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“Art kept us sane”: An interview with memoir author Logan Crannell

23 Mar
About the writer, Logan Crannell: I’m a visual artist from Provo, UT who opted to move into my truck with my dog Jack, after I got divorced.  We travelled together and ended up in Boise, ID to visit a friend. Things spiraled out of control, and I got imprisoned for 4 months, facing a ten year sentence.  I got released on Oct. 5th, 2016.
From Wendy, PAC Administrator: Logan Crannell wrote to PAC seeking some support in promoting his memoir, Hands Down – a story of incarceration, which hits Amazon today. I asked him if he’d like to contribute a blog post about it, and he eagerly agreed, requesting that I provide him with a few questions to get his thoughts flowing. I did so, and the following is what he offered in return. I’m sure you’ll be as moved by his words as I am, and I ask that you share this interview, and Logan’s book, with anyone who might find them meaningful — WJ

~~~

From the back cover of Hands Down – a story of incarceration:

As my thoughts and notes developed, I noticed themes cropping up; the struggle of co-dependency, the abuse of power, synchronicities and belief systems falling apart.  I was writing extensively about boundary lines being crossed; moral betrayals, and the places between waking and dream states, and the borders of life and death.

Hands Down: A Story of Incarceration, by Logan Crannell
WJ: How did the process/act of writing help you to cope with being incarcerated?

LC:  Writing grounded me and kept my mind from circling in on itself.  Being locked in a concrete cell for twenty-one hours a day, you get consumed by repetitive and irrational thoughts.  It’s important to get them out of your system, otherwise they eat you alive.

Excerpt:

I rested there, despondent.  Zach, walking laps along the yellow line, stopped and approached.  He took a seat and put his elbows on the table.

“You’re not overthinking, are you?” he asked, leaning in

“Yes, I am.  I can’t help it.”

“Listen, bro,” he said, “You can’t think about the past and the future in here because they’re not ours.  They don’t belong to us, anymore.  All we get is today.  You have to focus on the things you can control.  It’s the little things that save you.”

It was wisdom, what he told me.

WJ:   You mentioned that you have a background in filmmaking.  What similarities and differences did you discover between the way you told a story in writing versus in film?

LC:  Yes, I grew up in a family of professional filmmakers and photographers, so I naturally told stories that way, but I was never comfortable with words.  They felt foreign to me; my interest lay with capturing images and feelings visually. When it came to dialogue, I’d bring in writers to deal with it. I didn’t care to be involved.

Then, in jail, in court, listening to my life and reputation get dismantled, I realized that words would ultimately set me free; they were my only tool of defense.  They became invaluable to me. No one seemed interested in my version of events, or claims of innocence, so documenting my words was a form of retaliation. Then, it turned  into something far more personal, as I examined my life and choices leading up to my arrest, which comprises the first section of the book.

WJ:  How did your surroundings influence your voice? Your perspective?

LC:  It got raw.  I came face-to-face with my fears, insecurities and failures; and I absolutely could not progress until I challenged them directly.  I couldn’t hide behind the distractions of the outside world. I felt bare, with nothing left to lose by writing my honest observations.  

As I got closer with my cellmates, my own story took a backseat, and I focused on their lives and outlooks.  The book transformed into our story.  Not just mine.  

Excerpt:

“How many mattresses are out there?”

“One.”

It was our nightly ritual; the counting of the mats.  At 10:30 pm, the deputies placed mattresses on the table by the control desk, the number of which signaled to us how many new inmates were on their way to cell block.  On our Walk, we had the only cell with a vacancy. The lights went out. I waited for my eyes to adjust, then continued reading The Screwtape Letters, by C.S Lewis; a rare find from the jail library.

“Did anybody come in?” Zach asked

“Not yet,” Zeek replied

“Well, I’m going to bed.  God bless, you guys!” Zach said, pulling down his headband

I’d fallen asleep when Rick Kellner made his entrance, and he came in with a bang.  Frankly, I wasn’t sure if I’d like Rick – he bragged of his charges with such enthusiasm, though I gave him the benefit of the doubt, thinking that underneath his thunder, there might be a man that grew up too damn fast.

