Poetry in Prison

By Laurel Bastian

We offer to others, to our community, the best of ourselves. Experientially, what I have to offer to mine is a background in peace studies and mediation, a background in victim advocacy, and an MFA in poetry and a background teaching.

Philosophically what I have to offer is the belief that the vast majority of people, given the space to be their best selves, will rise to that occasion (and the belief that the converse is also true). The combination of these experiences and beliefs is what drove me to run a creative writing class in a men’s prison.

This essay is not about prisons or the individuals housed there. It is about a group of writers. I want to tell you everything that moves me about these writers, some of whom I have seen nearly every week for the past two years. Because I know them as fellow creative minds and human beings, I want to tell you their full names and include their work, which always invigorates me and often stuns me with its insight. I want to include their experience of the class and of the writing life in their own words. But this is not possible. The prison does not allow full names to be used in conjunction with its programs and monitors material carefully. Much of that is understandable: seeing the men’s full names and work would likely mean something very different to me or potentially you than it would to anyone who might have been a victim of the crimes they’re serving time for. Even writing about my own experience without naming the men, or the institution, is slightly risky, because I have not asked anyone for permission, and I am only able to continue doing what I do there with the prison’s permission. And yet I, like most writers, do not want to run my words by censors, grateful though I may be that the administrators let me in. As a writer on the outside, I have the freedom to take that risk.

Part of me wishes to explain, for those not familiar with the prison population in the US or this state, a bit about the numbers of people in the system, the racial disparities, and the culture outside of prison (created by law-abiding and law-breaking citizens alike) that keeps the numbers inside high and the disparities wide. Part of me wishes to talk about the individuals—and there are many—who have worked for decades in social justice to improve the health of those who are behind bars, to support them in being healthier citizens after release, and to support their families. This is not my area of expertise and there are many organizations, websites, books, and personal stories that serve as important resources for this information. Yet there is no way of describing the group of writers themselves without giving a very brief background of the system they write in.

The United States currently has the highest reported rate of incarcerated people per capita of any country in the world. In January 2010, according to the PEW Center on the States, 23,112 people were serving time in Wisconsin state prisons. According to Department of Corrections statistics, for nonviolent offenses in Wisconsin, African Americans are imprisoned at thirty-seven times the rate of Whites and (according to UW-Madison’s Dr. Pam Oliver) about 12% of black male Wisconsin residents in their twenties are currently incarcerated. Regardless of where any of us are on the political spectrum, these numbers (these numbers which stand for people and do not quantify how this impacts families, economies and communities) are deeply disturbing.

In an attempt to mitigate the negative impacts of incarceration, there are wonderful, volunteer-based programs that address inmate needs (with nonprofits like Madison’s Community Connections). There are, however, many needs that are not met due to lack of funding. There are also needs that are not met because many of us in the electorate don’t believe that people who have gotten caught in illegal, sometimes violent, acts deserve anything above the barest minimum, regardless of whether that means they’ll return to our shared communities feeling less human, and with fewer internal resources, than when they left.

The weekly creative writing class I’ve taught for the past two years aimed to address the need for creative community and increased literacy. The class was, at one point, university affiliated (though it’s not at the moment), and many people’s energy went into its creation, from the then-PhD student who started the initiative five years ago, to all of the wonderful writers who have taken time to visit and even to co-teach, to the prison administration and officers who allow the group to meet. But most important in the creation of the class and its longevity is the energy of the hundreds of men who have brought in their work and perspective. Some come only for a couple of weeks before being released or sent elsewhere. Two writers have been there every week since my first day. One of those writers is also a prolific musician and has been in prison longer than I’ve been alive. The other, a sterling poet, is serving a sentence twice as long as the age he was when he went in. Many of those who have come through the class have served a decade or more. But no matter the length of their stay, all are welcome to participate, whether they want to check it out for ten minutes, come every other week, or stay for the long haul.

