Teaching Artist Spotlight: Matt Malyon

Matt Malyon (Underground Writing) - JAC Spotlight image
Matt Malyon, Executive Director of Underground Writing

Recently we talked with Matt Malyonour newest addition to the Teaching Artist Spotlight series. Matt is the Executive Director of Underground Writing, a literature-based creative writing program serving migrant, incarcerated, recovery, and other at-risk communities in northern Washington through literacy and personal transformation. He speaks on embodies presence in creation during COVID-19, the relationships that we can form both within and beyond the carceral system, as well as ways he suggests that we as a community can continue to remain involved in our work, even during isolation.

 JACAs we navigate this unprecedented time across our national landscape, what challenges have emerged in your work with artists, specifically those who are impacted by the criminal justice system?

MM: Embodied presence! The biggest challenge by far is the fact that all our sites have temporarily been placed on hold. We have no in-person creative writing workshops right now. Regarding our sites in jail and juvenile detention, we cannot conduct online workshops because the facilities are being cautious about gathering people together in groups. Our writing workshops—and the person-to-person encounters they facilitate—are at the core of our organization. So the challenge now becomes about how we adapt and re-define ourselves for the time being. How do we continue forward in our mission to amplify student voices? How do we generate and publish student writing? How do we podcast? How do we optimally stay in touch with students who are incarcerated? These are questions that will continue to provide productive tensions as we move
forward during this time.

JAC: What action do you feel is necessary to alleviate the safety concerns that incarcerated people face, in light of the Coronavirus crisis?

MM: There are definitely significant safety concerns right now. How do you conduct social distancing for two or three people in a 6 x 9 cell? What if you have a cell to yourself and a new person is booked and then placed with you—is the person virus-free? How do staff in sites of incarceration care for themselves, and how do they know whether or not they’re bringing in the virus from outside? Strange and anxious times.

Others who have been in similar work for longer than I have might be able to provide a more detailed list of proposals. This said, I too am thinking about these questions. They’re vitally important. One idea: Consider releasing people who are incarcerated and accused of low-level offenses. I think this needs to be very seriously considered. This would help lower the number of people in prisons and jails and juvenile detentions, and thus physical distancing between people could be better facilitated. In the meantime, I believe the precautions that the general public are being asked to do should be something incarcerated people can do as well. Each facility should be as accommodating as possible for the sake of safety, humanity, and health.

Finally, and even though it affects our work, I think it’s wise that most the facilities of
incarceration in America have closed their doors to outside programming. It’s tough. It’s sad. Yet it seems for safety’s sake to be the right thing to do for now.

JAC: As you know, the JAC is focused on ways in which art can connect those in the prison system with those on the outside. How has this relationship been jeopardized by COVID-19? How have you been keeping connections active during this time?

MM: For the most part—and this is a generalization—I believe most of the relationships being formed with those on the outside via the practice of arts programming in the prison system, these relationships have as their conduits individuals who go into the system to do the programming. This network of programming has, for the most part, been put on hiatus for the time being because of the COVID-19 crisis. Thus, I would say that such relationships have definitely been jeopardized. This says nothing regarding the personal intent of anyone. There still exists a deep care, concern, and an abundant enthusiasm for art and relationships. Yet it’s in jeopardy due to our circumstances in this crisis. How do artists within the prison context get work to the outside? How do facilitators help? It’s still possible, I think, in modified forms, if teaching artists/ programs/facilitators are willing to adapt and be creative. This is something I’m seeing rapidly develop across America. It’s truly encouraging.

Underground Writing has been trying to keep our student/site connections active by adapting to the current moment. We’ve just started offering very simple, e-deliverable “workshops” to all our sites. The format is a simple four-page workshop: One sheet with the workshop on one side and our permission to publish on the other side; the second double-sided sheet contains a poem on each side to be used in the workshop. We plan to continue to send a new workshop out every two or three weeks to our sites. Secondly, we launched a Twitter account three weeks ago to publish more student writing and connect our students and organization to the wider world. Finally, we’ve just started a #WriteHopeNow hashtag/writing prompt for the COVID-19 era. It’s very simple: Write about something giving you hope in your community, and then post it on Twitter / social media with the #WriteHopeNow hashtag.

We’re also currently trying to re-route procedures for our podcast, and are continuing forward with a number of grant-backed projects that are still in-process. And like many other organizations, we’ve been filling out grant applications, doing financial diagnostics, and co-signing petitions for federal and local relief funds for arts organizations.

#writehopenow
#writehopenow is an ongoing hashtag/writing prompt started by Underground Writing, as a response to the COVID-19 era

 JAC: The JAC, 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?

 MMOne of the things that first comes to mind is getting more people involved with this sort of work. I like to think that our entire field (in general: arts in at-risk settings) is now moving beyond the “emerging field” status. There are more programs and people doing this sort of work than we might think—and far more than is perceived by the general public. I think one of JAC’s greatest initial inroad items for those who might be interested in this type of work (in knowing about it, or in doing it) is the geographical listing of programs. It’s been so useful in helping me understand the field and what’s out there. It’s been great for making connections with people, and we’ve had opportunities arrive at our doorstep simply by being included on the JAC list. Thank you for it!