  
WJ:  How has your experience within the criminal justice system changed the way you perceive art and/or the creative process?

LC:  Art has a vital role in lockdown.  It’s not disposable. I noticed inmate reactions to watching television; so many societal issues were irrelevant to them, and advertising commercials had no effect.  We couldn’t have any of those things, so the broadcast registered as noise to us. I was relieved – I’d finally found a place where marketing didn’t work. I thought to myself, ‘These people are picking up on completely different signals.  That’s awesome.’

It’s funny, because I got housed with inmates who lamented over how much better the conditions were in prison, as opposed to county, because they had access to art supplies.  My cellmate Rick did incredible drawings, but blank, white sheets of paper were a scarce commodity. We had to be resourceful and work with our limitations. It didn’t stop us.  I kept a 2-inch pen, wrapped in paper and adhesive labels to make it less pliable, safely in my sock since the jail considered it contraband.

Excerpt:

Rick produced a work of art, while free, at a stable point in his life, on a canvas measuring roughly four-foot-by-six.  He did the drawing in pencil; the image of an Elk, beside a river, on a cold morning.

He lost track of how long he spent perfecting it; each blade of grass, drop of moisture and dew, the hair of the Elk’s coat, its breath, all of it in vivid detail.  He spoke of its majesty, regarding it as his finest achievement, creatively. I believe Rick thought of that drawing often, in the darkest moments, pulling strength from it, when he felt at a loss.  I think it helped him see the goodness of his capabilities.

WJ:  What inspired you to keep writing? Were there times you lost the motivation? If so, how did you find it again?

LC:  I don’t recall losing motivation.  On the contrary; my cellmates would have to pry me off my journal, bring me down to earth, and encourage me to exercise and joke around.  I formed tight bonds with my cellies. We fueled one another with ideas and inspiring stories. Art kept us sane. We balanced it with spiritual practices and kept each other laughing.  

Excerpt:

Zach didn’t waiver from his routine, and his daily yoga session piqued Rick’s interest.  By that point, I joined Zach a few times a week, and it improved my flexibility. The floor got cramped with three of us, so I let Rick take a lesson.  Zach gradually taught him the steps and proper breathing techniques.

Rick’s body trembled, as he labored to maintain a stance.

“Zach, I can’t hold it.  I’m losing balance,” Rick pleaded

“You gotta breath deep with the motion, bro.  You can do it.”

Rick’s feet slid on the smooth concrete, “This is way harder than I thought.”

“Yoga ain’t no punk, Rick.”

WJ:  What gave you hope? Who/what inspired you?

LC:  Seeing my dog Jack, again.  He means the world to me. On the day of my arrest, I got far more concerned for his well-being than my own.  When the cops allowed me ‘my one phone call’ it wasn’t to a lawyer. I wanted to verify that Jack was safe and cared for.  My friends and family came through in a big way.

WJ:  What advice would you give to other creative thinkers who are locked up? Or to artists and writers who teach in prisons/jails?

LC:  Keep it unfiltered.  Don’t get influenced by history.  The art you do doesn’t have to be monumental.  That’s not the point. Your goal shouldn’t be to impress others.  Real art isn’t about your ego; it’s the release of ego that makes it sincere.  If it doesn’t heal you, don’t expect it to help others.  

While finishing the final draft of my book, page by page, I’d follow one instruction:  Did I keep it real and from the heart? Then, I’d ask two questions: What am I bringing awareness to?  And, am I ready to put this into the world?

To be a teacher in that environment, well, I think you have to create a circle of trust and safety, or the results won’t happen.  Everyone involved has to be comfortable and meet at eye level before they open up. My cell mates were hesitant when they saw me keeping a journal, but once they trusted my intentions, they wanted to be involved and contribute to it.  I’d quote em all day long.

