Archive for November, 2008

I don’t claim to be a poet, but for what it’s worth, here are a few thoughts on celebrating the holidays for the first since becoming a volunteer at the Monroe Correctional Complex.

Thanksgiving Eve

Tonight I celebrate with friends.
Eat food from the garden.
Drink wine.

Tomorrow I celebrate with family.
Eat food from the garden.
Drink wine.

Between meals I listen for the prayers
of the men at the prison.
The whispered prayers sent out
over the razor wire
to children, wives and families
who might, depending on the crime,
still love enough
to leave an empty chair and plate
at the table.

My commute to and from the prison includes a twenty minute ferry crossing plus however long I get to sit in line to wait to board. It’s a good time to reflect on the night at Monroe, to record first impressions and document those moments that are resonating with me the most before I have a chance to filter them or make them academic. I’ll post these thoughts from the ferry each time I go to Monroe.


Perspective. I was in a bad mood today. A funk. My ex-husband has been haunting my dreams so I haven’t been sleeping right and I’m trying to figure out why he is there, what he represents, what I’m not getting. One of those days when you want to stay home, in bed, watching stupid, mindless movies and avoid having to think about much of anything at all because you know what you have to think about is going to take too much damn energy.


It was a good day to go to prison.


Perspective. It isn’t about comparing my issues, my history, my trauma with that of the men. I stopped a long time ago thinking that it is worth comparing histories. Everyone has baggage and we are all coping, recovering, healing or some combination of all three. What going up to the prison reminded me of was of just that. We are all working to figure it out.


Sometimes what I need, on days like today, days when I’m mired in my own “stuff” is to get out and give to others. Get out of my own head. Get out and remember that I am more than my past relationships and their failures and hurts. Get out and listen to the stories of other. Because in listening I remember that my story is also valid. That it’s not petty or nonsense or too old to still have to deal with. It’s my story. My journey and it has its place amongst all stories, even those of the guys in prison. These guys have loved and lost. These guys have hurt their partners and been hurt in return. We want to believe that we have nothing in common with men in prison, but the more I go to Monroe the more I realize just how human we all are – and that is my connection to them. Our shared humanity is why it gets harder and harder to ever think about not going to Monroe.


Perspective. There was a man our group tonight whose father, when he converted to Judaism in the 50’s while in Russia, was arrested and the man in our group, then a boy, was taken from his mother and sent to live in an orphanage. He was seven. Now he’s in Monroe. Okay, some stories humble you. Some stories, even if we are not comparing hurts, make you realize you don’t have it quite so bad.


Perspective. I wrote on one of the guys’ pieces, which he had given me to critique. I usually remember to ask permission to do so because I know that if they hand me a typed copy chances are that is their only clean copy, and getting to use a typewriter is a privilege only a few have. Typed, clean copies of work are treasured. Most of the guys, however, don’t mind if I write on their work. But this guy did. I should have asked. What seems so simple to me – retyping as I revise – is weeks of work and who knows what sort of bartering for these guys.


Perspective. The work I was the most intrigued with from the last batch of pieces I got to critique was written by a man who said tonight that he spent ten years hiding after jumping bail in 1997. When he was caught in 2007 he was also able to post bail and could have ran again, but he didn’t because in the span of that ten years he had married and had two children. If he ran, he couldn’t take them with him. And he couldn’t lose them so he is serving his time.


I don’t know that I’m in a better mood now that I’ve left prison and the guys and am here on the ferry. I’m weary about facing another night of sleep…or no sleep as the case might be. But I don’t feel so alone. And I feel rededicated to handling the issues that are up for me right now in the only way I really know how – write it out. Get it down. Make it real. Tell the story. My story (our story).

The first reading

Posted: November 19, 2008 in Uncategorized
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Last Thursday I participated in my first reading, outside of reading to my fellow graduate students while we are safely in our cocoon of the residency. The reading was a benefit for one of the island’s local food banks — so it was easy to calm the nerves by remembering it wasn’t about me at all, but about filling plates the holidays and beyond in the rural community I live in.