In my areas of focus—creative writing / literature / voice amplification—I’m interested in
promoting this work we’re doing in such a way that others will join up. We need more people doing such work. This is what I have in mind for an initiative that’s grown out of our experiences in Underground Writing. One Year Writing in the Margins aims to inspire teachers and writers to consider facilitating creative writing workshops in an at-risk community settings for one year. It launched the day of the current president’s inauguration. One angle: It was me pivoting my deep anger in a different direction, transforming it, and then doing something positive with it. The wider angle: I really believe in the power of what we’re doing in Underground Writing, and what many others across the country are doing in beautiful programs similar to ours. I see its impact all the time. The impact that creative writing can have on an individual can be almost instantly transformative. One Year Writing in the Margins is a small initiative right now. It needs a large organization to take it on and develop it. Someday I hope it will become something like a creative writing equivalent to the Peace Corps. Finish your BA, MA, MFA, or PhD, and then—before entering your career—give a year to teaching creative
writing in an at-risk community near you. Or, if you’ve already been in your career awhile, it’s fine—teach once a month for a year, concurrent with your other roles in life. I have little doubt it will change the lives of anyone choosing to be involved—teachers and students alike.

JAC: What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with incarcerated artists?

MM: First, I love the fresh insights from students. I love the academy, but I love teaching and being outside of it. Our students—many of whom never graduated from high school, or are in high school, or younger still—are bright, articulate, and have good ideas. Whether they’ve ever been affirmed for such, we don’t know. We love dialoguing, hearing what they have to say, and reading their writing. I often find myself in a workshop setting saying things like, “I never thought of it that way, but, of course, that makes even more sense than what I said.” Being outside the academy means were almost always outside the theoretical and into the practical stuff of writing. I love theory, too, but being in these contexts grounds me in reality, in our community, and in the daily ritual of sharing words and literature together.

Second, I find the whole experience of what we’re doing to be humbling. It’s a whole new sort of education for me. A way for me to see through others’ eyes in ways I never did before. To educate me on blind spots I’ve had, or ones I need to work out. On the other side, I think the workshops are enlightening for our students—they have great things to say, they can read a poem by Sappho and find commonality, they can write a riff on the Inferno and thus become part of the tradition of writing, they can be funny and smart and intelligent. And, to top it off, they have someone—our teaching writers—notice these things and reflect it back to them.

Third, if I’ve learned one thing over and over it’s that all of us are in the boat together, as it were. We make sure to convey this to our students. We write, and in doing so we join the great river that is literary tradition. We try our very best to avoid damaging pedagogical models. We facilitate workshops from a seated position. We guide the workshop rather than teach from a top-down perspective. We affirm, convey empathy, and we listen. I don’t feel all that different than our students, as far as our shared human condition. I’m no better or worse. Sure, we’re not exactly alike, but we have so much in common. We meet and read and write together in true community.

JAC: As our art networks look to the future, how do you hope the Coronavirus pandemic, as well as this period of isolation, alters the public’s understanding of the justice system?

MM: I hope more people start thinking about it. I work in these contexts all the time and forget some people just don’t think or know much about such things, such places (and there’s still so much that I need to learn). Our society has more often than not obscured the subject and reality of incarceration from widespread knowledge. I feel like there’s a great deal of momentum right now to change this. It’s very hopeful.

I also hope that as the general knowledge about incarceration increases, a rising pressure to reform can be leveraged enough to cause a real turn to humility within the personal lives and public work of the policymakers and leaders of our American system. We’re not doing things well. It’s not working. So, how about we look to other models that are working far better than our own? Perhaps we should look to other countries, particularly Scandinavian countries like Norway. Why, we might wonder, are they doing so much better, with such lower rates of recidivism?

With all the pandemic coverage that’s happening, with all the calls for adjustments to facilitate what should be simple human rights . . . I hope people will understand just how much reform needs to happen within the justice system, particularly as it pertains to incarceration. And I hope this will have the outcome of actual and real change taking place now and in the near future.

 

two-catalogues-lying-on-a-light-wooden-surface-mockup-a14600If you are interested in reading or sharing more of Matt’s reading, JAC encourages you to explore his work, The Stories We Save May Include Our Own.

The Stories We Save May Include Our Own – Matt Malyon

 

Matt Malyon is the founding Executive Director of Underground Writing, a literature-based creative writing program serving migrant, incarcerated, recovery, and other at-risk communities in northern Washington through literacy and personal transformation.  He is the author of the poetry chapbook, During the Flood.  His poetry has received a Pushcart Prize nomination and has been featured in various journals— including the University of Iowa’s 100 Words, Rock & Sling, Measure, and The Stanza Project.  He serves as a Mentor in the PEN Prison Writing Program, and recently founded the One Year Writing in the Margins initiative.

