Teaching Artist Spotlight: Peggy Rambach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 JAC: The JAC, as it grows, will continue to seek out and implement a vision of how to better support teaching artists. In your view, what does a supportive network need to include?

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

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Pastels by Peggy’s students

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

 

Read our last Teaching Artist spotlight, featuring Hakim Bellamy.

 

 

 

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.

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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.

 

 

Oculus: Of A Place Unseen

by Michelle Repiso

The location: on the school bus 

The scene: Lorton Correctional Facility

While riding the bus to high school I would make it a point to look to my right and imagine what it must feel like to be incarcerated. I would also visually explore the grounds thinking I would witness someone escaping since Lorton Prison had that reputation. Every day I would pass the prison and remind myself that as bad as it felt being on that bus at 7:00am, it could be worse. I was fascinated and unnerved for 10 seconds a day then I would go on with life. Subconsciously I now realize that this micro experience has led me to pursue and continue my art program at Rikers Island for the past three years. Today Lorton prison has closed and is now Workhouse Arts Center where they support artists and also houses a museum that covers the Workhouse from the reformatory to the arts center.

I am fortunate to be exhibiting Basic Necessities in a group show at Workhouse. Basic Necessities documents three individuals and the mechanisms they employ to sustain their humanity while incarcerated. This exhibition demonstrates man’s need for communication and connection within our environment no matter how harsh. Tiger Mountain provides music for a video piece that accompanies interviews from Coss Marte, Shane Ennover and Juan Howard. 

Exhibition information:

Oculus: Of A Place Unseen
On view November 22, 2019 – February 2, 2020 

Workhouse Arts Center – McGuireWoods Gallery, Building W-16

Website: http://www.workhousearts.org/

Workhouse Arts Center is pleased to present the interactive exhibit Oculus: Of A Place Unseen featuring works of artists Elaine Buss, Edgar Endress, Michelle Repiso and Steve Wanna. The use of the word ‘oculus,’ most known as an eye-like form in architecture, gestures towards the enlightening narratives discovered throughout the show. Each referencing feelings of solitude and contemplation, the storylines range from institutional boundaries to societal oversights and mantra meditations. Some works are as light as silk, some as heavy as stone, but the overall space is quiet — both literally and figuratively. Oculus: Of A Place Unseen encourages visitors to listen, connect and reconnect.

Photograph from Basic Necessities, Michelle Repiso

About the guest contributor:

Born in Puerto Rico and raised in Northern Virginia, Michelle Repiso graduated from The Corcoran School of the Arts and Design in Washington, D.C., where she received a BFA in Photography (2000). Michelle is currently an adjunct faculty member with the International Center of Photography (ICP), Teen Academy, a certified M/WBE business based in New York City and works as a commercial, documentary and fine art photographer in both analog and digital formats. 

 In October 2016 Michelle started facilitating art classes at Rikers Island and in 2017 she developed Create & Connect, which is designed to keep families unified through a creative process of dialogue and hands-on art projects for incarcerated men, women and youth. Participants create original projects to send to their child, family, or friends as a way to unify and maintain communication through long distances. Emphasis is on the creative process and self-expression regardless of artistic skill level.

Kindness, boundaries, and the border patrol

by Treacy Ziegler

(This is the final installment on my discussion of kindness in prison. To read the first three installments, see the first installment, the second installment, and the third installment.)

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by Nathan Riggs
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by Raymond Palmore

What happens when volunteers and non-prisoners mingle with prisoners? How does kindness get interpreted between those living exclusively in a closed system with those living in the more open system of society?  

As mentioned earlier, the basic prison rule for volunteers is not to trust prisoners. However, volunteers do not usually come to prison because they hate prisoners; quite the opposite.  More often, individuals volunteer in prison through humanitarian concerns of which trust is a basic element. In fact, mistrust is often counterintuitive to many volunteers and it is easy to see how the volunteers can be a major problem to the prison, needing constant admonishment for their potential trust of prisoners.

