A gift from NC Poet Laureate, Joseph Bathanti

About this post: This essay first appeared in the magazine, The Sun, and will appear in the forthcoming book of essays, Half of What I Say is Meaningless, from Mercer University Press in Macon, GA. It is the winner of the 2012 Will D. Campbell Award for Creative Nonfiction. The author, Joseph Bathanti, is North Carolina’s Poet Laureate, and a professor of creative writing at Appalachian State University, where he is Director of Writing in the Field and Writer-in-Residence in the University’s Watauga Global Community. He has taught writing workshops in prisons for 35 years and is former chair of the N.C. Writers’ Network Prison project. 


Bull City looks like Fidel Castro: green yard bird fatigues, engineer’s cap and a mule-tail, anarchist beard. He’s from Missoula, Montana, but took his fall, a life sentence, in Wilkes County, pretty rough cowboy country, 45 minutes up the road. His moonshine and mesquite accent rolls out of cave-rock. He carries into the creative writing class I’m teaching at the Iredell County Prison, in Statesville, North Carolina, a Bible, a dictionary, chain-gang loose-leaf, two sharpened pencils. He aims to be a writer.

If asked, Bull City would say he’s simply making his time, being a man. He works a gained-time job at the prison’s furniture factory, learning a trade he can put to use if he ever gets out – which isn’t likely. The job and his writing and the Lord keep him busy, though not in that order. The Lord comes first, he is fast to stipulate. I’d wager he’s in for murder. Crime of passion. While the free world sees murderers at the bottom of the criminal sump, thanks to the media who demonize them all as axe-wielding serial killers, that particular pedigree on the yard is really its most honorable, affable and predictable. A tiny percentage of men and woman sent up for murder recidivate; the insane, emotionally-charged circumstances that land them in prison are highly stylized, and tend to never duplicate themselves.

But Bull City could have done anything: set fire to a town or poisoned a reservoir. Booze, guns and drugs shadow his eyes, scars and tattoos on his body. More to the point, ultimately you can’t glean a thing about a man by just looking at him – especially in prison, where discussing crime stories is strictly taboo. What he’s done doesn’t matter. For certain, he’s brushed up against the beast and come away with that cauterized long-time felon stare. The sorrow of his past has made him vulnerable enough to turn to God, and grow into a strong and serious prisoner. One can plainly see that no one, guard nor inmate, would willingly mess with him.

The first sentence of his story is memorable: “With routine grace, the sun rises.” Then his inmate protagonist wakes up, as so many of these stories begin, and hits the yard. It’s early. The moon still hangs over the wire. Right away he sees that something’s wrong. The whole rhythm of the joint is about two notches grimmer, guys full of fear and loathing, a few in tears. He makes  inquiries and discovers that during the night something happened to Forty-four, a sweet, righteous dude. Everyone’s favorite. Solid, never up in your business, but comforting when you need him. Not with his mouth, but by simply being on the set. An aces guy all around.

The story sounds reasonable. In here, in this classroom, they all do; but if you look away for a moment, assess your surroundings – tattoos and bloodshot eyes, the astringent smell of fear and custody, a guard peeping in every so often, the razory shoulders of wire visible through the Ed Building window – you might figure it’s the worst kind of made-up, a con, a come-on, and that you are in danger. You have to sit back like it’s nothing, like there’s not a thing in the world you’d be shocked by. The men you sit in the room with could kill you.

The other guys stare faithfully at Bull City as he reads. He loved Forty-four. His voice is deep and sure, and he’s not turning away from what’s in his heart. What you’d expect from Montana. He looks up occasionally to catch the eyes of his audience as they nod. They know this story. Forty-four was their partner too. Many of them figure into the story. The stakes are high. I realize that Bull City is recounting something that really happened.

His piece has little of the trumped-up rhetoric, the wordiness and melodrama, that so often characterizes prison writing. Both in its flat declarative style, and its plot and pacing, the story is gripping, far far better than the usual beginning inmate writing, which tends toward the sensational. The conflict is palpable. I’m truly intrigued with Forty-four; I want to know what happened to him. What really sets Bull City’s writing apart is its lack of swagger and defiance. There’s a tenderness to this story usually lacking in prison writing. Not to say that tenderness isn’t regularly broached: the lament for the ubiquitous chain-gang Penelope left back in the streets, her soothing caress, yearning for a brood of darling babies. Images of what a straight life outside the penitentiary might be like. But the writing tends on the first go-round to be predictable, derivative, most often over-sentimentalized – not so dissimilar, really, to first stabs in any creative writing classroom. In this instance, what ends up mattering more than anything is that these convicts walk in the room. Period. From where they are sitting, merely showing up for this class, taught be a complete stranger, some white guy in a necktie who teaches at the local college, is a harrowing leap.

