For the past thirty years I have taught poetry at Northern Nevada Correctional Center. More than 150 men have participated and almost all of them have stayed out of prison. Some have completed degrees, many have married, have steady jobs, and very few keep writing. Poetry is a way to reclaim themselves, or as one member has said, “to save myself from me.” The workshop takes place in the prison chapel, an almost surreal location if you can still believe in something beyond its concrete walls. This past spring, due to Covid, I taught on-line for the college. One man from the workshop was able to attend. This essay originally appeared on my radio show, A Writer’s World, on KWNKradio.org.
Dispatches from Prison
Sometimes books are like angels—they swoop into a life to alter its course, and Billy was no exception. He read Jimmy Santiago Baca’s memoir, A Place to Stand, in five days. Just weeks earlier he heard Baca speak in class, albeit via Zoom—but he heard him. He felt his words deep beneath his skin. They took him places, took him to worlds he had not understood or known. They took him inside the man he thought he knew—the old Billy—and for the first time, he was able to consider things he had not been able to share.
This is what I can never explain when people ask how poetry works. This is what I am not able to define. Billy was a reluctant learner. Poetry meant obfuscation—stay away at all costs. But he came to class after class and struggled mightily. His first paper was a kind of prayer that some words might get lobbed over the finish line and record a one point victory. And he was disgusted when they did not. I told him not to worry about the grade. Grades had nothing to do with poetry. He could not hear that and I sat with his criticism: “I worked my ass off on this paper and all I got was f___ing C. How the hell am I supposed to keep writing?” I didn’t have much to say—the poem had become his nemesis, an outlier of language that it was thought to be. My praise of his effort floated into the chapel—the unlikely classroom—like
unwanted confetti. The others in the room sat with his words too. Did they have a chance, could
they succeed in this “stupid” class?
It was one of those pivotal moments when what is shared can bend the men to
epiphany or disgust. I hated teaching online; I was so much more comfortable in person where I
could see their eyes, read more than what was said. Now their faces were a blur, the details of expression unclear at best. We had gotten off to a rough start—the technology failed night after night. I could not hear them, sometimes the screen went dark or crashed, and I could not share materials in real time. I was teaching with my hands tied—except when I had to use them to mime responses. It was the usual electronic pandemonium. It took three weeks to discover the class was on mute and I could not override the system. A small correction we would discover after hours with tech support. None of this had anything to do with poetry, with the reason I taught inside. In fact, it only emboldened the naysayers. We started off with poetry that was expressive but not too dense. I wanted to give them a way into the art form. I began each class with poems from men and women who were or had been inside and bypassed the argument of why poetry? If it was good enough for them, the ten men in my class could tiptoe in… or so I imagined, but the paradox of poetry is rife with understatement. No matter what I said to assuage their concerns—that it was not life threatening—the art form and I, by inference, were suspect. Grades only made it worse. Somehow they had to guess what I was thinking or wanted and what I really wanted was for them to listen to themselves, to plumb the depths of their experience to witness what they were doing, who they were, why they had trouble finding a place to stand. This was not so much, I intimated. Sure, it took risk, took more than cursory effort and meant they would have to look hard at what had gone down in their lives but after reading many poets whose lives were changed by poetry in this very same hellhole, my hope could not be refuted.
Wrong. Hope doesn’t have these requirements. Hope lives by itself and flutters down to
our lives when we least expect it —but in the presence of a poem? Never happens.
Stubbornly, I kept on, threw them every kind of poem I knew and let them sit with the
refrain from one of my former workshop members—“Poetry saved me from me.” He spoke in the class too and confided his trepidation when I had asked him to write about what he knew. “I’ll write about myself,” he said, “I know me.” Nothing could have been harder. He did not
know himself. He was staring into the abyss of his life after years of incarceration and what he knew was “desolation.” This was an abrupt end to his poetic aspiration, a halting cadence in his poems. He confided his first memory of reading a poem in the workshop when the men cringed—something he can laugh at now—but when he shared this experience with the men in my class they were taken aback. “You mean your life was not sufficient to write about?” they asked.
“No,” he said, “I was not prepared to look within. I lived without looking at myself for my first twenty years and until prison, I had done just fine. I thought I had escaped this process.”