Excerpt:

July 20th – Through the windshield of the transport bus, I witnessed sidewalks busy with people, wandering, arms full of shopping bags, wanting things. I saw advertisements for phone plans, menu options at fast food restaurants, and bands wearing the latest fashion.  I wasn’t missing anything; Cell 846 was my comfort zone; I’d power through the day, and go to my bunk and rest.

My gaze shifted from the windshield to a black man seated in front of me, in the maximum security section; an iron gate divided us.  He reminded me of Tupac Shakur – maybe it was the nose ring.  How did he get to keep his nose ring?  How strange, that you can sit next to a person on a bus, and say nothing to them – and a month later, that person changes your life forever.

WJ:  What gave you the confidence to publish your story? What impact do you hope it will have?

Well, I felt a sense of obligation to publish since it wasn’t simply my story.  I promised those men I’d see it through.  

I have a dear friend, on the outside, that read the book.  Unfortunately, his long term relationship with his girlfriend had hit a rough patch, and they decided to take a break.  She moved out of state. Unbeknownst to me, he would read the book to her over the phone at night, and it helped them to rediscover and be grateful for what they had built.  That touched me deeply. It made my struggles worthwhile. That’s what I want for the book; to have the reader find a negative in their life and convert it into something positive.  That’s the victory.

WJ:  What are your goals for the future? How has the transition coming home been for you? Have you continued to write? If so, has it served a purpose during the transition?

LC:  Actually, I’m studying for my degree in floral design.  I’d practiced Ikebana, Japanese flower arrangement, throughout my adult life.  It brought me peace. I committed to making it my new career when I got out, so I’m really concentrated on that now.  The transition was rough. By the time they kicked me to the streets I’d lost my home, my car, my camera and computer equipment, both of my jobs, etc.  On top of that I now had a criminal record to contend with. At least I had my dog, and solid friends. I think that’s ultimately what the book is about; true friendship.  

Logan and Jack
Logan and Jack

If you’d like to connect with Logan (or Jack), email films.by.logan@gmail.com.

The Roots of Die Jim Crow

30 Jun
Pulled from the Introduction to Die Jim Crow EP Book, available at diejimcrow.com and Amazon.com.
by Fury Young

It’s been three years since a notebook jot-down outlining the idea for what would become the concept album project Die Jim Crow. I was on the B train to Kingsborough Community College where I was studying history. There was a book in my hand and I was about halfway through it. The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.

I was twenty-three years old and I wasn’t sure what my truest pas- sion was. Music? Filmmaking? History? Activism? I’m halfway through the book, about two stops from the end of the line and I write down:

“A concept album* called The New Jim Crow (*a la Amused to Death).”

Yes, my title—not too original. We’ll call it an homage. Amused to Death? A concept album by Roger Waters about humans amusing them- selves to death with TV. The album came out pre-internet. Worth listening to. It’s use of repeating musical themes, intense builds between tracks, and dark sociopolitical commentary appealed to me. Later on Pink Floyd’s The Wall (which Waters also wrote) would become a greater inspiration.

I’m a Jew from the Lower East Side of New York City who has not been to prison. Why did I care? To start with, the book in my hand. I was reading about this very current and domestic human rights crisis, so well researched in Alexander’s book, beautifully articulated—but I was lacking the personal stories. I wanted to hear it from the folks who were living the “New Jim Crow.”

I got off at the last stop and waited for the bus. “If I take on this project, I am going to meet people who I will know for the rest of my life. People who will change my life forever.” The bus arrives.

Growing up in L.E.S, I saw a lot—drug dealers, drug addicts, prostitutes, parolees, you name it. In my late teens I met a man who was all of the above at one point or another. He became a close friend. Alexander Pridgen. You can find a movie I made about him on the internet.

I knew others who’d done time as well. A few of them I considered friends. But I had no idea, prior to reading The New Jim Crow, of the scope of the issue: so many affected, so historically rooted, so nationwide, so many things.

