Dave Johnson’s innovative work as poet-in-residence for the New York City Probation Office is garnering headlines in the Big Apple. Johnson (’90) was featured in Sunday’s New York Daily News as the “poetry man,” who helps people find “rhyme and reason” in a most unlikely place — the Bronx probation office.
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“The venue may not be the first place people expect to find a poetry reading,” Denis Slattery wrote in the Daily News. “But on Thursday afternoons, the recently refurbished and repainted space on E. 161st St. transforms into a bustling hive of wordplay that would rival any coffeehouse or college lecture hall.” He quoted Johnson: “It’s not exactly your traditional classroom setting.”
Wake Forest Magazine featured Johnson, a poet, playwright, teacher and occasional actor, on magazine.wfu.edu in December and in the 2013 spring print issue. The stories sparked attention for the poetry program in the New York press, Johnson said.
He was appointed poet-in-residence last fall as part of the city’s efforts to bring community programs into probation offices. In a place that’s all about waiting — people may wait for hours to see their probation officer — he poses an inviting question: What are you waiting for? He encourages them to express their feelings through poetry and share their work with others.
In the Daily News article, Noel Cuadrado, who is completing his 10-year probation, said Johnson is bringing probationers and community residents together. “It’s so much more than just poetry,” he said. “It’s a person investing their time and effort to make us feel like a part of the community again.”
When Wake Forest Magazine caught up with Johnson again this week, he was brimming with enthusiasm. He’s starting a literary journal and website that will feature poems written by probation clients. His weekly poetry workshops and readings have developed dedicated followers — not only probation clients but members of the surrounding community, too.
“I am very pleased the program has taken off, ” said Johnson, who was an English and theater double major at Wake Forest. “The clients are excited to write and so are the POs (probation officers), the administrative staff and the security guards. They all are writing and reading their work to each other at our weekly open mics. This is truly extraordinary to witness.”
For National Poetry Month in April, Johnson will invite guest poets to the probation office. On “Poem in Your Pocket Day” on April 18, Johnson and probation clients will read their poems at Poets House, the 50,000-volume international poetry library in New York. He will also led poetry workshops with school children at Poets House.
“We’ve done some good work and there is much more we can do,” he said. “The power of poetry is redemptive and limitless.”