The prison where I teach has a program that trains guide dogs, and it’s a common sight to see inmates leading handsome labs or lab-mixes around from building to building. One of my students was recently promoted to dog-handler, and last night she brought her pup with her—Madrid, a pleasant young black lab.
The topics we worked on in class last night were gossip and news, and the similarities and differences between the two. About gossip, one student wrote, “If you want people to know something, tell a convict.” Other had been in the news when their indictments came down, and felt ill-used by the media….
It was a good class, and through it all, Madrid slept peacefully under a table while we wrote and discussed our writing, bringing a doggish sense of—what? Normality?—to the room. Critters can change an environment simply by being in it....
Last week I was a guest of “Writing on the Air,” on radio KOOP in Austin, hosted by Francois Pointeau. Had a very pleasant time talking about teaching in prison, creativity, dreams, and the upcoming Texas Louisiana Gulf Coast Shindig & Soiree (coming June 25 (see below) and you all really need to be there). I read a section of the story “GUTS :(” and a poem or two.
A podcast of the interview is below—please listen, if you get a chance....
In my teaching I start from the position that everyone has a story to tell—you, me, everyone. I work with the objective of getting students to discover the existence their voice and to acknowledge the validity of their personal history, to get them to reflect on their lives and see their experience as a source of creativity. Sometimes that's the hardest part of a class, getting students to buy into the idea that they are really are people with imagination and creativity.
But sometimes the students are already there—that’s certainly true of JH, one of my students at the prison where I teach. Here’s her literacy narrative, written a few weeks ago in class as a quick draft:
Before I was sentenced to 43 months in this federal prison camp, I spent 10 months researching prison life and finding out what, if any, opportunities I’d have available. I knew that I wanted to make the very best out of this terrible situation. For years, I’ve spent many hours alone writing about my life and my experiences and the thoughts and feelings I had as results. I’ve covered page after page trying to break down my perception of life and love and dreams and fears and all of the not-so-interesting points in between. I knew in my heart that somehow, once I got to where I was going, to do whatever amount of time I had to do, I would find an inspiration or a motivation of some shape or form that would spark up my writing again.
You see, when I put my life into words, it seems a bit more interesting, to me at least. These memories I’ve made and the impressions I’ve left…The stories I’ve heard and the trials I’ve overcome—all of what makes my life mine…I like the way words fall together on paper and make it all seem worthwhile—more so than if it all just sat in the back of my mind or heavy on my heart.
The day I was informed of the creative writing classes that were being offered from Texas A&M here at FPC Bryan, a bell rang in my head letting me know that this class was for me! I signed up for the very first creative writing class and waited patiently for the other inmates to do the same so we could get it started. When the class finally began, there were 12 or 15 of us participating. All of us different from one another. Different ages, shapes, and sizes. Different colors, different personalities. Each of us had out own stories to tell. True or not, they were all entertaining. We laughed, we cried, we even had what we claimed as “Angry Fridays.” But best of all, what we all had in common and got the chance to express was that we were creative and we had words to share.
Now I’m in Dr. White’s second class, non-fiction life stories. The only difference in this one is that all of our writing is based on facts—the true blue history of you! Not always easy. However the passion is of another level. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to get out of the housing unit I’m assigned to and spend 2 hours a night expressing myself. I love to write, and I love Dr. White’s class.
The National Endowment for the Arts has changed lives by making these classes possible, and is deserving of everyone’s support.
A couple of weeks ago I visited San Quentin State Prison in California. The trip was sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, bringing teachers from federal prisons across the US (four of us) out to California to teach workshops with teachers in California state prisons.
At San Quentin, the little arts classroom faced a large courtyard fenced-up into small enclosures—these were areas where death row inmates and inmates segregated because of their violent tendencies would exercise. The fences in each area are covered in canvas so that no one can see out or in, and there is a catwalk for the guards running over the exercise area, and over that, an aluminum roof. (The roof has a number of large holes in it—an inmate explained to me that they were from warning shots fired by guards). The sides are open, though, and vast numbers of birds flew in and out of the area. I was entranced—the birds were amazing, fluttering around, chirping, singing.
I thought of a poem by Isaac Rosenberg.
Returning, We Hear the Larks
Sombre the night is.
And though we have our lives, we know
What sinister threat lies there.
Dragging these anguished limbs, we only know
This poison-blasted track opens on our camp -
On a little safe sleep.
But hark! joy - joy - strange joy.
Lo! heights of night ringing with unseen larks.
Music showering our upturned list’ning faces.
Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song -
But song only dropped,
Like a blind man’s dreams on the sand
By dangerous tides,
Like a girl’s dark hair for she dreams no ruin lies there,
Or her kisses where a serpent hides.
The situations of this poem from the Great War and the reality I witnessed at San Quentin are vast, of course. Yet for me there was that same unexpected intrusion of natural beauty into human desolation, jarring and intoxicating. But song only dropped….
An inmate pointed out that many of the birds only had one foot. The missing feet are damaged, supposedly, when the birds perch on the razor wire. I assume they get by hopping around on one foot until it too gets sliced up, and then they die.
Note on birds: I saw crows, song sparrows, some sort of tern, and some unknown little dark things that were chirping madly. I emailed the Marin County Audubon Society to see what kind of birds might be hanging around San Quentin this time of year, but they have not yet responded.
Note on photos: We weren’t allowed to bring cameras in, so the only photos I took were from outside the prison—a shot of the wire and a guard tower, above, and a shot of the bay looking out from the prison, below. The physical location of San Quentin is incredibly beautiful.
Yesterday my students at the prison came up with an incredibly original and insightful take on Flannery O’Connor’s story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
Back on Wednesday we talked about Hemingway and read aloud a few of his various iceberg stories—“Cat in the rain,” “Hills Like White Elephants,” “Indian Camp.” I then assigned the class to read “A Good Man” for Friday….
When I came into the class three students were very intently discussing the story. One said to me, “There’s some big icebergs in this story….” They’d been up all night reading the story over and over. The story disturbed them and excited them. When the other students arrived, we all discussed their theory….
1. It’s mentioned that Grandma has lived in Tennessee and has connections there. Unsavory connections, the students think. She’s hiding something.
2. Why is Grandma so interested in the Misfit breaking out of prison? Most people would see that in the paper and shrug and go on to the next story. She doesn’t.
3. Grandma dresses so that if she dies, people will know she is a lady. This indicates that she hasn’t always been a lady. She has a checkered past. (In Tennessee).
4. The Misfit literally is her child.
5. The moment of grace is then both literal and metaphysical.
6. The Misfit, finally recognizing her, shoots her three times in the chest.
They convinced me!
One of my best teaching experiences ever….