For more on Matt and Underground Writing, visit:

www.undergroundwriting.org

www.oneyearwritinginthemargins.org

 

 

 

 

To My Big Sis, Judith Tannenbaum, from Spoon Jackson

by Spoon Jackson

My love for my mentor and big sis, Judith. I know death is rising over the mountains, slowly, and the pain must be enormous. Yet Judith finds and creates beauty and peace even in the midst of a hurricane. She transforms in the middle of death. Judith has been dealing with great physical and mental pain all of her life, and yet she is like a birthing star, always growing and sending out and being love. I don’t know what my world will be without her, hollow and empty. 

But it’s not about me, and I am sure she left some of her heart and spirit inside each of us— a shining light in darkness. Judith’s curiosity and loyalty is unmatched even by goddesses or gods. If she believed in you, she inspired you to be yourself and change the world, if only the small world you knew. She lies there holding hands with death, and yet no bitterness enters her heart, and joy fills her spirit. She has made everyone better by her presence and walk in this life, and Judith’s love and magic live on in all of us who knew her and were and still are blessed by her.

Judith, you left no one behind because we all go with you and you with us! I love you, Big Sis.

Judith and Spoon at the CA Men’s Colony in the 1980s

Today I spoke to Judith for

the last time.

She is the bravest person I know

to keep being Judith

despite the tremendous pain

cutting at her body.

 

She said her time is close 

to gone and reminded me

to write something

knowing already that I would.

 

She is my mentor and big sis,

and one of my best friends ever.

 

She inspired and saw in me things

I would have never seen in myself.

I grew wings because of her.

Our spirits and hearts and our love

were linked from the beginning.

 

Even in our silence—you like

Mr. Samuel Beckett—we treasured

our silence.

 

I missed you long before

you were gone.

We will meet again long

across time and space

beyond dreams and boundaries.

 

December 3 and 4, no word from Judith and I keep trying to call. Anja received an email saying death is very close, so I picked up the frequency of my calls, and we connected briefly and expressed our love. Yesterday, I got a card from Judith, and she said it was a prayer she read or recited each time she went into San Quentin.

I knew she was gone three days before Anja tried to tell me over the phone. I asked her not to say those words, and I had to leave the phone because what I already knew in silence became too strong. I tried to get away and went outside and had nowhere to go—no place to hide my tears—and a stormy dark sky betrayed me and did not rain. It had been raining for two days. Judith Tannenbaum, my mentor and big sister—I did not get to hug and say so long—I’ll see you some other time and space over there where loved ones go. Another dimension beyond dreams, darkness and light. I missed you already even before you were gone. I’ll be free someday too, and we will fly together—someday, Big Sis. We wanted to do poetry on stage together. I love you.

I knew Judith

was physically gone

yet I called her number

and let the phone ring anyways

knowing no one would pick up.

It would take decades of rain

for my tears to be unseen.

 

There is not enough rain

to hold my pain,

not enough rain

to hide the pain

of my not being there.

 

You were always there

like an ancient redwood.

You told me you lay

on the floor

and found solace

from a radio show

in New Orleans,

radio that took you away

from the pain.

I should have been beside you

on the floor listening.

I should have been beside you

on long walks or hikes up Mt. Tam.

 

I should have been beside you

on stage, going back and forth

reading poetry.

 

I should have been beside you

because.

Click here to order a copy of Spoon and Judith’s memoir, By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives. 

About the guest contributor:

“I’ve found my niche in life despite being in prison for 42 years. I have found that prisons are created internally and are truly found everywhere. I have also discovered that the secrets to break down prison walls are inside each person and I treasure sharing this realness with people. I keep my light glowing through expressing my inner thoughts, vibes and feelings in my poetry and prose writing. Peace/Spoon”

For more on Spoon and his work, visit the following link.

If you would like to connect with Spoon, send a letter to:

Spoon Jackson B92377, CSP-Solano, C 13-19-1, L., PO Box 4000, Vacaville, CA 95696/4000, USA

Visit Spoon’s website to read more of his poetry. JAC is honored that Spoon has agreed to serve as a member of our Advisory Council.

 

Teaching Artist Spotlight: Peggy Rambach

Recently we talked with Peggy Rambach, our newest addition to the Teaching Artist Spotlight series. Peggy facilitates pastel workshops and creative writing classes. She speaks on discovering art “late in life,” learning from her students, and what it’s like teaching in two seemingly disparate mediums.

 JAC: How have your students impacted your teaching practices and even your own art? What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with incarcerated artists?

PR: “I can barely draw a stick figure.” This is what I hear again and again when I go into the units to recruit interested students for my pastel class. Three years ago, I would have said the same thing. So, I am impressed and inspired by my students’ willingness to take the risk and try to work in pastel in my class. I’m not sure I would have to same courage. 

 I have identified myself as a writer for the past 40 years and since I began working in pastel so recently, and so late in life – at the age of 59 – I am still unable to say aloud that I am a visual artist. I am more likely to think of myself as an imposter! But the majority of the women in the Women’s Program who choose to take my class, stick with it through the initial fear of failure and humiliation — along with the inevitable early frustration and confusion, since pastel, at the start, “looks like a big mess,” I say to them, and only later in the process, will they create recognizable images through the use of light and dark. 