The guys in Bull City’s story set out to look for Forty-four. They comb every inch of the cellblock and the yard. Nothing. Not a trace. But they don’t want to ask the yard man because he might have run and they don’t want to get the guards involved. But to just split like this? They have a bad feeling. The south tower guard, just coming off first shift, notices them congregated and asks what’s up. Nothing, they tell him. Not a goddam thing. He leads them back to the quarry fence. There’s Forty-four, twelve feet in the air, dangling in bloody coils of concertina.

Forty-four tried to escape, got hooked in the wire and the guard left him up there all night to bleed to death. It’s not a true story after all. In this context, of course, the guards are the bad guys – we all agree on this – but in real life they just couldn’t get away with this. But it doesn’t have to be true. This is, after all, creative writing. Not bad. Not terribly unpredictable, but again Bull City doesn’t turn away from his grief and love for Forty-four. That’s a breakthrough, the kind of honesty a writer must aspire to. I glance about the room. The other guys are right there with him. They are down with this story in a way I don’t really apprehend. Turmoil is mapped on their faces as Bull City moves to the true denouement.

The night before, at lockdown, under a full moon, an owl had swooped into the yard and snatched Forty-four. Wow, I think. But the owl, with the weight of Forty-four in his talons, hadn’t had the lift to clear the fence and Forty-four snagged in the concertina. What an image. Bull City then reveals that Forty-four is a rabbit – what the other guys in the room had known all along. A rabbit! Wow, I think again; so it is a true story. The tower guard had witnessed the whole thing, watched the snared rabbit writhe in the razors until he bled to death. The owl had circled until Forty-four was still and then flew off. The guard told the guys that he didn’t think Forty-four had suffered much, that he had liked the little guy himself. Then he opened the maintenance shack so they could get a ladder and fetch him down. Which is where the story should have ended. I can’t exactly remember how Bull City ended it, but it was long after he should have, after he told the audience what he wanted them to feel even though he had so masterfully and cinematically drilled that image of loss and heartbreak and violence into them: Forty-four trussed in the silver wire and bloody moonlight up there on the fence like a rabbit Messiah.

A beginner’s error, easily fixed. I hold my tongue. In prison there certain stories you simply do not criticize; to do so would be an epic breach of etiquette. Disrespect. Like you didn’t get it. Your credibility as a teacher, paradoxically enough, would be ruined. The real permission to enter a prison and teach writing comes not from the prison administration, but from the prisoners themselves. When a man stands there, with it all hanging out, you don’t tell him there is a better way to do it. What’s more, in telling this story, and telling it well, as evidenced by the moved convict faces I find myself surrounded by, Bull City, for the time being, has become a shaman. He has created among his brethren, the only ones in a position to understand, a sacred space. It wasn’t the writing, the language, which moved them, but the story itself, that shared sense of loss and longing – their secret terrible power – symbolized in Forty-four.

We do get around to discussing the story. Not craft and such, but the story as communal property. They all knew and loved the real Forty-four. Most important, however, is that he loved them. He didn’t care that they were outlaws, the despised lowlife of society. Several of the men contribute remembrances about feeding him, petting him, his absolute trust and constancy, his wisdom. Tender remarks they might utter about family and friends, sentences the free world does not ascribe to prison inmates. Geniuses of failure. Men who have consistently made messes of their lives. Who have been cruel and cavalier and stupid. Yet they have transferred their affections to a little rabbit, sublimated the feelings they have all their lives denied and been denied, trying to do better, to be forgiven. We take a few minutes to eulogize Forty-four. If any of the guys say anything about the writing itself, it’s usually something fairly generic like, “I like the way he did that” or simply “I liked it” or “That was good.”

The story for them defines something about their plights as prisoners. The sagacious old freedom angel, a bird of prey, no less, came down to rescue Forty-four, but the weight of time and the pull of the yard were too ponderous. Like Icarus, flying was too much for him. Old Forty-four. Only way to quit the chaingang is to perish. He probably would not have made it on the outside anyhow; that owl was fixing to eat him. It’s not stretching things to say that Bull City’s story is a parable, though we broach that subject. I’m quick to tell my prison students that I’m not a guard and I’m not a shrink. A prison writing teacher’s main job is asking for the story and then listening. You can’t really get around to discussing the actual writing (language, trope, narrative strategy, etc.), if ever you do, until you’ve discussed the story. There’s got to be a plot, though their own lives, in actuality, have tended toward the surreal – metafiction. For the prisoner, getting it out, like getting out, is the highest form of art. Each thinks his story is immortal – not unlike the rest of us.

