Last time I was teaching at the prison, the writer I was working with showed me a meticulous list of the 98 poems he had written. “All my poems are dark,” he said. He read me three of the ones he had gotten published; they traced the scars on his body and mind through an absent, addicted mother and her abusive surrogate: foster care. They described the mental illness that works against a brilliant, eager mind and the numb no man’s land of psychotropic intervention that brings some silence if not relief.
Since it was a one-on-one meeting, I asked the writer what he wanted to do. He said he wanted to write something different. Poem 99—a sliver of light, maybe even hope. The problem, he explained, is that he lacked the material and attending emotion to speak of anything other than pain and loss. I thought back to the impromptu memorial service we had a few years ago for the man named Bumpz. No one in class knew him very well, but a few writers felt the need to honor his life—which had ended that morning of “natural causes”—with some thoughts on paper.
In the discussion on death and dying in prison, someone had said, “We only write when we are sad or angry.” I knew this man’s comment was worth remembering—that it was telling me something I needed to know as a teacher about the why and the what of his experience as a poet. But, in my distraction, I managed to scribble it into my notebook incorrectly; in my notebook I scrawled, “We only right when we are sad or angry.” When I got home, and saw my transcription error, I realized my mis-quote was telling me something I needed to know as well—something about the way well-intentioned audiences read the work of incarcerated writers, something about what we expect to hear from men and women behind bars.
So I have the post-it note of my mis-quote next to my desk. It helps me remember that there is a script of sorts for prison writing that expects, and inadvertently encourages, stories about loss, pain, poverty, absence—sadness and anger. These stories are important. And need to be born, both to the writer and to their communities inside and outside the prison. But other stories need to be born as well: stories of everyday minutes, pet lizards, kid memories, and small bits of laughter that speak back to the unrelenting chaos of life in prison.
I asked the Writer of 98 Dark Poems if anything good had ever happened to him. First he said no, then he said yes. And wrote for twenty minutes. And smiled at what he had found. And read aloud with shoulders back. Then seemed worried that Poem 99 might negate some of the legitimate horror of Poems 1-98. I promised him it did not. I promised him that turning on a flashlight in a dark room hurts our eyes, both when it flicks on and when it flicks off. Flashes of light can make the darkness darker. But flashes of light also humanize, connect us; they give us cause to keep our eyes open, even when it seems there is nothing to see.
Working with this writer reminds me that sometimes art making is about calling out the light—digging, digging, digging to find it. Not to placate, cover-up, dismiss, or feign salvation. But because light is there. And it feels good to be warmed by it, at least for a minute.
Anna Plemons is a guest teaching artist at California State Prison-Sacramento, where she works with groups of writers under the bureaucratic umbrellas of mental health services, inmate self-help programs, and protective custody. She is also a PhD candidate in Rhetoric and Composition at Washington State University where her primary research interests revolve around teaching and writing in prison, and the complications and implications of such work. Contact Anna
Also by Anna Plemons in ALT/space:
The Teacher’s Chair
The Worst Teacher Ever
Working in Impossible Places