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  • Lee Parsons, Staff Writer

Poet Sterling Cunio addresses activism in Willamette MLK talk

Sterling Cunio. Photo by Caramia Christensen

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration event Willamette University held on Jan. 24 hosted keynote speaker Sterling Cunio, who spoke about his personal journey with activism and poetry. Cunio was sentenced to life in prison without parole at 16 years old, but after transforming his life, Cunio was released after serving 28 years. He is now an award-winning poet and activist raising awareness for restorative justice, mass incarceration and food scarcity. 

While opening the event, Cunio admitted to being nervous and said, “I’m a poet, so I’ll lead with a poem.” Beginning with the line, “Born to a woman shackled to a hospital bed,” Cunio detailed his life in verse. He described the dysfunction in his childhood beginning at 12 years old, his crime-filled adolescence, and his conversion into commitment to activism and redemption. Reading this poem provided necessary context about his background, he explained. 

Cunio was raised in a stable environment for 12 years until the death of his grandmother, after which he was moved between dysfunctional family members, juvenile correctional facilities and foster homes before spending two years homeless in Salem, Oregon. Cunio says that his adverse childhood provided the typical setup for a life of crime, but that ultimately his own actions “lost him his life, and others’ lives as well.” 

After entering the prison system, Cunio spent nine years in solitary confinement. This gave him time to reflect on his life and the effects he had on others, and during this time he began to write. Cunio stated, “There wasn’t a lot of places I could be vulnerable, so I went to the page.” Conventions tended to get in the way of Cunio’s writing to express himself due to his lack of formal education, so he turned to poetry where he was less restricted. In his words, “All you have to do [to write poetry] is feel.”

The literature that helped Cunio along his journey included Nelson Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom,” William Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice” and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The first poem Cunio ever wrote was about Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK). The response he got to this poem from friends and peers encouraged him to become a spoken-word poet. Sitting in jail himself, MLK's letter from jail helped him discover himself. He says the letter struck him because “with his letter, MLK engaged not only his community, but humanity.”

After his release from prison, Cunio began working with Church at the Park to build houses. While doing this, he was in the area where MLK lived. He noticed the well-deserved plaques and memorials at MLK’s house, but also noticed the lack of memorialization a few houses down where the women who helped MLK lived. This inspired him to tell the stories of other people through poetry. He said, “I started writing poetry first for the emotion, then I started writing for the story.”

Cunio wanted to give a voice to those who couldn’t tell their stories, as he has experienced a lack of advocacy as well. As he said, “Once you’re in the system, you become voiceless.”

Cunio discussed his journey into becoming a successful poet, and the need for a counter-narrative. When told by teachers that his work was exceptional, Cunio was skeptical. He talked about how teachers are supposed to tell you that you have a voice. It is their job to convince you to develop your writing, he said, so he didn’t believe that his writing was out of the ordinary despite his teachers’ assertions. However, when he began to win competitions, he realized that he had something valuable to share. He recalls winning his first competition and thinking it was only because he had help with his writing, then winning a second and dismissing it as luck, then winning a third and thinking the judges weren’t very intelligent before realizing his writing had truly earned him success. 

Cunio said that it’s important to “use your own autobiography for political actions” when you can because “the power of your words comes from the conviction in your life.” For his part, Cunio shares parts of his life in his poetry to give it a moving and personal quality, while relating his stories and others’ stories to larger global issues, such as food scarcity, climate change and homelessness. These personal touches serve to make global issues relatable and attention-grabbing. He encouraged the audience to analyze his poems for these elements during his workshop. 

Cunio was recently invited to speak at the White House for the National Endowment of Arts, and while at Willamette he read a draft of the poem he intended to share there. He also has a podcast coming out soon called Cellblocks to Mountaintops. You can find out more about Sterling Cunio on his website


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what a article, I feel like I was there! I can understand the reasons for his writing, understanding the importance of writing from your life experience's and convictions.

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