Disguised as a Poem: My Years Teaching at San Quentinby Judith Tannenbaum
When Judith Tannenbaum last met with her poetry writing class at San Quentin prison, one of the students commented, "Now I'm going to give you an assignment: write about these past four years from your point of view; tell your story; let us know what you learned." This beautifully crafted memoir is the fulfillment of that assignment.
In stirring and… See more details below
When Judith Tannenbaum last met with her poetry writing class at San Quentin prison, one of the students commented, "Now I'm going to give you an assignment: write about these past four years from your point of view; tell your story; let us know what you learned." This beautifully crafted memoir is the fulfillment of that assignment.
In stirring and intimate prose, Tannenbaum details the challenges, rewards, and paradoxes of teaching poetry to maximum-security inmates convicted of capital crimes. Recounting how she and her students shared profound and complicated lessons about humanity and life both inside and outside San Quentin's walls, Tannenbaum tells provocative stories of obsession, racism, betrayal, despair, courage, and beauty. Contrary to the growing public perception of prisoners as demons, the men in this poetry class-Angel, Coties, Elmo, Glenn, Richard, Spoon-emerge not as beasts or heroes but as human beings with expressive voices, thoughts, and feelings strikingly similar to the free.
Tannenbaum provides revealing views of conditions in the cellblocks and shows how the realities of prison life often paralleled her own life experiences. She also relates such events as visits to her group by prominent poets (including Nobel Prize-winner Czeslaw Milosz); a prison production of Waiting for Godot sponsored by Samuel Beckett himself; and the presentation of her students' work to a class of sixth and eighth graders, who connected to the prisoners' words by writing their own poems to the inmates.
This honest, unbiased account of how one woman artist came to share purpose and inspiration with the prisoners at San Quentin demonstrates the power of human bonds and the power of poetry and other art forms as a means of self-expression and communication within and beyond locked cells.
This is one of the more remarkable works I have come across during many years in the study of writing about the American prison experience (H. Bruce Franklin, author of Prison Writing in 20th-Century America).
Disguised as a Poem is an honest and heroic account of an artist who instinctively understands that poetry and art can save lives (Luis Rodriguez, author of Always Running: La Vida Loca-Gang Days in L.A.)
Judith Tannenbaum . . . takes the reader on a journey, both internal and external, that is poignant and constantly evolving (Grady Hillman, co-founder, Southwest Correctional Arts Network).
Open-hearted and even-handed, this book tells stories that every American who hasn't been inside a prison needs to know (Hettie Jones, Chair, PEN Prison Writing Committee).
Women's Review of Books
"Not only the story of an emphatic and courageous woman but an engaging testament of the power of poetry." —Teaching Artist Journal
- Northeastern University Press
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- 5.69(w) x 8.75(h) x 0.89(d)
Meet the Author
JUDITH TANNENBAUM serves as Training Coordinator of the WritersCorps program in San Francisco. For over twenty-five years she has taught poetry to prisoners, primary-age children, continuation high school students, and youngsters at a summer program for gifted teenagers. She has written extensively on issues of community art and cultural democracy and is the author of Teeth, Wiggly as Earthquakes: Writing Poetry in the Primary Grades, The World Saying Yes, four chapbooks, and a portfolio of her poems. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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Read an Excerpt
The evening air was coastal-California, mid-August cool as I walked into San Quentin. Jim Carlsonthe man who put together the art program at this, California's oldest, prisonwalked with me down the long path that looked out across the San Francisco Bay. Jim told me about count clearing and chow and Close B's and officer coverage. As we walked toward the castlelike structure ahead, Jim spoke of Max Shack, Four Post, West Block, and Yard Side.
I hugged the poems I'd prepared for the night's class, ready to share the language I loved, and silently repeated the words of this new tongue: Max Shack, Four Post, West Block, Yard Side. These spondees sounded with my heart's own two-beat pulsation and became the first entries in a glossary whose meanings would deepen and fill the next four years of my life.
"Hi," I greeted Gabriel.
"Not tonight; wish I was."
By the time I caught the pun, three other men had sauntered into the basement classroom and slid their denim-clad bodies against seat backs. For two hundred weeks, we would meet on Mondays in this buried room. At 6:30 that first week, and each week thereafter, I welcomed my students.
Elmotall, black, and well muscledloved the poems of Pablo Neruda and was himself a master of metaphor. Though younger than I by ten years, Elmo recognized what he called my "child of the sixties" sensibilities. He himself had grown up in a beach town north of LosAngelesand had wanted to attend art school in New York City. Elmo watched me walk into San Quentin as though I were a traveler in some foreign land, and he generously shared information he knew I wouldn't find on any of the maps given out by the official tourist office.