 But stick with it they do. So, if my students have an impact on my art, it is to make me stick with it too when my confidence wanes, or when I, too, am frustrated with my attempts to achieve on the paper what I see in the world. 

 I also encourage my students to choose any photograph to work off of that they wish, any image that appeals to them, and they’ve chosen photos of foxes, of peacocks, of farmland and farm houses, of salt marshes, Irish cliffs, and mount Kilimanjaro with elephants grazing in the valley below. I look at their choice, make a big sigh, and say, “Okay. We’ll figure this out.” And together we work on developing the technique and choosing the layers of colors necessary to create the image– images that I have certainly never painted or drawn myself in my short tenure as a pastel artist. So, there’s no question that with my students, I’m learning all the time, both as an artist and as a teacher. 

 I know many of my students have been through unspeakable trauma and are living with uncertainty and under the stress of confinement, so I am sensitive to their moods and well-being. As a teaching-artist in Corrections or in any setting that is non-traditional, one must always be alert and flexible and innovative. For instance, I have no studio. We work on classroom walls and windows.  And after two years I finally have a full cabinet all to myself in which to store my supplies.  

 But I’m not complaining. I’m grateful that I received the supplies from the Sheriff’s Department in the first place, and that the Sheriff’s Department recognizes the value of arts in Corrections. And clearly, I like the challenge of the environment along with the kind of diplomacy it takes to work with, and not against, Security. 

 I also teach creative writing and that is a little different. Visual art can take one out of oneself, be meditative and calming. Writing too, is a deep and meditative experience, but the writer must be willing to go to more uncomfortable places as a means of revealing greater universal truths about human experience. So, the process of writing a poem or short story or essay can be emotionally challenging, but also emotionally restorative and healing in a deep and lasting way. And writing is just plain hard: making a swirl of thoughts and emotions into a recognizable and communicative form is, understandably, daunting. So those who join my class and stick with it, are often driven to get an experience down – many times as a means of putting it to rest or as a way of grieving for someone they’ve loved and lost. 

 And of course many simply love language and are willing to undertake the discipline required to endure my “chicken scratch” as one student calls it – to revise, to go deeper, to learn the techniques necessary to make an experience not just a written record but a work of art that leads to epiphany. My students, like all of us, are fragile under their public exteriors. But that is not a reason to lower my standards for excellence. The environment in which I’m teaching them, should not lead anyone to assume that they are less able to achieve the kind of excellence we require of students in traditional academic settings. And when they do achieve what I know they can, they are grateful. And when they thank me, they thank me for pushing them, for not giving up on them, for having the faith that they can and will bring something into the world that is beautiful and meaningful, and that will last. Often this achievement is their very first one like it. And for me, their triumph is undeniably gratifying. Art, and teaching two forms of it to my incarcerated students fills my life with meaning and purpose.

 JAC: The JAC, 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?

 PR: I would like to go to regional conferences of teaching-artists in Corrections and share our experiences and practices. I’d like to know who is out there, really, to meet them in-person. I don’t have a lot of time or the patience to read a lot online. But I’d take the time to attend a gathering in my state of Massachusetts, maybe listen to a few speakers and offer to speak myself. I think we should reach out to young artists in MFA programs who might be interested in the field. When I possibly retire from my position in 5 to 7 years, it saddens me to think that no one will take my place and the program, and all of its value, will simply disappear.  

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Pastels by Peggy’s students

Peggy Rambach, M.A., M.F.A. has received grants and awards for her writing, and for her contribution to literacy and the Healing Arts. She is the author of a novel, (Steerforth Press), a collection of stories, (Ampersand Press) and the editor of two collections of memoirs (Paper Journey Press) that emerged from her community writing workshops  She is one of three artists featured in the documentary: The Healing Arts; New Pathways to Health. (From Peggy’s website, which you can view here!)

 

Read our last Teaching Artist spotlight, featuring Hakim Bellamy.

 

 

 

The Stories We Save May Include Our Own

by Matt Malyon

 

I. Birdwatching

Late night on Watson Bridge—a span across the Skagit River in Northern Washington—a trumpeter swan flies into a light pole.  The pole reverberates with sound. The bird drops onto the highway and stands in the amber light filtering from the large bulb above.  No—it reels, dizzy in the vibration of its unplanned encounter with steel.  It flaps its huge wings and begins to make sounds that might best be described as cries of terror, as it moves in and out of cars unable to stop their hurtling forward for the sudden and surprising descent of the large white bird.

*

I spend most Wednesday afternoons with youth in orange jumpsuits, holding a yellow No. 2 pencil between my fingers, and leaning over a black-marbled cover notebook.  Our county’s incarcerated youth have landed “inside” for various reasons—gang related incidents like drive-by shootings or territorial violence, domestic disputes, harm to animals, or items involving alcohol and drugs.  Unless they write about their past, which they often do, we leave such matters at the door. I shake their hands and welcome them as equals. After introductions we settle into the work at hand—reading literature together and responding to it through discussion and creative writing.

