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From the Audience and Classroom at Oregon State Penitentiary

25 Jan

About the guest blogger: Michael Zinkowski has taught college-credit writing classes at Oregon State Penitentiary as well as youth correctional facilities in Oregon.

Yesterday I was an audience member for a play-in-progress entirely written and performed by inmates at Oregon State Penitentiary. For the last year, I’ve taught college-credit Writing courses there and one of my students invited me, looking for my feedback on the script he’d largely written. As both inmates and members of the “general public” entered and took their seats in the Chapel room, two guitarists and a keyboardist, all inmates, jammed together. It was a soaring prog-rock instrumental that carried us into the headspace we’d need to be for the play.

I took my seat towards the back right and saw my student (we’ll call him David) perched atop the radiator in the opposite corner of the room, behind the musicians. He sat there, shoulder-length dreads and thick-framed glasses, his hand covering his mouth like The Thinker. With his own office and a thousand responsibilities on the education floor, I’m not sure I’d ever seen him so still or unmoving. In his late 30s, over 20 of which have been spent inside prison walls, he’s possibly the most positively-driven and focused person I’ve ever met, using every waking moment to spread love and compassion, to atone. As I took my journal out to take notes, he looked out through the barred window.

What I didn’t know, is that the play had essentially already begun. After a lanky, older guy wearing a transparent latex glove passed out chocolate chip cookies and cups of water to the crowd of about 30, David stood up, continued to glare at the world out the window, out over the walls of the prison, and began a boisterous, gripping monologue. It felt like a sermon.

His imagery wove everything in the cosmos together, including the “invisible population in the middle of a city.” He functioned as the spoken-word narrator of the play, speaking from the all-knowing perspective of a bird who’d flown into the hospice care room here at OSP. The play featured many vignettes and characters, including the personified voice of Cancer, surrounding the story of a dying inmate, Michael Popper, Sr. David’s wisdom-inflicted bird interjected to help tie the narrative together.

To underscore just how invisible a man becomes dying in hospice care inside a maximum security prison, no one performed the role of Michael Sr. Instead, family members, prison guards, a doctor and nurse all spoke to a voiceless piano bench. Michael Sr.’s silence and invisibility was powerful because it turned our attention to the interconnectivity of all these other characters, each one essentially speaking to themselves but about related struggles. We can put someone inside the walls of a prison but we cannot, the play suggested, no matter how hard we might try, sever the connections they have with the world.

After a “talk-back,” in which members of the audience offered praise and critique, I got up and congratulated David on his performance, on the script, on his ability to make it all work somehow. The audience clapped and cheered as loud as they could without calling too much attention to itself. We were inside a prison after all. However, by no means was this the first time I’d been impressed with him or any of the other student-inmates I’ve had. In fact, my sheer delight and excitement I felt reminded me, unfortunately, that I sometimes reinforce commonly held beliefs about the abilities, talents, and intelligence of the human beings who live inside the prison’s walls.

Without being too scientific about it, it’s probably safe to say that American culture assumes the worst about prisoners. I don’t simply mean of their ethical choices or their “criminal nature” but of their potential and their capacities. And though the last year has taught me nothing but how smart, focused, artistic, grateful, and compassionate my student-inmates can be, I’m sometimes left asking myself: why should I be so surprised over and over?

Realistically, yes, I’m allowed the smile across my face whenever a student here reads a moving, original poem or performs a gripping monologue from the perspective of a talking bird or shows me a hugely improved draft of a 20-page research essay. And, of course, I do. I’m allowed the instinct I have to say “that was amazing,” “great job,” or “I can’t wait to hear the next draft!” and so I do.

Sometimes, though, I struggle with the origins of my excitement. If I’m surprised, is it because I, too, carry with me this idea that these guys shouldn’t be as smart as they consistently prove they are? If I’m moved, is it because the level of work is higher quality than I expected? Did I have low expectations in the first place? And did I have these expectations because I, too, hold the belief that being a prisoner necessarily means one has intellectual or artistic limits?

