“She teaches murderers to write love poems.” The guard laughs, his comment just loud enough for me to hear. I heft a large, clear, plastic tub of books and pens to my hip and follow the jingle of his keys down the shadowed corridor that leads to the Education Room.
If that guard leaned an earlobe to the door of either of my creative writing workshops, he might be surprised to hear me telling men embroidered with staple-needle tattoos that sentimentality sucks. That the rare mention of love is limited to the thin-lipped variety that slouches in a baggy black hoodie. Because human love is often tinged with fear. And let’s be honest, a fearful love poem would be far more interesting and more authentic than rhapsodic feelings.
If that same guard eavesdropped for months or even years, he would discover that participants of the workshops write poems and prose that surprise, unsettle, even disorient, because ultimately, we want our work to illuminate, to reveal the interesting, decidedly not pure thing that lies beneath. For instance, in his poem “Under the Midnight Pearl,” K.D. Lovett, a man in my workshop, writes that he is “Composed of whispers/without secrets/he waits to be read/like velvet braille.”
If the man in khaki livery hovering at the metal door were paying close attention, he might also notice that participation in the workshops re-forms the participants. Rehabilitation is not a goal of the creative writing program, it is an unintended consequence that occurs because in a very real sense, and in several ways, poems and stories re-write the writer.
To write works of literary merit, a writer must enter a new territory: the place of not knowing, a place where we try to outfox the controlling mind. To paraphrase Robert Olen Butler, Art does not come from the mind, nor from ideas. Art comes from the place where we dream―from the unconscious, from the white-hot center of us.
Sadly, at least in my experience, the unconscious brain is aloof and uncooperative. Courting her for material is a long slow process of delayed gratification that chips away at pride and limited impulse control. But the poems in this issue demonstrate that some men in the workshops already have this handled. Sean King says, “Time is as drunk as those who slosh through it.” And once you have written lines like Marquez’s “I’m a wide bodied piano making sounds of time/arrested in development/not growing at all,” you don’t see yourself the same way again.
Immersion in the unconscious isn’t the only aspect of creative writing that changes people. When a new person arrives, I give them a pen, a tablet of paper with blue-ruled lines, and a pocket-sized notepad. Carry the latter everywhere, I say. Record tiny details―the metronome tick that stalks inmate days, the smell of regret, the algebra of endless push-ups. Learn to look at the world, if not with reborn eyes, then at least with a new intensity.
And they do.
Despite brains exhausted by boredom, Orwellian cells, and recreation yards of grey sand, they write descriptions that startle us. For instance, in his poem “Refraction,” Jesse Gonzales writes that he hides “behind a rubber mirror/of convex structures.”
But images that startle aren’t sufficient to awaken a reader’s comprehension or emotions. A poet must hone every word, image, and sentence until it is as unencumbered by disguise and sloppy thinking as a copper bullet. Only then can it speed its way to someone else’s heart.
No mean feat, rarely achieved alone. So every newcomer to our imitation wood tables must learn to swallow defensiveness. I tell them that multiple rounds of re-writing are essential. And because when a writer chisels first-draft characters from the quarks of imagination, they rarely sizzle. They are paper-thin and one-dimensional. Even when the character portrayed on the page is the author himself. Luckily, it is always easier to notice the failings and omissions in other people’s work, and the workshops’ long-timers provide critical feedback, usually very delicately. Aided by the group’s comments and insights, newcomers learn to edit their work, to examine their motives, to sidestep cocky excuses. Week after week, they subject their stiff characters to revision, until the characters emerge as individuals ―complicated and contradictory. Just like all of us. In this sense, writing and revision challenge stereotypical thinking, they revamp the too-simple stories we once believed about ourselves and other people.
I like to imagine that in learning how to handle literary backstory, incarcerated men learn to better navigate their own histories and misdeeds. When they get it right, literary backstory elucidates character, heightens poignancy, and ratchets up tension. But information presented in chunks sinks like a stone plopped to a swamp. It hijacks forward momentum. Rather than dwell on detailed caveats and complications, backstory is best revealed succinctly, in the manner that it was felt. Paul Larson, in his poem, “Instead,” does this when he writes, “He keeps pushing/a broken wheelbarrow piled with regret/up an unforgiving mountain/past roadside shrines/whose deities have gone/on vacation.” Ultimately, in literature and in life, backstory is best used as fuel to propel the story toward transformation.
I am astounded that most of the work in this issue was written by men surrounded by peeling paint and broken plumbing, sometimes with the unwelcome distraction of mentally ill cellmates shouting incessantly from the top bunk. Rather than sink into lethargy, these men chose to use their homesick hours writing over and over until they got it right. I am
awed by the courage it takes to reveal oneself when writing from inside prison, awed that the men featured in this issue now see what they could not see before. And that they have carried their stories home, to an authentic place where they can’t fail to move readers.
And that is a love poem.