by Ismael Santallines
In 1984, I went to prison.
I wrote my fiancée, a young lady, fresh out of high school, who had really just begun to live. I asked her to find someone else to love, someone else with whom to plan a life. She responded, saying she loved me and would wait. I thought about what I needed to do to wake her up to the fact that the two life sentences I received meant I would die in prison. I needed her to understand that waiting for me would mean waiting for no one to love. So, I wrote a letter that to this day haunts me. It was a letter meant to hurt her, to make her hate me. I thought that if I could get her to hate me, that she would happily find someone else. But first loves are hard falls and pulling away from someone’s first hands, first mouth, first promises, is asking someone never to believe in love again. I did not know then the devastation that letter would cause in both our lives.
As I quietly sat to write, despondency stirred in my torso, saturated the tissue of my neck, and enveloped my head. By the time I had sealed and stamped the letter, I knew life no more from emptiness—and all the moments in the past filled with wonderment turned into illusions. I turned all the love I had into a lie.
She stopped writing.
Prison had its own smell, its own chaos, its own stillness—its own rhythm. I took to running, a form of meditation I learned when I was a kid. As soon as the yard would open up (a time in which prisoners could mingle outside), I would walk out to the athletic field, a wide-open area where one lap equaled half a mile. I would run until the lungs burned, the heart pounded louder than the memory of a night I could not completely remember, yet whose fragments I wanted to forget: a knife, blood matted hair, the carpet, the silence.
I would run until I could no longer feel—as if some primordial code wanted to do away with the body. But even after running until I felt numb, until I felt there was not enough air in the world for me to swallow, there she was: mother, wife, someone’s daughter, her lungs no longer grasping at the earth. Sometimes I remembered her posed in a Sears portrait studio photo, one the D.A. tossed on the defendant’s table. Other times it would be a disfigured apparition. Always, I paralyzed and waited for some prison thing to happen, to drag me back to the imprisoned reality.
During the first five years, nothing more finely described my life as these two words: I existed. Nothing else. My spirit had lost the imperative to live. I existed: that was it. I floated in and out of my assigned cell according to the prison’s schedule: wake up; chow time; yard time; lockdown; count time; chow time; yard time; and over and over. I didn’t care. Nothing meant anything to me.
I remember standing in line for mail call when a young Black man walked up to me, his chest puffed out, thin arms hanging away from his torso like a gunslinger, head cocked to one side, talking shit, asking that not-so-original prison ice-breaker, meant more to scare the one being questioned, “Whatcha lookin’ at, mothafucka?”
I had done nothing to him. Didn’t even know him. He was one of hundreds of young men in prison who felt it necessary to show how crazy he was. He needed to count coup to show the rest of the herd how courageous he was. I was supposed to be an easy mark. I remember looking at his eyes: bewildered, scared, sadly faking insanity—a state of mind I’ve come to respect. He let me know he would stick a shank in my neck, to kill me. I almost smiled, leaned slightly forward, and quietly said, “Thank you. You’re a godsend.”
I guess he wasn’t used to honesty—and proper diction. Facing the confidence of a desolate mind, he looked confused. Having to maintain appearances, he kept up his act as he backed away, swaying his arms as if asking what, and yapping about being a convict and how he “nevah bow down to nobody.” Eventually, one of his friends grabbed him by the arm and convinced him it wasn’t worth it, that everyone knew he was crazy. I disappointedly went back to standing in line for mail call.
So, five years into a life sentence, surrounded by dull brick walls, everything meant nothing. The story of a child with my name was detached. The story of a wide-eyed teenager with my face in high school belonged to someone else. There was an unfocused character in military olive drab who occasionally appeared in memory, just waiting to see. Even the more recent events leading up to my incarceration were scumbled, grainy photographs from two worlds that bled into each other: the real world and a world I had wished for with every cell of my being—the real world of imprisonment and the longed-for world of making life with my fiancée. These worlds intermingled so much, there were times I had to close my eyes to allow the stillness of truth to settle, the anesthetic lie to evaporate. Something in me was still able to distinguish reality from what I wished would have happened (how that ugly night could have played out). At times when I felt too far gone; it was always prison’s din, or middle-of-the-night dead silence, that brought me back. Absurd as it might sound, what I didn’t want—to be imprisoned—was what grounded me.
