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Unlike most California prisons, San Quentin has a college program through which inmates can earn an associate of arts degree. Oakland-based Patton University organizes students from Bay Area colleges to tutor inmates during study hall. During the late '90s, it was through this program that Zheng forged some of his strongest ties to the outside world, many through fellow twentysomethings who shared his love of literature and introduced him to the campus issues of the day. Even if the students volunteered for only a semester, Zheng avidly corresponded with them.
Nearly everyone who met him though the program recalls being impressed by his charisma and thirst for knowledge. "He really sees things as limitless, which is amazing considering his physical situation," muses Jeanne Loh, a former tutor who now posts Zheng's blog entries for him. "He has a sort of sincerity and eagerness about learning and developing and being a better person. He inspires people."
When the poet known as D-Knowledge came by to read his work, Zheng became hooked on poetry. He liked that it is confined; that poets have to carefully select the right words. "I was just captured by his poetry, that he was able to capture feelings through his spoken word," he says. "My first poem wasn't that good. I wrote it out of adrenaline because I was experiencing something and feeling the injustice of it." But he kept trying; after study hall he and his friends would share new poems and challenge each other to complete more. After a friend turned him on to the work of Saul Williams, Zheng organized San Quentin's first poetry slam -- it was standing room only.
Zheng began figuring out ways to connect with the world outside. He self-published a zine that included essays about love, shame, prison life, and historical figures like Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. He took public speaking lessons so he could participate in crime-prevention workshops for teens who visited the prison. He developed a curriculum aimed at at-risk immigrant teens that is used today by San Francisco's Chinatown Community Development Center and the Oakland-based Asian/Pacific Islander Youth Promoting Advocacy and Leadership.
He says he was motivated by a deepening understanding of the hurt he had caused his victims and his own family. "Not only did I rob them of their material possessions, but I robbed their security," he says of the Tams. "I caused them mental anguish, probably for their lives." His own family suffered deep shame, he says, and his grandparents passed away without ever knowing what had become of him. He began using poetry to wrestle with his guilt. In a poem titled "Ghost," he wrote:
If you go out at night
you will see a ghost one day
The warning and wisdom of a mother
a prophecy unheeded
I lay under the [covers] of a fluffy bed
fully dressed awaiting for the sleepy bugs
to close my parents' tiring eyes
It's almost midnight
I tiptoe to the rhythm
of my parents' breathing like a burglar
and enter the bathroom
As I open the window
I flush the toilet to disguise the sound and crawl out
standing on the ledge of the second floor apartment building
I wonder how I will get down to the ground
Fear is not in the vocabulary
of an invincible 15-year-old
I slide down the black drainage pipe
only to face a ten-foot fence blocking my way
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