The "underground guidebook" Elmo opened for me included stories of his own experience and how this experience shaped the man he'd become. "My father always used to say, `Better to be dead than mistreated.' I didn't know where he was coming from. I was a kid in California, and he was from Louisiana. I'd pull the tab on a beer and shake my head thinking, nothing's worse than being dead. But now I understand," Elmo told me within my first few weeks at the prison.
"One thing George Jackson wrote that I've always found true," Elmo said of the author of Soledad Brother, a man killed at San Quentin, "`Prison can make you or break you, but it leaves no man unchanged.' When my little brother and I got here, the first day we came through, we saw a man being killed. I went up to my brother and said, `Don't ever let that happen to you.' And I asked myself, `If someone came up to me like that, could I kill him?' And I found yes, yes I could. So I'd already changed."
On that first mid-August Monday Elmo introduced me to the white man seated next to him. Richard's face seemed a screen on which I could watch a lifetime of anger and pain. Richard had never written poems, he told me, but as a reporter with the San Quentin News, he found he liked to write. Elmo, editor of the prison newspaper, suggested, "Why not give poetry a try?"
In the following months, Richard would write poems about "lone souls sitting in the rail station ..." and other "second hand people." He would write, "I love the old man/His sorrow swells tears in my eyes/As drops of acid they burn my heart/I see through his empty stare/Our parallel lives/Empty/All that's left is our beating heart."
Quick and wiry, Angel sat next to Richard that first night of class. Angel was Latino, but refused to think of himself as a category. Over the months, he would repeatedly warn us about manipulation and an elite based on "material, power, and possession"the refrain that ran through all of Angel's jeremiads. He demanded, "Who decides what a poem is?" letting us know "I am a poem/The world is a poem/The butterfly 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...."
Angel believed in revelation, not creation. When, a few weeks after that first August evening in 1985, Richard told us he would be locked up until at least 1999, Angel said, "No, pretty soon all the prisons will be emptied." Angel's prophecies may have been crazyand his upcoming release date made both prisoners and staff shake their headsbut I loved his visionary fervor and his "demand," as he wrote in his poem "A Point within a Circle," that "the source/ ... reveal itself."
Cotiesyoung and sweet naturedgrew up in Pacoima, the San Fernando Valley town where I had attended CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) meetings when I was in high school. Coties worried. He worried about his own two children, and he worried about all children, and he worried about his people, black people. How, Coties worried, had the community's traditional looking-out-for-everybody attitude disintegrated into a state whereas he described in a poem"Few truly care/Society's nightmare/Blind ambition/Insatiable hunger/i got mine Fuck you"?
How, Coties worried in the years I would know him, had drugs become more important than black pride and unity? Coties addressed his worries to "You people/Who stand and watch your next door neighbor/Suffer from hunger ..." and "You people/ Who preach every Sunday and take your people's/Money to the bank of America on Monday...."
In the years to come, Coties would always be the one to inform me of anyone mentioned on the news doing good work in poor black neighborhoods. "You heard of the Omega Boys Club, Judith? Write and find out. Send them our poems. See if that Joe Marshall will come talk to us."
On that cool August evening, Ali entered the classroom, along with Hakim. Manny walked in. Gabriel waved me toward the empty seat next to his own.
Gabriel's face reflected both his Japanese and Caucasian bloodlines, and, as I soon would discover, his aesthetics were also informed by both traditions. Much of what Gabriel had to say simply would not fit into a tight twenty-line poem, and he experimented with forms that allowed as much space for silence as substance. Gabriel would bring suzuri, sumi, and fudeink stone, ink stick, and brushesto class and sit patiently rubbing the stick of soot and glue onto the stone. He would then dip a brush into the black ink he'd created and pause, centering his attention on the blank sheet of paper before him.
Of these eight men who showed up that first August evening, many would form the core of our class over the following years. That night and thereafter, I found every way that I could to teach these men about themselves as writers of poems. But I was also a student. For I learned from each man's particular qualities and unique ways of surviving in prison more than I could ever have imagined about what it is to be human.
In August 1985, San Quentin was a maximum security prison housing more than three thousand men. Its mission, as had been recently determined by the California Department of Corrections in Sacramento, was to serve as a lockup facility for the statewide prison system. This meant that most of the prisoners at San Quentin were confined to the Security Housing Units (SHU), where they spent an average of twenty-three hours each day in their cells. But some, like my students, were housed among the general populationreferred to as mainline. These men were locked in their cells at night, but they were able to attend school or prison job assignments during the day, and classes or other special events in the evenings.
I knew that the crimes for which most of the men at San Quentinincluding my studentshad been convicted involved serious harm to, or the death of, another human being. Angel's release date was nearing, but the majority of the men in my class were serving life sentences. I assumed, therefore, that most of my students had killed someone else. Over time, I learned this was a simplistic assumption. Some lifers had murdered people on the outside. Some of these murders were gang related, others committed during a robbery; some were "crimes of passion." Some men serving life sentences had not been the actual perpetrators, but were instead present at the scene of a murder and convicted of "acting in concert" or "aiding and abetting." Still others had killed another prisoner inside the pen.