Many prisoners desire to write because they are certain they have in them a bestseller, a movie. They watch plenty of TV and know what it takes. Each year I get a handful of letters from inmates imploring me to ghostwrite their blockbusters. Unbelievable stuff, they insist. Sure to sell. We’ll split fifty-fifty. No doubt, actually, that in the right hands their stories could bust the block. Their rap sheets alone are page-turners.

At any rate, there’s a tacit understanding between teacher and students – not a realistic one – that these classes, all this writing and subsequent discussion, are in the service of being released from the penitentiary. Which, in a very practical sense, isn’t true. They will not be released because of their stories. In all likelihood, their stories might inhibit their release. But stories are not practical in the same way that hoping is not practical, yet who can live without either. Release is a word of sweeping valence, and writing provides release beyond secular freedom. I don’t mean getting in touch with themselves. They don’t need pencils in their hands to afford them introspection. It’s the ritual of writing – the confessional, egocentric catharsis of it – that consoles them – that consoles anyone who writes. But they, offenders – in much more direct, ritualized ways than free men – desire forgiveness. To be released. And writing does work for a while, at least during the workshop, and hopefully on the yard and in the cellblock and, who knows, maybe even beyond the walls. By listening, by nodding in that solemn, funereal way that prisoners nod when one of them is reading his story, they absolve each other. Writing is a place where they can be good and get away with it.

One frigid winter night I taught a poetry workshop deep in one of the sub-cellars of Central Prison, North Carolina’s 19th century maximum security penitentiary in Raleigh. Teaching with me was Becky Gould Gibson, a poet friend of mine, a retired English professor at a small Quaker college. It was the first time she had ever been in a prison, and she was much taken with the men – dire felons pulling interminable time for unthinkable atrocities – mystified by their complicated, disastrous lives and moved by their writing. Fearless, elegant, she told them she wanted to feed them poems. Deeply into it, the men opened up. Something extraordinary, religious, occurred – not unusual in a prison writing class – though it was Becky, strolling blithely like saint into a leper colony, who effected the transformation. For two hours, she and I saw the very best of them. By her lights, they were good men, worthy of another crack at life outside.

As we were leaving, she asked the program officer who had arranged our visit if “parole boards listen to poems?” When he realized that she was completely serious, he told her politely that they did not. Knowing what I know of parole boards, I had the wonderfully absurd vision of inmates winning release by whipping out their poems and evangelizing a stony panel of parole officials.

In his Confessions, Saint Augustine writes: “What is more monstrous than to claim that things become better by losing all their good? Therefore, if they are deprived of all good, they will be absolutely nothing.” Prisoner writing, even when about the most hideous things, is a personal declaration of vestigial goodness. Goodness denied them, which they of necessity have denied possessing. Writing is their confession of goodness. In an amazing letter to me, one of my students in the outside world summed it up best: “I was trying to write like the somebody that I sometimes want to be, you know the somebody who is me only better.” But this is an abstraction, and inmates don’t consciously traffic in abstractions. Make no mistake; they want out.

I have my own confession to make. When I first heard the story of Forty-four, I swore that I would not steal it. It belonged to Bull City and was his to tell. He recognized Forty-four’s assignation with that owl as a mystery that could only be related as a story – which took some savvy and decided courage on his part. Not only that. He formalized it in written language. Which made it immortal.

That writers have larcenous hearts is not news. They cannibalize everything, and there’s no better trove for such kleptomania than a prison yard. I’ve known inmates to eat tree bark, howl at the moon, stuff pillows under their shirts so they wouldn’t get sliced while climbing through concertina, hack themselves to flinders with razors, keep copperheads as pets, swallow stick deodorant for a buzz, sever an Achilles tendon with a bushaxe on caprice, store film canisters of dope in their rectums, become transsexuals and wear lingerie in the cellblock, vomit baggies of cocaine, fix voodoo dolls on one another and guards. The list is endless and rich and no writer could resist theft. But these are things I have witnessed or heard about or, who knows, imagined. They weren’t written: what the word becomes when it is inscribed.

But that image, that incomparable, unimaginable, allegorical, filmic image of the owl plucking up the rabbit who is then hideously snared by the concertina (prison’s most sanguine symbol) and left to die an agonizing, lonely death was too much to resist. How could I not tell you about it? And if I hadn’t – and this is my rationalization – I don’t know that it would have ever made it out of prison. Like Bull City, like the rabbit Forty-four, it would have simply done life to die; and it is too amazing a story to remain forever, like all the other stories doing dark and silent time, behind concertina. Though I recount it, there is no way I can claim it for my own. I’m not sure I understand it. While I have an everyman’s empathy for these men and their stories, I’m only the ghostwriter. Every day, on the road, I see dead rabbits.