While teaching an art prison class in a high security prison, I developed a migraine.  Unable to get medication from the infirmary, I had the dilemma of whether to tell my prisoner students about the headache. Not telling them and pretending I feel ok, makes it more difficult to teach. However, in telling them, I make myself vulnerable; putting myself somewhat at their mercy. I chose to tell them, adding, “Think of me as the queen where you have to bring your drawings immediately in front of my face so I don’t have to turn left or right. It hurts so much to move my head.”  The prisoners think my request is funny, but they comply displaying their drawings immediately in front of my eyes. It is kind of funny, when suddenly I see out of the corner of my eye, two pills set on the table next to me. I can’t see who put them there, but I sense they are ibuprofen or such painkillers, and feel a rush of relief. I almost move my arm towards them but immediately catch myself, thinking, “What is taking medicine from a prisoner – a felony?”  The experience makes me question the strange institutionalized structure of prison where kindness becomes a felony.

What are other forms of kindness crossing the border between volunteers and prisoners that may violate the volunteer handbook?  Is sharing laughter an expression of kindness? It is reported by research for Stanford Business school, humor creates a bridge between individuals because laughter “sparks the release of oxytocin, a hormone that facilitates social bonding, increases trust, and quickens self-disclosure.” I remember a prisoner in the super-maximum security prison stating, “If it wasn’t for the volunteer, prison would be totally intolerable.” He made this statement in response to on-going laughter in the class.

Lisa Daigle, a volunteer in a New England prison, spoke of laughter as a constant element in her class. When I recently asked Lisa about this, she wrote; Laughter and humor are a shared language that create a bond between inmate and volunteer. This language creates a space where deep feelings can emerge, as laughter opens up our vulnerable side. Laughter and humor also add brevity when the topics get heavy. Some inmates are distrustful of each other, and laughter helps ease the distrust and elicits common humanity. The anticipation of fun also draws inmates to return to classes as they can count on having fun in an otherwise challenging existence; at times, it seems that they forget where they are. And, when volunteers laugh, it feels like we are more like them, which is simply to say that we are all people, and that we are more alike than we are different. Sometimes, though, when the laughter dies down, the room becomes somber, because the inmates do remember where they are. And, they know that the volunteers are feeling that in the space that emerges after the laughter.  

Prison guards were particularly skeptical of laughter in my classroom, suspecting it would develop the trust prohibited in my volunteer handbook. They were correct; it did allow trust.

Obviously, relationships between guard and prisoner are much more tested through daily living than those between volunteer and prisoner. Even so, I saw some guards acting compassionately with prisoners. I did not see much compassion directed at the guards from the prisoners. A reason for this may be summed by a poem written by Les Ames, serving life. In his poem entitled “The correction officer of light” Les writes:

   You give selflessly of yourself.

       You direct without ordering.

   And if a prisoner gives you lip,

        You sass him right back –

   Neither demeaning him or yourself.

    Les continues describing the guard’s compassion and ends the poem:

   Yet, if I display too much praise

      And affection for you and others,

   I will be locked in the hole

       for singing a blatant love song

   or, for being gay in more than spirit.

Guards do not seem to trust kind actions of prisoners directed towards them.

I did see more compassion of guards for prisoners in one mid-west prison. I don’t know how race influenced this relationship. The warden and the program director were both Black men. When I asked the program director about the prison’s more gentle approach of the guards towards the prisoners; he replied. “It took the warden and me years to train the COs to be more empathetic to the inmates.” And then he added, “It’s a slippery slope to prison that anyone of us could fall into.”

The only other prison where I saw compassion from guards to prisoners was on a mental health ward of a maximum-security men’s prison. There were full-time social workers, psychologists, and therapists on this particular unit. I wonder if the presence of these professionals trained in empathy offered other ways of treating prisoners. 

The prisoner Merle was locked in solitary on the mental health unit for three months for the offense of urinating in the janitor’s closet. To my observation, it seemed peeing into the janitor’s sink was evident of Merle’s self-restraint compared to previous behavior; Merle had difficulty maintaining boundaries. This difficulty may have been a result of Merle being physically, mentally and sexually abused for years by his grandparents until he killed them when he was 18 years old. Apparently the administration of the prison (not the mental health staff) did not share my assessment of Merle’s behavior. Instead, they saw the need for punishment. However, one day, I smelled a cigarette burning on the ward. Responding to my surprise, the guard said, “I didn’t have the heart to tell Merle to put it out. He’s suffering.” This small act of mercy, seemingly simple, was in fact a major defiance that could have cost the guard his job.