That is until about 3pm on the day of the event (which started at 7pm) when my mom called to tell me that both she and my father were going to attend. Please understand it has probably been more than five years since I have showed work to any member of my family. My grandmother asks me everytime I see her to send her a story, but I’m pretty sure she still thinks I’m writing about young girls riding their ponies! It’s a tricky thing, showing your work to your family. Even as a fiction writer I know that my family is going to sit in the audience and think — did that really happen? Did she (me) ever really do that (insert terrible thing here — such as speeding with a boy in a Coupe up and down the rural island roads while drinking)? Is that character actually me (mother, father, sister). I always assumed that it would be terribly painful for me when my family finally heard my current work, but what I realized last week was that it is possibly harder on them than it is on me. After all, I get to sit there and say, no, no, it’s fiction, it’s not you. And they have to believe me.

So, we all faced our fears on Thursday. I stepped to the microphone and gave a good reading. It was full of tension. It was gritty. Several people came up to me afterward (and not family or friends who are required to say nice things) and complimented the story. My parents did not get up and walk out, and if they were uncomfortable they hid it well. They definitely saw a side of their daughter that is not the same woman who shows up for family dinner (and I cleaned up the scene a little in case there were children in the room!). It was good for me to understand that as I come into my own as a writer, my family is going to have to adjust, as will I.

In terms of the hero’s journey, I think I have officially left my “ordinary world” and am on my way into the “special world” where the rules change, as well as relationships.

So, to all my emerging writers, when you are ready, just risk it all, invite the whole family, and step up to the microphone. You might be surprised.

A quote from Robert Ellis Gordon’s excellent book The Funhouse Mirror: Reflections on Prison:

“To be sure, there are a psychotic few [prisoners] who aren’t easily recognizable as human. but they are the rare exceptions. And as for the ones who are unmistakably human? When we give voice to the voiceless; when we give souls to formerly anonymous convicts; when we can no longer deny their humanity, we have no choice but to lay claim to them. And if and when we do that — if and when we peer into the funhouse mirror and conclude that our criminals belong to us and that they’re made of the same stuff as us — well then we will, in one respect at least, begin, as a society, to grow up.”


Last night up at Monroe I was leading the group. Not only leading, but leading on my own as Gloria was sick. It’s one of those moments when you just take a deep breath, prepare your notes and walk in and act as if of course I can do this, of course I’m not nervous, or course I believe whole-heartedly that I have somehow reached a place in my writing studies and career (?) to present myself as a teacher. Of course.

Perhaps in an act to make the night my own, to declare my style of teaching as a tad unique from Gloria’s, or perhaps because I was worried we’d run out of things to discuss (this is clearly the more likely of the two) I came prepared with two additional writing prompts. Turned out that we had plenty to talk about, but at a certain point I realized we actually could use a break from some very intense conversation about everything from the shaman territory in stage 7 of the hero’s journey (Approach to the Inmost Cave) to discussion of the “heart” of a story, as well the “heart” of a life. So, I asked the guys if they wanted to write.

The exercise I gave was a rapid, free-writing exercise. Select three words. In this case I tried to pick words that were in someway related to stage 7 of the hero’s journey, which was the topic for the evening. Give one word at at time and allow writers to write for 2-3 minutes. The goal is to keep the pen/pencil moving at all times, even if they are just writing the word over and over again, or writing, I don’t know what to write over and over. Just write. After 2-3 minutes everyone pauses to get the next word. Again everyone writes nonstop for 2-3 minutes, picking up where they left off. Repeat with the last word.

I did this twice with the guys.

The first set of words were change, deep and friend.

The second set of words were walk, stop and turn.

What they wrote was of course beautiful. I’m always amazed at what comes out of these free-writing exercises. It’s good for a writer to take a break from analyzing writing and just write. You remember that beautiful, powerful words and images come quite naturally actually. One man, the quietest in the group all night, wrote at the end of one of his pieces, I will keep turning, turning, turning, turning, turning until I find the direction I am meant to go.

