Archive for the ‘prison’ Category

Letter to President Obama

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

Dear President Obama:

There are so many ways in which I am deeply grateful that you are our president. I could write you a long ode with many stanzas of praise. Such an ode would be heartfelt, but also heartfelt is this note that raises my deep concerns about much of the Arne Duncan education policy, a policy you seem to whole-heartedly support.

I write as someone who has been a community artist working in public schools and state prisons for over thirty five years. I know the consequences of the “achievement gap” much more intimately than my heart can bear. I feel no need to defend the “education status quo” (though that label often means “teachers,” and decades of observation have put public school teachers near the top of my list of heroes). I agree with you and Secretary Duncan that the nation needs a sincere, open conversation about how best to educate all of our children.

But some of the terms and assumptions underlying this conversation need more precise definition. It is taken as a given by “school reform” advocates that improved test scores equal better education, but I have seen nothing that proves this assumption. When I read most “school reformers,” I feel that I’m reading the equivalent of reasoning that goes something like: “teacher accountability will be tied to an increase in the number of students who wear purple” or “school improvement will be measured by how many students have good posture.” I see no evidence – on paper or in the real lives of young people I know – that improved test scores equal knowledge, the ability to think critically, or to a greater connection between oneself and the wider world. Whereas I see a great deal of evidence – in these same young people and in the people I know well in prison – that doing more of what hasn’t worked (more focus on testing, a greater reliance on measurement) will lead to even more children who feel separated from the possibilities we want to be theirs.

A primary reason I worked so hard for your election is that you place such a high value on moving beyond rigid positions. You have urged us to look for what we share (as human beings, as citizens); you’ve encouraged us to build policy from this shared ground. But we can’t do that – in education or in any other sphere – unless we have a real conversation about what we mean by words like “education,” “success,” and “equity.”

Prayers for you, your family, and the decisions you have to make on so many crucial matters.

“That Bird Has My Wings”

Saturday, October 10th, 2009

That Bird Has My Wings: The Autobiography of an Innocent Man on Death Row is Jarvis Jay Masters’ second book, and it comes with endorsements by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Van Jones, author David Sheff, and many others. Although Masters writes of the crimes he’s committed, as well as those he’s innocent of though convicted – and although he writes some about his life on San Quentin’s Death Row – That Bird focuses primarily on Masters’ childhood and coming of age.

Much of what Masters reports is heart breaking: being left to watch over young siblings with no food to feed them, beatings and cruelty of foster care families, being set up to fight for bets by older male relatives, choices he makes against his own best interest. But Masters also describes the love he shared with his sisters, his wonderful first foster parents, the neighbor who silently left food for the children each morning, his caring though drugged mother. When life gave him a chance, Masters was the little boy he was born to be: loving, sweet, curious, responsible.

The story Masters shapes for the first two-thirds of the book lets the reader in very close as the child tries to make sense of his experience, as he learns to protect himself from hurt, and eventually, as he comes to feel most comfortable in institutions. Masters’ telling is honest, well written, deeply (humanly) interesting.

The last third or so of the book is also interesting, honest, and well written, but to me feels tacked on – more like a handful of essays than the continuation of an unfolding story. Perhaps the publisher felt the book needed to include stories from prison itself.

Both Masters and his publisher (HarperOne) seem to want the book to speak out most strongly about the foster care system. An important goal that Masters achieves. But I think the book does even more than this. That Bird shows one life – its huge difficulties and its few gifts – and how a being is shaped by both.

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.

prison arts coalition

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

Please visit a wonderful new blog site that allows people sharing art-making in prison (or any corrections or post-release setting to share information about programs and resources, as well as to post blogs about the work.