Some men claimed "diminished capacity" because they were drunk or on drugs when the crime was committed. Some who were convicted in the 1970s claimed to be political prisoners. Many at San Quentin thought the Vietnam veteran and former Black Panther Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt had been framed by the government because of his political background. As one prison official put it, "If Pratt had done what he was convicted of doing, he'd be out of here by now."
I never asked anyone about his crime, and only a handful of men spoke to me of what had brought them to prison. Elmo was present when his brother spontaneously shot and killed a man. The DA alleged that the crime was a premeditated murder planned by both brothers. Since Elmo refused to testify against his brother, he was serving a seven-to-life sentence himself. Of all who mentioned their crimes to me, only Coties denied involvement completely.
Although I am an enormously curious person, I only once read a prisoner's file. I felt my job was to meet these men as students and poets. The one common thread running through what I knew about the crimes that had brought my students to prison is that these crimes were committed by very young men. Now those young men were older.
During my first year at the prison, our student-teacher relationships developed on a once-a-week basis in the isolation of our classroom. Although I did not forget that many of these men had caused grave harm to another, for me that single fact did not fully define them. In the cocoon of our classroom, I knew these men as intelligent, enthusiastic, funny, and kind; I liked each man very much. Over the next four years, I would watch how the crucible of prison taught us alleach man and myselfprofound and complicated lessons about who we were.
In my late teens and twenties, "split" was the word I'd used for my sense of existence; reality always felt dual to me, this and also that. In a college seminar, the professor asked each student to bring in an object that represented freedom. I brought in two images, side by side. One was a leaping red flower I'd painted, full of a joyful, vibrating energy; the other was a print of Edvard Munch's The Scream, with its swirling, panicked horror.
Now San Quentin provided its own weekly reminder of the paradoxical nature of existence. Each Monday evening, as I walked into the prison, I passed the Catholic chapel on my right and Death Row on my left.
The previous year, my teenage daughter, Sara, and I had moved from the northern California coast, where we'd lived for a decade, back to the Bay Area, where she was born. At first, we lived in a house with six other people. After nine months of two rooms down the hall from each other, a wait in line for the bathroom, and half a shelf in the fridge, we'd managed to move into our own small apartment.
The apartment we found was in Albany. Essentially the northwest corner of Berkeley, Albany is its own small town. In the country, we had often lived a mile or two up some dirt road: Just picking up the mail required a fifteen mile round-trip in the car. Now Sara's walk to the high school took barely ten minutes. The post office, library, copy shop, and bank were all within blocks of our apartment. This ability to walk everywhere I needed to go felt almost like a miracle. And I walked through those days conscious of this miracle, watching the amber light of late summer cast shadows on sidewalks and smelling the jasmine that cascaded over neighborhood fences.
When I was in college at UC Berkeley in the 1960s, Albany was a conservative enclave with a John Birch Society's American Opinion bookstore at its main crossroads. Now the tone of the town was changing, and although Sara and I had ended up here by chance, Albany was starting to feel like a home.
Though I could walk most places daily life required, each Monday at five I still had to get into the car to drive a half hour northwest to the prison. Past a bowling alley and car wash and onto the highway. Past the boatyards and refineries of Richmond. A right turn followed by a left, and onto the San Rafael Bridge, which spanned the bay. Mt. Tamalpais in the distance. Four miles of San Rafael Bridge and, up over the last rise, San Quentin ahead, framed by the bridge's vertical bracing. Then the highway veered north and the prison shifted left. San Quentin was stark against a blue sky those end-of-summer late afternoons.
I took the first exit, turned left, drove under the freeway, bent right with the road past rows of pampas grass, and traveled the few short blocks to East Gate. On the hill to the right were old wooden houses that used to be home to prison guards and their families and were now occupied by a variety of folk who lived here and worked elsewhere. A development of condos stretched out to the left, where the bay lapped the shore. The visitor's parking lot lay a short distance downhill and had a spectacular vista of water, beaches, bridges, and lights.
I parked and walked up the hill to the massive double iron gate, which an officer had to swing open and slam shut with each vehicle or pedestrian entering or leaving the prison. Most Monday evenings the guard on duty was a gentle-faced man who lived in the country and wrote poems himself. I waited for him to emerge from the guardhouse, unlatch the gate, swing it back, and let me in. Once through the gate, I'd greet Jim Carlson, who was there to meet me and escort me inside.
