Announcing the launch of the JAC Community Survey!

The Justice Arts Coalition, with the support of two graduate students from the George Washington University, is conducting a comprehensive evaluation of its programming. As part of this process, we are asking for members of the JAC community to complete a brief survey about their experiences with JAC activities. If you have participated in our programs, made use of the resources on our website, been in contact with our team, or stayed connected via social media, we welcome your participation. Your feedback will be used to help inform and strengthen our programs moving forward.

While we hope many of you will choose to complete the survey, participation is completely optional, and there are no negative consequences for choosing not to participate. Those who do participate can also choose to leave individual questions blank, and any information provided will be completely anonymized, and reported through averages, rather than individually.

If you do choose to participate, we ask that you please complete this online survey by March 21st.

Thank you very much for your feedback and support of the Justice Arts Coalition!

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.

 

The Becomings of a Master, Part 3: Hiatus

by R. Zumar

I’ve been pondering this in my mind over and over and over again. Trying to find a way to be able to keep creating work to send out for you to see without compromising the things I need in here. I find it to be nearly impossible to do from my position and I’ve failed to find that balance, and let things get to out of control.

So! Should this failure stop me from studying and creating artwork. No, I don’t think so. Even though I don’t have the money to continue to send my work out doesn’t mean that I should stop creating. So I’ll keep at my studies and work to be better, my becomings are far from over.

You may not see any work from me for a while cause I need to get my affairs in order in here. But once I do get things back on track you will see my progress, you will see how far I’ve come. You will see how I see beauty in all things though once upon a time all I saw was ugliness.

Like I said before, I’m fairly new to this art world and I’m learning as I go and there needs to be balance in art no matter how chaotic some of us may make a piece of artwork seem. There is still balance in it and we should also find this balance in our lives. We can only be made better for it. Trust, this experience has made me see things more clearly and can only hope it has done the same for you.

This is the becomings of a master! 

Bolgora
Bolgora, R. Zumar

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 artist 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.”

View the first two installments in the artist’s blog series here and here

Teaching artist spotlight: Hakim Bellamy

Hakim Bellamy was the inaugural Poet Laureate of Albuquerque (2012-14) and facilitates youth writing workshops for schools, jails, churches, prisons and community organizations in New Mexico and beyond.

tumblr_ljqyhw3c0J1qhdmcf540
Photo by Wes Naman

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

HB: Good teachers are comfortable at the front of the room talking. Better teachers are good at listening. Great teachers are good at processing what they’ve heard, pivoting when required and using it to moderate the dosage. Ultimately, I’ve learned to equip my students (both in prison/jail workshops and as a high school creative writing professor) with the tools they need to construct and deconstruct writing even in my absence. And often, I pick up new tools to share from them. As a writer and teacher, I chose to teach from a space of ideation rather than refinement (the traditional editing/drafting process). I leave that for my English teacher counterparts. I firmly believe that the best ideas give way to the best poems. Perspective, a different analysis or way of seeing the world than my own is what my students (especially those in carceral spaces) offer me. Other than irreversibly changing me as a human, they become ideas I can share with writers in future workshops to prime the imagination pump. For instance, the idea of writing a poem from the perspective of what it is like to have a birthday in prison. And them teaching me through their work that birthdays are not something we look forward to in prison. It is a monument to the passing of time, wishes and dreams.

JAC: 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?

HB: In the last workshop that I facilitate about doing work with incarcerated populations, there was a skills share that was part of my work prior to then workshop. I was able to bring/share work (scrubbed for identifiers) and prompts/practices with workshop providers. I think this sort of skills share is useful, not just in e-mail/newsletter format but with conference call/zoom meeting or meet up. I think the sharing of work, something Wendy [Jason] taught me, is as important for our workshop participants as it is for us providers. Sure, our coveted funders may frown upon this sort of hierarchy flattening, but once we stop getting silo’d and competing for resources we will have more impact. None of us are doing any thing that it proprietary…cultivating humanity through writing and performance circles is creative commons. We can have more of a sustainable and measurable impact reaching across instead of up…and maybe, just maybe there is a funder waiting to fund that sort of sector/operational work. Call it sector/professional development.

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

HB: The grace by which they welcome me and the light/hope I try to bring into a space that is designed to deprive them of those things. It could be easy for them to go, “so what? This shit has no tangible impact on my lived situation.” But by and large, they don’t. They are open to the possibility of learning something…about themselves. All I provide is the rare person who sees them as what they write/say rather than what they did.

—–

Hakim Bellamy is a national and regional Poetry Slam Champion and holds three consecutive collegiate poetry slam titles at the University of New Mexico. His poetry has been published on the Albuquerque Convention Center, on the outside of a library, in inner-city buses and in numerous anthologies across the globe. Bellamy was recognized as an honorable mention for the University of New Mexico Paul Bartlett Ré Peace Prize for his work as a community organizer and journalist in 2007 and later awarded the Career Achievement Award for the same Prize in 2018. In 2013 he was awarded the Emerging Creative Bravos Award by Creative Albuquerque and was named a W. K. Kellogg Foundation Fellow as well as a Food Justice Resident Artist at Santa Fe Art Institute in 2014. Bellamy was named “Best Poet” in the Weekly Alibi’s annual Best of Burque poll every year between 2010 and 2017. His first book, SWEAR (West End Press/UNM Press) won the Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing from the Working Class Studies Association. He is the co-creator of the multimedia Hip Hop theater production Urban Verbs: Hip-Hop Conservatory & Theater that has been staged throughout the country. Bellamy has had his work featured in Rattle, AlterNet, Truthout, CounterPunch and on the nationally syndicated Tavis Smiley Radio Show. In 2017 he was named a Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow and he’s served as the on-air television host for New Mexico PBS’s ¡COLORES! Program for three years. The proud father of a 10 year-old miracle, Bellamy was recently appointed Deputy Director for the City of Albuquerque’s Cultural Services Department and is the founding president of Beyond Poetry LLC.

 

 

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.