Probably. It’s something I continually work to deconstruct. It’s probably also true, though, that the quality of their work often surpasses that of my students at “regular” community colleges and that the odds are often very stacked against them and have been before they even got here. Can I not feel, then, that the high quality of work they produce, creatively or academically, is indeed a triumph?

My student-inmates know the world thinks the least of them. Sometimes their families do. Sometimes they, themselves, are burdened by these expectations. Is it in spite of those attitudes that these men excel, or because of them?

Right now I don’t have a solid answer. I’m sure haven’t even asked all the right questions or listed all the variables at play. So I don’t think I need a solid answer yet, but I’d like to use this blog to explore some of the questions I’ve already asked and share stories to complicate our ideas about prisoners, about their potential, and how when we talk about “their” potential we really mean our potential.

 

Meeting the Woman, Not the Crime

24 Jan
by Peggy Lamb
About the guest blogger: Peggy Lamb organizes Truth Be Told’s Exploring Creativity program. Truth Be Told is an Austin, TX based non-profit organization that provides transformational programs for women who are or have been incarcerated. Exploring Creativity classes use expressive arts to enlarge the women’s sense of themselves, release pain and express despair and without harming oneself or others. Leaders vary from storytellers to singers to visual artists to dancers – to quilters and yoga teachers and writers.

Twenty-eight women in dingy white uniforms file into the chapel at the Hilltop Unit in Gatesville. Most of them know me and gift me with big smiles. I feel a flood of joy circulate through my body and my heart opens wide.

These women are all in the Sex Offender Treatment Program (SOTP), an intense 18 month cognitive therapy program. They live together in a special dorm in which community is emphasized. Each of these 28 women has committed a crime which will brand them for life as sex offenders.

Most people have a hard time wrapping their minds around the concept of female sex offenders. I certainly did. A Google search brought me to a research paper entitled Female Sex Offenders: Severe Victims and Victimizers. It was hard to read about women sexually molesting children, even harder to grasp that some of the women of SOTP had committed similar crimes. Women don’t do such things, men do, right? Wrong. Both genders are capable of unspeakable and horrifying crimes.

I do not know the specifics of these women’s crimes. I could find out via the TDCJ web site but I’ve made a conscious choice to remain in the dark. I meet them, woman to woman, outside ideas of right and wrong. I, or the artist I bring, share tools of discovery and encourage the creativity of these deeply wounded women, who themselves are victims of sex abuse, to take root and blossom. I passionately believe in the power of creativity to heal and re-define oneself. Walt Whitman wrote, “I am Large, I contain Multitudes”. I want these women to know in their bones that they are more than just sex offenders; they are more than their crimes. They are writers, poets, dancers, singers, actresses and visual artists with gifts to share.

When I learned that the Hilltop unit had a SOTP program, I was deeply drawn to teach there. I do not know why but I have learned to follow my soul urges. It’s been almost four years that I’ve been going up there once a month – it is work that deeply feeds my soul.

Today I’m teaching a movement and writing class I call “Elements”. Chairs are moved out of the way and we circle up for warm-up exercises. The sound of African drumming fills the room breaking down barriers and inhibitions like a magic wand. Hips sway, shoulders shimmy, toes tap and heads bob. We boogie and rock out. Movement is generated from the core – pelvis and torso. In the Soul Train section, I encourage the women to get down and shake it out. Shake out anger, despair, loneliness, frustration and resentment. It is deeply satisfying!

My first writing prompt is five minutes of free-flow writing on “I am Earth” Then I ask the women to create an earth gesture – a movement that symbolizes groundedness, stability, nature, etc. Each woman shares her gesture and the rest of us repeat it. I play just the right earthy music (usually another cut of African drumming) and we go around the circle dancing each women’s gesture. We’ve just choreographed our first dance! 

We repeat that process with three more writing and movement prompts: “I am Air”, “I am Fire” and “I am Water”. By the end of the class we’ve created four dances and the women have four pieces of creative writing they can be proud of.

The chapel is filled with the divine energy of creativity and community. One woman comments “I didn’t know I was creative!” Another says, “This is the deepest sense of community this dorm has ever had.” One that touches my heart so deeply is “In the twenty years I’ve been locked up, this is the most fun I’ve ever had.”