All my senses awakened as Jim and I walked the long path toward the prison. Wood-frame houses and stucco buildings lined the street to our right. The hill to our left was covered in ice plant and sloped down to the staff parking lot. As we walked, I looked out at the bay and the three bridges that spanned it; I watched the ferry returning commuters to Larkspur; I watched the city lights just coming on in Marin and San Francisco.
I was hungry for each new sensation and expressionlockdown, rolled up, the holeand each new piece of information. "Count didn't clear until almost 5:30; class will be late tonight," Jim might say. Or he would tell me the numbers I neededsocial security, driver's license, birth dateto get security clearance for a guest artist I wanted to bring in. He explained how to borrow a video monitor so I could show poetry readings on tape, or where to photocopy the poems for the following week's class, or how to check the movement sheet before class to make sure everyone's name was listed. Over and over, with many variations on the theme, Jim told me: "To survive and do a good job working in prison, you have to hold onto what it is you want to do and, at the very same time, let go of all assumptions that you're going to get it done in the way you first planned."
At Scope Gate, another officer checked my name against the gate clearance Jim had prepared as my permission to enter the grounds. Then we would walk through the gate and head straight toward those parapets, turrets, and towers ahead of us.
When we arrived inside Count Gate, Officer Murphy or one of his colleagues would sift through my books and my bags looking for contraband, teasing, "You tell her of our policy about new females being required to date male staff?" or wondering, "Those bozos write any good poems?"
The gate we walked through next had the spikes and grating of some medieval portcullis. We walked a few steps, then a guard in a booth buzzed open the hinged metal gate before us, and we were held for a few moments in the sally portan enclosure with a gate at each end that was designed so that one gate wouldn't open until the other had shut. After the second gate clicked closed behind us, we faced a heavy black door that required my full weight to open. Once through this door, we were back outsideoutside onto the Plaza, outside at twilight with birds singing in the old palm to our rightbut inside now, inside the joint.
We walked through the Plaza, which was planted in rose bushes. Calendula bordered the lawn to our left. To our right were three chapels, which served Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Islamic, and Native American prisoners. On our left was a long, boxy building called the ACthe Adjustment Center, where, I was told by more than one guard, "We send the worst assholes, the worst of the worst." I couldn't see the other housing units, off to our left, but viewed the upper floor of North Block above the AC. The upper floor of North Block housed Death Row.
Straight ahead of us, as we walked, was the Education Building; the words "Hospital 1885" were carved into its stone facade. The current hospital sat at the edge of South Block; this two-story building we walked toward was one of San Quentin's original structures.
To the left of Education was a low-slung bungalow. This is where we were headed; Arts-in-Corrections classes were held in the basement of this building. But first we stopped at Four Post, a flat-topped rotunda about the size of a garden gazebo, which served as a command post from which officers monitored the movement of inmates. Each Monday I would sit in Four Post waiting for our class to begin.
Through the windows that ran the circumference of the building, I'd watch a guard walk the Balconythe gun rail above the heavy black door we'd just walked through. I'd watch a "free man," someone like me from the outside, walk onto the Plaza, crossing the red "out of bounds" line painted on concrete that marked the point beyond which prisoners could not step.
Inside Four Post, an officer took calls from the blocks, from Control, and from guards escorting inmates from one place to another. This same officer kept track of the prisoners using the pay phone, making sure that the man on the phone was the man who signed up to use it and that no one talked for longer than his allotted time.
I listened to the staff that sat around Four Post "shootin' the shit," as they put it. I listened to the language, to the rhythms of speech, and to the images the people who worked here made use of: "Everyone wants to get his fuckin' thumb on someone's ass"; "See that white dude? He made up the list"; "He didn't cancel for a reason, he just didn't want traffic"; "What is that comin' at us in that blue jacket?"; "What I do all day, I shuffle paper. Not real work"; "Some yo-yo's been causin' trouble up on Fifth Tier"; "Now whadya gonna do, tough guy?"; "The answer is no; what's the question?"
Sometimes I listened to these folks speak whole poems. "We'd hunt up the coast: Willits, Eureka, Fort Bragg. Whatever was moving. Raccoons we hunted with coon dogs. No possums then. Hard to believe, since they're all over now." Or, "These guys be talkin' 'bout all sorts of stuff: Nicaragua, the Dalai Lama, junk bonds. I gots to stay up. They don't make dumb convicts, not for a long time." Or, "T.M.? I'll tell you about T.M. It makes these guys not care. Take a glance through that window. All these jokers goin' `Ommmm.' You hear those grunts? And then after, they just don't care about robbin' or rapin'. And, man, I need 'em to care. I got twenty more years on this job. I got to finish my sentence. If these dudes stop caring about crime, where will I be? Outta a job. Back in the ghetto myself."