He went on. “It took more than cursory effort to stare down the man I had become. I realized that poetry was the vehicle to stop bullshitting myself. If I couldn’t be straight with myself, how could I possibly write a poem proclaiming to understand its author? I could not. I could only fake it—which up until now, I had been so good at.”
There it was, laid bare in the chapel: this wasn’t a game of chess. It was the paradox of growing into a self he had not known. A paradox that seemed almost worth trying—meaning he could start to express what required him to slow down and sit with these questions.
Poetry rarely answers but it does provide ample questions. It helps us to sift from the
debris. Almost imperceptibly, the sifting had begun. The words were so much stronger when
they did not emanate from my tongue. My former workshop member who was facing life cut
through all of the excuses. There was nothing left to proclaim. Innocence stood outside the
chapel waiting for the men to accede—an innocence born of vulnerability. To really take risks in a poem, I kept saying to them, you can’t lie to yourself; the questions are real. They are there for a reason—they keep you close to what cannot be expressed but what is felt—and that is the province of poetry. Something tangible like grief or the echo of a parent was just beyond their grasp, and yet it wasn’t. It was right in front of them if they could express that momentary recognition. A recognition of letting go, of whispering to some other self not known but experienced and buried. This is the refrain my former workshop member kept repeating—”you have a lived story, a vital and necessary voice, but the story has not been shared.” Then he paused: “I was afraid of my story, afraid to let the old perceptions go, and there wasn’t much else to say without it. The poem lurched forward, I tried to tag along but my words seemed lifeless.”
This was a metaphor for creation—you must try and not know how or why. The ancient Chinese poets expressed this best. Here is Po Chü-i (Selected Poems, translated by Burton Watson, Columbia University Press, 2000):
Listening, I feel my thin hair
quickly turning white:
still growing old, still
sleepless, still alone.
These are lines from a man who has spent his life making poetry—of course he was alone, sleepless, and growing older. Of course he could not name the thing that disturbed him but he was glad to be a part of its revelation. He recorded the isolation so that nearly 1300 years later I could read his poem and know without a doubt that inexplicable silence. I shiver with recognition as I age into that silence.
Weeks later, near the end of class, Billy was starting to find his way. He was excited
about having another go at the last paper. He wanted to show me what he had learned. I was
grateful he had not disappeared from view. Prison can be an ornery teacher—there is poetry enough to go around if you’re able to absorb it. And I would not have found him if he disappeared into that maelstrom, that desolation my former member referred to. Not Whitman’s song, but a derivation of life without song. But he did not. He promised he would give it his all, do everything to demonstrate his knowledge of the craft. I let him know how much that meant—not just to me, but to his journey from who he was to who he had become.
In a late spring snowstorm, I read Billy’s paper and indeed he had mastered the first two subjects but when I got to the third and fourth he could not quite articulate why the poems worked as they did. I read on and found a letter. He thanked me for helping him return to the man he once knew, for being able to share this man for the first time in his life. I set the letter down and looked out at the flakes—they were falling without worry to a dry land, a land I had tried to name in a hundred poems—and Billy had just written a letter that was so much more than understanding. Its veracity was close to poetry, close to what the most earnest of teachers hope for: that day when the subject becomes synonymous with its expression and there is no longer any need of demonstration. Billy had found his way into the poem. Nothing more needed to be said. It was his former peer who led him on this path. It was the example of his peer’s own saving, of Baca’s saving, of so many more whose names are not known, but whose poetry is present in his eyes and mind. Some part of this cannot be recorded and lies within him for what words may come. Like my workshop that has gone on endlessly for three decades, I did not want the class to end. I had to trust Billy found a way into the words without me and that the poems would do their work: an empathetic rendering of what lay within.
Shaun T. Griffin co-founded and directed Community Chest, a rural social justice agency for twenty-seven years. Because the Light Will Not Forgive Me—Essays from a Poet, was published in 2019. The Monastery of Stars, poems, came out in 2020. For over three decades, he has taught a poetry workshop at Northern Nevada Correctional Center, and published a journal of their work, Razor Wire. He and his wife Debby live in Virginia City, Nevada.