By Art, By Heart: The Journey of a Prisoner and a Poet

By Wendy Jason

This article was originally posted 1/23/11 on

Those of you who’ve read the posts in my Beyond Incarceration series know that I’m a huge advocate for prison arts initiatives. Art has the power to change lives — not just of those who are incarcerated, but of those entering prisons from the outside to share their passion for creative expression.

I’ve experienced this myself, having facilitated a creative writing group in a county jail, and I hope that my stories will inspire readers to get involved, either through volunteering their time with a prison arts organization or by speaking out to ensure that prison arts and education programs get the funding they need to survive. The book I review here is a testament to just how valuable these programs are — to prisoners and to us all.

Judith Tannenbaum and Spoon Jackson come from vastly different backgrounds, and their day-to-day lives share few commonalities. They are an unlikely duo, it seems – folks who wouldn’t typically cross paths. But Spoon and Judith are connected by something that will forever keep them bound: the shared experience of a space that allowed them to be fully human and completely real. And they found this space in the most unlikely of places: San Quentin.

Spoon and Judith first met 25 years ago, when Judith, a shy and at times anxious Jewish woman, was asked to facilitate a poetry class in the prison through California’s now-defunct Arts-in-Corrections program. Spoon, a quiet, solitary African American man who had only recently learned to read beyond a sixth grade level, was one of her students. In By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives, Judith and Spoon weave a heartfelt story of art, friendship, meaning, and hope. Their memoir is not only a beautiful story of human possibility, but also a candid first-hand account of the shortcomings of both our criminal justice and education systems.

During his childhood, Spoon reveled in the desert beauty that surrounded his family’s one-room cement shack in Barstow, California. He spent most of his free time outside, where his vibrant imagination was free to roam. Spoon’s sense of belonging in the natural world differed greatly from his experiences at home and school, where violence was commonplace. By the time he was in 2nd grade, unexplained whippings and beatings by teachers were a regular occurrence. His principal told him he’d never graduate from high school. The abuse, Spoon says, “toughened my resolve, and my resentment. I grew numb. The beatings did not hurt me anymore; they made me angry, empty, and sad…[they] showed me that power, pain, and perhaps even gain, were the way of things and the way of life.”

Spoon did finish high school, but without the academic skills or sense of self-worth necessary for overcoming the odds stacked against him. Before long, he landed in prison.

Prior to agreeing to teach a class at San Quentin, Judith visited another prison as a guest poet. She had been asked to give a reading and welcomed the invitation. Judith had done plenty of readings in the past – at schools, coffee houses, bookstores – all the usual places, in front of all the usual audiences. But none moved her in the way that this one did. There was something about the way the prisoners responded to her poems that let her know she had found a place where, like in her own life, “poetry had the power to give sustenance.”

Judith’s poetry classroom at San Quentin quickly became a sanctuary where both students and teacher were, as she puts it, “human beings together.” In prison, where people are defined by their one worst act, the poetry class was “a place that welcomed a fuller range of human qualities.”

Judith writes, “I have to rouse myself from all this thinking and look at the human being on the other side of the table…. Real, no story. Dark skin, broad nose, a heart beating under his blue prisoner’s shirt.” This recognition of shared humanity struck Spoon, as well: “I notice that Judith is a woman and at the same time a human being, struggling with life, death, truth, and imagination just as I am.”

Although Spoon soon began writing, he still lacked confidence. When, though, he “let go of expectations of what poems were supposed to be, [he] was finally able to see [him] self as poet.” Since then, Spoon has become a prolific writer. He has published a book of poems, and teaches a poetry class at New Folsom prison, where is he currently housed.

Writing By Heart together was Spoon’s idea. He thought the book “would be a great contrast between two lives coming together”, and that it would “allow people to see some kind of a truth.” Through meeting Judith, and becoming a poet, Spoon found out that he had something to contribute to society. Through sharing his story he hopes to show that everybody has something to offer, and that we all need support and encouragement in order to shine.

Though Judith had already published a memoir about her years teaching at San Quentin, she decided to collaborate with Spoon. She valued the opportunity to explore the connections between our criminal justice and public school systems. She wants readers to see how Spoon’s experience in school mirrors that of so many other children who enter adulthood without the means to access the so-called American dream, and how our prison system feeds off of and perpetuates this disregard for their well-being.

But most importantly, Judith wants us to see that humanity exists, and can thrive, in even the places where we try to bury it. And when we choose to acknowledge what we so seldom look at, we may very well find reflections of ourselves.

Watch a video trailer for By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives here, and listen to Spoon read from the book here.

Spoon welcomes letters, which you can mail to:

Spoon Jackson  B-92377
CSP- Sac   C8-125
Box 290066
Represa, CA 95671-0066

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