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.

 

An important message from PAC’s manager — please read on!

Dear PAC Community,

I’m excited to share some big news with you! Over the coming months, the Prison Arts Coalition will undergo a transformation to incorporate as the Justice Arts Coalition (JAC), a 501c3 nonprofit organization. In the spirit of the vision that drove PAC’s founders, the JAC will become an organizing body for institutions and individuals across the globe that believe in the power of the arts to ignite change. The JAC will unite people at the intersection of the arts and justice, cultivating community among system-involved artists, their loved ones, educators, scholars, activists, and advocates.

Through hosting in-person trainings, workshops, and conferences, in addition to serving as an online network and archive for resources such as curricula, grant listings, and program evaluation materials, the JAC will foster a collective voice and increase visibility and advocacy for artists working in and around justice systems.

Woan Crocheting - Part 2 of Bars Triptych
by Carole Alden

The JAC’s development is the culmination of the efforts of a Steering Committee comprised of teaching artists and arts advocates that formed at the 2015 Arts in Corrections: Opportunities for Justice and Rehabilitation conference. It is being made possible with seed funding generously contributed by California Lawyers for the Arts and the Warhol Foundation, and fiscal sponsorship provided by The William James Association

You can look forward to changes here on the website. All of the current content will remain intact, but there will be new pages, resources, announcements about ways to get involved with and support the JAC through membership opportunities, donations, and events. We’ll be sharing updates via social media, and plan to roll out a crowdsourcing campaign in the near future, so be sure to follow PAC (soon to become the JAC!) on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to stay in the know. And, we’ll be introducing the JAC in June at Arts in Corrections: Reframing the Landscape of Justice. We hope to see you there!

White Tiger
White Tiger by Daniel Owens

I’m thankful to everyone who has helped to grow and shape PAC over the years. I’ve met so many inspiring people through my work behind the scenes here. These relationships have fueled me, and they serve as reminders that while all of the information, stories, and artwork that PAC has been able to share is incredibly important, it’s the human connection sparked by the sharing of these resources that matters most of all. I’m honored to be a part of the JAC’s efforts to expand and strengthen this web of community.

If you have questions about the JAC, or ideas for the founders to consider as we take our next steps, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at pacoalitionadmin@gmail.com

With gratitude,

Wendy Jason, PAC Manager

If you would like to contribute to the development of the JAC, please follow this link to make a tax-deductible donation through our fiscal sponsor. We need and value your support!

Conference Announcement: Reframing the Landscape of Justice

California Lawyers for the Arts and the William James Association

in collaboration with

Santa Clara University and the Justice Arts Coalition

presents

Arts in Corrections: Reframing the Landscape of Justice

June 24 – 28, 2019

Santa Clara University

500 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, CA 95053

This national conference will provide professional development opportunities for artists who work in correctional institutions at all levels and best practices for arts administrators who would like to learn how to implement and manage these programs.

Participants in this conference will have opportunities to

  • Share best practices in program development and curriculum design
  • Learn about current research models, including evaluation and documentation
  • Develop opportunities to collaborate with justice reform advocates in different states and nationally
  • Participate in workshops showcasing exemplary programs for juveniles and adults, as well as restorative justice and re-entry models
  • Learn how to build public awareness and enhance programmatic sustainability
  • Continue to build the Justice Arts Coalition as a national support organization for artists who teach in correctional institutions and artists coming home
  • Participate in art classes in various disciplines taught by master artists

* Monday, June 24th is reserved as a pre-conference training day for arts providers   and contractors teaching in the CA State Prison System

* Friday’s schedule features Future IDs Workshops at Alcatraz

Confirmed speakers include:

Jimmy Santiago Baca, Conference Artist-in-Residence, as well as Beth Bienvenu, National Endowment for the Arts; Anne Bown-Crawford, California Arts Council; Larry Brewster, University of San Francisco; Dameion Brown and Lesley Currier, Marin Shakespeare Company; Annie Buckley, California State University – San Bernardino; Laura Caulfield, University of Wolverhampton, UK; Mary Cohen, University of Iowa; Mandy Gardner, Southwest Correctional Arts Network (SCAN); Allia Griffin, Santa Clara University; Jane Golden, Philadelphia Mural Arts; Beverly Iseghohi, Urban League of Greater Atlanta; Ashley Lucas, University of Michigan; Dorsey Nunn, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children / All of Us or None; Meade Palidofsky, Story Catchers Theatre; Gregory Sale, Arizona State University; Kyes Stevens, Auburn University; Curt L. Tofteland, Shakespeare Behind Bars; Ella Turenne, Occidental College / Inside Out Prison Exchange Program

Contractors in the California Arts Council state prison arts program should contact their providers to register. 

Artists and staff affiliated with local and state arts agencies throughout the United States should contact CLA conference staff for special discounts available through NEA funding. 

Download Registration Form PDF HERE 

For more information, please contact conference staff at:

aic@calawyersforthearts.org or (415) 775-7200 x 101

As the End Comes (a tribute to Alice Walker)

by Mardie Swartz

Mardie Swartz has spent 29 years behind bars in Texas. This poem is about the time approaching when she will finally be beyond bars.

I remember beginnings –

The first time I was molested

Sold, abandoned, raped

The first drink, snort, shot of

Whatever would numb some

of the pain. The first time I

ran, and the first time I

just stayed and closed my eyes.

The first time I tried to hang.

 

I recall pissing on myself

In fear when I entered jail

at sixteen. The smell of

vomit, stale bodies, and

broken lives seeping into my

skin and hair as

I huddled in a corner

trying to be invisible again.

 

I can still feel the smooth

slice and burn of steel parting

flesh. The pulse of my lifeblood

racing forth when I tried to

Give the state back my seventy-five years –

The easy way…….

A cascading red necklace

made of anguish and despair.

 

As days became months,

became years

then decades which melded into

monotonous monologues with different

faces but familiar themes,

hope became dust motes in a sunbeam –

briefly glimpsed, but intangible,

Weightless

Subjective

Meaningless

 

And yet.

With the changing of the

calendars, the changes in

the mirror, came the

changes in my soul –

Emerging from the shattered

mess of degradation and shame

arose a survivor, a warrior

an unconquerable heart

who dared to look up,

lift my head,

and piece together a life amid the dross and dregs

of the irredeemable.

 

As the end comes,

I realize

everything I’ve heard

about it

is false.

 

Betrayal no longer matters

Hatreds are forgotten,

forgiven. Abrupt

Partings for weird reasons

are resolved, and love

comes crashing against

my heart’s door.

 

There is no longer fear

of the unknown

but a gripping, relentless

excitement

as months become days,

become hours,

minutes,

seconds –

 