Eventually chow would be over and the men released from the blocks for evening movement. Jim and I and the officers providing coverage for our classes moved across to the bungalow. Officer Weichel took a seat at the desk, ready to check inmates' names against the movement sheet, ready to take their IDs. Through the window behind him I saw a world that I would later learn how to name: the Lower Yard, Industries, H-Unit, the Ranch. And, towering above this man-made enclosure stood Mt. Tamalpais. Beyond it, the sun lowered into the sea, unseen from the spot where I stood, but only a short hike, I knew, down the other side of the mountain.
The men were on their way now, ambling across the Upper Yard, past the checkpoint called Max Shack, and then visible to us in their work shirts and blue denim. I followed Jim down to the basement, where he unlocked the door to my classroom with one of the dozen keys on the chain he always wore on his belt. He let me in, reaching around to release the button lock in the center of the doorknob and giving me piece of advice number seventy-three: "Always make sure the door is unlocked when you're alone with inmates. Make sure an officer on the outside can get in if you need him."
I met my students each week in this windowless classroom two flights down. The top half of the wall along the hallway was glass, so the patrolling officers could always see in. I'd shove the solid wood table toward the center of the room and set eight or nine chairs around it. Cigarette butts snuffed in sand-filled coffee cans, computer talk on the chalkboard, the ceiling with square gaps between acoustical tiles: Maybe I had walked in as a tourist, as Elmo had noticed, but this room was beginning to feel like my second new home.
On a Saturday in late September, I entered what was called "the Jewish chapel." This low-ceilinged, rectangular room was used by both the Jewish and Islamic men for services and religious events. The fact that I was Jewish had already been a point of discussion in class. One evening Angel had discoursed on "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" in his general rant about the powerful, international cabal that he felt controlled all our lives. Two weeks later Coties brought in a poem that featured Jewish shopkeepers exploiting the poor. On both evenings, I breathed deeply. I told Angel not to believe everything he read, advice he gave out so often himself that he was willing, as the men put it, to hear it back at him.
Coties's poem, however, was not: easily dismissed. As we talked, Coties described experiences in his neighborhood with greedy Jewish landlords and store owners. I acknowledged the existence of such men and women, but said all the stories I had been told as a child about Jewish history were of a people made victims the world over. The message I took from these stories was that a Jew should always be conscious of discrimination, work hard for justice, and never treat another human being badly.
I said that my Aunty Emma had told me that neither Hebrew nor Yiddish has a word for "charity"; the word encompassing this concept is tzedaka, "justice." To establish justice through righteous and compassionate behavior, Aunty Emma taught me, is a duty and is essential to what it is to be a Jew.
I spoke of my grandparents' escape to this country in the early part of this century. I told of my grandmother's arrival in Boston on the Fourth of July. As her boat pulled into the harbor, she heard the detonating fireworks and, family legend has it, wailed, "Are there pogroms in America, too?"
Elmo told us that, although his southern California childhood hadn't exposed him to exploitation by Jewish landlords and merchants, this was a common complaint he had heard when he lived in New York. However, he said, assuming a moderator's evenhanded tone, it was a well-documented fact that Jews were actively involved on the front line during the Civil Rights movement.
Gabriel's response to the discussion was to invite me to celebrate the Jewish New Year at San Quentin. Gabriel wasn't Jewish. To the extent that Gabriel identified with any religion, he felt himself to be Buddhist. In class, Gabriel and Angel often spoke up for acknowledging reality as it is, while Elmo and Richard railed against what they felt to be such passive acceptance. "Hey, keep on accepting `what is,'" Elmo warned Gabriel, "and you'll end up in prison for the rest of your life."
When I had mentioned Gabriel's invitation to Jim, he said, "I wonder if Gabriel's letting you know of a San Quentin event you might want to experience, or if he's asking you out on some kind of date." I wondered, too, but was certainly curious about Rosh Hashanah at San Quentin, so Jim suggested that I attend the service, but that he attend, too. That way, he said, Gabriel wouldn't be able to feel he'd maneuvered me into some kind of private moment.
Now, in the chapel, Gabriel was right at my side. "It's nice to see your legs," he said as he escorted me to the seats he'd been saving. "This is the first time I've seen you in a dress."
I shrugged an "I guess so."
My few weeks at San Quentin had taught me that this culture expected a clever response to an opening line such as Gabriel's. Both prisoners and staff admired skillful verbal fencing. At first it seemed to me that everyone was constantly brilliant, always able to respond with a perfect bon mot. Then I saw that much of what I had thought of as original language was instead a series of patterned moves. The "hi/not tonight" exchange, for example, had been repeated each week in class. Stock phrase or no, though, I'd never been good at such quick repartee. I stuttered with the first verbal thrust. That afternoon in the Jewish chapel, I had no witty retort.
My body, too, stuttered. What did Gabriel mean by "It's nice to see your legs"? Was he implying something I should worry about? The intensity of the attention Gabriel focused on me made me nervous. In class he sat at my side or directly across the table from me. Whenever I looked up from a poem I'd just read, there were his dark, unblinking eyes staring straight at me.
