This past March, I met with Spoon Jackson at the far end of the cellblock dining hall. Jim Carlson, the artist facilitator turned recreational therapist (who established the Arts in Corrections program at CSP-Sac) had called-and-knocked his way up the chain of command to authorize the meeting. I had been in the cellblock during a lockdown the year before, but in the interim someone somewhere did something they should not have, waking a sleeping ordinance.
I sat with Jim in the Captain’s office, waiting for the final word, hoping to see Spoon. I knew how hard it was to get the meeting, and so my sense of anticipation for it was naively rosy. I assumed that Spoon would want to meet. I assumed that I understood something of lockdowns. I assumed that a short conversation outside the 9’x6’ confines of a cell would be a welcome reprieve.
It was not until I saw Spoon that the deep well of everything else opened below my optimism. He was locked in a phone booth sized cage at the far end of the dining hall, which smelled of souring lettuce and mop water. A guard stood to the left, hands clasped below his belt, silent, near.
And I was forced to deal with an aspect of Spoon’s reality that is fundamentally at odds with our previous interactions in the classroom. In the classroom, I had been Spoon’s guest teacher. The classroom space, as Spoon has written on ALT/space, is warm, humanizing, safe, and all-together Other in relation to the rest of prison life. I have seen Spoon (as he has talked about here) feeding the birds, playing his flute. I have also known him as a published poet, author, and as Pozzo immortal from the Godot days at San Quentin. But I had never known Spoon as recipient of prison protocol – black man without gang affiliation – locked in a cage per the lockdown operations manual.
Our conversation was short. Jim talked first and acknowledged that Spoon had had a visitor from Sweden who he was unable to see because of the lockdown. I waited for the deep hurt of that truth to land somewhere before I offered my hello. We talked about micro fiction and Teaching Artist Journal. He asked that I contact the journal and see if I could pick up his ALT/space thread during lockdown.
Then time was up. We had to step back while he was reattached to a waist chain.
I did not know what to do. I did not know where to look. There was nothing to say. We waited in silence, this teacher of poetry and I, for the twin sets of heavy steel doors with slit windows to open – an agonizing minute thick with everything but words. I walked twenty feet behind Spoon as he was escorted – one guard at each elbow – across the yard. And I burned with a totalizing humiliation. Jim saw me looking at my shoes. “Its hard to know if meeting makes it better or worse,” he said. I did not answer.
I held the details of that day close, waiting for the lockdown to be over so I could talk to Spoon about the experience before I thought about writing about it. I waited six months. Lockdown finally ended, I visited shortly after in September. We sat on milk crates outside the art room, bending over stacks of papers. We talked about the cellblock meeting, he said that it was okay for me to write about it, to add my voice to the story of how prison, by its mission, works – sometimes like an earthquake and sometimes like a constant drip – to crumble, and carry away, anything that takes the shape of humanity.
So I share the story of that painful meeting as my foray into ALT/space for two reasons. First, I hope it honors Spoon as a poet who has kept on, kept his heart and eyes open in a place that would rather he not care to see. Secondly, it reminds me that, as teaching artists, we often create unlikely and hard to come by opportunities to do art in difficult places. In these situations our enthusiasm can sometimes override a second look/second thought at the dehumanizing conditions of these difficult contexts where art is most needed. We work hard to make the opportunities available, but that does not necessarily mean that they meet, despite our good intentions, the needs of those with whom we intend to share community.
My enthusiasm for meeting Spoon and sharing texts in the cellblock was not the first time I have miscalculated, misunderstood, misread the context of prison. And it will not be the last, I am sure. But I hope that as a teaching artist who plans to work in impossible places, I can remember the feeling of not knowing if my being there on that day made things better or worse. Because it is a question worth asking, even if the answer never comes, even if the answer is a tangled knot of yes and no.