Teaching Artist Spotlight: Judy Dworin

JAC recently spoke with Judy Dworin, our newest addition to the Teaching Artist Spotlight series. The Judy Dworin Performance Project (JDPP) is an arts non-profit that harnesses creative expression as a catalyst for positive change. JDPP uses dance, theater performance, and multi-arts engagement to examine social issues, build bridges of understanding across diverse communities, and inspire both individual growth and collective action. Judy founded JDPP in 1989 based on a commitment to the important role the arts can and do play in creating change in our universe – personal, educational, and global. She oversees the entire organization’s activities as well as the artistic direction of the Ensemble and designs the curriculum and programming for the Bridging Boundaries programs in which she is a lead teaching artist.

JAC: How did you become involved in this work? What was your path to where you are today?

JD: Judy Dworin Performance Project [JDPP] has always had its mission art as a change agent and giving voice. Prison wasn’t necessarily on my radar screen in terms of that mission. Sixteen years ago we were invited to perform at a conference for volunteers in prison and after seeing our performance, Wally Lamb, who is a well-known novelist and led a very successful writing group at York Correctional Institution for many years, asked my colleague, Kathy Borteck Gersten, if we had ever considered working with women in prison. We hadn’t really thought of it but, I asked myself, why haven’t we thought of it? So I called Wally and he put me in touch with Joe Lea, the York librarian and media specialist and self-appointed arts coordinator at York, who has brought so many arts offerings to York in his time working there, and Joe led our way through the bureaucracy so it could happen. The thought was to do a multi-arts residency using spoken word, dance, and song on the theme of ‘time’ as experienced by the women. We had an initial conversation with eight women who were in different arts groups at the prison. We were deeply moved by this conversation—when they told us the amount of time served and left to serve it took our breath away. It was clear that we were going to be there for the long haul. That was how it all started; since then it has grown to include a Moms & Kids Residency; an outreach in Hartford Public Schools to children with parents or loved ones in prison; a Dads & Kids Residency at Willard-Cybulski CI Reintegration Center; an outreach to York CI women who are 18 to 25 titled I AM (Imagination, Arts & Me) and several reentry initiatives including an arts workshop with returning citizens and Trinity College students called New Beginnings and a mentoring program working with the JDPP professional ensemble called Stepping Out. All of these residencies and outreaches culminate in some kind of a a performance.

JAC: In considering the work of your own organization, what is unique about the programs you have been creating?

JD: The initial program that we started, the York performance residency which is now in its 16th year, is a very intense and intensive program. We meet monthly, then weekly, then bi-weekly, and then in 4-hour double sessions to collaboratively create a performance piece developed from the women’s original work. The residency is always based on a theme and the performance that is created becomes available to about 200 women on the compound along with invited state dignitaries. There is an evening with outside guests and a performance for families. Approximately 400 people get to see the performance including about 150 to 200 from the community. It’s really unusual that that many people are allowed in– not to the visitors room, but the school of the prison which is where we have the performance. We’re able to take some of the material that is approved by the prison out into the community so that we not only have the community coming to see the performances, but we have the performances going out with returning citizens performing with my professional ensemble. The ripple out of the program has emerged by listening and learning—our experiences teach us about new needs and they then take us to the next steps in this work.
For example, from the families performances we saw the great joy families have in connecting with their loved ones and also the impact it had on the performers, kids and family members alike. So we started a Moms & Kids program. It is unique in that we are allowed to have three special visits with the moms, their children and caregivers, one of which is a weekend in July where the women have four hours each day to be with them. We transform the prison school into an ‘arts mecca’ with stations of activities that the moms have agency in creating. The families are able to stay at a conference center nearby, a beautiful place with a petting zoo and nature trails. At the conference center we have a special caregivers group and a social worker with us who helps in leading that group.
This points to another unique aspect of our Bridging Boundaries prison programming: everything we do, we do in partnership with social work. We work closely with the social worker at York for both the performance residency and Moms & Kids program. The performance work goes very deep and the social worker is there in case something comes up for someone, or if someone on the team feels like a group member is having problems. And she runs a Moms & Kids support group for our moms throughout the year so there is real continuity throughout. We also partner with a social worker from a Hartford social service agency, Community Renewal Team (CRT), to follow up with the families after Moms & Kids and Dads & Kids visits to see if anything needs to be processed. We have found it to be a very helpful and important partnership. We work with kids in schools who have loved ones in prison through the school social worker. And our most recent outreach with the dads at Cybulski is a pre and post family conference with the CRT caseworker, the soon-to-be-returning citizen and the family to set up some shared expectations about coming home and having several sessions of follow through when the dad is released. COVID got in the way of this getting off the ground but we are hoping we can do it via phone.
Our most recent program at York is the I AM program, (Imagination Arts and Me). There is a special unit now at York, the WORTH Unit, for 18 to 25 year olds. It’s the first unit of its kind for women in the country and it provides both activities and support to help prevent recycling into prison time and time again. We received an NEA Grant to start the program and it’s been extremely successful.

