Alex Chambers, a guest blogger for Behind the Lines, writes about teaching in the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Program. Chambers came in to the program hoping to pen their eyes to the possibilities of using the formal qualities of language as a political or social tool. Thus his first assignment was an experiment with documentary poetics:

I encouraged my students to look around them and record conversations they heard, to appropriate text from the prison walls or (anonymously) from their own or others’ court proceedings (as in Reznikoff), to write the histories of their places (as in Rukeyser), to note as many realities of language they could. I could have asked them to note where the power was. Notice the people and places who are underrepresented, I suggested, and represent them. “Give voice to stories of people and movements that the mass media tend to ignore or misrepresent,” I wrote in their assignment, after Phil’s article. At least tell a story from your own life.

However, the most interesting part of the story is Chambers’ description of his failure. The poems that the students brought in were “conventional” in nature, and mostly merely repeated the same old clichés one associates with sentimental verse:

I wanted poetry to give my students a way to speak truth to institutions.
I wanted them to look around and report. My students, for the most part, wanted poetry to let them escape, at least for the moment of the writing and the reading of the poem. Clouds, open fields, birds. The men in the prison didn’t have a single tree to touch or see in their daily lives; can I blame them for insisting on traditional (Hallmark) lyric?

The interesting question here is whether writing in clichéd forms really constitutes an “escape”? It’s curious that we think of cultural norms as “escapist” when in fact they often seem to be anything but - rather, culture is often precisely that which forecloses the idea of escape, and substitutes in its place the familiar. This is not to say that Chambers’ account of his experience is wrong, but only to point out that it opens up important questions with regards not only to pedagogy, but with regards to how poetry and art might relate to culture.

Originally Published: December 3rd, 2010