an interview with
poet caleb balton
8 | 22 |16
transcribed by dominic inouye
edited by caleb balton
I’ve been writing since I was 11, and most of the time it was when I was feeling down. Poetry gave me an outlet to express my pain. I dealt with a lot of bullying growing up, so I used poetry initially to express the anger that bullies brought me. As I got older and I could understand and had to face poverty, depression, family issues, and just dealing with my own demons, poetry became the outlet I used to express it and not hold it. There’s a lot of pain that people feel--and they can articulate it by writing it out. Writing is one of the oldest and purest forms of expression. It’s almost as old as humankind itself and words can live forever. Think about it: all those writers from the past that still resonate today. Like Shakespeare. And hundreds of years before that. The ancient Egyptians have hieroglyphics that are still here even when they’re not. That’s what I strive to do with my writing and poetry.
I remember it was Christmas time in 2014 when I read on this forum I frequent about a six-year-old girl named Kendrea Johnson who had committed suicide. I couldn’t believe at the time that a kid could do that. There’s a lot of stuff you think could never happen and it does. But a child killing herself is something I never thought could happen. Like do they even have the mind capacity to even think of suicide let alone actually do it? Anyway, it broke my heart; I wrote it immediately after reading the article and I’m not going to lie, I was crying while I wrote it. And that’s a feat in itself, as I rarely cry. It had been years prior to reading that article that I cried over something. But it touched me, so I wrote a poem and called it “Dear Kendrea.” Because she was so young and it was around Christmas, I incorporated things that a six-year-old girl might be thinking about during that season and just in general: dolls, Santa Claus, baby teeth, Disney princesses. These details ended up in the fourth paragraph. Though I hate that this had to happen to her for me to learn about her and write about it, it was “Dear Kendrea” that helped me realize that I could write not just for me, but also as a voice for the voiceless to shed some light on other people’s story and plight and move people with these stories, too. It’s without question one of the favorite poems I’ve written and I consider it probably my saddest and most emotionally resonant one. Everything I’ve written since then has been in this mold: poems written more so as intricate conversations that tell a particular story or that have a particular message and not poems in the traditional sense with stanzas and rhyming, which I never really did anyway.
On the Tuesday after police officer Dominique Heaggan killed Sylville K. Smith during a traffic stop in the Sherman Park neighborhood and many people responded with violence and destroyed property, and even more people responded with confusion and dismay, anger and hatred, firing "Us" and "Them" around social media like word bullets, I sat down with a 19-year-old poet named Caleb Balton in the cafe of a downtown hotel where Donald Trump arrived for a campaign fundraiser not half an hour after we left (the lobby and surrounding streets brimmed with police officers). Mr. Trump's eventual stop that Tuesday was outside of the city, in West Bend, which he kept calling "Milwaukee," where he attempted to position himself as a law-and-order president who was going to be tough on crime and also communicate and cooperate with the African American community.
While we ate, Caleb shared his story about growing up, one that was less about growing up in poverty and more about discovering his poetic voice.
I am happy to share Caleb's voice with you here. You missed a cool opportunity, Mr. Trump. This is the face of someone who is making his America, his Milwaukee, great-- one word at a time.
Then in late 2015, I saw a video on Facebook that showed this black kid by the name of Kalief Browder getting beaten up by fellow juvenile inmates back in 2010 and getting beat up my correctional officers a few years after. I said to myself “Man, that’s messed up,” but I left it at that and didn’t think much of it. Months later, he, too, committed suicide. I recognized the story from months prior and so I did more research. Back when Kalief was 16 in 2010, he was suspected of stealing a book bag and wrongly convicted. He went to Rikers Island, and in the three years he spent there, he never got a trial. While he was incarcerated, he was beaten by the guards, starved, and put in solitary at different times for a total of two years. When he got out in 2013, he had a lot of psychological problems and was in and out of mental institutions. He was also in community college for a bit but dropped out due to his mental health issues. He committed suicide in June of last year by hanging himself. Again, I said to myself, “Man, that’s messed up. I need to write about that.” So I wrote this poem from his perspective because I figured it would be more powerful for “him” to tell you what he went through than just me saying it. As with “Dear Kendrea,” I incorporated words and phrases from the stories I had researched. And instead of just using words from the articles I read, I also watched many videos with Kalief as he talked about what he went through and used that as well.