JAC: How do you think your program affects participants?

JD: I feel like there’s been a huge impact within the Performance Group. For a lot of the women, they have realized for the first time they have this huge creative potential that in many cases they might never have found otherwise. We’ve had women in our residency for as many as 15 years so there are those who have an enormous longevity and then there are new people that come in. Every year they raise the bar on themselves and keep trying new things and going to the next level, and the bar is also raised for those who come in because the senior members have set a standard. There’s this incredible growth process that happens and the work becomes an anchor point for them – they become a kind of family to each other in both the performance residency and the moms in our Moms & Kids program as well. The dads at Cybulski do as well. There’s a sense of community in a place that so often discourages community. They develop trust and the ability to trust is so hard to do in prison.
It’s so incredibly moving when the women can perform for their families too. That’s not always their best performance if you were looking at it from an artistic perspective, but it’s deeply emotional—hard to get through without tears. I think it has all changed their experience of prison. I know that so many of the evaluations we get say “there’s no program like this”.
The Moms & Kids Program has made it possible for the women to hold their kids, dance with them, eat two meals with them, and create with them. It took us a very long time to get it worked out as to how we could have shared meals and the first time we did, in a group of twenty-two women, six had never eaten with their child before and that’s just mind-boggling. It was so incredible for them to have that experience with their child. Those kinds of things are so important – it makes not being able to be there now very hard.

JAC: How have your students impacted your teaching practices and even your own art?

JD: I feel a sense of urgency to bring issues around incarceration out and bring more awareness and understanding. Social justice has always been a big part of my performance work and I’ve felt that the issues that arise in mass incarceration are rarely foregrounded. So I’ve done a lot of pieces that have been developed from material from the inside and from new material that’s written by those who are released and we now have a series of performance pieces that are about the prison experience that are performed by my professional ensemble and returning citizens. That’s been one big impact.
There’s also a style of work that we do in the prison. It’s obviously very pared-down and it combines narrative with song and dance. I’ve always been cross-disciplinary in my approach, but in this case it has been good to stay true to the sensibility of the performance that happens in the prison in the material that we take out. There is an amazing authenticity and honesty that happens there and I try to infuse the outside work with the same sensibility. The women are outstanding and their strength, their stories, their resilience is a huge part of the impact of the work.

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

This work has been transformational in my life and I think it’s been transformational in the lives of everybody who’s on the team and everybody who participates. It’s very emotional work and I find myself on the edge of tears at times because the women and men at Cybulski hit on such essential things about life, and about people, and about possibility. I have not talked much about the dads at Cybulski which is a newer program (2016 we were invited by the Department of Correction to initiate it), but their work has been equally strong – making themselves vulnerable and growing in self, within their community of dads and with their families. They have fully embraced the movement activities, performing small original pieces for their families at the 3 visits—all of it. It has been beautiful.
I feel very lucky to have dropped into all of this and I feel very committed and driven to be sure it keeps going and it keeps growing. I may not be able to change the system but I can work to affect as many people as possible within it, in the most positive ways possible so that everyone’s life can be better. It’s seeing someone who never thought they could speak out their narrative, tell their story, or deal with wherever they are in their process of healing and growth and with trauma that may be so deep, and they DO it. A social worker that we work closely with at York said to me, “you know, you get to the stories that we can’t get to and then we process it”. I think it’s true there’s a sense of trust and safety in this arts work that allows a kind of growth to happen that doesn’t happen in other situations and I think that’s so incredibly rewarding.

JAC: What is your greatest challenge as a teaching artist in the justice system? Are there any current obstacles you are trying to overcome as an organization?

