Winter 2001, Volume 18.2
Shaun T. Griffin
From the Ash of Human Feeling—Teaching Poetry Behind the Fence
And unless life marks off the segments,
time is a dimension without measure.
—Ruth F. Brin
Shaun T. Griffin is a poet, essayist and translator who lives in Virginia City, Nevada, with his wife, Debby, and their two sons. He edited The River Underground, An Anthology of Nevada Fiction, forthcoming from the University of Nevada Press in the spring of 2001. Other work by Shaun T. Griffin published in Weber Studies can be seen at: Poetry Vol. 11.3 "I Am More Afraid of Wind than Rain—of Travel, Poetry, and Sons," Vol. 16.1, poetry Vol. 21.1, and "Letter From the Blackstone River: Under Fog with the Porcupine Caribou," Vol. 22.2.
The morning starts with a collect call; the voice on the other end is tranquil, as if to soothe me. His name is Ismael. How often I have thought of another pacing the hull of a boat, Queequeg and Ahab spitting from the stern. But unlike Ishmael, the man on the phone is pacing a concrete hull, one that never moves and is barred from the world outside.
He tells me of the book he is reading on poetic forms, the subtle intonations of blank versus free verse and wonders out loud if we can incorporate such lessons in the workshop. "Why not," I sing back, knowing the lessons we learn have so much to do with living the other six-and-a-half days a week, the formidable hours in which there is no Razor Wire workshop to dream.
Izzy, as he is known to the guys, has been coming for 11 years, read enough poets for at least one graduate degree, and written a book that sears. When it finds a home people will regale him with laurels: because of the poems' muscled texture they are closer to original scores on desire. Like the composer John Cage who pushed silence to sound, Ismael's poems imprint flesh without flesh. Desire sprung from rueful, sinister feeling that has found expression in poetry.
Izzy has six more years. In Mandarin time, in time without calendars, flowers, families and countries bloom. But he will not bloom until those years pass. For now, the ebb and flow of poetics and paint must sustain him. I remember a letter of his that started, "Dear Captain, (pretty much my only captain)." In the eternal sprint of human evolution, prison—yet another form of marking time—must finally be regarded as one of our failings.
Unless I give the wrong impression, Ismael is one of many in the workshop, and scores of other men who have been it. We have notched our chairs with birth, death, marriage and divorce—nothing the outside world would not recognize as fundamentally human. And, we've risen with the tide of prison rules and rulers. From benign to unkind and some that were truly inspired, the workshop has persisted out of obstinacy more than anything else. With very little instruction we began to publish a journal, Razor Wire, that despite its black cover and ornery title, has found a niche in Northern Nevada literature. Three years ago, we began getting submissions from the outside. The men voted and decided to open the journal up to the free world. Last year saw our first perfect-bound issue. We almost became respectable but for the outlaws united under one spine.
Perhaps most remarkably, in over a decade, not one man has come back to prison. In a land where the recidivism rate is 60 to 70 percent, that is tantamount to finding peace in Sarajevo.
Later that Sunday I call a former member of the workshop who lives in the centuries-old civilization of Malta. Doc answers the phone and tells me he received our letters the same day. He means Ismael and I. Doc was a biochemist for a pharmaceutical firm whose assets were liquidated by an unscrupulous son-in-law. Left penniless by the ordeal, he was released from prison two years later but not before similarly leaving his mark on us. Of all that I have learned from grown men struggling with Yeats, a kindness Yeats may never have known takes root in the darkest places.
I share the news from Malta. Robert smiles, he knew Doc well. Then a small poem on AIDS rises from Robert's lips. It is felt with more than death's cursory needle:
Forgiven him for giving me his
skinned venom love sweet forbidden
my tent slowly becomes dust again.
It is felt as the "dry lethal injection of time without parole," as Robert says in another poem, "Calambro." The Chaplain's clerk for most of his 14 years in prison, he has found hope in many things—song writing, lay clergy, and a cummingsesque poetry that rivets my reading to the page. Gonzo, as the guys refer to him, hasn't found a way out but rather, some peace to endure the way. No dime store Christian, he folds verbs to fire and out of that very personal faith comes an epigrammatic poetry that is uniquely his. Nearest to Dickinson in style and emotion, his lines are buttons on a much larger tapestry of human healing. I often say to write is to redeem. Robert sheathes his days with poem and prayer.
To the cynic I must sound gratuitous. But the writers have earned their praise. Indeed, of the more than 60 men who have participated, several have published poems, chapbooks, essays, short stories and non-fiction articles. Like anything it is the quality that matters. Their voices range from tentative to strong, rough-hewn to high brow, but however they may be perceived, their words have rippled out.