They reaped my freedom and left me to languish in this living hell called Rikers Island. As the days turned to weeks, the weeks turned to months, and the months turned to years, my fantasies of once again being free became foreign as I sat and waited for a trial that never happened.
My own imagination created false happiness filled with seeing my family and friends in the flesh, eating an old-fashioned home-cooked meal, and telling the people that I cared about I loved them face to face and not through a glass window. It became detrimental, as I knew it was just that: imaginary.
I was still locked up in one of the most notorious prisons in the nation for a crime I didn't do, I was still put in solitary confinement for just glancing at a c.o wrong, and I was still so hungry that I had to literally beg the c.o's for another piece of bread because the rations they were giving me weren't enough for a growing teenager.
I'd always heard stories about Rikers. About how you're nothing but a number in the
system and once you enter into that penitentiary, you're no longer you. You’re Inmate
#19932015. About how you're treated like a subhuman and you might as well be an animal because that's how they treat you. I never imagined that one day I would my spend my adolescent years incarcerated for a petty crime. A crime I didn't commit. Allegedly stealing a book bag cost me three years of my life.
Fighting a daily battle against crooked c.o's starving and beating me, inmates with life
trying to shorten mine, and my own psyche deteriorating as I spent a total of about two years in total seclusion, I was tired of putting my restless head on my tear soaked pillow every night and suicide seemed like the only way out. I tried several times but each time I was unsuccessful.
But one day, a pivotal decision arose. I could leave all this madness and sorrow behind and all I had to do was plead guilty. I could have walked right out of that prison but I stuck with it. If I would have taken that deal, then all of this would have been for nothing. The tears shed, the hours passed, the years wasted would have all been in vain, as I would admit to a crime I knew I didn't commit.
I fought it and even with a 15 year sentence looming over my head, I stuck it out. In June of 2013, my case was dismissed because of lack of evidence and I was able to go home after spending three years of my childhood locked up. I was only 16 years old when I walked into Rikers and when I walked out I was 20. Not only did the world outside that 6X 8 cell change, but I changed as well. I looked at the world and everyone in it differently.
And even though my body was physically free, my mind and spirit were both still
paralyzed. Trapped by the chains that Rikers left on me. Little did I know these chains
would have a stranglehold on me until the day I took my final breath.
I know you'll never get to see these words I’m going to write for you. And even if
you could you'd probably be too young to understand it anyway. But I feel obligated
to shine a light on you, honor your memory, and most importantly give you
something I know you probably longed and hoped for but should have come
naturally from the people around you: Love. From the bottom of my heart, I want to
say I'm sorry. I'm so sorry for the terrible life that was forced upon you.
The sadness that I know consumed you and the hopelessness that I know you felt.
These are things no one your age should be feeling. Childhood means innocence.
The time of your life when you shouldn't have to worry about a thing. Where you are
showered with love and the people who love you protect you from harm and shield
you from society's ills.
But sadly this wasn't the case for you. In the short six years you were here, you went
through hell and back and reading through your story I can't believe these vile things
happened to you. As I sit here wiping away the tears that began to fall for you, I can't
help but think of what or who drove you to do something like this. I doubt a six-year-
old would even understand the concept of death let alone suicide so I need to hear
the full story. But what I do know is that you are no longer here with us and that
breaks my heart. I've seen many people go before they ever truly lived but you really
never did and that leaves me broken up inside.
You should still be here. Living life to the fullest with people who care about you.
You should be playing with dolls, writing your Christmas list to Santa Claus,
putting your baby teeth under your pillow hoping the tooth fairy comes and leaves
you money. You should have been treated like a princess you saw on Disney
movies. But instead you were victimized.