In the early days of facilitating Underground Writing workshops, I began to notice our tendency to bring literature of a darker vein.  These included, among others, Dante’s dark wood, Sherman Alexie’s poetry of lament, the non-fiction-fiction of Tim O’Brien, the wars and adventures in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the migrant experience of Juan Felipe Herrera, environmental issues in Martha Serpas’ poetry, the tragedy and loss in the poems of Langston Hughes, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Osip Mandlestam, Suji Kwock Kim, and Natalie Diaz, and the darker undercurrents hidden within Robert Frost’s well managed forms.  

I caught myself introducing workshops by saying things like, “I know we discuss a lot of darker stuff, but . . .”  In time, I realized our students did not share a similar anxiety. They recognized their own stories in this very type of difficult literature.  

The truth is that our Underground Writing students, in one way or another, are struggling—the youth in the adult crimes they wake to discover they have committed; our adult students in the physical and mental aftershocks of drug addiction and incarceration; our migrant leaders caught in the intricate web of cultural and familial tensions, in a country seemingly half against them.  Such darkness needs to be named, and the dynamic discussions we’ve been having indicate our students intuitively know this.    

*

Late night on Watson Bridge—a span across the Skagit River in Northern Washington—a trumpeter swan flies into a light pole.  The pole reverberates with sound. The bird drops onto the highway and stands in the amber light filtering from the large bulb above.

The story that opened this essay was a story told during a workshop by my friend and colleague in Underground Writing, Chris Hoke.  Chris has a gift for images, and this one stuck with me for some time.  I could see it. I could hear it. I wanted to include it in a piece of my own writing.  But it wasn’t my story.  

In the days that followed, however, something began to evolve.  

I recalled what came to mind immediately in the workshop when I heard the story—my father in an auto parts store in Anaheim, California in January of 2000.   

Two months before my father’s death—returned home from the hospital after his fifth surgery, and unknowingly a few weeks away from hospice care—he decided to get new seat covers for my mom’s car.  He would have nothing to do with anyone telling him anything different. And so, with a body emaciated from years of radiation, cobalt, and chemotherapy in the 70s, and again during the return of his Hodgkin’s Disease in 1999, my father climbed carefully into his golden yellow Volvo 1800 sports car and drove to the local auto parts store.  He was nearly a ghost by this point. A perfectionist for his entire life, he had only recently given up shaving due to a lack of energy. He weighed less than a hundred pounds.

I was in Iowa at the time, so I wasn’t there to see him walk gingerly down the aisle, past the various car fluids, on his way to where the seat covers were located.  And I didn’t hear the break, as somewhere between the ankle and the knee his tibia simply snapped. My beloved father, a man of dignity and grace unlike I’ve ever known, fell to the floor in agony, surrounded by bottles of motor oil and antifreeze, his brief descent ending as he rolled onto his back, stunned by the white light and the faces above him appearing quickly from all angles of his vision.

*

As Underground Writing has grown, as we’ve journeyed from the adrenaline burst of new beginnings, articles in the press, and T-Shirts into the settled rhythms of a more established program, one of the facets of what we’re doing that has become increasingly important to me is how our stories overlap, how they connect us.

In January 2016, my beloved mom passed away.  It was a grief unlike I had known in years. Part of the intensity was due to the fact that both of my biological parents are now gone.  When I shared this news at various times at each of our sites, invariably the room grew quiet. It was as if I could see in slow-motion-time-release the change in the students’ perception of me—white, middle-class teacher to fellow human in a shared journey.  We were now strugglers together, and with a common language. We sat together in that moment of silence. Mere seconds, usually, but it often felt as if time expanded so as to contain the gravity of death. And I suspect we each sat in that silence with images and stories flickering through our minds.  Stories of blood and lineage and loss and grief, the students unconsciously experiencing a transformation as my narrative merged briefly with theirs then faded into other thoughts based in their lives, their stories.  

*

Late night on Watson Bridge—a span across the Skagit River in Northern Washington—a trumpeter swan flies into a light pole . . .

In the days following my hearing of this tale, I realized that the stories I was hearing in the workshops were no longer easily defined as something other, as “theirs.”  And the stories I was sharing from my life were not exclusively “mine.”  In fact, my friend’s story was becoming mine, or a part of it, as were the stories shared by our students.  In my hearing of them—my taking them in, as it were—they had not been merely received. They had some sort of agency, something that is ongoing.  The stories, I believe, are generating connections with stories from my life. They are intertwined with my own and are changing my perception of my past.  My stories are also becoming part of others’ stories. Located in the Skagit Valley for a little over a year now, I join them. My life now includes these lives.  I am being changed day by day, reeling in the reverberations of such beauty and sorrow.

