Archive for the ‘books’ Category

A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

R. Dwayne Betts – “a good student from a lower-middle-class family” – carjacked a man, went to prison, and has written a book about the experience. Betts was sixteen when he committed the crime, but tried and convicted as an adult; he served eight years in Virginia prisons. He’s been out for four years now and in that time has earned a BA, founded a book club for young men (YoungMenRead), been an intern at The Atlantic, married and become a father. Betts is now a graduate student at Warren Wilson College. His book of poetry – Shahid Reads His Own Palm – won the Beatrice Hawley Award and will be out from Alice James Books in May 2010.

A Question of Freedom is getting lots of attention (from NPR to HipHopWired), and I’m very glad. Those of us on the outside – the ones making decisions about who we lock up – need every report on prison we can get from those who’ve been there. Betts’ report is that of a very young man – a teen-ager still (“Sixteen years hadn’t even done a good job on my voice,” is the book’s first sentence) – and therefore shines important light on this aspect of contemporary US incarceration practice.

What I appreciate most in A Question of Freedom are the ways Betts attempts to:

1. understand why he was drawn to the uncharacteristic moment that brought him to prison;

2. express the responsibility he feels, especially to his mom;

3. speak out about all the young black men in prison with him, while at the same time working hard for a complex – rather than a simplistic – analysis of this fact;

4. present the varieties of senselessness he encountered in prison;

5. describe the various ways he educated himself (with some, but not much, help from prison programs or staff);

6. claim how literature – reading and writing – shaped the man he became as he walked out of prison.

Betts is no longer a teen-ager, but he is still a very young man. A Question of Freedom is being marketed as the first work of an emerging author, and that description makes sense. The book has the virtue of rawness – conveying as it does the confusion and circuitous thinking experienced by a child locked up with adults – and some beautiful writing. Betts’ telling also bears the (probably inevitable) limitations of a young mind that has not yet developed enough scope or distance to create a coherent whole. No matter the “more” I wish from the book, A Question of Freedom is important and I’m very glad to see it building a large readership.

home from heaven

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

Just home from residency at Hedgebrook on Whidbey Island overlooking Puget Sound. Six women writers are each given a cabin to live and work in, as well as meals. Applications for February through November 2010 must be postmarked by September 24, 2009.

During this stay I finished work on By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives, the two-person memoir I've been writing with former San Quentin student, Spoon Jackson. By Heart will come out April 2010.

On my next-to-last night, I read Spoon's first chapter in our book to the group. After I read the last word, the room was completely silent. I looked up from the page and saw each woman was crying. I went back to my cabin and tried to describe this amazing moment to Spoon in a letter to where he's housed at New Folsom. Each woman wrote him her own note about what his story -- and the beauty with which he wrote his story -- meant to her.

audience and niche

Thursday, July 3rd, 2008

Disguised as a Poem: My Years Teaching Poetry at San Quentin and Teeth, Wiggly as Earthquakes: Writing Poetry in the Primary Grades came out at just about the same time, though the story of each was so different. It took me years to find how to write Disugised -- to discover what was, and wasn't, mine to tell -- and then a couple more years to sell what I wrote. Everything about the process was a (deep and good) challenge.

In the midst of that process, I was sharing poetry with little kids and their classroom teachers asked me to teach them how to do what I was doing. Then they asked me to write them a book. Then they told me to publish what I'd written. Then they told me which publisher to send it to. And then that publisher took it. Everything about the birth of Wiggly was fun and relatively easy (the path created for me ).

The books came out at almost the same time, as I say, and as I didn't know how to find an audience for Wiggly, I relied on the wonderful Stenhouse Publishers to do it for me. With Disguised, once again, I worked hard, throwing myself into finding the readers I thought might be there -- setting up readings, interviews, lectures, etc. With Disguised, too, I lucked out with my publisher: Northeastern University Press was fantastic. Although the staff was so small and I had to do a lot of the work, they were right there with material support in every way they could be.

The two books -- one taking little from me but love, and the other taking just about all I had to give -- have sold about the same number of copies (very mid-list). I've gotten lots of nice response to Wiggly, but I often joke that -- although Disguised has sold only a few thousand copies -- I've heard from just about every reader. Partly, I think, this is because Northeastern is (was -- the university shut down the press a few years ago) a university press and the bulk of the book's readers have been college students who want me to know what the book has meant in their lives. Also, there is a small world (a niche, I guess such worlds are called these days) actively involved in prison arts and prison issues, and we tend to find each other and to be grateful for each new experession of what it is we do and see and work toward.

I don't know exactly what I think of these "niches." I love the community of prison artists and activists I feel so close to. At the same time, I'm pretty sure Disguised tells a story more people than those in this niche would find of interest. As a reader, I love when the new book of an author I already love is released. But I also love being surprised, finding a book by an author or on a subject not already close to my heart. Current directions in publishing and book distribution seem to encourage finding one's niche, and to discourage being surprised by the unexpected. I suppose, as with most things, there's something gained and something lost.

prison poetry on Jim Lehrer Newshour

Monday, June 16th, 2008

Richard Shelton -- whose excellent Crossing the Yard I praised in a blog post a couple weeks ago -- is featured tonight on The Jim Lehrer NewsHour along with his prison workshop. A decent first look at what this work is; some fine poetry and interviews with the prison poets; and Richard speaks so wisely, beautifully, and from his heart.