Having thoughts about suicide every day of the week, being put in foster homes, and
drawing pictures of children hanging is not something a child your age should be
experiencing, doing, or thinking about. The day before you died you were so excited
for a church dance the next day. I don't understand what happened that drove you
past the point of no return and that will forever baffle me. On your suicide note you
wrote “I'm sorry” and “I'm sad for what I do.” But you did nothing wrong. You were
a beautiful little girl who from brought happiness to everyone around her. You had
your entire life ahead of you and could have done anything you wanted to do. But you
shouldn't be sorry for anything. On the contrary, I'm sorry. I'm sorry that even though you brought happiness to others, they didn't do the same for you.
I'm sorry that no one was there to protect you and show you that they cared. I'm
sorry that you're no longer here. Even though I never knew or met you and more
than likely never would have, this story brought out emotions that I haven't felt in a
long time. I never imaged something like this could ever happen but since it has I
feel like I need to inform people of you and make sure you're never forgotten.
Sleep Easy Little Princess
R.I.P Kendrea Johnson
Gone but Never Forgotten
My poems are usually pretty dark and they deal with a lot of taboo subjects--death, murder, suicide, and race relations--because, well, I’m kind of a dark person.* I don’t feel much happiness in my life and my poetry shows that because it is a reflection of my life. If I write a happy or uplifting poem, it’s only because I feel I need it or the world needs it at the time. That’s what “Stand For Something” was, a poem talking about my personal feelings about those black men getting wrongfully murdered and those five cops getting killed. The country was in turmoil and I felt writing about it would hopefully give the hope that people needed during that time.
I do not come to you as a writer.
I do not come to you as a poet.
I come to you as a young black male living in America who has something to say.
We’re living in a time of great chaos and distress.
In the span of a couple of days, two black men were shot by the police and five police officers were killed themselves.
To say these are turbulent times would be an understatement.
136 blacks have been killed by the police so far in 2016 and with the way things are going, more people are likely to be added to that list.
That's 136+ lives that are going to be lost. 136+ funerals to attend. 136+ families left to grieve.
The reason I’m writing this is because I felt I needed to. Being a black man in America, it seems you’re living on borrowed time. This ”shoot first and ask questions later” mentality that these cops use has ended more lives than it has saved and you never know if you could be next.
I could have and still can be number 137 on that list of lost souls. You can wake up tomorrow morning, turn on the news to check the weather for the day, and see that 19-year-old Caleb Balton was gunned down because they had ”mistaken” the pen I used to write this as a weapon.
But they would be right. This pen is a weapon. Not a weapon used as a means to destroy but as a means to uplift when it’s really needed. I made a promise to myself that for however long I breathe I would use my pen to shed light on what’s wrong with the world and get it out to the masses however I could.
Most people can’t handle the truth, but it’s much needed. When I put pen to paper, if the truth isn’t coming out, no matter how ugly or uncomfortable it is, then I don’t deserve to be here. If whatever I write doesn’t touch you in some way, then I didn’t do the duty I imposed on myself as being a messenger for the people, courier for the underdog, a bearer of truth in a world full of fakes.
I hope I have done just that. We’re dying in mass amounts and we as people need to make a charge. And when I say as a people, I don’t mean just black and white. I mean the human race. As more innocent people die, more cops will die. You can’t just kill at will and not expect the worst to happen. But you also can’t fight fire with fire and not expect an inferno to go ablaze. I understand the frustration we all are feeling.
I feel it as well but I need you to realize something. It might seem as if nobody is willing to stand up for us, but just know I am and forever will. It might not seem like it but this world still has people like me who aren’t afraid to look into the eyes of the oppressor and tell them ”you can kill me but you can’t wipe out my people.” I’ll stand for you for as long as you stand with me and we'll all fight and struggle together.
A lot of people ask me how I write. And I usually just tell them that I just do it. It comes how it comes and it’s all real. Fellow poets and past teachers have told me I should use more literary techniques. You know metaphors, similes, alliteration, etc. I could include metaphors and other literary devices. Though I do want to use more as time goes on, for right now, I don’t feel it’s necessary; the message that I’m trying to get to you is enough.