*

Weeks later, I recalled a photograph famous in our family for its seeming absurdity.  In the foreground my beloved father and his brother are horsing around with their father, my grandfather, on the west-facing, hard brown sands of Manzanita, Oregon, our family’s preferred place of sojourn for four generations.  My cousin is building a sandcastle in the background, and behind the small edifice, the Pacific Ocean in all its glory—deep blue, brightly glistening under the evening sun. The lighting is appropriately the golden hour. My father, who is on the left side of the photo, separated by a human-width gap from his father and brother, has his hand held up and out like one side of a cross.  Far in the background, but clearly visible, and seeming to rest on my father’s fingertips: a gull, its wings expanding, about to take flight.

 

II. Gravedigging

In our line of work, my colleagues and I often talk about bringing life into places of death.  Whatever a literal resurrection might entail, I’m learning most people need first to discover their entrapment.  They also need hope, something that is in scarce supply for many of the students with whom we work. What little remains often needs to be exhumed.

We use creative writing as a shovel.  

It’s hard work, but the willingness to dig is quickly evidenced in the discussions that follow our group reading of a text.  And the soil, prepared by the literature, is pliant. By the time the writing prompts are finished, students—through some grace moving in language itself—have often dug down deep enough into the self to reach a grave.

*

Spaces like these are shelters for decay, narratives of darkness.  I hear such stories on a weekly basis . . . The young man who confesses to me he’s locked up for killing his grandma’s dog and doesn’t know why he did it, who then proceeds to tell me of his long history of physical abuse at the hands of an angry father; the man in his twenties I’m asked to speak with on the phone in the glass-protected booth, who is missing an arm he himself sawed off, who has swastikas below his eyes and “perdition” written backwards on his forehead so he can read it in the mirror, who tells me he’s from Manson’s farm; the look on the guard’s face the other night when I asked if any pastoral care had been given to the Cascade Mall shooter, who is currently being held in Skagit County Jail; the young man I counsel who tells me he’s having flashbacks of standing over a rival gang member he’s unwittingly stabbed six times in self-defense, listening to him beg for mercy.

*

There are other movements in the darkness, too.

We’re privileged to see some of our students on a regular basis and build long-term rapport.  It’s satisfying to see the maturing work they produce. Many of our students, however, we see only once, maybe twice, for an hour or two at most.  These are the students I wonder about. Will their notebooks ever get used for creative writing again? Will the impact of encountering literature in a given session spark something, anything?  Will they contact us on the “outs”? Will they remember writing is a gift and a tool for life? I continue to hope. I continue to believe that literature read together in a hospitable atmosphere, paired with writing prompts connected to both the readings and the students’ lives, begins something beyond what we can quantify.  Words matter. Literally. They take shape, and form a space in which things can grow.

Leaving the workshop with a notebook full of words and photocopies of good literature is not our only goal, of course.  We’re seeking both inspiration and transformation. This may take the form of a participant’s continuing to pursue the craft of writing and reading in a more purposeful manner.  It may simply mean they read more. Or it may mean they discover writing as a tool to help process a world that usually leaves them confused, angry, and sad. Whatever the case, we endeavor to resuscitate and nurture hope, something tangible that can be built upon, furthered to the point that an imagination of a different future begins to arc toward what they might become.  It is across this bridge of the imagination, as it were, that the participants can begin the long journey towards embodying a different future.  

I’ve seen writing work this way for two of the students who participated in our program’s initial week of workshops.

R. is from another state, but when I met him he was being detained on various charges in our local area.  Although he was noticeably quiet, I often caught him grinning at certain things read aloud or said in our workshops.  There was a light on. I liked him immediately.  

A month or two after Underground Writing’s debut, our workshop group was discussing the letters of James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time.  “Letters can be literature,” we told the youth.  “Let’s try it, too.” For our writing prompt, we asked them to write a letter to someone.  When it was open-share time, R. decided to read. “I call this one ‘Dear System’,” he began. 

Dear System,

Ever since I was born you’ve been there.  You were there when my biological mom would relapse and let my sister and I run around free.  You were there again as I began to realize how to work on my own and take care of my mom and little sister.  You were there when my biological dad went into a rage and hit someone. You were there when my mom used up her last chance.  You took me and my little sister from her. You weren’t there when I passed from family member to family member. You were there to give me a new family.  You were the one who put both my parents in jail. You put my biological dad in prison. Now you are here again, but this time just for me. You are here putting me in JRA for the same reason my biological dad’s locked up.  You have brought me nothing but pain in the 14 years I’ve known you. You have torn apart my family time and time again only to put me in a new one where I’ve done nothing but disappoint or make people angry. So, System, before I finish this letter, I just want you to know I will never forgive you.

R.

The room was silent.  Not only because we’d just heard a sort of foundational text that solidified we were on to something important, but also because R.’s writing was inarguably powerful.  In five minutes, his emotions had been honed into something concise that moved beyond mere self-expression. He’d interacted with literature in a dialogic manner, and by the look on his face, something transformative had happened to him during the process.

