Orleans Parish Prison. Recently, Yakich filled that classroom with lively discussions of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” during his class. While the inmates’ reaction to the collection of poems was decidedly different than the reaction Yakich typically receives from his college students at Loyola, it was clear that Whitman was a class favorite.

In his poetry, Whitman addresses people who aren’t usually exposed to studying and discussing literature—a sort of outsider crowd, according to Yakich. That resonates with inmates who have lived outside the system or are currently caught up in the system.

“Student-inmates find Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ endlessly fascinating,” Yakich said. “They easily grasp Whitman’s mix of street smarts and empathy. He, like my students, is wise beyond his years—not by a strictly educational measure, but by a human one.”

Yakich, editor of the New Orleans Review and author of the novel “A Meaning for Wife” and several poetry collections, got involved with teaching in prisons in 2006 while teaching at Central Michigan University. “I was immediately taken with the high interest of the student-inmates. Often their life experiences were dramatic, even tragic, and they brought stories and perspectives to poetry that I'd not experienced either as a student or a teacher of poetry,” Yakich said.

Recently, the Prison Poetry Workshop project featured Yakich and his poetry class at the Orleans Parish Prison in a podcast.