I am filled with awe at their willingness to step outside their comfort zones. I LOVE this work – my soul is filled with joy and gratitude.

 

 

 

 

An Excavation of Seeing

3 Oct

About the guest blogger: Treacy Ziegler is a regular contributor to the PAC blog, and has been an exhibiting artist for the past 23 years. She studied painting and printmaking for four years at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.  Before studying art,  Ziegler received a Master in Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania. In 2009, Ziegler began exhibiting her work in prisons and created An Open Window, a project within the project of Prisoner Express in the Center For Transformative Action affiliated with Cornell University.  In this voluntary project she donates her artwork to prisons, develops in-prison art workshops, and creates through-the-mail-art curricula with a network of 3,500 prisoners throughout the United States.

I am in the housing unit of a men’s maximum-security prison looking at drawings of a prisoner the others call Columbia.

Most of Columbia’s drawings are cartoons – typical of drawings I see in prison. Among his assortments, I see Sponge Bob, Mickey Mouse, and Bugs, but then I see a drawing of a deer.  It is still in the cartoon style but there is something about the drawing making it different and giving it more resonance.

In this mental health unit where individual prison cells line one side of the large room, I go to Columbia’s cell asking about the deer drawing.

Columbia describes how he was a deer hunter and while hunting came upon a deer in the woods; not particularly unusual for deer hunting.  But while he placed his scope upon the deer, he was struck by the deer’s returning gaze upon him and in this look, Columbia said, I could see all the perspectives of the deer at once. It was the impact of the deer looking back at him that Columbia attempted to convey in the drawing.

While some may dismiss the magic of deer’s return look as crazy talk – after all, we are in this prison mental health unit – I think otherwise.  Instead I think of a statement made by the nineteenth century French painter Cezanne on drawing landscape.  Cezanne said, the landscape speaks to me.

As a visual dialogue with landscape, Cezanne does not see a thing-with-facts, but rather experiences a relationship. Cezanne knows not to impose his intention on this dialogue; neither his preconceptions nor what he thinks he should draw into the creative process.

In the flash of the deer’s gaze, Columbia had a Cezanne-moment where preconceived knowledge is abandoned enabling him to draw the deer in all its perspectives and making photographic or geometric logic irrelevant.

In another prison in another state, Nathan draws in the designated corner. I don’t know how long he has been in this prison or for how long he will be here. His is a crime that, I’ve concluded in my years of going to prisons, everyone is capable of committing in the perfect storm of any life.

Mostly, I leave Nathan to his drawings and constructions. Although Nathan draws what he sees from life, he quickly turns his focus upon the drawing paper.  While some may suggest that he works from imagination, this doesn’t really describe the process.  Nathan is still in conversation but it is now with the marks on his paper pulling him into the world; thus preventing him from falling into the solipsism and visual redundancy that often happens when the artist feels imagination and self-oriented intention reign. Marks and materials have voices of their own and listening to them leads Nathan to new territories in this corner of the prison.

Nathan Riggs, charcoal drawing, triptych, courtesy of the artist

Nathan Riggs, charcoal drawing, triptych, courtesy of the artist

That prison is a closed system makes for reshuffling materials; tattoo becomes drawings, magazines are copies and rarely is the immediate surrounding world – the one that is necessary for dialogue – used as a source for creating art.  The world is seen through a mirror darkly and then profusely copied.

Rarely do I see drawings where the prisoner-artist is looking directly at the world without the filters of another’s eyes through photographs. Prison drawings departing from copying photographs are often misunderstood and dismissed by other prisoners and prison staff in the demand for rendering photo-realism.

Perhaps, equating good art with the ability to copy a photograph may not be peculiar to prison. Public opinion as reflected on Instagram suggests the general population also regards ability to copy a photograph as great art.

When the prisoner Daniel in another prison shows me a portfolio of drawings that looks like any other sheet of tattoo drawing, I ask the class, how does a tattoo get authority as art?  Daniel suggests skill, someone else suggests ink, and another says design.

None of the above, I say, the tattoo gets authority from the body – from the arm, leg, neck, or whatever body part upon which it exists.  Take the tattoo off the body and it becomes a sorry deflated balloon.