For this one afternoon, I decided to hand over to Jim the task of keeping track of Gabriel's intentions. This allowed me to sit in my folding chairGabriel on one side, Jim on the otherwarmed by the sun-filled, south-facing windows and watch a carrot-topped Israeli put the Torah back into its portable ark while the rabbi talked of atonement.
Of the eight men who had shown up for our first class meeting in mid-August, Elmo, Gabriel, Coties, Richard, and Angel remained regulars. Ali and Hakim had been transferred to other prisons, and Manny had decided that he'd rather play piano than write poems. Occasionally there was a fresh faceGlenn and Leo often came to classbut most of these newcomers returned to Monday Night Football. The men were, in prison bureaucratese, "black, white, Hispanic, and other," but it seemed to me that they trusted one another and got along well. Each man brought poems to share, each talked with apparent comfort. Within a very few weeks, we were a group.
In early October, a new man appeared. He was tall and dark and his head was thrown back in what I assumed was prison bravado, shyness, or both. He wore a knit cap and sunglasses that hid half his face. He introduced himself as "Spoon," acknowledged my welcome with a sound between a grunt and a hum, and answered my questions about his interest in the class with a clipped "Don't know."
Even this short interaction seemed an ordeal for the man. Spoon strolled to the back of the room, picking up a chair in each hand as he walked. He placed these chairs and two more into a half-circle and sat down inside it, his back to the wall.
In the fall of 1985, Berkeley Repertory Theatre began work on a production of Jack Henry Abbott's In the Belly of the Beast. Abbott had been incarcerated in youth facilities and prison most of his life, and had written to Norman Mailer when the author was working on Executioner's Song. Abbott warned that very few people knew much about prisons and offered, if Mailer was interested, to share information about the life of a convict. A correspondence began that was eventually shaped into a book. Mailer and the other New York literati who arranged for the book's publication also engineered Abbott's release from the pen. Abbott was a free person for only six weeks when, as he described the event, he misread the gestures of a man he encountered and stuck a knife into this stranger's heart.
The play's director, Richard E. T. White, asked to come visit San Quentin, and a tour was arranged. White, along with Tony Amendolawho was preparing to play the role of Abbott in the Berkeley Rep productionalso attended my class. Many of my students had read Abbott's book and most had heard of his story. In class, Amendola read from the script, and the men talked about how prison shapes one's sense of self. I read from Joe Morse's editorial in the most recent San Quentin News: "I fully realize that, if push comes to shove, I ain't got a damn thing coming. I will, however, repeat one of my basic beliefs. Society is going to reap exactly what it sows. Who can honestly expect anything except a negative result from treating a prisoner in a subhuman manner for decade after decade?"
White, Amendola, and I had all assumed that my students, sharing so much of Abbott's experience, would be sympathetic to his narration, but the mood in the room was one of discomfort. One man said that Abbott's sensationalized description of prison life reinforced the stereotype of all prisoners as dangerous killers. Another noted that Abbott's failure on the streets made it more difficult for others locked up to be given a second chance. A third said he'd heard through the grapevine that Abbott was less of a warrior than he painted himself as being.
"The man can write," Elmo said, "and we all know the effect of life in the pen. But here's someone who, after a lifetime of being caught up in the system and suffering the kind of dehumanization and psychological abuse he wrote about so brilliantly, had the great fortune to be delivered from that hellish existence." Elmo continued as if he were composing one of his own San Quentin News editorials, "Here's a man who was given a reprieve from his past and a glittering path to a new life, and instead he chose to be nothing more than the animal he proclaimed the `system' made him."
I myself saw tragedy where Elmo saw weakness and was about to speak, but Elmo had more to say. "My heartfelt belief is that anyone intelligent enough to perceive the `system' as Abbott did, to know and see and feel and understand the insidious psychological impact of incarceration, also possesses the insight and ability to choose whether or not to become a victim to it, or to take control of and assume full responsibility for who he will become."
As we walked out of the prison, Amendola expressed surprise at both Elmo's intelligence and his disdain for Jack Henry Abbott. Elmo had served eight years on his indeterminate sentence; I assumed that one day he'd again be a free man. He always seemed so sure of himself, always trusted his reactions. I wondered if Elmoif any of my studentsever worried that prison might eventually wear down his own capacity to be a human being out in the world.
So the next week I brought in a poem by Nazim Hikmet. Hikmet, a political prisoner in Turkey earlier this century, had been told he was in prison "because the workers are reading your poetry."
In "Some Advice to Those Who Will Serve Time in Prison," Hikmet wrote:
Part of you may live alone inside,
like a stone at the bottom of a well.