The first time we read Strunk and White it was like chloroform. I could do nothing to save them from the ruin of independent clauses but share the book. Every person in the room taught a chapter until we finished it. From that day on they began to own the workshop like you own soil or suffering. It became a kind of honor to telegraph syntax or punctuation. To do so without my prodding was like mastering Gaelic. The foreign language had finally come to mean new poetic strength. They were no longer afraid to wrestle with me or disagree when my explanation seemed improbable. But the real learning was yet to come, like it might to a silversmith or a farrier—after years of practice and contemplation when the poetic form was freed from its shackles.
Among my happiest moments in the workshop are those times an elder statesman sheds light on the process of revision. There's something wrong with the music in this line, you can almost hear him say. The music of your voice is missing. Born of language no one can prescribe, they teach each other as if it were bread they were making. Not to be outdone, they read voraciously and have begun reviewing books for the journal. And while other prison workshops have had more visible success, the men in Carson City have found their measure of self-respect and to be fair, challenge. As any working poet knows, you will die with the best line on your lips. They, too, suffer the finality of never quite knowing and with even less to lose, keep writing.
A long time ago the poet Richard Shelton advised me to "begin. The rest will follow." Were it not for his guiding hand in many things—not least of which were my early fits and starts in poetry, I doubt I would have begun the workshop with virtually no tools save a modicum of practice. But I could not have known how many lives would be at stake and what faces would drown in the sadness. Faces I would not recognize until much later. The day Mothman abducted the prison doctor and pinned himself to the wall in a hail of gun fire; the day John wrote his last poem on the Ruby Mountain Wilderness only to die of a heart attack, younger than I; the day I was cussed out for being too white to teach a black man poetry; the day that same man wrote to apologize; the day the truly good warden was forced from her job only to later open a restaurant with a former inmate; the day I read "First and Last Things" to Chip in a Washington, D.C. bookstore, a poem I wrote upon his release after eleven-and-a-half years; the day Smitty was admitted to graduate school; the day Charles Wright lovingly answered John's letter after an earnest attempt to understand Black Zodiac; the day Billy got married and the day my boss told me he was a volunteer fireman in the town where Billy once lived (leaving me to infer the attendant shadows); the day Barry Lopez wrote to say Cole's poem on the narwhal was "remarkable." Nine years ago a regent from the University of Nevada wrote to tell me how moved she was by their poetry. A spiral bound chapbook, Razor Wire was barely more than an idea let loose on the yard. Today, while not yet an institution, the workshop is much larger than those first timid poems xeroxed for friends.
It is April in Virginia City and several people have gathered for an exhibition at Sun Mountain Artworks. The gallery owner, Nolan Preece, has painstakingly matted, framed, and hung the paintings, cross stitchings, leather work and jewelry. This is the fourth year we have had a prison art show. To commemorate the event, poets Tom Meschery, Bill Cowee, Gailmarie Pahmeier (all of whom have helped with the workshop) and others read from the journal, published annually in conjunction with the opening. Shannon Montana, a photographer, videotapes the reading, asking family and friends to comment on the art. The painter Emily Silver sends her regards—she worked in the prison with many of the artists before leaving Nevada. Soon another painter, Karen Kreyeski, will mentor one of the artists. And there are others: the sculptor Suzanne Kanatsiz single-handedly arranged for their art work to be shown at the University of Nevada, Reno's Sheppard Gallery last year. Their collective support is a kind of grace holding the workshop up: not one but many hearts that hunger for kindness.
When I play the video the following Wednesday it is like church. Breath hangs on every word, every subtle glance to and from the art work. This is the one time of year the men are without labels. They are synonymous with what they have created. Whether poetry or art, it is stripped of pretense and emotionally compelling. For one hour out of the long day that becomes a year, there is release from what haunts: Joe's watercolors (who is going blind), Dave's Hobbit-like oils, Ralph's perfectly stitched Victorians, and leather purses, wallets and belts from Norman and his younger brother Russell, inconceivably incarcerated together. These names have faces who cannot return to anything more than tomorrow, a not altogether sacred pact with creation. All of us live on slippery footing. As Seamus Heaney confides, among "the disregarded ones we turned against/ Because we'd failed them by our disregard," slippery footing is a commonplace, ergo even the littlest living thing is a gift. A spider under the cell door, the marigolds trimming the warden's lawn, the momentary touch of a loved one in visiting.