Somewhat miffed that I didn’t praise his tattoo drawings, Daniel agrees saying, I’ve been sitting in my cell for 11 years wondering why I couldn’t get the same affect as an actual tattoo.

The artist cannot demand that a medium do what he or she wants the medium to do. As I tell the prisoner-artists, If you ever been in a flood, you know that water does what water wants, and the water in a watercolor is no different; falling and spreading upon the paper as it will.  Some of the students have been in floods and all have known falling.

If the artist is but one voice in a larger choir consisting of materials, mediums, color physics, so on, and whose voices are as important as the artist’s, what happens to self-expression?

When I ask my class if there is self-expression, because, after all, each one of them is the sum total of everyone they ever met, quoting some post-modern philosopher I forgotten, Samuel retorts, if I am the sum total of everyone I ever met, then why ain’t that sum total in here with me?!  A good question.

However, the question is not whether there is a self, but whether there is individual expression?

If I were intent on expressing myself it is likely my delivery would be more propaganda than expression, more thinking than experience, more hope than feelings; consisting of a visual running commentary of expectations from both myself and others. In other words, it is hard to discern what is truly my individual expression. This becomes particularly true in prison where individual expression may make or break a parole hearing.

Instead of self-expression, drawing becomes an act of listening in which there is no imposed agenda upon what is seen and thus allowing the visual dialogue to emerge. Translating this to the class, I ask them to forget meaning, forget expressing themselves and embark on a descriptive exploration of the world.

The prisoner Kaey takes issue with this. He believes that in order for his art to be significant, he must create meaning in it.

I hear both prisoner and non-prisoner artists say; I want to make something meaningful in my art – not realizing that meaning cannot be created or manufactured; that the construction of meaning leads to something contrived like an insincere Hallmark card.

Meaning is a funny thing.   If we are lucky meaning shows itself; meaning that is always there, meaning that is always already, meaning that is always everywhere; meaning that is larger than we, and meaning that we can never reach because meaning continuously extends.

But how is meaning revealed?  This was my question when I created the project Dear Self/Dear Other for the prisoners in the through-the-mail art curriculum.

It is my belief that meaning is revealed in the everyday images that make up our lives; personal images not created, not copied but excavated. And when the artist relinquishes control over meaning, these forgotten or ignored images surfaces – not necessarily to be understood but to be experienced.

In my own art, there is a primitive house on stilts that emerges in various forms throughout my paintings, sculpture and monoprints. I accepted its presence without knowing why until a viewer asked about its meaning at an exhibition.

Looking at the painting, I suddenly realized it was an image from when I was six years. This was a time when my family of five lived over a brothel in Little Havana, Miami after my father lost our Philadelphia upper-middle class house in a series of poker games, my baby sister was born dead, and my mom went temporarily crazy.

But on a fun family daytrip to Key West beating the heat of Miami, I discovered a house on stilts that appears seemingly planted over the water.  And while the ocean rushed beneath the house creating a sense of magic, I imagined us living in that house above the surf where my mother would be happy. Looking back to the viewer’s face at the exhibition, I realized; oops too much information.

An Island, oil on panel, courtesy of author

An Island, oil on panel, courtesy of author

Had I considered the connection myself while painting it, the information would have been too much for me interfering with the process of painting.  Free of my awareness, the painting emerged with its own voice allowing it to exist independently of what it meant to me and whatever message I might have imparted to it.  Knowing the history of my haphazard child is not a vital factor in experiencing my art.

Knowing that what is seen in the past continues to impact upon the present, I asked the participants in the Dear Self project to draw what they saw at six years of age.  But the waters of childhood are dangerous and, often, there is no house on stilts.

Nicholas writes that when he began drawing what he saw at 6 years old, nightmares from the past started to torment me, so I had to stop.

Reggie sends me a drawing of a lynching apparently occurring when he was 6 years old in 1959 in Philadelphia.  I am not sure if he saw the lynching or heard about it.  In either respect, I cannot help but wonder to what extent this early image of a lynching had upon Reggie whose life subsequently became one of violence; a history including his own violence towards others and, as he reports, being raped by the guards at Eastern State Penitentiary at 17 years old when he was first incarcerated.

