Earlier this year, the young musician (who wrote a response to The Teacher’s Chair), brought an article to the A Facility writing group that he wanted to read and discuss. I have been talking to him about his ability to lead and teach, and although he says it’s not for him, I was quietly pleased to see that he was taking the lead that day. It was an interesting article. An earnest, and even heated, discussion about the meaning of manhood ensued. Participating in a conversation about manhood around a Formica table in the windowless library of a maximum-security prison is an intense and humbling thing. I did not say much. But my heart burned as the myriad definitions, expectations, and milestones of manhood were discussed. And the writing that came out of that class was razor sharp, hungry, and devastating. Some of it, I hope, will be published.
The A Facility group is working on a collective memoir. They intend to tell their stories, including chapters that explore their path to incarceration and discuss their particular crimes. This project is not my idea. But, it is happening, and so I have tried to lend a supportively critical voice, which I hope sharpens and clarifies the writing. I have been talking to the group about the genre of prison writing, and how, it seems to me, that most of the stories that make it outside the walls are constrained to narratives of salvation, where stereotypic tough guys find themselves through religion, writing, or some combination of both. And many times, those stories are authentic. But I worry about the stories that do not fit that script. I worry about what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the “danger of a single story.”
So, at some point last year, I brought in a memoir that I thought typified the genre. I made it clear that I did not enjoy the book. We made plans to discuss the text at the next class. I returned to find that the A Facility writers, for the most part, were critical of my critique. They thought the text was important, helpful, worthy of its acclaim. We had a great discussion. I was outnumbered. And even as I made continued attempts to point out my reasons for being critical of the text, the teacher part of my brain sat back and enjoyed the space opened up by the lively disagreement. More important than making my point, was the point that my voice was only one of many and nobody, but nobody, was deferring to the “teacher.”
Tying it together:
Fast-forward to last Monday. In response to the article on manhood that the young musician had found, I brought in an anthology of essays on manhood that I had come across at a conference earlier in the year. I prefaced by saying that I didn’t think the pieces were great, and before I could finish my sentence, one writer playfully cut me off. “Oh, so it will be good then.” I smiled, and filed away the moment for later reflection.
I find that as I think and write about my experiences teaching at New Folsom, particularly in A Facility, the theme of ownership—of the classroom space, the writing process, and the writing product—is always at the fore. These two stories continue that thread, and lead me to share one last snapshot. In May, I was at the prison for a surprise retirement party for Jim Carlson. As I have mentioned before, Jim is my dad and the man who has tended California’s Arts in Corrections program through its death, purgatorial sentence, and pending resurrection. Because of the festivities, we had authorization to bring a camera inside the A Library, where we have class. And we were able to photograph the writers I have tried to introduce here in the acts of ownership I have tried to describe.
At the retirement party one writer read a piece he had written about how the hard work of cultivating art—and the classroom space for it—was the responsibility of incarcerated writers themselves. The young musician, and another writer, performed as the warm up band for the folk singer/songwriter Linda McRae, who was in town to help celebrate. I sat on a table in the back and took it all in, as a reminder to myself that my role in A Facility is to show up, bring writing to discuss, push, agitate, comment, and read my own work, all the while understanding that, by choice, my place is on the periphery.