The group that worked on this blog site is in the process of developing what we need (mission statement, etc) to create an actual Prison Arts Coalition entity. We hope to find funding that will allow in-person gatherings as well as other ways to share the work we're all doing. We'll post whatever we come up with on the blog site.

excellent resource

Friday, October 17th, 2008

Creating Behind the Razor Wire is an excellent resource for those wanting to know more about prison arts and for practitioners hungry for connection to colleagues. The book's author, Krista Brune, received a fellowship that allowed her to research dozens of programs across the United States, and this book documents her research. There are essays by people in prison, teaching artists, program administrators, and college students. There's an advice section from three of us old-timers (Buzz Alexander of Prison Creative Arts Project, Grady Hillman and me), and an extensive program directory and resource list.

The book's available for purchase and some of its information is available online.

intense yearning to create

Friday, August 22nd, 2008

Phyllis Kornfeld, author of Cellblock Visions: Prison Art in America, sent the link to a wonderful essay she wrote (the piece includes beautiful images of work done by people in prison). Phyllis writes about how she thinks of her work:

"'Art Teacher' didn't seem the right job description after a few weeks of working behind bars. Some of the men and women had already created strikingly fresh work without benefit of an art program or decent materials.

"Teaching the conventional principals, techniques, and subject matter—in other words, what was taught to me—not only seemed irrelevant, but that such an approach was likely to put a lid on the intense yearning to create what was obvious, and poignant, in most of the people who came to my classes."

What is a Poem?

Wednesday, July 30th, 2008

Belle Yang asked the above question on Red Room, and I posted a poem and a story in response.

The poem is by Angel Boyar (who was my student at San Quentin in the 1980s), and the second a story about poet Frank Bidart, who came to San Quentin as a guest artist.


I am a poem
The world is a poem
The butterfly is a poem
Nothing is a poem
God is a poem
This poem is a poem
Speaking in tongues is a poem
A rock is a poem
Shit is a poem
And the corn in it too
Is a Poem.
Food is a poem
I eat poems
I write poems
I talk poems
I see poems
I drown poems in more poems
Water is a poem
Crying is a poem
Joy is a poem
A poem is what is a poem
I am speaking in poems
Don't ask what is a poem
Just read the goddamn poem
And leave it alone
A poem is invisible!

This section about Bidart's visit is taken from my Disguised as a Poem: My Years Teaching Poetry at San Quentin. Bidart had agreed to visit my class, but a lockdown meant there was no class that night. Instead we got permission to visit one of my students -- Elmo Chattman -- who was doing time in the hole. Witnessing the conversation between these two men remains one of the big gifts in my life.

As Bidart and I walked down the long tier to Elmo’s cell--both of us decked out in those camouflage-green vests--we were surrounded by the sound of a baseball game blaring from what seemed like every TV in the block. For the next hour or so, Elmo and Bidart stood on either side of the bars talking of poems while noise filled the cavern around them: “Strike three!” then “He’s out!” followed by both raucous cheering and booing.

I watched the two men search for some body equivalent of the handshake the bars and heavy screening rendered impossible. This was the moment I most often placed my open palm on the screening as a gesture of touch through so much layered steel. But Elmo and Bidart, who were after all strangers, instead leaned toward each other very slightly in greeting.

Elmo seemed to recognize that he was the host, and he welcomed Bidart to East Block with the dignity of a man receiving a guest to his home, though it happened to be humble. My heart filled with sensation watching Elmo’s ability to be precisely who he was, precisely where he was, without either apology or self-righteousness. I was equally moved by Bidart, this gentle-seeming man standing within East Block’s prison-at-its-roughest essence. I had no idea, of course, what his mind was noting or his body registering, but to all appearances Bidart was calm, meeting Elmo as a man and a poet. The two men began to discuss the process of transcribing what one hears in one’s head to the page, and I backed away to give them some degree of privacy.

The same steadiness I now observed in Bidart had impressed me at his reading in Berkeley earlier that week. There, too, the man had stood against gray concrete, for UC Berkeley’s Architecture Building nearly matched East Block for cold, stark presence.