In spite of this forsaken sense of life, it didn’t mean I made no acquaintances—I made a few. Gary was a good friend—someone who gained my respect, a relationship that after a few years, allowed me to think of him as a brother. He was of tough-looking German blood, muscular, with a broken cartilage boxer’s nose, and a gentle smile. I admired Gary for his knowledge in psychology, mythology, and spiritual matters. I most enjoyed his conversations because they were almost never about prison. Talking about something other than prison was a way for me to mentally escape.
One day, Gary invited me to take some laps around the main yard, to talk as we would about metaphysical matters—our favorite authors were Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell. As we walked, he recounted small stories, none that took too long. Each lap around the housing units took about twenty minutes, plenty of time to see those walking in opposite direction again and again. That Saturday, like many Saturdays there, many prisoners were out taking their morning strolls.
Suddenly, he stopped and pointed out another prisoner approaching us. He pointed out the man’s head was tilted slightly to one side and down as if searching for something he once heard. He smoked rolled Bugler cigarettes and drank from a tall dingy plastic coffee mug. Mostly, he looked at the ground just ahead of his feet. Then Gary pointed out how our subject had walked past a small irascible group without being noticed. In fact, no one looked at him. He didn’t matter. When he got closer, upon Gary’s suggestion, I caught a look at the man’s eyes: lifeless. Gary’s determination was that our subject had given up living a long time ago, and was walking around without a soul.
The thought of that man walking around without a soul had hardly sunk in when he touched my arm with the back of his hand. My attention turned to him as he spoke with sincerity: “If you don’t change, you’ll end up like that.”
“That” was the last word I heard during our excursion around the prison yard that day. We walked more laps, and Gary continued to talk—but, I couldn’t listen. Whatever he said the rest of that morning burned violently against the silent scream inside my head. I heard nothing but my own soul tearing at itself—but I had no understanding on how to stop my soul from self-nihilism, from burning inside me till nothing was left but this walking carcass.
Gary was referring to the manner in which I was doing my number, prison lexicon referring to the manner a prisoner conducted himself. Ideally each prisoner was left to follow his own path, make his own decisions, and oblige what consequences that exacted—to do your own number. At the moment of Gary’s portent, my way of doing my number was one of self-degradation. I deprived myself membership to the human race. I found no forgiveness in my thoughts for what I had done. A life was lost—no, it was taken—and all the prayers in the world could not undo what my hands had done.
Although I was raised Catholic, and was as a child very inquisitive as to ecclesiastical matters, I was privileged in having been raised with the teachings of a mother and a maternal grandmother who understood much of life through Mexican pagan beliefs. Theirs was the understanding that a Spirit permeated all things seen and unseen, and that it was a particular spiritual chemistry, culmination of the Spirit imprinting on human tissue, that resulted in the birth of a human soul. So, I grew up believing in the importance of having a soul.
Gary’s foreboding consumed my thoughts. Even so, no one knew how completely this horrifying idea had taken over my being. I shared this with no one. Not Gary. Not my cellmate. No one. This was prison, where the only place I could hide was inside my head. Without speaking a word, I shared my anxiety with my lungs—only my veins knew what my blood carried to my lungs. Only my lungs cleaned out the impurities of the spiritually caustic condition—it was breathing that forgave.
Gary’s words unfurled like a flag of defiance against the spiritual stagnation in which I would otherwise rot. The thought of walking around the rest of my life without a soul disrupted the deception in which I relied on to deal with the thought of dying in prison, perhaps also relied on to quicken the path to being dead—to end up taking laps every Saturday morning without resistance to time’s entropic effect, without a soul to live with, walking around with my head tilted to the ground listening for something I might have known before.
It certainly gave me a lot to think about, and a lot to see. For the first time since handcuffs tightened around my wrists, I began to look around as if seeing things for the first time. Yet still, the draw to self-damnation was there. I struggled with the idea that I had to change. Self-denigration was the way I understood prison. Self-denial was a way of not having anything to protect. I did not want to wake up.
I began to awaken.
Shortly after this new struggle with myself had begun, my cellmate walked in from the yard to let me know that someone from the local college was at the prison’s education building looking to hire a clerk for the new prison college program. He thought that I would be a good fit, so I set out to apply.
Michael Hill was the local community college program’s coordinator, the one looking to hire a clerk. The interview was short. I mentioned that I had been in the Air Force and was comfortable working with electronic technology. That was pretty much it. He was either impressed or desperate to find someone to help him. I was hired.