But the other part
must be so caught up
in the flurry of the world
that you shiver there inside
when outside, at forty days' distance, a leaf moves.
Here was a man who wrote from his own experience about feelings I assumed many of my students shared:
And, who knows,
The woman you love may no longer love you.
Don't say it's no big thing
it's like the mapping of a green branch to the man inside
I read out loud the last lines of the poem:
I mean it's not that you can't pass
ten or fifteen years inside
and more even
as long as the jewel
in the left side of your chest doesn't lose its luster!
The room was silent for a few moments, then Richard said, "That's a cold poem."
All the men nodded to confirm Richard's evaluation of the poem's excellence, but when I asked them to write about what one can do, even in prison, so that "the jewel in the left side of your chest doesn't lose its luster," the men slouched, put a few words on paper, sat back, doodled, and stared into space. My "What's up? What's wrong?" was met by sulky silence. After more energetic effort from me, Elmo finally said, "Who are you to expect anything real from us? You sail in here with your hippie ways," he continued, "wanting us to open up. You think just your smile and your good-vibe talk are going to lead to some deep sharing? Think again, my friend. What you want is too easy; you have to earn closeness from us."
Gabriel, Coties, Angel, and Richard looked down at the floor, at the table's flat surface, at their knees. Spoon sat in the doorway behind his shades, as far away from us as he could get and still be in the room. Elmo, however, shrunk from nothing; he hammered me with his eyes as well as his words: "who are you? Why are you here?"
My whole body clenched in an attempt not to cry, not yet, not in class, and not on the walk back to the car through Count Gate, where the guard on duty was a notorious tease. Not until I was safely through Scope Gate and alone in the night did I let the tears fall. "How could he?" Indignation bellowed. "I'll never go back!" Hurt announced, imagining home and hiding beneath pillows and quilts.
In a voice oozing venom, Revenge spoke to the Elmo I'd placed in my mind: "Maybe you're upset because you don't want to notice how the jewel in the left side of your own chest has dulled and become tarnished."
It took my whole drive back home for Indignation, Hurt, and Revenge to each have their say. By the time I parked the car in the garage under our apartment, I was able to breathe deeply and repeat Elmo's questions"who are you? Why are you here?"and hear the simplicity of their inquiry.
I let these questions become a koan that I studied all week. As I taught poetry classes to children through Poets in the Schools, as I laughed with Sara, as I worked on my poems, as I walked through the sycamore leaves October had piled on sidewalks, as I cooked, shopped, and washed floors, I asked myself who I was and why I was at San Quentin.
Who was I? In late October 1985, I was a thirty-eight-year-old woman with a fifteen-year-old daughter I was head-over-heels in love with. My pigeon-toed, knock-kneed body housed a shy and stuttering nature. Despite a secure life filled with support and affection, I felt that I was an outsider.
Who was I? When I was little, I had imaginary friends and a head full of stories. Later, I had book after book to read and be lost in, story after story to create on my own blue-green Olivetti. In my twenties, at a bookstore in Berkeley, when I extended my hand to receive change from a purchase, the clerk took my palm in her own, looked at its mounds and deep lines and exclaimed, "Wow! I've never seen so much imagination!"
Who was I? As a teenager I listened to Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie, Odetta, Brownie McGhee, and Sonny Terry. I read James Baldwin and Richard Wright and followed the news from Montgomery and Mississippi. I sang "Which Side Are You On?" and "We Shall Overcome."
Who was I? Single mother poet with teenager and cat; shy self with imagination; outsider essence still singing "Which Side Are You On?" Was this the answer Elmo was seeking?
Why was I here? Of course I could not yet know how the path of my life would be shaped by its travel through San Quentin, but I was aware that this leg of the journey had begun over two years before, when I developed readingsof my own poems and those by otherswhich I presented in towns throughout northern California. In December 1984, I was asked to recite these poems at the prison in Tehachapi. I had no idea what to expect, but I discovered that the prisoners responded as I did to poems: as though they'd received bread, actual matter with the power to nourish.
I was hooked by the response of the men at Tehachapi and came back to the Bay Area wanting more. This desire took me into San Quentin as a guest artist in Floyd Salas's poetry class. As Jim Carlson escorted me out of the prison after that reading, he asked if I'd be interested in returning to teach. Absolutely; you bet.
And now, after two months of Monday night classes, I felt very close to my San Quentin students. I was in awe of Elmo's righteous intelligence, even though I'd just felt its sharp sting. Gabriel's attention often made me uncomfortable, but I appreciated his quiet complexity and helpful nature. What Coties called his "lolligagging style" almost always cheered my heart. I admired Angel's insistence on letting the world simply exist and shared Richard's concern for the lost, lonely souls at the edges of cities. And now there was Spoon, the unknown, sitting silent within his circle of chairs.
