I LOVE YOUR POEM!: Maggie Saunders on George Pappas’s “Freedom Rap”

This is part of the “I LOVE YOUR POEM!” series, in which people submit on behalf of local poets whose work they admire and write about why they do. The idea is not only to highlight great work, especially from those who may not submit the work themselves, but also to create a big gushy lovefest in the community. If you’re interested in submitting on behalf of a local poet you love you can check out the submission guidelines here

I first met George during a Beyond Academia Free Skool (BAFS) workshop. The theme was “Change, Closure, & Grief.” The world was still social distancing and the monthly second Sunday BAFS workshop was happening outdoors, under a tree in front of the Boulder Public Library Canyon Gallery. It was October 2021, and decomposing crab apples adorned the ground. I arrived with a few blankets to sit on, a stack of books which I thought captured the class theme, and a bouquet of the remaining flowers from my garden. George was my only student that day, which I am very grateful about for many reasons.

First, George was very open minded and thoughtful regarding my intense prompts. Turns out we were both pretty intense and had a reason to be; we both shared similar shadows to grieve and reconcile with.  If the opposite of shadow is reflection, then those who have done their shadow work tend to embrace the realm of reflection more willingly. Reflection becomes an essential tool for survival. George and I shared that as well; we both had survived a similar battle. Both of us carried the shadows of addiction. I chose to lead a workshop on grief during October because it was the 6 year anniversary of my father’s passing. However, he had been gone years prior; by the time he passed away, he was no longer himself. He had become the shadow of addiction. 

During class, George openly shared that he was recently released after serving five years of a 13 year prison sentence where he battled his shadow. As I listened to his story I saw George as a miracle, someone who was able to rise up and do the work my father had been unable to. George proved to me that in the realm of addiction there is still space to rise up beyond rock bottom.

Beyond his shadow story, I also saw George as a miracle because he was committed to writing at least three pages every day. Two attributes I am often in awe of are conviction and commitment. George had conviction in his journey, with reverence for those who had helped him along the way. He was committed to the process of continuously healing and rising up beyond his past. 

As George read, his writing carried a natural rhythm and unique voice. The stream of consciousness style allowed for the depth of George’s thought process to flow onto the page. Through his writing emerged themes of introspection and contemplation on the story that shapes who we are as individuals and as a part of something larger than ourselves. His thoughtfulness came as no surprise to me, as I know those who are most likely to befriend the shadow of addiction, are often incredibly intuitive and full of big feelings. Addiction offers a sense of false security at the price of sanity. However, George is an example of alchemy, actively turning poison into medicine. Through the power of continuous reflection and connection to community, George has proven that anyone can rise up beyond the oppressive nature of addiction. Anyone can reclaim their identity and rewrite how the narrative of their life unfolds. 

George and I also share a love of skateboarding. While I can’t ride a skateboard to save my life, I have always been fascinated by the practice. I remember when my dad helped me learn how to ride a skateboard one weekend in sixth grade. On Monday, I said to my dad, “I wish I could stay home from school so I can practice skateboarding some more.” To my surprise, he responded, “you can!” That day, he decided to test out how fast I would go if he put grease on the bottom of my skateboard wheels. Looking back, I think he was probably inebriated (that’s when I tend to have my “experimental” ideas as well). While I was getting pretty good at coasting downhill, I realized as I sped downhill approaching a highly trafficked road with grease on my tires, that I was not yet skilled in stopping. My dad yelled to me to skate into him, I shifted my weight towards where he was standing, & he managed to stop me before I went into the road (& ended up getting more hurt than I did. That was the last of my skateboarding days).

Turns out that in addition to being a phenomenal writer, George is a kickass skateboarder! In the past two years of knowing George, he has traveled internationally to compete in skateboard competitions. I light up every time I see videos of George shredding around the globe doing what he loves. I light up every time George gets up on the mic and reads. I light up because George is living proof that we always have the choice to take back the pen and write the story of how our lives unfold. I am humbled to know him; to know that even though we first met during a class which I was teaching on grief, I have learned so much through George’s friendship and it has become such a healing part of my own grief process. The workshop description was  “Come process, reveal, and potentially heal in community.” He has taught me so much about what it is to be an active participant in the process. He has brought such depth and vulnerability to our poetic community. 

There’s a quote by Shakespeare which reads, “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.”