R.’s out of state now, so we stay in touch these days via letters and the phone.  During the course of our last phone conversation, he told me he’s working on a section of a long autobiography project, as well as completing a set of song lyrics.  His letters, too, bear witness to the continuing impact of writing . . .

I’m happy that “Dear System” is helping people.  That’s a side of my writing that I never considered.  I am still writing. So far I have gone through three notebooks . . . I miss going to Underground Writing sessions.  I liked it there, I always felt welcomed.

I’ve also seen it in J.—a native to our county, held inside for a record number of months, due to the serious nature of the charges against him.  J.’s interest in writing has had extremely tangible benefits. In our workshops he was always eager to share his work.

Thinking

So I’m in deep depression now

There’s nothing I can do about it

I’ve been sleeping all day

I get real tired when I’m this way.

I start thinking and thinking

And my mind goes crazy.

I get the same thought

Over and over—

What would things be like if

I ended my life today?

I stare, and I stare

I think everyone

Who loves me hates me,

Who wouldn’t care

If I just disappeared one day

I think and I think—

Wouldn’t it be better if it all

Just went away.

J. is determined to survive.  Likeable from the start, he’s a person I’ve come to appreciate for his strong desire for change and restoration.  In the fifteen months I’ve known him, he’s taken to writing as if it were an iron lung. His first letter to me implied it might, in fact, be something of the sort.

As you know, I missed creative writing.  I was really bummed out because that’s my favorite programming that I look forward to all week.  I’m a ‘security risk’. I’m really stressed out and just going crazy.  I’ve never had such severe, strong, and sudden emotions.

Near the end of his stay, we began meeting once a week.  I met with him as a teacher or a chaplain, determined by his need on any given day.  By the time he was finally sentenced and sent to a juvenile prison, we’d also written seven letters back and forth.  

So I made it to [prison]!  I was in Shelton for about 3 hours then they took me.  I’ve been here almost 24 hours. I’m not sure what to say about this place other than it’s definitely a prison…I found a small section for poetry in the library, but they have like 80% Shakespeare and really old stuff . . . I’ve been writing a ton but most of it is private stuff or my new book, ‘To My Love’.  I’m really excited to hear what you think about my prologue. My mom is sending all of my writing from the outs and Juvie. It is so much that she had to put it in a package in the post office.

When I look back over the past fourteen months, writing is the thread that is so apparently woven through J.’s future progress and restoration.  More so, what I believe propels J. is what to one degree or another propels all writers and poets—he has encountered the self through writing, and, in that process, imagination, mystery, and hope.

Our correspondence has notably increased in the six months since his transfer, most of it being driven by J.’s own desire to continue learning the craft of writing.  He is an exemplar of our program’s hoped-for impact. In 41 letters and counting, we’ve edited and re-edited draft after draft of various poems and short stories. We’ve shared a bit of our own stories.  And we’ve also been working on a co-submission to a literary journal, an item that has facilitated further momentum toward change for J. 

I’ve been inspired once again to be a part of Underground Writing or a similar group/organization when I get out.  This program changes lives. I am a prime example. I now have something to work towards, to strive for. I have something I want on the outs.

The weekend after Thanksgiving, I was able to visit J. in another part of our state.  Amidst a room full of families and loved ones visiting their sons, their boyfriends, their dads, I sat with J. for one and a half hours.  We talked about life in his new surroundings, as well as his hopes for the future. He’s feeling settled in his living unit, and his medications have finally stabilized.  There have been challenging and good reconnections with his family. He’s just turned eighteen and is registering to vote. He’s applying to take classes through a local community college, and is determined to use what little money he has left to help his mom in paying for his tuition.  In my estimation, the hope for change has transformed into actual and definable progress.  

“You’re doing great,” I say to J. as we shake hands.  “Really great. So glad to see it.” I tell him I’ll return in a month or two.

He smiles.  “You’re going to send out our submission next week—right?”

*

Reading Flannery O’Connor recently, I was reminded of a story received from the ancient tradition of the desert fathers and mothers.  There was a hermit living in the region of Scetis who had become seriously ill.  His fellow monks, upon visiting him one day, discovered that he had died, and began to prepare his body for burial.  All of sudden, he awoke, opened his eyes, and began laughing. After recovering from their surprise, the brothers asked him what he was laughing about.  He told them he was laughing because they feared death, because they were not ready for it, and, finally, because he was passing from labor into his rest.  With this he rolled over and died.

Death for such monastics was a way of life.  A way to life.  And reportedly, some monks in ages past did indeed sleep in their coffins.  When presented with this bit of history, my son tells me the monks were probably hiding from something.  I asked some of the youth in Underground Writing what they thought.

A: “To get away from everything for a while.”

O: “Maybe it was part of their praying.”

L: “Because they’re getting ready to die.”

In some sense, all of these answers are correct.  Monks have always been consciously mindful of death.  Sleeping in coffins was simply a more obvious way of facilitating this.  It was likely their way of hiding from the very act of hiding—a way to actively seek an encounter with reality.  Whatever the people in surrounding communities may have thought of the practice, to say nothing of the explanation, it was not a sorrowful thing.  Nor did it lead to depression. In fact, a monk’s literal descent into his future place of death allowed him to more fully engage life. It became a conduit for joy, allowing a monk to wake to the freeing realization of his mortality.  

