The institution looms huge and wide the first morning I approach it, in 2002—the Southern Michigan Correctional Facility in Jackson was one of the largest prisons in the U.S., with almost 6,000 inmates. The front wall spans a quarter of a mile, giving the place the appearance of a fortress: impenetrable, silent. My workshop partner warns me we’re being watched as we cross the parking lot and approach the entrance: don’t yell when you’re out here, and even if you’re late to workshop, never run. I keep my eyes forward and walk stiffly in step with him into the building. Inside the foyer, where visitors of all sorts wait for their names to be called, small gestures of warmth aim (and fail) to offset the stone walls and metal lockers: a sad-looking plant, a plastic-rimmed carpet, chairs bolted to the floor, and a glass cabinet showcasing prison-logo-emblazoned T-shirts for sale.
Upon entering the building, I immediately feel that sinister twisting of language—this is a “facility,” not a prison. The men here answer to numbers printed on their shirts. My partner and I have been cleared to conduct a poetry workshop, but we may not share books with the inmates. We read and memorized the code of conduct booklet, and now we slink into the prison, feeling we are about to commit punishable offenses.
We hand our IDs through the bars to a guard; he mumbles something, presses a button. We enter what is known as “the bubble,” where visitors are logged and cleared for admittance. As the door clangs shut behind us, we look ahead to see the final door that will lead us down the hall and into the prison yard. But first we must be inspected, rendered harmless. I stand mutely as my clothes are patted down, my shoes tapped out, my notebook rifled through. Photocopied poems peek out into the fluorescent-lit room, as exotic and out of place as tropical birds.
My partner and I went into the prison to write and hear poems, to share poetry with a group of men who might want to have this art in their lives. That was our theory. Any prisoner in good standing who was interested could show up. That meant we got the occasional gawkers—hey, you don’t see too many women here—and drifters just looking for a way to pass time, but within a few weeks the group settled into a serious workshop. Just tell your class they have to bring and share an original poem every week, and the class winnows itself quickly.
Over the next two years, as I completed my MFA in nearby Ann Arbor, I spent every Thursday morning in a prison classroom—gray cinderblock walls, gray tables, cold plastic chairs, during what seemed like perpetual Michigan winter. The workshop group was small—fluctuating between three and 12, as people finished their sentences, were transferred, got written up for offenses inside and had their workshop privilege revoked, and so on. Almost no one skipped a meeting because of sickness or the death of a grandparent or a big paper due tomorrow or any of those standard teenaged excuses. In fact, the more stressful these men’s other life circumstances—suffering from illness or depression, going before the parole board—the more faithfully they appeared. George and Lew, Forbes-Bey and Gant-Bey and Randle-El, Spoon and Brandon and Waldo, Jesse and Too Deep and Wes, and a rotating cast of other self-named men sat down at the table and told us they had spent their nights crafting lines. Some began by making the typical demurrals: “It’s no good,” “I think I messed up the ending,” “I just don’t know about this one.”But then they stood up and read them to us, slowly, going back over passages so that we could hear them again because we had no paper copies to follow along with.
During every workshop meeting, guards paced the hall outside the classroom’s wide windows and popped in from time to time to listen. These intrusions completely unnerved me at first, particularly if I was reading my own new draft, but the inmates seemed unruffled. Some caught the guard’s eye as they read and smiled.
Here is what we didn’t have: books. Photocopiers. Privacy. An assumed canon.
Here is what we had: voices. Pencils. Lined prison-issue stationery. The occasional poem handout (cleared by the guards). A podium, or, on days when that was taken away from us, an imagined podium.
When you have no resources—no books, no library, no Internet, no phone calls—and the rules ban touching, making sudden moves, getting too chummy—you find out what poetry can really do. No wonder Plato kicked the poets out of the Republic: this is serious juju.
If poetry is subversive because it makes readers pause and consider the world with new eyes, makes them listen to their language with new ears, maybe even changes the world around them, then imagine the prison poetry workshop. In a place where silencing is the primary tool of those in power, inmate poets refuse to be silenced: they speak. In a place where art is dismissed and intimate communication undermined, they can open themselves to feeling and expression. And in a place where rules and structures are imposed from above, inmate poets create their own rules and master them.
Leading a poetry workshop in such a place—a total institution, to use the anthropological term for a community defined by its complete isolation from the outside world—actually requires very little, in my experience. In showing up, the facilitator cracks open a door to the outside. In coming every week in good faith, he or she values the words of the people inside. These may seem small gestures to people who have the privilege to come and go as they please, to choose how to spend their days—but aren’t these gestures the foundations for any relationship, with people or with a poem? You show up. You listen. You open yourself to whatever you might find.
The Prison Creative Arts Project, the organization through which I volunteered for my first prison workshops, believes in eliminating or at least minimizing the teacher-student relationship and its attendant power imbalance. PCAP advocates a more equal dynamic between artists, calling workshop leaders “facilitators” instead of “instructors.” What that means in a poetry workshop is that all members are expected to shape the direction of the workshop: all offer prompts, write poems to share, and receive feedback on their work. The MFA student and the tenured professor are apprentice poets, the same as the inmate who dropped out of school in tenth grade, the car mechanic, and the career thief. It may be a bit of pandering on the part of the facilitators: we want to make clear that our methods and goals are not authoritarian. In a place so defined by the kept and the keepers, the “us” and the “them,” we don’t want inmates to see us as another “them.” On the other hand, the theory corresponds to a bigger truth: we are all perpetual students of the craft and should respect anyone’s efforts to make a beautiful thing—to transcend the everyday—especially within the metaphorically and physically oppressive walls within which prisoners live.