Reginald McFadden, courtesy of the artist

Reginald McFadden, courtesy of the artist

Another prisoner writes of beatings he endured by his mother. The many stories from prisoners of being abused and neglected as children make it understandable why copying celebrity photographs may be preferable as the form of art in prison and why Kaey wants to invent meaning rather than to discover it.

But, art is not an escape from living; it is an entry into it; art not as therapy but art as breathing – taking everything in and out, good and bad for the creative gristmill.

When I leave Columbia’s prison, it is night and I drive the mile prison driveway to the main road through the white deer sanctuary that surrounds the prison.  I don’t know why the prison is built here although I later learn that the white deer is the symbol of redemption for Native Americans.

I did ask on my initial meeting with the Deputy Superintendent what would happen if I felt compelled to walk the beautiful paths through the high surrounding scrubs. She answers, you will be shot, making me think the vocabulary of redemption does not exist in this prison and the white deer are irrelevant to their programming.

But on this evening’s drive out, the moon is full and when I see its light reflected on the white deer in the scrubs, I see them as shooting stars. And as these deer appearing like stars turn to look at me, I think of Columbia.

Later, I paint a white deer.  At the bottom of the painting, I add the following words for Columbia knowing he may never walk the beautiful paths.

At night,
when others sleep
and the officers are playing cards,
I become the white deer blinded
in the headlight of the moon,
And I am.

Treacy Ziegler

Arnot Art Museum Installation, Landscapes of Confinement. The white deer.

Arnot Art Museum Installation, Landscapes of Confinement. The white deer.

 

Dances for Solidarity

27 Sep
by Sarah Dahnke
About the guest blogger: Sarah Dahnke is a Brooklyn-based choreographer, multimedia artist, and arts educator. She creates performance experiences that often feature non-performers, highlighting and celebrating the nuances of natural, untrained human movement. She works with public school students to facilitate the creation of their own choreography and video projects, makes giant group dances to teach to the general public, and films instructional videos to disseminate dance sequences widely. Her video work has been curated nationally by Dance Films Association, DCTV, Tiny Dance Film Festival, Hyde Park Arts Center, Ruth Page Center for the Arts and Gowanus Ballroom as well as internationally across The Philippines. Her choreography has occurred on stages, in streets, on the Internet, in music videos, on roofs, in galleries and more. Some of these places include The Kitchen, CPR-Center for Performance Research, Grace Exhibition Space, Dance Theater Workshop, The New York Transit Museum, Northside Festival and Lollapalooza.

Dances for Solidarity is my newest project, and it aims to create ephemeral connections between people who are in solitary confinement and those who are not through written correspondence and dance. Myself and my collaborators have created a 10-step written movement sequence, and this is included in a letter that we mail to those in solitary (an initial list was provided by Black and Pink). From there, we engage in more individualized correspondence with those who write back.

As a choreographer, I often create work that falls under the categories of “participatory performance” or “community-based performance,” where people who are not trained dancers end up as the main performers. I’ve been interested in working with incarcerated people for a long time, but I didn’t exactly know how we could make a dance together even if I were granted access to a prison.

In 2013, I saw a traveling photography exhibit created by Solitary Watch at Photoville, titled Photo Requests from Solitary. In this work, the project leaders wrote to people on in solitary confinement and asked what image from the outside they would like to see, then the artists crowd sourced these images and sent them back. These images then made up this exhibit. It was incredibly powerful, and it sparked the idea that one way I could create dances for and with incarcerated folks would me through written correspondence. After letting that marinate for a little while, this project manifested.

This project requires a lot of support, and I’ve been lucky to tap into a growing network. I’ve been granted space by Abrons Arts Center to hold weekly letter writing clinics. Culture Push awarded me the Fellowship for Utopian Practice, which offers logistical, moral and financial support. I have some dedicated artistic collaborators and regular letter writers. As we continue to write to those in solitary around the country, this network will also need to grow. One thing I’m working on is setting up satellite letter writing groups around the country.

