By Clare Walker, JAC Intern
Recently, JAC had the chance to speak with Brian Daldorph, poet, teacher, and author of six books of poetry including his most recent: Words is a Powerful Thing. Brian is a creative writing instructor at the University of Kansas and at the Douglas County Jail in Lawrence. He first entered the jail classroom to teach a writing class on Christmas Eve in 2001.
Words Is a Powerful Thing is Brian’s record of teaching at the jail for the two decades that followed. It brings into light the works of fifty talented inside writers whose work deserves attention. Their poetry speaks of “what really matters” to all of us and gives insight into the role that creativity plays in aiding survival and bringing positive change. JAC is thrilled to announce that Brian’s book was recently awarded the 2022 Kansas Notable Book Award! The award recognizes books that continue the tradition of celebrating the rich stories and culture of Kansas.
JAC: How did you become involved in this work? What was your path to where you are today?
BD: I have always been interested in teaching “inside the walls.” In the early 1990s, I led a writing workshop for two years at the Adolescent Treatment Center, a teen rehabilitation facility in Olathe, Kansas. When I met the Programs Director of Douglas County Jail at a party and he talked about educational programs at the jail, I was keen to be a part of them. Two of my University of Kansas colleagues had established a writing class at the jail and when they left, I took over the class on Christmas Eve 2001. After that, I just kept showing up at the jail for class, week after week, for two decades.
JAC: How did you come to poetry as a medium?
BD: I really came to poetry through songs. As a troubled adolescent, I found a sanctuary in music, especially in the songs of great American songwriters: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Robert Johnson, and others. Their lyrics would often explain things to me that I couldn’t understand in any other way. My life changed for the better when I heard Dylan singing “Tangled Up in Blue”: “Early one morning the sun was shining, I was laying in bed, wondrin’ if she’d changed it all, if her hair was still red . . .”
JAC: In considering the work you have done teaching inside, what is unique about the programming you have created or been a part of?
BD: What’s been unique to me in my jail teaching is the dedication of some of the writers I have worked with there — their determination to change their lives for the better through their writing. This is what I’ve always been most interested in as a teacher because it reflects my own experience. I’ve often found that people experiencing incarceration have stories to tell that resonate with all of us, and it’s to their benefit and ours that they have the opportunity to tell them. All of us in the jail class know that words is a powerful thing.
JAC: How have your students impacted your teaching practices and your own art? What has been the most rewarding part of working with incarcerated artists?
BD: In working week after week at a county jail for twenty years, I have learnt a lot as an educator. I know how to be creative in generating material for class; I know how to set productive writing assignments; I know how to encourage writers to develop their work. In the case of former student Antonio Sanchez-Day, I helped him to publish his first book, Taking on Life.
The most important part of working with my students at the jail is the friendships I have made, friendships that most often have had to cross any number of divides. These friendships have sometimes extended after they have been released. I consider myself lucky to have made such friends: I have learnt plenty from them about what’s most important in life, about “what really matters,” as Sister Helen Prejean says.
JAC: Have your experiences in teaching in prisons influenced the way you approach your own writing and projects?
BD: I have drawn on my experiences behind the walls for my own poetry (in my book of poems Jail Time, for example) and also in my academic writing (Words Is a Powerful Thing).
Some of my best writing in the last two decades was done in the free-writing sessions in the jail class. After I took my turn reading what I’d written to the class, sometimes I’ve been rewarded with a student saying, “that’s what’s up”–– high praise inside the walls.
JAC: Will you tell us about your most recent book Words Is a Powerful Thing? Will you share what the book means to you and what the process of writing it was like?
BD: I wrote this book because I wanted a record of the work done in the class over two decades by a team of volunteers, two Program Directors, and by all the inside writers who felt the need to come to class and write. So much would have been lost if I hadn’t written this book and gotten it published. It’s first of all a record of this marvelous class that has meant so much to all of us who have participated in it.
The book took about three years to write, starting from the late night noting of potential chapters in 2017, to an intense two months of writing in summer 2018, when I completed a first draft of the book. I worked closely with editor David Congdon at University of Kansas Press on revisions, draft by draft. Many thanks to David for his great editing. My daughter Brenna was also a brilliant editor.
JAC: What does it mean to share the words and stories of inside writers with others?
BD: All of us in prison education know how important it is to break down the stereotypes of the incarcerated population. I’m hoping that people who read the book will understand that the men who wrote the poems and stories it contains are a lot like them, with similar joys, worries, troubles, beliefs — all intensified by the experience of incarceration.
I know that so many of the guys I work with do not want to be “the other,” cut off from society, warehoused in prison or jail, forgotten. By sharing their words with people “on the outs,” I hope to make connections through the walls.
JAC: What inspires you?
BD: Family, seasons, friends, tea, pain, rivers, stories, songs, justice, movies, freedom, my sweet cat Kuro, that funny thing my dog Billy does to get my attention.
JAC: Justice Arts Coalition, as it grows, will continue to seek out and implement a vision of how to better support teaching artists. In your view, what does a supportive network need to include?
BD: A supportive network brings together people who share similar interests and goals and who feel themselves and their work enhanced by this community. All members bring their own experiences and beliefs to the community and learn from and support each other.
At JAC, for example, we’re brought together by our love for artistic endeavor and the important role that art plays as a positive force and sometimes as a lifeline for those inside.
Words Is a Powerful Thing shows how the lives of everyone involved in the class benefited from what happened every Thursday afternoon in that jail classroom, where for two hours students and instructor became a circle of ink and blood, writing together, reciting their poems, telling stories, and having a few good laughs. Furthermore, it provides a teaching guide for instructors working with inside writers, offering an extensive examination of both the challenges and benefits.
Not long after Brian Daldorph decided this story deserved to be told to wider audiences, one of his students wrote a poem titled “Words Is a Powerful Thing,” offering Daldorph a title, concept, and purpose: to show that the poetry of inside writers speaks not just to others inside but to all of us.
Purchase your copy of Brian’s book here!