I also experienced this lovely moment of looking up and seeing seven prisoners focused on writing, everyone’s head bent toward their papers, writing as fast as they could. I felt some pride as a teacher, seeing my students work.

From the ferry: 11/5/08

Posted: November 6, 2008 in from the ferry
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My commute to and from the prison includes a twenty minute ferry crossing plus however long I get to sit in line to wait to board. It’s a good time to reflect on the night at Monroe, to record first impressions and document those moments that are resonating with me the most before I have a chance to filter them or make them academic. I’ll post these thoughts from the ferry each time I go to Monroe.


There’s a young man in the group this evening who doesn’t say much. At one point I actually decided, he’s just here to get out of being in his cell. It was hard to tell if he was paying attention or if he even cared. Then, at the end of the evening, he brings me his notebook and tells me that he’s been working to catch up with the group and he’s got 33 pages he wants me to take home and read. 33 handwritten pages. I guess my lesson is to never assume that I know who is listening and who is not. Never assume someone isn’t hearing what’s being said in the group, isn’t taking it in. Never assume someone isn’t back in his cell working hard to put his words on a page.


Almost all of the guys tonight brought me something to take home and critique. That has never happened before. I’ve even got one guy writing me responses to my critique. I am humbled by their trust, as well as overwhelmed by it. I recognize that earning their trust is a feat (it’s only taken a mere eight months), and yet now I also feel the responsibility of it.


I think of the young man with the 33 pages. He gave me his entire notebook. I don’t know that I would ever do that. Turn over my handwritten work to a near stranger to keep for two weeks. I don’t think I could. Except what if I had no other choice? What if turning my work over to a stranger was the only way to get the feedback I craved or the encouragement I needed? What if it wasn’t a leap of faith, but of necessity given the reality of a life in prison? It’s not the same on the inside. I am reminded over and over again of this fact.


The guys congratulated and teased me tonight on becoming a sponsor. The title of sponsor gives me the ability to take the volunteers into the prison. It makes me responsible for what happens in our group. It gives me power, which is a tricky thing in prison where every interaction with guards and inmates is about power on one level or another. The guys teased me, but I also feel like I’m proving to them bit by bit that I’m here to stay.


Finally, I can’t think of any place I’d rather have gone the day after Obama won the election than to Monroe. Obama inspires me to take action to change my world. Up at Monroe I’m doing that. It might be small changes, and sometimes slow and almost always uphill, but it’s good work. One of the guys tells me his unit held a mock vote and Obama won. Another guy tells me how he hates that his voice, his vote does not get to be represented in our democracy anymore. “I’m still a citizen,” he tells me. I have to agree. These guys might have more at stake every time power changes hands in this country than most of us. I believe when I cast my vote I cast it in part for these men, who, whether some like it or not, are still a part of our society, and maybe the fact that they have to sit outside of it as punishment for their crimes gives them unique perspectives that could be vital to our national conversation. We can never understand the whole story of a nation when so many are so silenced.

“A mythological order is a system of images that gives consciousness a sense of meaning in existence, which, my dear friend, has no meaning — it simply is. But the mind goes asking for meanings; it can’t play unless it knows (or makes up) some system of rules.” — from Campbell’s, Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation

I like hanging out with people who ask themselves, on a regular basis, what is the point? And by point I mean all of it. What is the point in waking up each morning, slogging through the day, maintaining relationships, keeping house, making money, spending money, even putting words on a page, going to school, learning for the sake of learning? Why bother? I have yet to come to good answer, one that I would stand by from day-to-day. Yet, I continue to get out of bed, dress, eat and create as if I know why I do any of it.

Campbell’s quote made me laugh. He’s a funny guy. Watch his interviews with Bill Moyers or read his texts and you’ll find a man who has come to have a good sense of humor about life and it’s meaning. What I love about the above quote is the way in which he states, so matter of factly, and as if he is talking to a young child, that there is no meaning to life, but certainly he understands why we must look for one none the less. He seems to believe that a person can hold both realities — that there is no meaning and that finding meaning is the ultimate human journey. Sigh.

