Elvis Alves ’02 was in the sticky, claustrophobic heat of the Mississippi Delta — a place center to the blues and race consciousness — on a service learning trip in the spring of 2017. While there, he wrote poems about the music and people’s stories.
He also thought about the bluesman Lead Belly, who was incarcerated at Parchman Prison. Pressing pen to paper, Alves wrote about the notorious prison:
Built to last, hold bodies as a hole that runs to infinity and back. Black gold never sold.
Time was never enough until time stops in here and you
are surrounded by selves without direction to go beyond
a state of degeneration. Authorized penetration of body, mind, and soul. Nothing has ever been good to the person behind your doors.
“Being in that region of the South, knowing its history, and interacting with people prompted poems that I think are powerful,” he says. “I write with the intent of giving a voice to the oppressed.”
This poem, which he titled after the prison, is one of 59 that appear in Alves’s third book, I am no battlefield but a forest of trees growing. The Pushcart Prize–nominated poet, teacher, and Princeton Theological Seminary graduate worked on his manuscript for approximately three years before it was published in 2018 by Franciscan University Press — his prize for winning the Jacopone da Todi Poetry Prize. Alves reveals more about his work:
I am no battlefield but a forest of trees growing has to do with the black body being objectified, whether that’s through media or intimate relationships. It’s saying that the black body should be respected like any other body — and not, for example, gunned down or abused. I’m being critical of police brutality, state-sanctioned violence against black and brown bodies, so it’s a heavy title. Also, when I started this manuscript, I’d just come out of a serious relationship. It was hard for me to write because of the emotional toll that took. One of the first things I wrote was: I am no battlefield but a forest of trees growing. It was to remind myself that things will get better, that I am still a whole person even though I’m going through this bad breakup.
Race plays a role in my poetry because I navigate the world as a black man. Writing provides an avenue for me to put my feelings and thoughts on a canvas.
Some people have the idea that poetry by nature is inaccessible. I like to counter that claim by making my poems accessible, and I do that by adopting a more narrative style.
My poetry is influenced by literature, so there are a lot of prose. I want people to think deeply about what I write, so not everything is plainly laid out, but still approachable.
My spirituality informs how I live. Going to seminary and having theological training has allowed me to be present in the lives of individuals, including students. I believe that the more human you are, the more spiritual you are.