My role as a college clerk was to help other prisoners fill out applications for financial assistance and registration. It was interesting work. I found that apart from needing help fill out a Pell Grant application and deciding which classes to take, I also became the one others would talk to about their apprehension. I found myself speaking with men about the future, about someday getting out and having the knowledge to make decisions based on honest assessments. While I was simply regurgitating college propaganda, I would see their eyes begin to focus on the future.
How about that: I was counseling others not to give up.
It was within this program that I met Shaun Griffin, a Nevada poet, essayist, and nonprofit executive. He was free staff, meaning someone not a prisoner, there to teach university-level classes in writing poetry. On the suggestion from a friend, I took Shaun’s poetry writing class—along with other classes.
“Poetry,” I thought, “how hard can it be?”
Shaun was a calm presence. Tall, unassuming, he was there to teach poetry. After roll call, he got right to it, laying out how the class would function. We were expected to read established poets’ works and expected to write our own. Shaun’s method of teaching was more centered around getting his students to write. Informing us of poetry’s forms and devices were almost non-existent. His presentation exposed us to the writings of a variety of established poets, each time questioning what we heard in their works. He was there to get us to think for ourselves, to stir our interest in writing.
While taking college classes, time seemed to flow faster. Now, it seemed, I was running out of time to get things done. There was little time to wallow in my own self-centered world; but, still the background grind of what my hands had done kept scratching away at the bone—waiting, it seemed.
The first and second semesters flew by.
Going into the third semester, those of us in the first two semesters were brought together by Shaun. The university was planning on not offering the poetry class. They required a minimum number of students to sign up for a Pell Grant to pay for it, a number of registrations that wasn’t being met. So, because our small group seemed genuinely interested in learning this illusive craft, he offered to simply come out as a volunteer to run a workshop. We all agreed.
We called our workshop Razor Wire.
As with many initiates to poetry, my first- and second-semester attempts at writing bounced like raw eggs against sharp rocks. Chip, a student in the workshop, who already had skill in writing poetry, had a very visual manner of critiquing my poems. The first time I noticed it, I was reading a memorized piece. I was able to look around as I recited my (in-my-naïve-opinion) well written poem. Then I saw it: he cringed. I stuttered, but kept going. After the feedback from the group went in the direction of Chip’s visual critique, I quickly decided that I would look over at Chip whenever I read one of my poems to see what he thought. He sat in front of the class, diagonal to me, so it was easy to see what his reaction would be. If he didn’t move, the poem was workable. If he cringed, the poem was damned.
Now, up to this point, I had no preferred style of writing. Sure, I found most of it interesting. Each poet Shaun introduced by way of xeroxed copies from his personal library, or from magazines and journals, seemed to offer a different way of looking at poetry—we began to learn devices. The first poet I remember enjoying was Robert Frost. A huge discussion was held in the workshop as to what the end couplet meant in Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (224):
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
And miles to go before I sleep. (Frost, lines 13-16)
While the language is straight forward, its meaning quite direct, a tremendous amount of energy went into describing what Frost meant by the repeated line couplet. Everyone was eager to jump in with their explanation. Almost everyone interpreted the couplet as a reference to death. A couple, more reserved individuals (not me), took the couplet’s language to mean only what it said, that the traveler in the poem had a ways to travel before he completed that day’s promises. What those promises meant no one knew—but definitely that “sleep” meant nothing more than going to bed only to wake up the next morning. Personally, I was vying for the morbid interpretation.
Even against personal resistance to believe a famous poet’s work could be so straightforward, the simple explanation was the only interpretation we could accept lacking evidence to the contrary. This was the first time I ran across the idea that what the reader brings or takes from any poem is simply the reader’s personal perspective.
The poem, even when it is filled with someone else’s words, is simply a space in which the reader’s mind exposes itself.
That evening, sitting as I would, pretending to read so that I would be left alone, I questioned why I preferred “sleep” to mean “death” in Frost’s poem. Was it that I was in prison for murder? Was it because I was still working on desolation as my way to handle what I saw as a death sentence? Or did I see poetry as mysterious, meant to convey esoteric understandings?
In my own writing, I tried to be clever, writing lines I felt were poetic, philosophical—metaphoric even. I did not give much thought to the process of writing as a thing that touched farther into who I was. For me, it was a matter of brainwork. I simply sat, thought of something I felt I could make interesting, then wrote. In retrospect, it seemed as if I was more interested in becoming a poet, than having anything meaningful to say—an ironic twist, because the ideal poetic me was someone sounding meaningful. So, I began to investigate “meaning” with respect to what I wrote.