Many of the answers describing examples of kindness across the border were kindness of guards. Tommy writes:  One day I went to the yard. I am a very light skinned white man and on this day I stayed in the sun for almost two hours. I was burned. The next day I returned from lunch and an officer called me to the desk and there was a Sergeant with her. She asked, ‘How did you get red?’, then, ’Does it hurt?’ She admonished, ‘Stay out of the sun.’ It touched my heart, this simple act of kindness. This was a Black female officer inquiring about the welfare of a white inmate with her supervisor standing there.”

In some instances these acts of kindness are experienced with a mixture of appreciation, confusion, and disgust. James writes about a guard being kind to him.  “’Need more time? Asked the sergeant, as I was finishing up my meal. Everyone else in the row I was in, had already left and the chow hall was filling up fast. ‘If you do, you can move over there.’ As I picked up my tray and headed out I had a ridiculous urge to cry. That a guard, and a sergeant at that, treated me as if he thought I was a human being with kindness and consideration.  And respect, even. It’s a sad thing to have to report that simple common decency exhibited by one man to another should evoke such an acute response. For a brief moment, I was allowed the luxury of being, for all intents and purposes, something other than a number. Immediately though, I felt conflicted. That I apparently ached for such an affirmation caused me to feel disgusted with myself for being so weak – so needy, while at the same time, savoring the experience.” 

David writes about a guard being kind to his mother: “My mom was refused to visit (after driving two-hours) simply because she was wearing sandals without socks. On the way back to her car, an officer heard what was going on, went out and found my mom crying. She took her own socks off and gave them to my mom so she could visit me.”

Sometimes the guards initiate an experience of kindness by asking a prisoner to help out another prisoner.  Walter wrote: “I am usually the designated barber in whichever prison I am housed. One day a CO entered into our building with an elderly man. From first glance he appeared to be approximately 60 years old. The man’s face was swollen and he had a black eye. His prison-issued clothing was bloodied and his hair was long and dirty. Then I heard my last name called loudly by the officer. He motioned me over and looked me straight in the eye, ‘This man was jumped in the other building by two young punks who were in disagreement with his grooming standards. He is now a resident of this building and if anything happens to him in my building, there will be hell to pay.’  Walter thought “my building” was arrogant but kept quiet.  I was pissed that they had done that to an old man and I think the anger I had towards them turned into respect and love for this man.” Walter describes taking care of the old man – helping him shower and found some food for him. Walter continues,  “and then a strange thing happened. Dudes, hardened criminals who didn’t have nothing for nobody started casing their cells and came back with things for ‘Pops.” Dudes came over and shook his hand and introduced themselves. Pops ended up being the best chess player on the yard and never lost a tournament, representing our building. A Vietnam vet, very knowledgeable and versed on the law. Helped many dudes file writs appeals, child custodies.

A major question becomes why some guards and staff have the capacity to show kindness to prisoners? When superficially asked, some guards suggest it was their age – they mellowed out. I don’t have much to conclude except that it would be an interesting conversation to have with staff.

Do sexual relationships extended across the border qualify as kindness?  Some of the answers suggest prisoners saw sex as kindness, but that it also posed difficulties. Tony writes, “We used to have ladies and men come to visit us once a week through the Kiros program until the ladies started having relationships with the inmates.  I’m not blaming the ladies. But it sure did hurt the Kiros program.”

Clarence describes a man from the outside writing to him to be his sexual pen pal (I’m not sure how a sexual pen pals work, particularly since the letters can be read by the guards and staff). Clarence sent me the letter, suggesting, Give the letter to someone who is free, who may be able to share his life and wealth with them. Hopefully, he finds that someone he wishes to be with.” The man who gave his name and address in the letter was actually a known politician in a mid-west community.  

Sex across the border can be used to redefine a more dangerous situation. Ronnie describes a situation in which kindness across the border is redefined as sex to deflect the primary concern: “A female guard wrote up a ticket for indecent behavior (for a particular prisoner) when a prisoner was taking a leak in his own cell when she walked by. Because of this ticket, the prisoner was denied his upcoming parole. Later when this female guard was closing the cells doors, this prisoner pulled her into his cell and beat the crap out of her. No one responded to her yells until one inmate finally went to the cell and pulled her out. For his act of kindness, this prisoner was given a disciplinary case for improper relationship with a guard.”

