Kudos For Memoir About Teaching the Arts in a California Men’s Prison

From Caitlin Hamilton Marketing & Publicity, LLC 

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(Knoxville, TN, July 23, 2019) In her unforgettable memoir, HUMMINGBIRD IN UNDERWORLDreleased this week by She Writes Press, Deborah Tobola intertwines the story of her rowdy family and occasionally tumultuous childhood with the story of her nine-year stint as a teacher of arts and creative writing at the California Men’s Colony, a prison in San Luis Obispo, California.

Tobola’s teaching changed lives, allowing prisoners to see that they were also poets, dramatists, and artists. The creative writing and performances her students pursued were a respite from the drudgery and violence of prison life, but even more, they brought hope. Over the years, Tobola battled officers who thought prisoners didn’t deserve programs; bureaucrats who wanted to cut arts funding; and inmates who stole, or worse. Yet Tobola loved engaging prisoners in the arts, helping them discover their voices: men like Opie, the gentleman robber; Razor, the roughneck who subscribed to the New Yorker; and Do Wop, a singer known for the desserts he created from prison fare.

Tobola enjoyed wonderful success as a teacher: her students in prison won writing awards, published their work locally and appeared on local and national radio. Each year, Arts in Corrections students produced original plays with music, under her direction. But in the end, her programs were eliminated in budget cuts.

HUMMINGBIRD IN UNDERWORLD is fascinating, heartbreaking, thought-provoking, and memorable, and it powerfully depicts both the endurance of the human spirit as well as the importance of the arts in all of our lives.

DEBORAH TOBOLA is a poet, playwright and co-author of a children’s book. Her work has earned four Pushcart Prize nominations, three Academy of American Poets awards and a Children’s Choice Book Award. Tobola graduated with high honors from the University of Montana in 1988 with a Bachelor of Arts in English. She earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona in 1990. She has worked as a journalist, legislative aide and adjunct English faculty member in Alaska and California.

Tobola began teaching creative writing in California prisons in 1992, taking the job of Institution Artist Facilitator at the California Men’s Colony in 2000. Tobola retired from the Department of Corrections at the end of 2008 to begin Poetic Justice Project, the country’s first theatre company created for formerly incarcerated actors, where she serves as artistic director. Tobola returned to prison work five years ago and currently teaches creative writing and theatre at the California Men’s Colony. She lives in Santa Maria, California.

For more information, or to check out Deborah’s events,  please visit her online at www.deborahtobola.com.

“With Hummingbird in Underworld, Deborah Tobola has found what Rumi calls, “the infinite moment when everything happens.” It is luminous and tender. The reader is given passage to poetry and humanity; to compassion and even to a bright proposal to change our prison system. Remarkable.”—Gregory Boyle, Founder, Homeboy Industries

“Tobola came to the California Men’s Colony with a dream to make the arts program a lighthouse in the dreary sameness of prison life. With open-mindedness and empathy, Tobola explores how systemic issues play out in individuals’ lives as they grasp for light in the darkness.”—Booklist 

“…a deeply moving reflection…beautifully wrought…”—The Indypendent

“…a treasure of a book in multiple ways.”—Foreword Reviews


The Poetic Justice Project

nudebyjshiavronBy Deborah Tobola

(“Robin” by John Schiavron, pastel)

While I was working as an artist/facilitator with California’s Arts in Corrections program, I often wished there were a reentry arts program that I could refer paroling inmates to, a place where they could find a creative community and continue on a path many of them had begun only after coming to prison. About four years ago, I got a call from a parole agent who suggested I go to the local theater. When I arrived, the play’s director told me that John, a former student who’d paroled four months earlier, had presented himself, saying he had a background in designing and painting sets, but it was all at prison.

John had spent most of his adult life behind bars. Before he paroled, he told me that until he began working in a collaborative creative environment, he’d never thought of himself as anything but a criminal. But while he was still in prison, he began to imagine a different sort of life, a life that included art and theater and a commitment to his community. Within a year of paroling, John showed his work at a local gallery. He went from decades in prison to an artist’s reception, from criminal to community theater volunteer.  This is what John says about his art education in prison:  “It would prove to be a life saving experience. I became involved in many aspects of Art. Poetry, painting, drawing, writing, acting, singing. I learned how to collaborate with others. I was learning a new lifestyle and it gave me a good feeling to be doing something different with my life. I learned that I could do something besides being a prisoner. I started feeling confident. I started feeling proud of this transition that was taking place in me. The experience for me was dramatic. When I paroled, I knew it would be different for me. I am changed. I am off of parole now and continue to be involved with productive projects to continue my transformation.”

One of his colleagues, Cliff, a writer, says:  “I can testify that the single most challenging aspect of my incarceration, as well as my release, was a sense of belonging. While incarcerated I got involved in Arts In Corrections. In the program we wrote and produced theater plays with fellow inmates. Our first play, Blue Train, about a father and son who meet for the first time in prison, turned out to be a life-changing experience. Inmates who were usually separated by race, gang affiliation and social status worked together for the first time. While producing Blue Train, I watched hard men become like children again. That is when I knew the power of art. That is when I knew what I wanted to do with my life.”

Jorge, a gifted young poet, writes about his first encounters with literature: “I began to read and write while I was in a juvenile detention camp, and this habit went with me to prison when I became an adult. First I would read novels and fiction and even from these novels and fictions books I would learn a few things from, soon after I began reading other books like self-help and books I can learn from, my eyes opened to a new world to the real world, I realized that the small world where I was a small legend where a lot of other small and limited people came from was just a grain of sand compared to the giant world that really existed.”

John and Cliff and Jorge are just a few of the men whose talent and determination to succeed inspired me to leave the Arts in Corrections program and begin a new path myself, as program director of the William James Association’s Poetic Justice Project. The Poetic Justice Project helps ex-offenders come back into their communities through engagement in the arts, including workshops, mentorship and public performances. I’ll keep you posted on our progress.