Meanwhile, Shaun’s steady hand guided us into thinking through our humanity. While others were okay with that, I wondered: What humanity? The human that tore life away from another—that humanity? The struggle was real. I knew that humanity for Shaun was being humane, kind, benevolent—first to oneself. For me, it was a kind of treatment read about, seen in movies, a kind of perfection of the soul as it guides the hands to perform wonderful things. However, somehow, I also felt that Shaun’s incessant attempts to teach a group of men in prison was genuine, selfless.
“I’m not here for my health,” he would explain, a way of saying that we, the men who kept walking back to his workshop, were the reason he volunteered. So, I kept at it.
Each week, Razor Wire would meet—each week, like alien beings gathered at a prayer table to feed upon sustenance more powerful than we could understand. Billy was a big, bearded, trapper whose poems were painfully honest—with hands that trembled as he read, head down, forehead strung of sweat beads, his mind peering back into what was not said. Bobby, with an inverted syntax, tried to wash his hands of guilt. Steve, with short staccato lines, weaved hedonistic relationships into love. David wrangled with longer lines—his head was a cloud of ideas. Young Jimmy, with his dark Russian eyes, wrote little, quiet as an acolyte to a truth. Many others attended throughout the years who marveled at poetry’s ability to lift layers of confusion hammered like iron around men’s hearts and minds.
Beneath each word we searched for forgiveness.
At one of our workshops, Shaun walked in sporting his usual disheveled hair and thick Chevron mustache. After handing back the previous week’s student submissions, he explained how some of our poems were trying too hard to sound poetic. He added that it seemed as if we were trying to write about something important to us, but couldn’t come around to simply saying it. We were trying too hard. So, to help us along, he introduced his first rule, a rule I call the Griffin Imperative: “Write only what you know.”
“Just write it down without trying to make it sound poetic,” he continued. The rule was decreed to get us neophytes to write down what really mattered to us, to get us to be honest. The shaping into poetry was to come afterwards. So, my new task in poetry was to write only what I knew.
Now, while that seemed an elementary task, when I first sat to write only what I knew, I failed—quite a few times. Seemed that of the many things I knew, nothing about them was worth writing. Then came a somewhat conceited idea that has driven every line I have written since: “I know me.” So, I began to write poems that reflected what I understood then as personal perspectives. Meanwhile, even as Shaun’s steady hand guided and encouraged the path I had taken, I noticed something unexpected.
The more I wrote, the more I found out how little I actually knew about myself. All my life, I thought, I never gave pause to consider whether or not what I did or thought or said had any profound meaning. Even the psychological and emotional, falsely stoic, position of simply existing those first five years of imprisonment was selfish. I went there because I didn’t want to deal with it.
Yet, I kept at it.
The more I sat to write a line, the more I weighed each word for that perfect fit with whatever memory was desperate to glyph. The more I listened to Shaun talk about poetry, about its transcendent quality, its ability to lift a man’s heart far beyond that which bound us to the prison workshop, the more I began to believe that there was something intrinsically life-changing, liberating even, in poetry. I began to seriously weigh each word for its contribution to say something meaningful.
Around this time, I received a visit from my mother. It was about the third or fourth visit from her. My father didn’t always come with her. Instead, he’d have one of my sisters drive her the nine hours to the prison. They’d stay at a hotel.
That day, I got to Visiting early, long before she was let through the gatehouse on that side of the razor wired fences—two parallel chain wire fences crowned with razor wire, between them a couple of intertwined 5-foot-high razor wire spools loosely laid. Both chain wire fences were gated with doors made of the same materials, except the steel boxes that housed brass latch bolts controlled electronically. Someone once said the activated latch bolts sounded like juice running to an electric chair. I wrote that down in a black & white composition book when I got back to my cell.
I sat waiting in the main visiting room with the huge windows, staring at the Sierra Nevada, at how unfamiliar that postcard scene was. I imagined flying over the razor wire but kept slamming against the chain wire fence; something inside was preventing flight—even though it was all in my head. “How fucked up is that?” I asked myself, then went back to waiting, listening to the brass latch bolts have electromagnetic seizures.