Everyone is also welcome in terms of writing capacity and the genres they have experience in. Some of the men have never written creatively before, some struggle with literacy, some have been writers for most of their lives; some identify more as rappers, spoken word poets, musicians, or genre writers and some as “page” poets or fiction authors. The only creative censor in terms of the material that participants bring is this: we respect the class by bringing our best self and work to it, and if we have an “ism” in that work, or something else that a reader could find highly offensive, we’d better be ready to be challenged about the necessity of using it. The main exhortation is to stretch ourselves. To know our strengths and work outside of them. To surprise ourselves and others. We do.

As all writers know, we stretch ourselves most and write best when we’re reading. So every week we focus on different writers and different writing styles. This has been a great exploration of what’s out there for me as well, since two years of finding relevant but varied material for one class that doesn’t take a break or get all new students keeps me on a continuous search. We’ve read literally hundreds of authors together. A sampler of those authors: Jean Toomer, Adrianne Rich, Audre Lorde, Shakespeare, Hart Crane, Saul Williams, Jessica Care Moore, Willie Perdomo, Basho, Lorca, Dickinson, the Beats, Imagists, Romantics, Confessionalists, and dozens of local and regional poets. We’ve taken a “world tour” where the men tell me what country they’d like to go to, I put together a brief history of the country, and we read some of that country’s most celebrated authors. We have themed classes: fatherhood, death, love, the divine, sports, nature, hometowns, music. We tackle form poetry and make up forms of our own. Each week I give a writing prompt they can use as fodder for the next class’s work, and in between classes many of the men share their work with their peers.

But the thing I appreciate most about the class and the writers is not actually the writing, which is widely varied and truly good. What I appreciate most is how they interact with each other, and with me. And perhaps this is where I am different from other creative writing instructors who teach in correctional facilities. In some ways, I could care less about craft. I care because they care; I care because it’s another tool to go deeper into creativity. But more than the writing itself I value the opportunity for conversation and self-exploration that comes from their writing. On multiple occasions students have said the class is the one place they can be themselves and not put up a front. They can talk about what it means to be away from family and to have a hard history. They can talk about love and fear and favorite childhood foods and the downside of street life. They can talk about responsibility. What they say is supported by their peers. At these points, I am irrelevant. I exist to hold the space they need to reach the places they’re willing to go. And they are brave in this.

While I say I appreciate their interactions most, I have a responsibility to keep pieces of myself hidden while I am there. Besides the fact that I’m a woman in a male space and the fact that there’s an unavoidable power differential (I, after all, can leave), I’m not supposed to become close with inmates. The administration sees any kind of personal sharing as “fraternization.” I respect this boundary. I laugh a lot in class and get visibly sad too, but both of those are in response to their writing, not from sharing my own stories.

There has only been one time where I shared an emotional part of myself in the group. It was after a class where the phrase “keeping it real” was repeated a good deal, and I proposed that the key to being real and fearless in writing was not bravado but vulnerability. I encouraged them to bring something to the next class that challenged their comfort level, and I did as well. In reading my work during the next class, my voice broke and I found myself, for a split second, crying. I laughed and brushed it off, but the silence in the class was thick. After a beat, one man assured me it was OK, then another. One who’d attended for weeks but hadn’t brought his own work said he had been afraid to read it, but seeing me put myself out there made him certain he could as well. We went on with the poetry. On our way out that night one of the students stayed behind for a moment. “I just want you to know,” he said, “that we see you. We see who you are on the inside. We know you see us on the inside too.”

And this is why we write in the first place, no matter where we’re writing from. To witness each other. To witness the world we didn’t know we were walking through together. To do this is a matter of survival. It is comforting and uncomfortable and funny and backbreaking labor. It is the most natural thing we do as artists. And that’s who the men in this class are, whether you see their work in literary journals someday or whether the only people that see their poetry are their family members. They are artists because they need to be more than the number that hangs on the lanyard at their neck, and we need them to be more than this too. They are writers because they claim it for themselves, and they earn it.

As I want to offer the best of myself, so do the men in my class. To give is an act of grace. To accept an offering is an act of grace as well. The more we’re able to accept offerings from those whom we forget have something of great value to give, the closer to being whole, as individuals and artists and communities, we come.