Forget the rhetoric on crime. Prison destroys. It is an idea and an effect for which we have no tolerance. To survive it is to become an anathema. I pray that every man in the workshop will live to see its steel gate close behind them. Do I condone what brought them to their knees? It is silly to partake in a discussion the poet Su Tung-p'o was not able to reconcile in 1071. It was Su's job to pass judgment on the "Pitiful convicts in chains."
Don't ask who is foolish or wise;
all of us alike scheme for a meal.
The ancients would have freed them a while at New Year's—
would I dare do likewise? I am silent with shame.
Nor can I judge 930 years later. What I know is the library in Unit Four is an oasis on the yard. For a brief 90 minutes every Wednesday, time is displaced and we gather to read and discuss fine writing. Our tastes are eclectic—from Joyce to Jeffers. This spring we read Irish poets with a healthy mixture of Robert Hass columns, book reviews, journals and articles sent from friends, bits and pieces from Harper's, and the occasional Carruth poem on CD. When they read their work the others listen and respond as if it were lightning on the tongue. The burly Glynn who almost died from a nerve disease, now back in the workshop anchors the give and take: "Cut out some of the emotion and say what you mean. Who you trying to impress anyway?" Ten years for the law clerk to arc the frustration of a beginner with the appetite of a poet.
Early May and a new man sits across the table. I extend my hand and ask his name: "Nobody." I ask again. "That's what they call me on the yard."
"Do you have a name," I ask, feeling I may go wrong.
"I want to use Michael in here—" my last sling before he picks the reading from the Formica, the poems that frequently confuse and occasionally please. Izzy tells me on the telephone, "The new guys are lost—"
I want to say: "Any more than I?"
"Maybe we can read something about form, about each line—."
Outside, walking the perimeter back to the gate house, Troy asks how I knew Frank O'Connor's story was a kind of desperate rendering of 50s Ireland. Troy, who has struggled more than any man to know a poem, to bend its fine legs and sit before him the words that come so hard. Hunger again. "How is it Yeats knew so much, made all those disparate references to an imagined place? Byzantium. How did he do it? I feel so stupid reading him," and wish I could dispatch truth from some far corner of the universe to answer Troy's question. Putting my socks on in the morning I tell my wife, "What am I doing teaching Yeats? He intimidates the hell out of me." She chortles from the bathroom, "You've never done what's easy."
Troy's almost ready to leave. This is the hardest part of prison: the last waiting, the unknowing months and days when tomorrow really is closer to superstition than reality, when the yard becomes a finite square on which to live. No mistakes, no furtive eyes, no shank from the unseen hand. All of the old ones we talk about in past tenses—"Remember what a cocky SOB he was—" have stiffened through this maze of patience and muddled endurance. I liken it the to the final weeks before birth, when a woman has to find strength she only imagined not months before. Troy, who after nine years in-and-out of the workshop is writing lines that ring sorrow from the bars.
A young man holds a child
In afternoon sunshine
Of a prison visiting room…
He cannot hear the rotor blades
Twenty hours away, as Careflight waves off,
His body bled white from the shank.
Years later my mother
Would walk by the same vending machine
That ate dead change…
Until I almost forget it is prison—not poetry, he is trying to leave.
Still another face at a dinner house in nearby Reno. All I can think of are the miles Stephen ran on the yard, carefully measuring out the distance of fences squared. He is one we talk of in past tenses—having squeezed through time's hourglass. Although Stephen is not here, I cannot embrace his fiancee without thinking of him. Nor can my family. A busy manager, she serves us more Italian food and red wine than we can possibly consume. This by way of saying they are happy. He, too, is in graduate school, and working with people who could not stop drinking or drugging their way down. An old, worn story that has wrinkled Stephen's face but out of this darkness has come some peace. I remember the poem he wrote about taking x-rays of a new prison employee, how the woman thought he was an employee, and perhaps went too far before she squirmed back into her nightgown when he told her otherwise.
But the new ones still look upon me perplexed: Phil and Mauricio and Wyatt—a Texan marooned in the high desert—and most unlikely is Jim, who has catalogued all references to learning through his graduate degree and could, I suspect, teach this class, but for the saving that must come to his life. This 90 minutes that would otherwise disappear. He hands me The New York Times Book Review and I tell him it will only sit in a pile of postponed reading. But it is given to savor and days later I do, asking who is teaching whom, my qualifications for wrestling with words a scant quarter century of trying.