George continuously conjures up the words to name his sorrow, and in doing so, has created a strength and resiliency of spirit that is awe inspiring. It feels arbitrary to choose just one of George’s poems that I love, because I love each piece of writing he shares. I love that in George’s writing we find not just a story of recovery, but a story of reclamation; a reclaiming of the true self which lies below the shadows that follow us. One poem of George’s I find particularly inspiring to return to is his “Freedom Rap.” This poem was written on the day George had been in prison for officially four years, and was celebrating four years clean. George shared a video with me, captured by his sister, of him reciting this poem moments after his release. Experiencing this poem feels almost nostalgic, in that it reminds us of the moments that landmark the journey to now. Everytime I re-experience this poem, I re-experience a sense of deep admiration for George’s commitment, conviction, and compassion. His strength, vulnerability, resilience, and courage help me to grieve the way addiction has impacted my life. When I reexperience this poem, I reconcile with and reclaim the relationships I’ve lost due to the sultry shadows that offer us a place to hide from sorrow. I think the common threads that emerge in our poems speak to that which connect us. I am reminded of a line in a poem I wrote in reflection of my father’s passing which reads, “Faith is finding hope in the sorrow, believing in a better tomorrow, or at least one you are willing to learn from.” When I experience George’s “Freedom Rap” I relearn that we are all, as he writes, “time traveling, forever commanding this ever expanding landing strip called now.” Now, it is year 2023, and I am humbled to be co-commanding this “ever expanding landing strip” in the company of a creative community which is ever more enhanced by the presence and poetry of George Pappas.

“Freedom Rap” 

Four years ago I got locked up, 
Four years ago I didn't know my, identity. 
4 years ago I was locked up, 
Didn't know who I was meant to be. Incredibly, 
I got locked up! 
And begin to be, 
this new entity. 
Had to be. 
For my psychology, 
was logically, 
Didn't care, 
about anyone out there. 
Just my own hair, 
to save. 
Wasn't brave. 
A coward, 
Outside all sour. 
A dead flower. 
Now it is different. 
Four years today, 
mind play, 
and I say, 
my mind is better! 
I can think, even rhyme, 
I watch my thoughts feelings and behavior, in real time, 
and it's so clear. 
I catch my thoughts and switch. 
Pull my mind out of the ditch 
and I'm rich. 
I get better and better, 
I follow the letter, 
with awareness. 
And I speak less, 
less stress, 
ego less.
And my life, 
no longer as big a mess. 
As four years ago. 
When tears did flow. 
Until I let go, 
of this big ego. 
Now life I embrace it. 
And I base it, 
on love. 
I can't be above 
My thoughts feelings and actions 
are dictated not by fear and reactions, 
but love. 
My responses are stronger. 
The gap between circumstance and action gets longer and longer. Thoughts feelings behavior, 
I'm a responder. 
Time traveling, 
forever commanding, 
the ever-expanding, 
called now. 
So don't trip. 
I get better and let it rip 
Cause ego 
has jumped ship. 
And I let go. 
And presto. 
The right action is so so in the flow. 
And I just let it be so. 
Cuz I know, 
I aint in control. 
Mind slow 
slo mo 
ipso facto 
no reaction. 
I ain't bitter. 
So I grow and grow 
new neurotransmitter 
super highways
continue to grow 
and Flow 
and grow. 
Four years ago, 
I was so low 
can't grasp how low 
I was living in the back of my Volvo, basin' my self worth 
on this outside shit show! 
Today I look back 
at my cracka lacka Life whack 
heart attack, 
I was such a nac, 
couldn't seem to stack 
those green backs. 
I was always getting jacked 
at every trap shack 
off Colfax. 
Now my life has snapped back 
and I'm on track 
to keep my pact 
with no act. 
All facts 
I'm spittin out 
How humility and gratuity are Paramount. 
My mind's full of loves pull, 
and I can't bull 
shit you, 
'cause I ain't fit to 
do this without you. 
And I know loves about too 
explode through 
Four years. 
And four years for the breakthrough to know that love permeates through out 
all life! 
And I'm about 
to get out 
to life.
And I'll find out 
And I'll have to pull out 
my toolbox 
With ways to deal with the adversity life 
's about to hand me, 
like candy to a baby, 
all the temptation of this big city 's been waiting for me 
for 4 years! 
And oh yeah I've got fears, 
the day I've got that gate in front of me. And I'll be a ball of vulnerability. And this ain't no time to be frontin', see. 
Cuz even though it's up to me. Ultimately. 
I've got to open that toolbox and see that it's love, 
and community, 
supporting me. 
I can't do this shit alone, 
can't you see 
that I need my support system, coping skills, 
and this new identity 
to handle this thing called life, that's in front of me? 
So when you're seeing me 
four years in the future, 
I'll still be spittin’ this word 
And paying it forward… 

George Pappas
June 6th 2019

Maggie Saunders is the Chairperson of Beyond Academia Free Skool LLC, an autodidactic poet, Summa Cum Laude graduate in Early Childhood Education, and current Chancellor’s Scholar at CU Denver studying Human Development and Family Relations. Her writing can be found in OUT Front MagazineBoulder Weekly, the South Broadway Ghost Society’s Thought For Food anthology, and at https://akashicrecordpoetry.blogspot.com/ .