Finally, my mother and one of sisters walked through. My sister sat on my mother’s other side while my dear mother and I made small talk. I couldn’t get myself to mention to her all those years she and I spent grafting rose stems from one bush to another. Eight years it took bees to collect and transfer to other flowers pollen and prayer. I thought reminding her would make me in her heart a child again, and the pain of leaving a child behind would be harder than leaving behind a grown man.
I stuck to small talk.
When the visit was over, I stood as tall as I could, smiled, and told her not to worry, that I loved her. Her legs shook as she walked away. She kept turning to look at the child she was leaving behind.
As I walked back to the housing unit, and somehow made my way back into my cell, the acid of self-nihilism consumed my entire body. I was walking, functioning, lifting my head with a quick glance to greet others, but burning. It was a hell no one could save me from. I existed consumed by desolation. I stepped into my cell, did not even try to fake a smile at my cellmate. He knew.
I quickly climbed onto my top bunk, and picked up a pad of lined paper. What followed was not an intentional attempt to save myself. It was attention to the only voice that made sense at that very moment. I heard Shaun, “Write only what you know.” “The Visit” (first 3 stanzas):
Through the prison gate
my old mother’s skin
slung on a skeleton
hunched over her bloated stomach
stretched from too many pregnancies
through a list of names
before she gets
then smiles almost
run down her wrinkled cheek
whimpers against my neck
when are you coming home?” (Santillanes 119)
“The Visit” went on for about six pages, handwritten. By the time I had stopped writing, the night had set and my watch was ticking close to 3:00 a.m. I slept and heard wailing in my dreams.
That week, Shaun walked back in for our workshop session. He carried a stack of xeroxed pages—of students’ previous submissions, of another established poet, sometimes books. I turned in “The Visit,” as was protocol, in the beginning of our session, then took a seat. Whatever we discussed that day made no home of my head, all I could think about was my mother.
The following week, Shaun handed back “The Visit,” then looked straight into my eyes as he also handed me a small book, Martín & Meditations on the South Valley, by Jimmy Santiago Baca.
“I hear his voice in your work,” Shaun offered. I stared at the cover page, at the photo of a man’s back tatted with Catholic saints. Nervously I remembered Shaun was standing there, I looked up, smiled, and almost inaudibly thanked him, “Cool… I’ll read it,” and tucked away the book beneath a pad of lined paper. I felt like a kid with the only gift. I didn’t want the others to be jealous.
“The Visit” received positive critiques from my peers. It was something not found too often in prison: vulnerability. I splayed open the wounds of razor wire. It broke open a path to another world. Steve, another runner in the workshop, copied the short-line form to write his own work. He said the short lines felt right, that he didn’t feel the pressure he felt with the longer line. Troy, a tall young man with angular facial features, lost as I read the poem in workshop, commented as we walked back to our cells, “Damned, bro, damned.”
That evening, I sat with my lamp on, and opened Martín & Meditations on the South Valley. Shaun had talked about Baca in class. He was an example of someone who was sent to prison an illiterate man, and walked out with life etched on the page. This was someone who made it out of prison as a poet! “Someday,” Shaun presaged, “it will be your turn,” talking to all of us. I kept my mouth shut. In my head, I hid those words: my heart could not afford that prayer.
I stayed with Shaun’s workshop, learning as much about myself as I did about poetry. Then, 10,464 days after the day I was arrested, when the metallic zip of handcuffs sang harmony to the reading of Miranda, I stepped out of prison. The earth was unsteady. Mark, a reverend who volunteered to drive me from the prison to where I would stay, asked, “How does it feel,” as he drove on a highway cut to the side of a mountain.
I answered Mark with something polite, but remembered the advice Shaun was given him by his friend, Richard Shelton, Arizona university professor, who had himself established a prison writing workshop in 1974: Begin. The rest will follow.
In 1989, Shaun Griffin walked into my life and offered a way of questioning who I was: poetry. More specifically, the process of searching for the right word in the process of writing poetry. Thirty-three years later, with 9 years on parole, as Shaun looked on, I graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, which is another way of saying that I am grateful and humbled and human.
Ismael “Izzy” Santillanes was in the Razor Wire Poetry Workshop for more than twenty-three years before being released from prison. In June he will receive his MFA in creative writing from Antioch University. His first book of poems was Indelicate Angels (Black Rock Press, 2014.)
To read Izzy’s poem from this issue, check out “The Living Ghost is on the Street.”
Facebook: Ismael Santillanes