When Roderick Griffin published his first book of poems and essays recently, he decided to use an unusual pen name. It’s his first and last name spelled backwards.
“I felt ashamed to use my given name because I thought people would look me up and see that I was a convict,” Roderick said. “They would judge me for my past and not take my writing seriously.”
Roderick’s book is called “The Rebellious Thoughts of a Compassionate Mind.” It is an intense read. Roderick writes with forceful honesty about his experiences of a fatherless and chaotic childhood, abandoning education, repeated incarceration, substance abuse, homelessness, loneliness and depression, losing the will to live and struggling to survive, and the inescapable specter of racism. In one poem, he writes:
I know too well this pain,
and the hurt that hurt sustains
The mental stress
that refuses to rest
from the pressure of guilt and shame
The conscious confusion,
the wounds, cuts and bruises,
and the memories that are stained in blood
To live day to day
in search of a better way,
as opposed to the life that was.
Roderick is now 63. He was born and raised in Detroit. His mother was an addict who was often used by men, Roderick said. She would steal to put food on the table and clothes on his back. Roderick learned at an early age to steal himself. He dropped out of high school. At 21, he was convicted of armed robbery and served 4 years. He would be in and out of prison another six times in the next 35 years.
“I became conditioned to violence and wrongdoing,” Roderick said.
Roderick’s last prison term ended in 2015. He emerged intent never to return again.
“I knew I could change and become something different,” Roderick said. “I needed to be a better person and a better father. I wanted a purpose in life.”
Departing prison, Roderick went to a halfway house. He had a room to himself and used the time to reflect for the 90 days he was permitted to stay there. Then he went to a shelter and faced the frightful prospect of homelessness again.
At the shelter, a Southwest Solutions’ homeless outreach team found Roderick, interviewed him, and assessed his housing needs. The team determined that Roderick qualified for a program offered through Southwest Solutions’ Housing Resource Center that provides rental assistance and support services. Roderick moved into his own apartment in December 2015.
“I was so stressed when I was in the shelter because I didn’t know what would happen to me,” Roderick said. “When I got housing, it relieved all the pressure so that I could think clearly. I focused on learning, engaging people, and excelling.”
As part of the housing program, Roderick receives regular visits from clinician Christine Carbeck and peer support specialist Bukeka Thorpe.
“They’ve helped me to open up and encouraged me to express myself,” Roderick said.
Roderick is a self-taught poet. He started reading in earnest when he was in prison. The two books that influenced him the most were “The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race In America” by Shelby Steele and “Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America” by Nathan McCall.
Roderick is also a self-taught musician. He plays the drums, bass, and guitar. When he writes verse, he hears and feels musical rhythms in the tones and textures of words. Although his poems deal with suffering and alienation, there are also celebratory passages where the suffering is transformed and transcended. In his poem “Cause I’m Black,” he writes:
Yeah, cause I’m Black
I’m cool like that
the cat who put the jazz in the scat
Who put the soul in the beat,
the tap in your feet
and the rock, pop, blues and the rap
Who put the beep in the bop,
the hip in the hop,
and the swing on a brand new thing
Yeah, cause I’m Black
now whatcha know about that,
well let me show you what I really mean …
Roderick had a very limited printing of his first book and sold them all. He hopes to print more copies after he raises the funds. He has at least three more books in the works.