You can watch the segment on the NewsHour site. And check out Walking Rain Review, visible on the desks in the NewsHour segment.

sharing good news and (three more) good books

Friday, June 13th, 2008

New Village Press will publish By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives, a two-person memoir Spoon Jackson and I are writing together. We will talk about prison, poetry, education, inequity, beauty, possibility, and what it means to be human. The process of our conversations -- in person at San Quentin, and in letters over the nineteen years since then -- is one Spoon calls diving, and both conversation and diving give shape to By Heart. You can read more about Spoon who is currently at CSP-Sac serving Life without Possibility of Parole.

New Village Press also published Arlene Goldbard's excellent New Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development. And here's another brand new New Village Press book I strongly recommend: Art and Upheaval: Artists on the World's Frontlines by William Cleveland.

Also, I have one more new book to recommend. Uncommon Community: One Congregation's Work with Prisoners documents and discusses three prison programs begun by a Unitarian congregation in Texas. The work is interesting, the perspective broad and deep.

book I’ve been hoping for

Friday, June 6th, 2008

Teach the Free Man is a book of stories by someone who knows prison. Peter Nathaniel Malae doesn't advertise time he has or hasn't done, but his intimate and intricate knowledge of California prisons, and what it is to be locked up in them, speaks for itself. Most of the stories show us men in cells, visiting rooms, on the tier, on the yard at Avenal, Quentin, and CMC. A couple stories are of parolees; one is in the voice of a guard whose own son has been charged with murder.

Malae can write. He was a Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University this past year, he won the prestigious Joseph Henry Jackson Literary Award for his first novel, and he was a finalist for the New York Public Library's Young Lion Award in fiction this year. You can hear "Turning Point," the book's opening story, on KQED's Writers' Block.

Here are a few of the lines I noted:

"Prison is many things, after all, but mostly it is the gross simplification of life's complexities."

"No visits, no riots, no incidents. Only the clicks of the popping cell in trochaic monometer. Clink. Clank. Clink. Clank. Clink. Clank. Only unquestioned directives over the PA in the same. 'Lockdown!' 'Med call!'"

"I rolled into the Unit Monday morning, absorbing the whole setup without even consciously trying, that's what institutionalization does to you: You've always got your radars going, like an insect. There were little framed signs up, the kind you find in convalescent homes: 'Footsteps in the Sand' and 'Chicken Soup (for Convicts).' Bullshit to keep you from thinking about the loaded deck of the system."

The book's title is from Auden's "In Memory of W.B. Yeats." Here's the stanza the words live in:

In the deserts of the heart
let the healing fountain start.
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

a life’s work

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

I encourage anyone wanting to know more about prison and prison arts to read Richard Shelton’s Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer (The University of Arizona Press, 2007). Shelton is often referred to as the OG prison writing teacher, having done this work – while also a full time professor, poet and writer – since the early 1970s. At that time, Shelton received a letter from a man on death row asking if the professor would be willing to read and comment on some of his poems. One thing led to another, and Crossing the Yard tells the story of the journey.

Shelton is such an honest reporter. He tells us about his initial morbid curiosity when asked to “read the poetry of a monster” – an attitude he’s now ashamed of – and the desperation he felt when witnessing unexpected horrible consequences for some of his prisoner students as they became poets. He tells us about institutional stupidity and the subversion he found he had to use in order to get anything good done inside. Many of Shelton’s former prison students are now prize-winning writers: Jimmy Santiago Baca to Ken Lamberton (Ken has his own new book out, Time of Grace).

I love the life Shelton has made of his thirty years crossing the yard. And also I’m something like envious. From the beginning Shelton has visited students, written to them, had them over to dinner once they’ve been released; some have become nearly part of his family. I can no longer work in California prisons because I visit and write to my former San Quentin students. Also, almost all of these men are still inside (the three men I’m closest to serve their 30th year this year). I can only wish for sharing meals and movies, hikes and afternoons in bookstores – the sharing Shelton and his wife have made part of their lives.

Many of us doing this work debate about what verb to use for what we do. Are we teaching? Facilitating? Sharing? Shelton is clearly a fantastic teacher, willing to be very honest when responding to the men’s writing. He is also, with equal clarity, a human being sharing with other human beings. He doesn’t sing his own praises in his memoir, but the details he writes of – what he did and how he did it – inspire me to sing his praises.

Crossing the Yard closes at the end of a workshop in which nearly all the men report they’re going to be transferred, many of them to private prisons in other states, most of them to facilities where there will be no support for the good work they’re doing – transferred for no sensible reason at all. The last line of the book says better than I’ve ever heard said what my prison arts friends and colleagues say when we speak to each other of what we've experienced and witnessed: “I want to put my head down on the table in front of me and weep with a pain that will not be comforted and a rage I cannot express.”