“Form is a straitjacket in the way that a straitjacket was a straitjacket for Houdini,” says Paul Muldoon. Some of the exercises I have found particularly generative in prison workshops are those that set up rules. That may seem counterintuitive if poetry is supposed to be a small offering of freedom within an oppressive institution. But it is my college students who always want more freedoms, who balk and complain at strict assignments; the incarcerated writers I’ve worked with tend to welcome the structures of forms.
Maybe these restrictions feel familiar. When so much of their daily routine is bounded by rules, perhaps it is less intimidating for inmates to start their poems with the same boundaries. They do not have to invent a world from scratch. Those who preface their introduction with “I’m not a poet” have a clear guideline for how to begin. Those who preface with “I write verses” have a new challenge set out for them in which to prove their skills. They work within a set of rules, yes, but in these assignments, the writers are able to perform a powerful reversal: they are invited to control the form, to be the puppet masters instead of the puppets. In the best poems, they catapult over the walls altogether.
Below is a list of poetry assignments that have worked particularly well in the prison workshops I have facilitated, in Jackson and in other correctional facilities. Participants and facilitator(s) collaboratively shaped these assignments, which evolved through several iterations as each workshop determined what writers most wanted to say and the techniques that best stretched their abilities. (The techniques are useful beyond the prison context. Try them yourself.)
1. The Sonnet and Other Straitjackets
As with a few other rigid received forms, the sonnet presents a tight cage to work within: meter, rhyme scheme, and line limit. The benefits of this kind of compression are obvious: linguistic economy, precision of image, and rhythmic movement. I often use just some of the structures of such forms in early workshop prompts, depending on how much time and interest there is for the study of meter. For example: write a poem of 14 lines with a rhyme in the final two lines. Or, write a poem in rhyming couplets. Or, write a poem no longer than ten lines, describing an event that seems far too complex for that space.
The group might enjoy discussing a few sonnets, such as Randall Mann’s “Queen Christina” and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Time Does Not Bring Relief: You All Have Lied.” These two poems are particularly suggestive of an extensive history and express deep feeling through small, exquisite details.
2. Incantations, Prayers, Curses
I like to bring in the poem “slaveships” by Lucille Clifton early in a workshop because it tends to strike chords with those who have come to our meetings “just to check things out”—those who feel the genre is not really available to them. Clifton’s poem is plainspoken but musical, direct but highly metaphorical. Of course, it also has the appeal of speaking in the voice of enslaved people—chained Africans “loaded like spoons / into the belly of Jesus,” Angel and Grace of God, the righteously named ships ferrying them to the “heathen country.”
In short, charged lines, “slaveships” creates an incantatory rhythm—a haunting prayer of whispered disbelief. Here are the final lines:
can this tongue speak
can these bones walk
Grace of God
can this sin live
The poem has a way of accessing a remarkable depth and range of emotion through understatement and moments of silence, and inmates in my workshops always admire its tight control through rage and grief. They also point to its heavy irony, another appealing tactic to those who feel poetry needs to be “sincere” (meaning sappy). The poem is also rich in its focus on history—it offers stories outside and greater than individual narratives. The communal speaking voice reinforces the scope of this story.
This discussion generates many poetry assignments, but my favorite is an anaphora exercise: write a poem with a repeated word or words, perhaps a phrase from popular culture or a public figure’s name. In drafting, the writer who is stuck for a word or new thought can go back to the word or phrase. The poem can be a direct address, if that’s appealing.
3. Synesthesia and Surreality
Students in multiple prison workshops have come up with synesthesia prompts: describe the color of hunger, the taste of sadness, or the shape of anger. This is a risky exercise—some poems have the potential to devolve into clichés and generalized lines about anger and sadness and regret. The key, I’ve found, is to focus on the sensory aspects: synesthesia asks writers to combine sensations and perception in ways that help open writers to realms of strangeness, help move us away from linear thought into experimentation with sound and feeling. As prison is often also a place of sensory deprivation, such free play in the land of the senses can liberate language and spark wild poems.
4. Naming It: Laying Claim to Worlds
The power of describing the outside world—home, family, childhood—for incarcerated poets can be so great as to make it an impossible request. It’s also often the assignment that they most invest themselves in writing; the need to get it right is overwhelming. Especially for those serving long sentences, whose actual memories have faded or whose family ties have loosened, poems can document the lives they think are receding before their eyes. As in any workshop I lead, I emphasize imagery as a way to describe the world richly and freshly and to cultivate an attention to detail. In the prison context, this goal is freighted with the heavy truth that most of the worlds being described are considered lost worlds.
Prisons effectively keep out most signs of life. Little grows inside; seasons are perceptible mostly through glimpses beyond the heavy fence and the temperature of the sterile air. To assign an exercise calling for the rich evocation of a place, then, can be radical. When inmates suggest poem prompts, they sometimes directly tell their peers to relate a story from childhood or from their hometown, but I like to sidestep a bit. I ask for smaller things to make tasks manageable and to keep the focus on sensory perception.
Write a poem describing a room in the house where you grew up. Describe watching a family member working in the kitchen. I might bring in “Bleecker Street, Summer,” by Derek Walcott and suggest writing a parallel poem describing a familiar street in a particular season.
I tell the writers try to get all the sounds and flavors and tactile placeness of the place, as Walcott does: “It is music opening and closing, Italia mia, on Bleecker, / ciao, Antonio, and the water-cries of children / tearing the rose-coloured sky in streams of paper…”. Take the imitation farther and begin with his invocation: “Summer [or insert other season] for _______, for _______, for _______...”
Assignments focusing on memory always dominate my prison workshops. And it’s no surprise: everyone is pained; everyone has lost something. To recollect means to gather and to claim. Walls are no deterrent. Even lost worlds can be found.