Moving Past Hostile Classes | Spoon Jackson

In 1988, after I performed Pozzo in Waiting for Godot before international audiences at San Quentin State Prison, my confidence and belief in myself as a poet, artist and human being rose and flowed with inspiration like a thawing creek in spring.  I wanted to share openly and freely whatever gifts I have as an artist and, hopefully, inspire others to share their gifts.

I became a teacher’s aide.  I ran small writing, reading and acting groups in the 1990’s at Donovan State Prison and at California Men’s Colony Prison.  I remember going into hostile classrooms to recite poetry and Shakespeare and to read my published work.  A lot of the cats in the classrooms did not know what to make of me.  I could see who in the hell do he think he is in some faces.  When I introduced myself and told the class how long I had been in prison, some of their masks fell down.  Some students with hostile gazes turned away from me and kicked it with their friends.  Some maintained their stoic prisoner look throughout the reading, while others ignored me all together.

I kept on reciting, and the teacher in each class would let me know how much he or she enjoyed my presentation.  I answered student and teacher questions at the end of the readings and  I let the classes know how important it is to ask questions.

Back then, in the 90’s, in those hostile classes, I did touch some hearts and souls with each poetry reading.  I kept going back to perform in the classrooms, and more and more of the guys came around to liking my work.  My walk as a teaching artist grew around CMC. I became accepted as a poet and a cool weirdo.  Some cats shared their first poems with me. Sometimes, even now, guys come up to me to tell me how my work inspired them back then.

Today I have my own creative writing classes. Word about my work and our prisoner-run-and-taught art programs here at New Folsom has gotten around the yard, the prison system, and some outside local communities.  It has also been documented in film, in my book By Heart (co-Authored with Judith Tannenbaum), and in my poetry book Longer Ago.

These days, here at New Folsom, word is that to get into one of my writing classes quickly you must audition.  When I walk into the prison yard, people from all colors, gangs, and backgrounds come up to me.  Some recite a poem, verse or rap.  Some tell me they are writers, poets, singers, rappers, pimps, gangsters or players.  Some express how tight their lyrics and prose are, and that they have written articles, songs, poems and books.  I listen and then I let them know I am open to reading their writing; I tell them to show me their skills, not tell me.  Some people do bring their text to me at the gate where I feed the birds.  Some tell me they have poems and books in their heads and I encourage them to bring it out on paper.

There are long waiting lists for most of our classes.  The turnover rate in the classes due to lockdowns, prison politics, transgressions and transfers can be swift and sad.  Before I even finished my first post for ALT/space [in October 2011] the student highlighted in this piece, Wikiri Ologun, was transferred, and not because he had done anything wrong.  Wikiri had chosen to walk a path of creativity.  He wanted to stay in this environment that is open to the creative process.  He knew that New Folsom is the only spot in the California prison system to have a creative arts program.  Peer pressure and prison politics on other prison yards that have no arts will are intense, and the art can wither without fellowship.  But we keep creating.


When I walk or fly
out of this place
no one will remember
how the birds came to me
as friends and shared bread

No one will remember
how I planted a garden
of flowers and spices
in a space where growth
is prohibited

No one will remember
the Shakespeare and my poems
I read in hostile classes

I should have known
that once the trees
were all chopped down
like unarmed soldiers
I would be transferred.

©2011 Spoon Jackson

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