Other times, sex is just experienced as kindness and, as David writes, perhaps an example of “tea and sympathy” helping him develop a sense of his sexual self. “Having come to prison at 20 years old and remaining here for so long (I’m now 34) I’ve had numerous relationships with officers. Some were innocent – women looking at me like I was their own child – other, not so innocent – as if we were lovers. Another memorable person was a woman who I had a crush on and asked her to be my first as I was a virgin and didn’t want to die one. She thought I was insane, but eventually she sensed my sincerity and we became a couple. We were together for 3 of the toughest years for me, as I’d lost two relatives within a year of each other and was hurt. Knowing how much she risked to love me makes our relationship way beyond kindness.”

Obviously there is subterfuge in sexual relationships between prisoners and non-prisoners that are in violation of rules. There’s even a sign on the staff lounge wall of a maximum-security men’s prison stating,  Do not have sex with inmates,” should any of us forget. However, I can’t help wonder if sexuality between prisoner and non-prisoner is actually less threatening to the prison system than simple kindness. The system may understand the dynamics of sex better than the inherent ambiguity of kindness. Maybe that is why kindness in prison is constantly misinterpreted as sex – turning kindness into something understandable.   

While I have been focusing upon the phenomenon of kindness, I have been grasping at ambiguity – the incarceration of kindness but the death of ambiguity. However, exploring a phenomenology of kindness with the prisoners seems less obscure and ideological then asking them to describe ambiguity or lack of it in their lives. How does one describe the natural ambiguity of living?  Is this an experience transmittable into words?  

As an artist, I am confronted with ambiguity every time I begin a painting or sculpture. I can only follow rules up to a point: open the studio door, decide to paint a particular subject, determine the size, gesso the canvas, and so on. At some point in the process, I have to leave prescription behind in order to create; thus, bringing something new into existence. If I do not enter this uncharted area of painting, the work becomes as flat as a paint-by-number piece.   

Through teaching art in prison, I observed how ambiguity plays a role in both art and kindness. In art classes, the prisoners seemed challenged when asked to draw from life; asking them to use their own eyes and draw what they see. There is no formula for this approach to drawing and it makes them uncomfortable. Instead, prisoners (and most of the public who are not trained in art) often want how-to books providing step-by-step instructions or they draw from photographs that have already translated the three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional one; a translation which demands a leap of faith for the artist.   

Like the creativity in art, kindness has no ultimate how-to instruction. Prescriptive kindness, like formulaic art, is affectively flat. 

But, flatness is demanded by prison. In a maximum-security prison, a yellow line is painted on the corridor floors upon which prisoners are to follow. It leads to closed gates separating corridors. At these points, the prisoners will wait in line until it is ok’d by the guards to move through the gates. Many prisoners have been walking the yellow line and stopping at the gates for years; even though some are now shadows of the person who committed the crime. 

In the super-maximum security men’s prison where every aspect of the prisoner’s day is prescribed, the prisoners are psychologically fragile; so much that when they drop a pencil they yell at me saying,  “you made me do that!” To their understanding, this may be true – everything in prison has a clear cause and effect. I suggest to them that in assigning me as the cause, I get to control not only when they drop the pencil, but also when they get to pick those pencils up. Without personal accountability, freedom is denied. The prisoners stop yelling at me.

Because kindness does not have a cause and effect relationship, it can easily become the enemy in a system that survives on prediction and rules. Kindness may even be seen as an act of freedom. 

Kindness does not effect change. Kindness creates change; non-conforming and non-linear. Potently there and not to be controlled. What happens if kindness as a phenomenon of solidarity were to emerge in prison – could it act as a free-floating medium for social change challenging the status quo?

 

About the guest contributor:

Treacy Ziegler is a regular contributor to the JAC blog, and has been an exhibiting artist for the past 23 years. She studied painting and printmaking for four years at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.  In 2009, Ziegler began exhibiting her work in prisons and created An Open Window, a project within the project of Prisoner Express in the Center For Transformative Action affiliated with Cornell University.  In this project she donates her artwork to prisons, develops in-prison art workshops, and creates through-the-mail-art curricula with a network of 6,500 prisoners throughout the United States, many who are in solitary confinement. Ziegler lives with her husband, Gary Weisman, a sculptor, in Newfield, New York.

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.