David opens the door to the library, late from work with drafting students, pony tail curled to shoulder blades. His angular face an off-and-on presence in the workshop for years. David the painter of Tolkien fantasy who stretches far to read and write of the closing day:
Night wraps me in her arms, filling me, my soul,
Lying on this narrow rack, a gaping hole through
the springs where my weight rests, I contemplate
another mundane day, passing uneventful, thankful
for the night, pleasant is
At the end of the semester I ask them to pick the books they would like to read in the fall from the bullet reviews in the poetry issue of The Bloomsbury Review, then thumb the Daedalus catalogue for any poet that looks like they will breathe new life into the room. Which, I would imagine, makes me guilty of trafficking in books. But they stretch time to mean something where there is very little meaning, save survival.
We have called prison many things but rarely by its true name: death. The lives that skin the yard know of its name and I suspect, a few others closer to death than I. What does matter is that we do what we can, if only the act of putting faces to memory so that we never forget all life is sacred. Not just life we see, but life closed to human hands. In this, we are like so many others who have tried to judge, and failing, sentenced ourselves to live with its shame and hypocrisy. Prison can only be measured by its losses, the ignominious consequences of grief and revenge. Until human dignity returns to this equation, I doubt it will change.
Out of the small hope that a poem would tender a life, the workshop has grown to be part of many lives and, perhaps, an island of perpetual wonder where the very act of reading is a political one. Writing, even more so. No good time credit, no grades, no college units, just a desire to write. That is what draws them to the workshop. What happens after that is a mystery, but some write poems that for an instant—maybe eight or nine calendar years—keep them alive.
I was just a slim,
natty dread, bewildered
child of nine
when I looked down
into my father’s face
for the last time
I watched people
lower his stiff dark
body into warm wet breast
no more threatening scowls
no more watching mamma
cover her bruises with
and no more
—Jeffrey Forrest Grice
Growing Tomatoes with Marcy White
I cannot help you in the garden today,
not for another nine years.
That’s nine seasons of pulling weeds,
of turning your back on the sun to face the earth.
Listen. Lower yourself with indiscretion.
Let the soil sample your thighs.
Whisper into the seed your secrets.
Sow them into the earth (this
is called the lighting death).
Now work the earth.
Seedlings will soon stalk up the sun.
Tomatoes will hang from the wire trellis
like angry testicles full of seed.
The first one you pick, share with the earth:
Cast your circle; draw down the sun;
tear the red fruit open on a flat rock;
scry it for love.
The rest you seal in boiling Kern jars.
Kiss each jar to sleep in a dark, cool place.
In nine years, if they say it’s okay for me to leave,
your tomatoes will awaken to the mouth of a hungry man.
—Ismael García Santillanes
Mesige Fom de No-Nonsince
Generation Who Got Sump’s ta Say
Tired o Potrey dat
Don be sayin nut’n
When I’as in school we learned
Ta say what you’s sayin
Even eff’n you’s foolin
Let folks know "I’s foolin
Don pay me no mine"
Sted’a messin wit dey mine
Folks had sump’n ta say back den
Sayin Dis right Das roang you ugly she
Fine white folks shoe is kole I won’a kill somebody
Cause Martin din’t deserv ta die
—Glynn E. Scott
The Wind Comes for Me
Its breath is cut into diamonds
by wire mesh, strung to confine
the metal within the men.
Its sharpness, honed by razor wire,
only wilts against their skin.
I see it taunt the trees
but I’m death and dumb
with only eyes to see its words.
It brings to me the smell of sage
endless flights of birds.
But it is only memories,
just captive blasts of sand
blowing from the mold
of who I really am.
It comes for me
the mental punish
which hides behind the wind.
Miles from anywhere, Ruby Crest Trail
From this high place
I can see
Miles spreading below.
Shedding my pack, I sit
Against a lonely pine.
An ageless environment.
In the making
Until the passing
It seems so vast
This tiny corner
A grain of sand
I am swallowed.
—J. Gregory Crapo
Separated and dwindling in fear
Lost and confused in mind
Scared and alone in spirit
Cold and wanting for nothing
Lonely and sad about life
Worried and sick of everything
Tired and hungry for love
Old and young always changing
Crazy and sane at the same time
Weak and weary of hate
Meek and mild in heart
Poor and rich all dying
Never and always
Tomorrow and yesterday
Forever and ever
—John R. Johnson
at the Hebrew home for the aged, 1957
in the morning they wheel them out
to the rec room soap opera
so we do not have to smell
the sharp piss and Clorox
in the wrinkled dorms
where the taped names
peel off the lockers
like flags curling
the old ladies flutter
who hate them
for having let it
come to this—
a box of chocolates
a bag of oranges—
better to have been raped
by the Cossacks
than this slow death
—Jimmy A. Lerner