JD: We have learned through the years how to work with the Department of Correction– to both understand the ways that they’re comfortable with things happening and to gradually build trust to be able to expand that. We look at it as a partnership because we’ve been there a long time and, over time, gradually, we’ve been able to do things that go beyond what would normally be allowed. We are very careful that everybody on our staff is aware of what one can and cannot do. It’s its own training and then within that, how can we preserve and optimize the integrity and the value of what we want to do, and not have that suffer as a result. And expand it along the way. We’re very interested in longevity and seeing it through the long haul so that we keep building and finding the balance of how far we can build each year. That’s been a really valuable learning process and how to be patient and know that all the ideas that one has in the beginning are most likely only going to happen slowly over time and not all at once. I mean, the shared meals are a perfect example. That took six years to happen and it was frustrating. But you have to keep working on it and believing in it and not losing sight that eventually it can happen. The other thing is trying to make sure nothing happens that will jeopardize the program or that nothing happens in other programs at the prison that will jeopardize all programs. You also always have to maintain absolute flexibility because you can drive an hour and 15 minutes to get to the prison and arrive there and find it in lockdown and you can’t go in. But one must be persistent in one’s vision, patient, and it is critical to never give up. If you have an idea, know what the balance of it all is, and know how to present it so that it can move forward, if not right away then in time.
I feel that that if you take a kind of adversarial stance against the prison administration, you won’t last. We are there because of the permission we’ve been given to walk in those doors. One has to honor that; you don’t have to agree with the structures in place, in many cases one doesn’t necessarily, but you need to know that you’ve been given that permission and how can you best utilize that for the betterment of everybody.

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

JD: All of our programs have been able to continue during COVID. The only one that we have not found a solution for yet is our schools programs for kids who have loved ones in prison, because they need to be in cohorts and they can’t mix in-between classes. We’ve been able to reach out to the kids who are part of our Moms & Kids and Dads & Kids programs. We send them monthly books, art materials, writing prompts and on our Facebook page we have Suzi Jensen on our staff who herself had a mom in prison when she was growing up, reading stories every week. And a social worker from CRT checks in on the caregivers each month to see if any services or help is needed. Pre-COVID we also created a Resource Guide for families who have loved ones in prison that lists all the resources in the six major cities in Connecticut that we hope is helpful during this time too.
We are creating booklets through correspondence with all of our groups in the prisons, sending writing and art prompts via the prison counselors that we edit and get designed by a graphic designer and then printed and distributed to program participants and their families. At the men’s prison, prison admin has approved the dads who live in one unit to meet as a group, guided by the senior members to maintain the connections and collaborative spirit of our Dads & Kids program. But it is still hard not to be there and great when I get their writings and art and get a sense of how they’re doing and where they’re going with their work.

JAC: The 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?

JD: Something that I’ve found very useful is the bi-weekly sharing of how all of us are dealing with COVID-19 in our prison outreaches. We’re reinventing ourselves in so many ways in our lives and in our work and trying to navigate that through the prison system has its own variables and distinct challenges. To hear what people in other parts of the country are doing is very useful and it has also brought me to realize how different situations are– what’s allowed in certain places that we would never be allowed to do. So I think establishing national conversations as opposed to conversations just within one’s own sphere are terrific. Right now it’s COVID, hopefully after it’ll be another more positive catalyst– conversations and idea sharing are so helpful. Each of us has our own way of doing things and we have so much to learn and benefit from each other, so these informal conversations have been really key. Also a national conference would be a great idea to realize.
I feel that if people are allowed to feel the common humanity that exists among all of us, they can feel the wisdom that comes out of the performances that emerge in the prison work that we do and gain a different understanding of who lives behind the razor wire and some of the critical issues that surround mass incarceration.

Artist Spotlight: Chad Merrill

By Joslyn Lapinski, JAC intern

Chad Merrill’s story truly embodies the transformative power of the arts. When he was first incarcerated, Chad was on a path towards self-destruction. He barely cared about what happened to him or anyone else. He says, “I was so full of hate that I couldn’t see past my nose.”

This is a difficult mindset to escape from once in the system. There is a vicious cycle of hate and destruction that does not let people out easily. Luckily for Chad, though, he had someone pushing him off of his toxic path. A teacher named Casey constantly encouraged him to do better, asking Chad, “What do you want to do with your life?” and not letting up until he gave an answer. 

He introduced Chad to art history and they would analyze and discuss it together. Even when Chad was struggling, Casey never made him feel “anything other than his equal.” This encouragement and care is exactly what Chad needed to get on his new path: the path of an artist. He had finally discovered what he wanted to do with his life.

“My life is pretty much centered on art and around getting better at it. I had no idea that through art I could make a positive impact and seeing that in real life has lit a fire in me and after years of being a selfish asshole I can give back some and maybe even things out a bit.”

