National Poetry Month is an annual celebration in April that highlights the importance of poetry in our lives and commemorates the extraordinary work of American poets. This Poetry Month, the Fortune Society is honored to highlight the work of Fortune client and poet Hilton N. Webb, Jr. Hilton came to Fortune in 2017 after being released from prison and soon became involved with Fortune’s Creative Arts program, which he found to be a great space for self–reflection.
“The space [Jamie Maleszka, the Creative Writing Teacher, has] created is conducive for people to share their heart, their soul, and it’s affirming and it’s positive,” said Hilton, in reference to his experience with our Creative Arts program.
In Fortune’s creative writing class, participants nurture self and community as they hone the craft and power of telling their own stories through poetry, short story, open letters, playwriting and more. Opportunities are offered year-round to publish, perform and collaborate with other artists and organizations. Writers share their work with one another in groups. Despite the vast differences in their lives, Hilton emphasized that there is beauty in finding harmony within their writing.
An avid writer for most of his life, Hilton fell in love with poetry when a friend introduced him to the work of Sylvia Plath. Soon after, he began writing more seriously and has had several works published. One of his recent poems, “Perspective,” discussed his experiences during the COVID-19 lockdown and the importance of remembering one’s point of view in conversations about quarantine.
He discussed how people’s complaints about the restrictiveness of masks and quarantine rules often ignore the perspective of those who have experienced the justice system in America.
He spoke more about the importance of perception and perspective when discussing one of his most poignant poems, “Every (Wo)man.” The poem, which touches on the experiences of women from different marginalized groups, is particularly striking because, as Hilton himself describes, “the words don’t fit the person delivering them.” Yet, for Hilton, this is what makes “Every (Wo)man” so powerful.
“I think that when people are off-kilter and their perceptions are shifted, they might listen better,” he said.
Of all the writing mediums that exist, Hilton prefers poetry over essays or stories.
“I prefer poetry because it’s more intense, and I think poetry is the language of revolution,” he said.
Speaking on the importance of revolution, Hilton also discussed his experience of being Black in America, from his days as a child in Philadelphia, Mississippi, to his experience watching news coverage of the murder of George Floyd. As he wrestled with the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing emotional strain, Hilton explained how writing became a cathartic experience for him.
“When I watched the whole ,” he began, “I just couldn’t watch that and not write something. It would have destroyed me. For me, writing is how I keep my sanity.”
Hilton’s poem describes how the story of George Floyd and the history of being Black in America is not simply one of racial inequality and injustice, but one of sheer brutality and inhumanity. Through his poems, Hilton hopes that more people will become aware of the conscious and unconscious experiences of Black Americans.
In the future, Hilton wants to continue writing poetry and hopefully have a book of his poems published. Hilton has written several hundred poems over the course of his life.
Hilton’s experiences with Fortune and his incredible work as a poet demonstrate the power of poetry, not only as a way to tell stories and share experiences but also as a form of revolution in and of itself.