In the literature we discuss with youth and adults, in the writing we do as a generative response, we more often than not enter into the darkness of our lives.  These unlit places may be as simple as a general lack of clarity or as complex as navigating the extrication of oneself from the clutches of drug addiction, gang involvement, or repeating cycles of shame and perceived failure.  Whatever a student’s degree of darkness, by directly descending into it—through the profound mystery of reading/writing—something begins to happen. They begin to voice the ineffable. Words become sentences become beauty. In less than an hour, it’s surprising to witness the claustrophobic encasement of each student’s life opening up a bit.  So begins a fissure. And through such gaps daylight begins to filter in. 

About the guest contributor:

Matt Malyon is the Executive Director of Underground Writing, as well as a jail and juvenile detention chaplain.  He is the author of the poetry chapbook, During the Flood.  His poetry has received a Pushcart Prize nomination and has been featured in various journals— including the University of Iowa’s 100 Words, Rock & Sling, Measure, and The Stanza Project.  He serves as a Mentor in the PEN Prison Writing Program, and recently founded the One Year Writing in the Margins initiative.

The essay above was first published in Iron City Magazine.

You can read Matt’s previous article on the JAC blog here.

 

Meeting the Woman, Not the Crime

by Peggy Lamb
About the guest blogger: Peggy Lamb organizes Truth Be Told’s Exploring Creativity program. Truth Be Told is an Austin, TX based non-profit organization that provides transformational programs for women who are or have been incarcerated. Exploring Creativity classes use expressive arts to enlarge the women’s sense of themselves, release pain and express despair and without harming oneself or others. Leaders vary from storytellers to singers to visual artists to dancers – to quilters and yoga teachers and writers.

Twenty-eight women in dingy white uniforms file into the chapel at the Hilltop Unit in Gatesville. Most of them know me and gift me with big smiles. I feel a flood of joy circulate through my body and my heart opens wide.

These women are all in the Sex Offender Treatment Program (SOTP), an intense 18 month cognitive therapy program. They live together in a special dorm in which community is emphasized. Each of these 28 women has committed a crime which will brand them for life as sex offenders.

Most people have a hard time wrapping their minds around the concept of female sex offenders. I certainly did. A Google search brought me to a research paper entitled Female Sex Offenders: Severe Victims and Victimizers. It was hard to read about women sexually molesting children, even harder to grasp that some of the women of SOTP had committed similar crimes. Women don’t do such things, men do, right? Wrong. Both genders are capable of unspeakable and horrifying crimes.

I do not know the specifics of these women’s crimes. I could find out via the TDCJ web site but I’ve made a conscious choice to remain in the dark. I meet them, woman to woman, outside ideas of right and wrong. I, or the artist I bring, share tools of discovery and encourage the creativity of these deeply wounded women, who themselves are victims of sex abuse, to take root and blossom. I passionately believe in the power of creativity to heal and re-define oneself. Walt Whitman wrote, “I am Large, I contain Multitudes”. I want these women to know in their bones that they are more than just sex offenders; they are more than their crimes. They are writers, poets, dancers, singers, actresses and visual artists with gifts to share.

When I learned that the Hilltop unit had a SOTP program, I was deeply drawn to teach there. I do not know why but I have learned to follow my soul urges. It’s been almost four years that I’ve been going up there once a month – it is work that deeply feeds my soul.

Today I’m teaching a movement and writing class I call “Elements”. Chairs are moved out of the way and we circle up for warm-up exercises. The sound of African drumming fills the room breaking down barriers and inhibitions like a magic wand. Hips sway, shoulders shimmy, toes tap and heads bob. We boogie and rock out. Movement is generated from the core – pelvis and torso. In the Soul Train section, I encourage the women to get down and shake it out. Shake out anger, despair, loneliness, frustration and resentment. It is deeply satisfying!

My first writing prompt is five minutes of free-flow writing on “I am Earth” Then I ask the women to create an earth gesture – a movement that symbolizes groundedness, stability, nature, etc. Each woman shares her gesture and the rest of us repeat it. I play just the right earthy music (usually another cut of African drumming) and we go around the circle dancing each women’s gesture. We’ve just choreographed our first dance! 

We repeat that process with three more writing and movement prompts: “I am Air”, “I am Fire” and “I am Water”. By the end of the class we’ve created four dances and the women have four pieces of creative writing they can be proud of.

The chapel is filled with the divine energy of creativity and community. One woman comments “I didn’t know I was creative!” Another says, “This is the deepest sense of community this dorm has ever had.” One that touches my heart so deeply is “In the twenty years I’ve been locked up, this is the most fun I’ve ever had.”

I am filled with awe at their willingness to step outside their comfort zones. I LOVE this work – my soul is filled with joy and gratitude.