As I headed out of the cell this morning to the art room for my creative writing class, I walked slowly and the families of geese on the roofs of cell blocks seven and eight started to honk and shake their heads as they caught sight of me. Four geese, already on the ground, waddled over, lowered their necks and heads, mouths open with tongues extended. This is a traditional geese family greeting, so I did the same thing.
A little over two years ago I helped the parent geese raise their goslings on the yard, many times pulling goslings out of holes they had fallen into. I am accepted as part of their family. My geese family knows that each morning I will be there if I can, and that I come in peace to share my bread and fruit with them. I also play my Native American flute and I watch them watching me, and the soothing sounds of the flute make the geese relaxed. We sit there together and gaze at the sun.
I am out of the cell at least one to two hours before my class starts. I cherish that time to greet Mother Earth, the sun, my bird friends, and play the flute in the mornings. Sometimes I create writing lessons as I sit there in the jazz of the morning. In one lesson I’ve had my class write prose and poems from the point of view of a bird on the yard, or some other animal or plant friend from their past. Another time, I’ve had my students write a poem about autumn, or the end of summer. In my most recent lesson I asked my class to focus on “community” and to create prose and poems from whatever angle they choose to speak.
One of my most dedicated students, Wkiri Ologun, shows in his extraordinary essay and poem on community how our writing space of realness can be framed. This excerpt is one of the reasons why I am a teaching artist, and why hope continues to flow from behind bars:
My interest, hope and aspirations are kept locked away in my mind in order to protect the most precious thing I have, my humanity, from the corrupting forces around me.
But there is another side of prison that most people aren’t aware of: small pockets of light where likeminded people can come together and for an hour or so, once or twice a week, creating a community that is briefly insulated from the greater prison complex. This for me has been the arts program here at New Folsom State Prison. I currently participate in two writing classes (poetry and prose) with a small group of ‘diverse and complex’ inmates unified in the goal of fostering an environment of supportive understanding in order to cultivate craft.
This craft, writing, has been a saving grace for me, allowing me to be able to express on paper what I am not able to in my everyday surroundings.
Those pockets of light, they arrive to my creative writing classes from all the territories on the yard. They stroll in with each of their cultures written in their walk, dress, tattoos, talk and hair styles; Latin, Native American, Asians, white, and African. There is no other place in the prison where these men gather as one community, one humanity, and one group of writers who sit, write and converse together.
They are writers creating text they can humbly, proudly, and heartfully send home to their mom or dad, their sisters or brothers, their sons or daughters or their wives or girlfriends. More than one student has told me how much their family and friends have loved an essay or a poem written in one of our writing sessions.
We greet, congress, and then we do our writing. Nothing needs to be said other than: Gentlemen, it is time to write.
My Community is Safe
Away from the riff-raff and brouhaha that surrounds you; far from the interloper, the agitator, or the way layer. My community shines with the sterling gleam of serenity; pure like fire with the warmth and comfort of an old friend.
My community nourishes the soul, with the light from above driving away shadows, rich fertile ground for my potential to grow.
My community isn’t quiet; it bustles with the vibrant sounds of life, flowing like a river roaring in my ears.
It drowns out the outside, uplifting my health. My community is safety; a community of self.