Tag Archives: teaching artists

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.

 

 

 

 

Call for submissions: writing by artists who facilitate workshops inside

3 Apr

Project: An anthology of writing by artists who lead/teach (or previously led/taught) arts workshops inside correctional facilities. I seek submissions to construct a book proposal for publication.

Submission Guidelines + Instructions: Writing must be inspired by your prison work. It does not need to be directly connected to a specific event, experience, or person. Please indicate where names/identifying information has been changed.

  • Writing may be fiction, non-fiction, prose, poetry, experimental, non-traditional, un-categorizable.
  • You may submit as many pieces as you like (though not all are guaranteed inclusion in the anthology)
  • No length restrictions
  • Previously published material is acceptable, though un-published is preferred
  • .doc or .docx format, 12 pt. font
  • Email submissions + submission form to correctionswriting@gmail.com

Submissions accepted now through September 15, 2015

About: My name is Leigh Sugar. I previously edited the Annual Anthology of Michigan Prisoner Creative Writing and facilitated creative writing workshops inside Michigan state prisons (both through the Prison Creative Arts Project). I have seen anthologies of writing by inmates, but never a collection of writing by the artists who facilitate or teach writing behind bars. My motivation to embark on this project stems from reflecting on how heavily my own writing has been influenced by my experience going inside prison, and not feeling like I have an outlet or a means by which to share that writing. I know have this writing based on my time inside, so I know others must as well. It is critical that we strengthen our connections to each other and find ways to share our experiences and writing so we can expand the reach of the creative work that is generated in connection to the criminal justice system. I feel a real artistic resonance with other writers who bring their craft to prison and am committed to creating an entire collection of our writing. No contract yet exists for this volume; accepted abstracts will be organized into a book proposal, which I will then submit to publishers.

More information at http://www.correctionswriting.wordpress.com. Please circulate this call to any individuals or organizations you know involved in prison writing.

The City Inside

2 Feb

By Hakim Bellamy

About the guest blogger: Hakim Bellamy became the inaugural poet laureate of Albuquerque on April 14th, 2012, at age 33. He was the son of a preacher man (and a praying woman). His mother gave him his first book of poetry as a teen, a volume by Khalil Gibran. Many poems later, Bellamy has been on two national champion poetry slam teams, won collegiate and city poetry slam championships (in Albuquerque and Silver City, NM), and has been published in numerous anthologies and on inner-city buses. A musician, actor, journalist, playwright and community organizer, Bellamy has also received an honorable mention for the Paul Bartlett Ré Peace Prize at the University of New Mexico. Bellamy is the founder and president of Beyond Poetry LLC. For more information on the author, please visit www.hakimbe.com.

The City Inside Me

I want to think about my future.
I want to put my past behind me,
but my heart is in the streets.
I am away from my seeds,
aggrieved,
praying to God on my knees .

I want to succeed.

I am tired of making mistakes.
My mind is in a place it cannot escape.

My son looks me in the face.
Is it a man he sees?

I tell him about the streets and the damage it brings.

Rochester, New York is where you find me.
Rochester,
filled with so much pain.
Rochester, the city inside me.

Manuel, Monroe Correctional Facility

Courtesy of the New York State Literary Center

It’s a simple prompt, or so I thought. Describe the city inside of you. What is the weather like in that city? What are the people like in that city? What are you like, in that city? Having served on the Governing Council of Gordon Bernell Charter School inside of Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) I have a fairly nuanced understanding of corrections and incarceration in this country. Enough to know that many of these men at Monroe Correctional Facility where probably not even from Rochester, NY. They’d likely been displaced from their hometowns and families, moved like chattel, but no matter where they go there is a piece of their city inside of them.

I was so fortunate to be invited into the Monroe Facility by Dale Davis of the New York State Literary Center and poet John Roche. I had roughly 90 minutes to work with about 30 men. At 35, I was one of the youngest Black men in the room. And most of these men were black. Incredulously, I find the same overrepresentation of Black bodies in the pods at MDC in New Mexico. The only difference being that New Mexico has a 2% African American population per the last Census.

So we went to work on that right away. When teaching artists go into correctional facilities we are not there to entertain or be part of some enrichment programming, we are there to transform. We are transformed. Because the best way to teach is by example, so I shared with them some tough poems about identity and a rap or two about fear and fatherhood. I used the first 30 minutes to tell them Where I’m From (sans the poem prompt by George Ella Lyons), and also share with them this transformational arc in my own life, that I document through my practice of poetry. And for the last hour of the workshop, I give them that practice. Together we remember, reflect, write, reflect, share, reflect and let that resonate.

Sure, they learned (or were simply reminded) that the weather inside them, is changing. Just like weather is always changing in a city, just like people are always changing in a city. That’s inspiring when you are inside and “outside” is something that is rationed to you. But what they really learn is community. As a group they took a risk with me. They decided to share some of where they are from and some of who they are inside with each other and some dude they barely met (me). In that short period of time, we established a space where folks felt safe to take risks (whether that be reading in front of the group or sharing personal thoughts) and we brought people together through the practice of listening. Frankly, adults on the outside need these skills as much as these men did. And skills like these, like empathy, like compassion, like communication and understanding, take practice.

My job is not just to help Manuel imagine a city inside of him, my job as a teaching artist is to help him create that world around him. Poetry is just one tool to help that process of reconstruction.

Hakim Bellamy at the Monroe Correctional Facility.

Hakim Bellamy at the Monroe Correctional Facility