In Berkeley, Bidart had talked between poems about what it was to grow up in the Bakersfield of the late 40’s and early 50’s when you were a boy who knew yourself as gay, when you were a boy who loved opera and refinement. Bidart was talking of difference, of sensing oneself as an Other, but that Berkeley audience kept encouraging Bidart to take easy jabs at Bakersfield’s lack of cool.

That audience laughed, praising itself, as I grew angrier and angrier at what, to me, seemed arrogant privilege. Bidart resisted irony. He did not deny the difficulty of growing up different, but he refused to pander to the crowd.

Here in East Block, I watched a similar honesty. Although grunts and whoops surrounded Elmo and Bidart as they talked of poems and the writing of poems, nothing in Bidart’s stance indicated disdain for the men all around us. He just quietly--with beauty and attention--continued to talk to Elmo.

Suddenly a huge roar enveloped East Block and when it died down, Bidart asked what it was like to write in the midst of such noise. Elmo spoke of staying up half the night to write and to read during the hours the block was nearly still. Bidart said he, too, often needed to withdraw from the world, to disconnect his phone, to stay inside solitude, in order to write.

Elmo passed his copy of “The War of Vaslav Nijinksy” through the open food port and asked Bidart to read. Bidart turned his body so that enough light might fall on the page, and then began:

Suffering has made me what I am --
I must not regret; or judge; or
struggle to escape it

Bidart continued. Then there was a break in the ballgame and, for a few moments, silence swelled, surrounding Bidart’s pauses. Another onrush of cheering filled the block before Bidart went on:

There is a MORAL HERE
about how LONG you must live with
the consequences of a SHORT action, --

fun afternoon in prison

Thursday, June 19th, 2008

Spent yesterday afternoon writing poems with a group of men at New Folsom – aka California State Prison: Sacramento. The Arts in Corrections room at this prison is small and stifling, but filled with paintings, books, musical instruments, and men doing serious work to make the next steps on their journey more in line with their hearts and souls than previous steps may have been.

When we walked out of the prison after class, Jim Carlson (who puts the arts program together at New Folsom) wondered again, perhaps for the hundredth time in the 23 years we’ve worked together, why people in prison are the absolute best students. Most everyone who teaches in prison notes that while students in high school, and often in college, might or might not pay attention and be involved, students in prison are always engaged, willing to try the exercise, and bring their whole selves to discussions and making art. I’ve done a lot of prison-arts teaching, and I’ve heard over and over from others doing similar work that prison students are the best group of students ever. Jim was asking, again: Why? Is it that there’s so little else positive to do? Is it because doing time is in fact doing time, and time slows down in a way that allows one to focus? Is it because the prisoners who choose to come to art classes have already self-selected? We contemplated this reason and that, but underlying all the reasons is this: the men in the arts room are human beings who have struggled with the wrong done in their lives (wrong done to them as children, wrong done by them as adults) and now want to explore what “right” might be in their lives.

Yesterday afternoon, after two hours of writing, I brought out cardboard, construction paper, glue sticks, and images from magazines. I showed the men Kenneth Patchen’s picture poems and we spent an hour making some of our own. At one point I looked up to see 15 men absorbed in cutting-and-pasting. These big guys, men half-the-world seems afraid of, looked like the 5 year olds they once were. Play was the mood in the room, fun -- and the intense concentration inherent in fun. I asked if any of them remembered playing like this when they were little, and except for one who went to a church group once-a-week, they all said no.

Which reminded me of another time I was at New Folsom and Rick said, “If anyone had ever asked me to put my feelings on paper when I was a kid, who knows how my life might have turned out?”

Having spent my work life sharing poetry with kids and with prisoners – and working now primarily with youth in San Francisco – the path (an intentional one as far as I’m concerned) between some of our kids and prison is obvious. (The path between other of our kids and power is equally obvious.) I don’t think we can even talk about prison without talking about our children.

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.