The prison mail system is slow, plus not everyone who we write will necessarily respond. But responses are coming in, and so far they are really wonderful. Many people thank us for showing our support, for reaching out, for offering a lifeline to the outside world. Many people have terrible things to say about the conditions they are kept in, about how their prisons are short staffed and therefore unable to give them the one hour of recreation time they are supposed to have outside of their cell each day. But inside of these letters we are also given lovely descriptions of how this dance made people feel. So many of our pen pals felt awkward or silly doing a dance all alone, but once they gave it a try, it became fun or empowering or uplifting or transformative. One man told us a story about how he said “hell no I’m not doing this” but ended up doing it with six of his fellow inmates during their rec time.

I’m excited to see how this project continues to grow and the responses we continue to get, and I’m trying to get more people involved. If you are in the New York area, please follow us on Facebook to find out when we are holding letter writing clinics. If you are not in the New York area, you can contact me about setting up a letter writing clinic for Dances for Solidarity in your area: sarah (at) sarahdahnke.com.

Lyle May is Reading and Writing As Fast As He Can — on Death Row

3 Jun

This piece was re-posted, with permission, from PrisonWriters.com. The author, Lyle C. May, is on Death Row in North Carolina.

In early childhood, writing was this scrawling the symbols of English language with little understanding of their purpose. Large, crooked letters staggered like drunks across the page, jockeying for position and uniformity. My letter R was often backward, the vowels never really touched the bottom line and I couldn’t quite get the hang of the lower case k. Their meaning was a vague thing in my mind. I knew the alphabet made words used in speech and books, but that was all. The power of language, a tiny part of a vast universe, was beyond my experience and unimaginable.

My adolescence was marked by an inability to express my thoughts and emotions. I floundered with how to speak my mind and these unsaid things turned into hungry rats gnawing on my nerves. Communicating as a shy teenager is hard enough, but instead of overcoming my social anxieties and reaching out to those who could help me, I chose less idealistic ways — unhealthy and delinquent ways.

Writing about the difficulties plaguing my life never occurred to me. In my mind there was too much garbage crowding out common sense and good ideas.

My first real understanding of writing as a way of communicating arrived without fanfare. I was locked up in the Maine youth center and had no access to a phone. The only way to reach the outside world was by letter.

Not until my imprisonment on death row at the age of 21 did I begin to fully realize how important writing can be. Initially my letters to friends and family were unclear and fell short of what I wanted to say. How do you explain the situation like facing execution? It took time, a lot of practice, and this overwhelming need to be understood before my writing could evolve enough to help others see from my eyes.

About eight years into my incarceration I was granted the opportunity to enroll in some college courses. Though my education ended with a GED attained when I was 17, I was more than ready to take up the challenge of a higher education. Among the first few things to open my mind was that everything I read had to be conveyed in the clearest possible manner. Demonstrating this in writing went hand in hand with comprehension. Maybe, if I paid more attention in school and didn’t drop out my sophomore year, comprehensive reading and writing wouldn’t have seemed like some new and fabulous skill that swelled my chest with its potential.

It helps that since coming to prison I have fallen in love with reading. I began reading to take my mind away from the things beyond my control. This in turn revealed to me the power of writing to influence minds. Not exactly new, groundbreaking stuff, but to me this was an epiphany. The writing and psychology courses showed me that reading requires reflection and analysis just like our lives do. Understanding the nuances of the English language and value of being proficient with it has greatly improved how I write and think. Writing makes life possible in any circumstance.

In the years since my incarceration I found that writing is a tool more useful than any other, one that’s always existed in my life. Since learning how to use it, writing has become a crucial element of my survival in prison because it’s the only way I can prove my continued existence to the rest of the world. Edward Bulwer Lytton may have said “the pen is mightier than the sword,” but for me it has become the skeleton key for every locked door barring my way. I seek now to find the door it has yet to open, appreciating the power of writing throughout my journey.

 

Call for submissions – Transforming Grief: Personal and Communal Loss in the Work of Remaking the World

17 Feb

DEADLINE: March 25, 2015

Transforming Grief is rooted in the belief that the most potent stories—the ones most capable of informing critical shifts—are those that emerge from our hearts and lives, our learning and intervulnerability. This anthology will bring together writers from a variety of perspectives striving to unearth the transformative value of grief as an individual and collective experience through creative nonfiction.