My senior College Possible coach told me about Express Yourself Milwaukee, saying the internship might be something I’d be interested in. Since he knew I loved writing and that I’ll do anything once, I gave it a shot. I got all dressed up: a vest, dress pants, a new haircut, everything but a suit jacket. But I didn’t get it. They told me that if someone dropped out, then they’d consider me. Then a week later I got an email saying that someone had dropped out.
I interned from March through May 2015. I appreciate Express Yourself Milwaukee because they gave kids like me who could write, dance, draw--pretty much anything creative--a chance to be with other kids our age who could do the same thing and enjoyed it just as much. Now I can’t dance or draw a lick but of course I write, so I wrote various poems and I wrote the majority of a poem we interns ended up performing at our year-end show in front of almost 1,000 people. Express Yourself gave youth who otherwise might be out on the streets an opportunity to show their talents--and I’m forever grateful for that.
Other than Express Yourself Milwaukee, the biggest thing that kept me on the straight and narrow was my family. My mom, who raised me by herself, always did what she could to give us what we needed. She was the sole breadwinner in my family so she had to sacrifice a lot for us: me and my five other siblings. We’re a close-knit family and she, along with the rest of my family, kept me on the straight and narrow.
They always beat it into my head that school was important and to focus on that. Now I’ve never been the best student, but I always listened to them in that regard because I knew it was true. And I never was one to be a follower anyway or be susceptible to peer pressure, so my intelligence always knew what was right and wrong and I never veered off into the wrong because I knew what it could possibly bring . I never sold drugs, never joined a gang--even though I could have. I knew that those were short-term solutions for long-term problems and it wasn’t worth it.
I looked for jobs for five years, from the ages of 13 to 18. And even though I did look for and apply to a lot of jobs, I was young and dumb for a time and so I used to say, “I don’t want to work at a supermarket. I want something bigger.” But you can only be broke for so long before you just bite the bullet and apply where you said you wouldn’t before. I remember in high school, there was time when our family was living without lights. It wasn’t our first time without but this time i was old enough to actually do something about it. I needed to get a job to help and i was tired of seeing my mom struggle. So one of my best friends from Pulaski High School and I went up and down to the businesses that lined the streets near Pulaski, looking for a job. But everyone either said they weren’t hiring or that we had to apply online. Finally, I got my first last year. It’s ironic that it was a supermarket: Pick ‘n Save.
After I graduated from Pulaski, I was a student at UW-Oshkosh for about a year. It was a good experience for me and I met a lot of great people. Everything was good until I realized how bad my GPA was at the end of my first semester. I had to check it for my fraternity's initiation and when I did, I had a 0.98 GPA. I was shocked, to say the least, but I did what I had to do to get it up in the month left I had before winter break. I ended up with a 1.2, I believe, and passed all my classes except one. The rest were C’s and D’s mostly, but hey, at least I passed, right? After thinking on it and getting opinions, I decided to transfer to Milwaukee and attend MATC for a year or two. I feel like this would be the best choice for me as I can boost my GPA to something acceptable, take all my general classes that I would have had to taken anyway for much cheaper, and because it is cheaper I can save a lot of money.
I’ve always had ambition to do something more, something big. I literally dream of it all the time. And I don’t just mean dreaming as while I’m sleeping. I mean constantly thinking about it. It’s like an obsession to be somebody that I’ve had for as long as I can remember. I don’t want a regular job when I’m older. You know, people who do the same thing for so long, wake up, go to their nine to five job, go home, and do the same exact thing the next day for 40 plus years. They get complacent. I don’t want that.
There are so many things I want to do, so many things I know I can do. It’s like I have to achieve what I set out for myself to do to be truly happy.
And I can’t stop until I do.
* Editor's Note: As he said this, Caleb proceeded to open no fewer than eight Sweet’N Lows and sugars to sweeten his iced tea: “It still isn’t sweet enough.”