In prison for 27 years, Robert Counts (known then as Ishmael Shamsid-din) read Shakespeare and Robert Frost, Einstein, Malcolm X and the Koran. In fact, he read almost anything he could get his hands on. Time, a terrible burden to people behind bars, was a gift he treasured.
Inspired initially by Malcolm X, Langston Hughes and Don L. Lee, Counts began reflecting on his years growing up: a wild kid from a desperately poor household in the Newark projects.
He thought about his mother, a domestic worker, forever exhausted by the effort to feed and clothe seven kids. He remembered the sly corner drug dealers, the local women battered by drunken lovers, and the pool hall where he hung out, imitating the older guys and selling small stolen items.
To cope with a flood of bitter memories, he began writing: first, sketches of neighborhood violence and then portraits of prisoners shackled by day and screeching at night.
A Christian missionary brought him an anthology of American poetry, and he latched onto Frost and later Wallace Stevens. Frost's "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening" haunted him: the blessed silence so lacking behind bars; the pristine snowfall; and the wonder of having promises to keep.
In prison, he told me, "the only promises you can have is to yourself." With Frost's accessible wisdom and cool logic in mind, he wrote a poem to his Parole Board entitled "if only."
if only human beings could traverse time
back to and through
the very indifference and strife
which caused that first human
to take that first life, if only
apples were oranges and i could undo
all the pains i've caused to others,
i would soothe them with the sweetness of ripe fruit
aged in trees removed from time and youth
if i were young again, unsalted by the very indifference
which causes justice to sit ever so comfortably
upon the fence, judging others with the scurrilous scrutiny
which keeps connecting me forever
to that movement in time
when frustration only sighed in reply, if only
roses had no thorns and apples were oranges
and every child born were but a citizen of the world...
the life that i stole could be reborn in the dirges of my redemption
i had promises to keep
Returning again and again to a beat-up Shakespeare that circulated among the prison writers, Counts struggled through the love sonnets, Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. He relied on Webster's Dictionary for help with Shakespeare -- and then to develop a language incorporating cosmic dreams and gutter realities.
His desire, in dozens of poems, was to celebrate imagination and love -- even in the face of history's cruelties and his own dreadful disappointments and mistakes. "Rejection" is such a poem:
I am the stone that the builders must reject
yet I house not anger nor regret
toward anyone lacking imagination,
I was born to move mountains,
to command the breath of worldwinds and hurricanes
to never look back nor down, except in introspection,
to make certain that only splendor surrounds me
and yet when I see pebbles floating on the scum of time,
I am forced to reflect, how can it be
that I am the stone that the builders must reject,
yet I stand tall without such defects,
for perhaps one day, the builders will need just such a structure
to measure up to...
Poetry liberated Counts from the confines of his prison cell. It gave him inner freedom, a world of love and natural beauty, and a sense of possibility. Reading and writing poems, he says, "made me human."
After prison, as a free man, he says he was determined to live poetry -- even if he couldn't focus on writing it. With poetry on the back burner, he placed cooking front and center. In February of 2008, while living in a halfway house, Robert Counts enrolled in the free, 14-week Food Service Training Academy (FSTA) at the Community FoodBank of NJ.
He'd never earn a living as a writer, but he had hopes for cooking. As a child, watching his grandmother and mother, he learned to make chitterlings, tripe, collard greens, fried chicken, and perfectly tender chuck steak.
Today the initials C.C. -- Certified Culinarian -- appear next to his name on his white chef's jacket. At 52, Robert Counts marvels at the life he is creating. It's all about remaining hopeful and trusting his imagination, he says.
Tall and well built, with a striking sculpted face and wry humor, this poet-and-chef appreciates the links between his two callings: feeding the soul and feeding the body. In prison, he trained his mind by reading other poets and studying dictionaries.
Now, he looks forward to the publication of his first book of poetry First Light and Other Poems (Full Court Press, fall/winter 2012) while reading dictionaries of culinary terms along with Escoffier, the grand master of traditional French cuisine. And he gives recipes the attention he gives to poems.
"Recipes like poems are roadmaps" Counts says. "If you follow the map, you'll do okay."
"Okay" is a wise man's understatement. The road ahead for The Prison Poet is steep, exacting, uncertain and free.