The works in this collection will include compelling narratives and strong arguments that embody a deep exploration of ideas and themes, using concrete, lived personal and/or communal engagements with a spectrum of losses to illuminate larger questions about the sociopolitical forces at play in the world and our lives. As a body of writing and thinking, this compendium will also look at the ways in which grief is a natural response to present-day social systems, and can be mobilized to generate prefigurative experimentation in self-organization while reclaiming our imagination and humanity.

For more info, to contact us, and/or to submit a piece, see our Web site: http://transforming-grief.net/

Like our page to follow our work: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Transforming-Grief/774013049331958?ref=br_tf

Subscribe to our e-annoucements list for occasional updates on the anthology and related projects/events: http://transforming-grief.net/contact

Please help us to get the word out and circulate this call throughout your networks.

Poets-Behind-Bars: An Opportunity for Poets Inside and Out

20 Sep

Sherry Reiter is the founding director of the Creative Righting Center in New York and the co-author of Writing Away the Demons

“Writing has made me feel like a human being again.”

                        Participant in the Poets-Behind-Bars program, Indiana State Prison

 I’m the developer of Poets-Behind-Bars – a unique long distance program in which a dozen poets/inmates at Indiana State Prison (maximum security) are matched with either a poet or poetry therapy trainee who “coaches” or mentors the writing of the poet. It is a project born out of The Creative Righting Center. As suggested by the term “Creative Righting,” the chief goal is to achieve emotional balance, a sense of well-being, and a unique expression of individuality through writing. A great poetry therapy pioneer, Dr. Art Lerner, often stated, “The accent in a poetry workshop is on the poem, while the accent in a poetry therapy session is on the individual” (Lerner, 1993, p. 169). Poets-Behind-Bars is different than a class in poetry where the aesthetic product of the poem is of primary importance. The volunteers/trainees who serve as writing mentors serve a dual function — they are writers who are trained in the art of poetry as well as a respect for creativity and the unique expression and psychological well-being of the person. We function as educators of the arts, not as therapists.

There is a well-established precedent of the power and value of poetry in prisons. In the past ten years there have been numerous fearless poets who have gone into prison and published the work that resulted. These include Disguised As A Poem: My Years Teaching at San Quentin by Judith Tannenbaum (2000), Couldn’t Keep It to Myself: Testimonies from Our Imprisoned Sisters by Wally Lamb (2004) and True Notebooks: A Writer’s Year at Juvenile Hall by Mark Salzman (2004). There have been exceptional poets and teachers like Richard Shelton (2007), who was contacted by a prisoner on death row who wanted feedback regarding a poem he had written. As a result of his interchange, Shelton ended up teaching a weekly poetry group at the Arizona State Prison for the next thirty years, and shared his experience in Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as Prison Volunteer (2009). If only there were such great talents who could go into every prison in America and do such work. There is not. That’s why Poets-Behind-Bars was created.

I received a letter from a poet in the Indiana State Prison, pleading for a writing program for himself and a group of inmates. After receiving three such letters, and thinking, “What can I do? I’m such a long distance from Indiana,” I received the message. Exactly. Long distance could be possible. This is how it is possible.

Every 2-3 weeks, an assignment gets e-mailed to a coordinator on the inside, who “launders” the communication of any personal e-mails, gives it to the poet, who has about 10 days to do the assignment via computer in the library on a disc, and return it to the inside staff person, who then e-mails it to me. I forward it to my writing coaches, have a group supervision and the mentors forward responses back to me, and I forward it to the prison. Got a headache? No, it actually does work, and has operated at Indiana State Prison for the past four years. I have a curriculum and we are slowly expanding. Perhaps at some point in the future, you will want to initiate this program in the prison where you work. I can be reached at sherryreiter@yahoo.com.

            “There’s no greater agony than carrying around an untold story inside yourself.” — Maya Angelou

To see the full article about Poets-Behind-Bars, please click here