When I think about this quote in relationship to the guys in the group at Monroe I feel like it sheds light on why they bother to come at all. Imagine the struggle to find a point to day-to-day life in prison. How could you not ask yourself, what is my value? what does it matter if I get out of this bed or not? what is my purpose? Yet if they are to survive their time, and perhaps if they are even to play by the rules of the prison system, they must create a meaningful reason for their existence. Not easy to do when most of society has already deemed your existence to be of lesser value, if any value at all. It is making more and more sense to me then why a man serving time would turn to creating story. Of course he would. Story writing and story telling link us to those who came before, who survived their own trials and sufferings and who celebrated their own victories. Story connects us to the larger world conversation, the one taking place all the time in cafes and living rooms and churches and bars all over the world. If you have a story to tell then you have a purpose, you have meaning.

In prison I imagine you come right up against the reality that life is, more often than not, tragically without meaning. If you can find the beauty and wonder of that fact, however, then you can begin to shape your story out of a truly deep and ancient collective wisdom. Campbell would likely not be surprised at the interest in mythology at Monroe. He would perhaps say that of course a prisoner would be drawn to myth for who else needs to find a new meaning for his life more desperately than one who has been cast out by his society? Myth brings people into a society, into a culture. Myth makes one a part of something that has come before and that will continue on after any given life has come to an end. To be able to think about something so big in a place that is so small — prison — must be part of what is of value to the men in our group.


Posted: November 1, 2008 in prison, general, prisoner writing
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In reading some of the guys’ work this weekend I came across this passage:

“But this guy…he wasn’t just commerical strong, he was industrial. Whatever he’d been doing wasn’t just weight-pile, or gymnastic-martial art work. This bastard had to have some kind of job reefing engine heads off an assembly line and hand tooling valve springs in place all day.”

First, it’s a great descriptive paragraph. One of those passages that rings with the voice of a narrator that has been there and seen that and so can write from a place of truthful imagery. I know the author will probably not be able to see right away all of the levels on which these sentences are working effectively, and I have no doubt he was just writing from his heart when he put them down on the paper, but they’re good, and I’ll be sure to tell him so in my feedback.

My second thought was about strength. In particular, strength as it relates to existing inside prison. In this story the narrator is describing another inmate being brought back to a unit of the prison, and what the narrator knows is this guy is physically stronger than him and for various reaons, in all likelihood, a threat to the narrator. The scene is partly the narrator’s journey toward the realization that at some point, in the near future, he will likely have to fight this new inmate.

What I found compelling about this piece was that the narrator acknowledges that he is the weaker of the two men physically, and he also accepts the inevitably of the confrontation that is to come. There is no whining in the piece, nor any discussion of how to avoid the confrontation. It will happen. The narrator describes some fear, but there is more a hardened tone of practicality and understanding, which can only come from experience. He will be as prepared as he can be for the day that the confrontation occurs.

I wonder if one of the outcomes of serving time is that you learn to size others up in the way this narrator does. He knows he is “commerical strong” and that the other inmate is “industrial”. Serving time must give you ample opportunity to study others, and learn who is actually strong and who is merely posturing. Prison must also give you an opportunity to size yourself up pretty quickly, as well as demand that you get honest about your own strength, both physical, emotional and spiritual. I imagine it is hard to pretend that you are something you actually are not in prison. Others will discover your weaknesses, so you either get good at hiding them, or you get even better at exploiting your strengths. The narrator in this piece understands he is physically outmatched, but perhaps he also knows that his is wiser? More intuitive?

I think about how few situations in life (outside of prison) test our strengths. It’s a rare opportunity, I think, to find yourself forced into that sort of honesty. To have to acknowledge in what ways we are weak is not comfortable. And to acknowledge in what ways we are strong brings with it responsibilities to live up to that strength. The narrator of this piece is knows how he stacks up against the other men around him, he has to sleep at night knowing he is not the strongest, and yet he figures out how to survive. Or perhaps because he knows he is not the strongest he is able to survive. He doesn’t have to waste all that time pretending to be what he is not.