Although his art career started by analyzing historical pieces, his style is anything but traditional. At his facility, Chad does not have access to many typical art supplies. He is only allowed to work with pen and paper, but he still manages to create incredible paintings.

“I make homemade paint brushes using toothbrushes and I use a toothpaste cap to blow the pen ink into and I paint.”

By deconstructing the three pens he is allowed to purchase each week, Chad gets ink to paint with. As you might guess, he goes through pens like crazy and is always “on the grind” to find more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He is not allowed to purchase art paper so he needs to have it sent in to him. There are many restrictions on this and even when all rules are followed, getting supplies in is “hit or miss”. When Chad runs out of paper he uses snack boxes, styrofoam trays, and anything else he can get his hands on. His creativity is endless and his ability to work within his means is truly amazing. Looking at his work, you would never guess he was creating with such limited supplies.

Chad is inspired by the unique expressions of the human face and he strives to capture this in his artwork. Since every face and every expression is so different, Chad says that he never knows how his portraits will end up, but that he is always excited to see where they go.

Whenever I sit down to paint with my junky paintbrush and pen ink I’m transported out of this cell and am totally consumed with filling that piece of paper full of my emotions, my stress, anxiety, fear, love, etc. I’m able to let it all out with each little stroke and it never fails to surprise me when I’m finished at how cool it comes out. I’m completely in love with painting. Thank you for allowing me to “set free” each portrait I do. It’s stupid but I like to think that just because I’m in here it doesn’t mean they have to be as well.

So with just a few pens, a toothbrush, and some paper (if that), Chad sets out to convey the complexity of human emotion in the form of beautifully painted portraits. With each piece, he embarks on a transformative, all-consuming, and freeing journey.

“No matter what they take from me they can never take my creativity and truth is, that has forced me to become a better artist, and for that I’m thankful.”

 

You can view more of Chad’s work in our galleries. If you are interested in connecting with an artist experiencing incarceration like Chad, please sign up for our pARTner Project!

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

 

 

 

 

The Becomings of a Master, Part 2: Bohemia

by R. Zumar

Really, I don’t know where to start. How can I explain this to you so that you may understand what I’m going through. I’ve written and erased, written and erased again trying to find the right words to say, but really there are none. The only thing to do is explain what is going on and how I’m feeling about it all. I can only hope that you understand.

Art is my path to freedom, mentally and maybe one day physically. It’s my escape from these walls and the minds around me that would rather me to immerse myself into prison life than to d something productive. I’ve decided not to do tat and to keep going down the path of becoming a master artists. 

The becomings of a master isn’t a becoming of small cost and I would assume you to understand. Now in this environment the challenge is tenfold. I pay more for materials that I have access to than they cost out that and that doesn’t make sense to me. Essentially I pay double the price than you would pay out there and I don’t get money like that. I have family but don’t have family, have friends but don’t have friends. So really do I have family and friends? I scrap and scramble to survive in here and that’s doing it the right way. They take whatever I gain to buy art materials to further my studies. It’s like I have an apartment that  must pay rent for and a care note due. Food is slim and I have utilities to pay off. Do I pay my bills or do I risk to create. Well I’ve risked to create.

I’ve neglected a lot over the last few years and it’s catching up and I’m losing control of the time. Here when you lose control of your time it controls you. And I’ve sacrificed that control. Art was a hobby to keep myself out of trouble, then it became a challenge and a love. I can’t see myself not creating and trying to become better at this craft. I’ve never sold art and don’t know how it’s priced. I just got a formula from a book I read and will soon begin to apply it. I’ve tried an experiment with earlier works of mine to see how that goes. I can envision how to be successful with my work if I could do it myself. But I can’t do it myself because I don’t have the access. So the question I ask myself is, “Why keep sacrificing when there seems to be no hope in it and it has pushed me into a bohemia lifestyle? Why should I keep creating? How can I give to others when I have nothing to give?”. I don’t know. And something inside me overrides my doubts and I still pick up a pencil and start sketching for my next work. 

Bohemia
by R. Zumar

This is my first self-portrait, “Bohemia.” It’s of a sickly me working on a healthier version of myself. 

These are the things I struggle with in my becomings of a master. 

 

About the guest contributor:

“I’m Rayfel Zumar Bell known as R. Zumar and discovered my passion for art while incarcerated. I’m a self taught who strives to break into the art world even from a cell. I spend the lions share of my time thinking about and creating art, the rest working out and my favorite pass time, snacking :)! Through art I want to help others and contribute to various charities I care about; cancer, autism, sponsoring kids in need around the globe, and preserving wildlife.”

 

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.