I could elaborate on other reasons for becoming obsessed with this project, but I’ll keep it simple and turn these reasons into a question, one I’m still asking today. What is freedom?

Three years and hundreds of prison letters later, here I am — but much more importantly — here WE are. Die Jim Crow has gone from a notebook scribble to a realized project involving artists formerly and currently incarcerated from all over the country. Recordings have been done with formerly incarcerated artists in Wichita, KS; New Orleans, LA; Philly, PA; and Brooklyn, NY. At Warren Correctional Institution, a close-security state prison in Ohio, myself and DJC co-producer/ engineer dr. Israel have worked closely with solo artists on their music, in addition to the prison’s 22-member choir UMOJA (“unity” in Swahili).

From this body of work, we are thrilled to present to you the Die Jim Crow EP — the first sample of what the Die Jim Crow full length album will sound like.

Because digital is how most people consume music these days, we’ve decided to release an accompanying book that honors the many artists and stories on this album. Die Jim Crow is a massive project in scope, and all the energy that went into this EP simply could not be contained in a short digital booklet. And that’s just the six song sample.

The Die Jim Crow LP, a full length double album of 20+ original tracks, will also have a book accompaniment, and hopefully much more. Although the project is still in its early stages (it takes years to lay the groundwork for a project like this, so far three and counting), it feels like a natural and necessary progression for this music to be toured across America, especially in areas hit the hardest by mass incarceration and the New Jim Crow. But why stop there? In order to catapult great change, the music should also reach those of other backgrounds and political leanings—so wide promotion and international touring is also part of the plan.

The LP tells a three act story: pre-prison, prison, reentry. Similar to the LP, the Die Jim Crow EP follows this three act trajectory — albeit in a looser way. The first two songs take place outside the penitentiary walls (with “My Name Be Jim Crow” in some sort of strange farcical history land and “Tired and Weary” in a jail and a courtroom), the next two strictly in prison, and the final tracks back on the streets: wandering, exhausted, in a nightmare, broke, homeless, lost, beat — but not broken.

Also reminiscent of the soon-to-be LP, this album features artists from across the country — often within the same song — both in prison and formerly incarcerated. For example, “Headed to the Streets” was written by B.L. Shirelle during her incarceration, sent to Mark Springer and Anthony McKinney at Warren Correctional Institution for composition, discussed for months between myself, Mark, and Ant over the phone and in letters, then recorded at WCI with a full band and Ant on the first hook and verse. Once B.L. was released from Muncy State Correctional Institution in December 2015, dr. Israel and I drove down to Philly and recorded her vocal there. This unique method of song-making —— a combination of production inside and outside prison walls—is what I’ll call the “Die Jim Crow model.”

The one song on the Die Jim Crow EP that does not feature vocals and/or instrumentation from Warren Correctional Institution is “Plastic Bag,” which was written, co-performed, and lived by Carl Dukes. Dukes spent 31 years in New York State prisons only to return to the streets homeless, even though his parole officer had promised him housing. The powerful outro is the voice of Apostle Heloise, who served four years also in the NYS system.

I hope this project creates constructive dialogue and action. Confronting and dismantling the broken American incarceration machine will take a mountain of work, of which Die Jim Crow is an exciting part. I hope the music makes you feel something real, something deep, something both disempowering and empowering, and puts you in the shoes of the artists who created it.

We look forward to continuing the journey.

 

Fury Young and DJC artist Apostle Heloise

Fury Young and DJC artist Apostle Heloise

DJC poster art, collage by Fury Young

DJC poster art, collage by Fury Young

DJC artist Leon Benson at Pendleton Correctional Facility. Benson has served 17 years thus far for a murder he did not commit.

DJC artist Leon Benson at Pendleton Correctional Facility. Benson has served 17 years thus far for a murder he did not commit.

 

Follow Die Jim Crow at diejimcrow.com

facebook/twitter/instagram: /diejimcrow

youtube channel

 

 

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.