I was feeling close, but Elmo had challenged my "hippie ways." "Who are you to expect anything real from us?" he had asked. I'd innocently assumed I had the right to ask each man to delve into his soul and write about how he kept his heart alive while in prison. Elmo had let me know my good vibes and friendly smiles, while pleasant, were too flimsy to support what I'd asked for.
Innocence. I sat in our apartment in my old bentwood rocker and watched a soft, sparse rain fall outside the glass. I thought of Dr. Tussman, my philosophy professor at Cal, who once asked: "If a worker in a factorynot knowing the object his piecework will fit intomakes part of a weapon that is used to kill children in a small village in Vietnam, is that worker innocent? Does ignorance grant innocence?"
I pushed myself to define how I used that word, "innocence": a child's spirit and ability to look with clear sight and an open heart. Such innocence might have been merely a diversion for my students, but I felt it had served them well; innocence had allowed me to be playful, to bring in the lighter air of the outside world. That fresh breeze had been welcome.
The previous Monday, though, Elmo accused me, not of this innocence, but of something like "false innocence." False innocence: pretending I didn't know what by now I should know. It was such false innocence that allowed Tussman's factory worker to avoid recognizing the purpose of his labor. It was all very well, Elmo implied, to talk about soul, to revel in rich language, to debate philosophy. But if I thought I understood anything about their world, I was fooling myself.
Earlier in the month, Coties had brought a poem to class in which he described "West Block/North Block/East Block/South Block" and their "hundreds of cages/one on top of the other/five tiers high." His poem had described a cell's "one faucet white sink/ with cold water only/and asbestos and rust around the faucet," and its "three inch thick/pissy mattress/on rusted out squeaky steel springs." This poem was my first glimpse into the daily landscape of my students' lives, for my own eyes had seen little more than the flower-laden Plaza and our basement classroom. I certainly knew nothing about the "racial hatred/sexual animosities/petty jealousies and/diligently plotted schemes of revenge" Coties's poem listed. So I could see Elmo's point: Who was I, ignorant as I was, to ask my students to put their deepest feelings on paper? Who was I to ask them to write of their hearts, there in that classroom with Officer Weichel or one of his colleagues patrolling the hallway and looking in through the glass?
I rose from my rocking chair and went to my desk and wrote words to tell the men that I'd try not to assume I knew anything about their experience (a promise I would, of course, break over and over again during the next four years). But the next week in class, no one wanted to listen to my speech. Angel, the first man in the room, began his usual monologue on conspiracy. One by one the men entered, and when Elmo arrived, to my surprise, he was friendly and warm. I was confused and cautious as I started to speak the words I'd rehearsed. But Coties cut short my stammered speech, saying, "Hey, I've got a poem I've been working on." And soon everyoneeveryone except Spoon, who was still stretched out in a chair by the doorwayrested his elbows on the table and looked over Coties's poem. By the time Officer Weichel appeared in the doorway at 9:15 to let us know count would soon clear and that class was now over, I'd nearly forgotten the week's heavy soul-searching and how nervous I'd been earlier, coming down the steps to this classroom.
Now Elmo walked upstairs next to me and said, "You know, in that Hikmet poem, his lines about being `caught up in the flurry of the world,' about shivering inside when outside a leaf moves? That's good advice. I think about outside every day. Not like some dream to help me forget, but in order not to forget, to remember, to make sure I know where I am and that I'm not free. If you once say, `This place isn't so bad,' they've got you."
I knew this was not casual conversation, that Elmo was telling me something he thought might help me understand. I wanted to hear more, but Richard walked up with a story and Gabriel was soon at my elbow.
"Look." Gabriel was staring at his feet. "I've been practicing a concentration exercise." He raised his left foot and slowly lowered it to the ground. "I try to feel my heel-ball-toe settle. Of course," Gabriel glanced at my face and smiled, "it's not easy to concentrate this way out on the yard."
"See, Judith," Gabriel said, again standing straight, turning solemn, "this is why I think we couldn't talk about that Hikmet poem in class last week. It's like what I'm trying to tell you about the yard. No one can afford to talk about `the snapping of the green branch' in front of a group of fellow prisoners, although each and every one of us has felt that. Hikmet knows. He warns us, `Don't say it's no big thing.' He knows that's exactly what we'll say to save face out on the yard."
Weichel announced that count had cleared and that he had a long drive home; it was time for the men to get back to their cells. I waved and watched my students turn right and walk toward the cell blocks. They each walked that walk: shoulders thrown back, chest held high, and an "I'll take up as much space as I need to" demeanor.
On that late October Monday night, I watched my students walk that tough walk. I watched them walk past the library on their right, past the mural on their left and toward the Upper Yard, straight ahead. Once they passed Max Shack, though, they disappeared into a dark beyond which, I could not see.
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