And I walk out the gates

to a new beginning

toward my own

until now unimaginable

destiny

without fences and bars

“Art kept us sane”: An interview with memoir author Logan Crannell

About the writer, Logan Crannell: I’m a visual artist from Provo, UT who opted to move into my truck with my dog Jack, after I got divorced.  We travelled together and ended up in Boise, ID to visit a friend. Things spiraled out of control, and I got imprisoned for 4 months, facing a ten year sentence. I got released on Oct. 5th, 2016.
From Wendy, PAC Administrator: Logan Crannell wrote to PAC seeking some support in promoting his memoir, Hands Down – a story of incarceration, which hits Amazon today. I asked him if he’d like to contribute a blog post about it, and he eagerly agreed, requesting that I provide him with a few questions to get his thoughts flowing. I did so, and the following is what he offered in return. I’m sure you’ll be as moved by his words as I am, and I ask that you share this interview, and Logan’s book, with anyone who might find them meaningful — WJ

~~~

Hands Down Cover with 0.125 bleeds-1

WJ: How did the process/act of writing help you to cope with being incarcerated?

LC:  Writing grounded me and kept my mind from circling in on itself.  Being locked in a concrete cell for twenty-one hours a day, you get consumed by repetitive and irrational thoughts.  It’s important to get them out of your system, otherwise they eat you alive.

Excerpt from Hands Down:

I rested there, despondent.  Zach, walking laps along the yellow line, stopped and approached.  He took a seat and put his elbows on the table.

“You’re not overthinking, are you?” he asked, leaning in.

“Yes, I am.  I can’t help it.”

“Listen, bro,” he said, “You can’t think about the past and the future in here because they’re not ours.  They don’t belong to us, anymore.  All we get is today.  You have to focus on the things you can control.  It’s the little things that save you.”

It was wisdom, what he told me.

WJ:   You mentioned that you have a background in filmmaking.  What similarities and differences did you discover between the way you told a story in writing versus in film?

LC:  Yes, I grew up in a family of professional filmmakers and photographers, so I naturally told stories that way, but I was never comfortable with words.  They felt foreign to me; my interest lay with capturing images and feelings visually. When it came to dialogue, I’d bring in writers to deal with it. I didn’t care to be involved.

Then, in jail, in court, listening to my life and reputation get dismantled, I realized that words would ultimately set me free; they were my only tool of defense.  They became invaluable to me. No one seemed interested in my version of events, or claims of innocence, so documenting my words was a form of retaliation. Then, it turned  into something far more personal, as I examined my life and choices leading up to my arrest, which comprises the first section of the book.

WJ:  How did your surroundings influence your voice? Your perspective?

LC:  It got raw.  I came face-to-face with my fears, insecurities and failures, and I absolutely could not progress until I challenged them directly.  I couldn’t hide behind the distractions of the outside world. I felt bare, with nothing left to lose by writing my honest observations.  

As I got closer with my cellmates, my own story took a backseat, and I focused on their lives and outlooks.  The book transformed into our story.  Not just mine.  

Excerpt:

“How many mattresses are out there?”

“One.”

It was our nightly ritual; the counting of the mats. At 10:30 pm, the deputies placed mattresses on the table by the control desk, the number of which signaled to us how many new inmates were on their way to cell block. On our Walk, we had the only cell with a vacancy. The lights went out. I waited for my eyes to adjust, then continued reading The Screwtape Letters, by C.S Lewis; a rare find from the jail library.

“Did anybody come in?” Zach asked

“Not yet,” Zeek replied

“Well, I’m going to bed.  God bless, you guys!” Zach said, pulling down his headband

I’d fallen asleep when Rick Kellner made his entrance, and he came in with a bang.  Frankly, I wasn’t sure if I’d like Rick – he bragged of his charges with such enthusiasm, though I gave him the benefit of the doubt, thinking that underneath his thunder, there might be a man that grew up too damn fast.

  
WJ:  How has your experience within the criminal justice system changed the way you perceive art and/or the creative process?

LC:  Art has a vital role in lockdown. It’s not disposable. I noticed inmate reactions to watching television; so many societal issues were irrelevant to them, and advertising commercials had no effect. We couldn’t have any of those things, so the broadcast registered as noise to us. I was relieved – I’d finally found a place where marketing didn’t work. I thought to myself, ‘These people are picking up on completely different signals.  That’s awesome.’

It’s funny, because I got housed with inmates who lamented over how much better the conditions were in prison, as opposed to county, because they had access to art supplies. My cellmate Rick did incredible drawings, but blank, white sheets of paper were a scarce commodity. We had to be resourceful and work with our limitations. It didn’t stop us. I kept a 2-inch pen, wrapped in paper and adhesive labels to make it less pliable, safely in my sock since the jail considered it contraband.

Excerpt:

Rick produced a work of art, while free, at a stable point in his life, on a canvas measuring roughly four-foot-by-six. He did the drawing in pencil; the image of an Elk, beside a river, on a cold morning.

He lost track of how long he spent perfecting it; each blade of grass, drop of moisture and dew, the hair of the Elk’s coat, its breath, all of it in vivid detail.  He spoke of its majesty, regarding it as his finest achievement, creatively. I believe Rick thought of that drawing often, in the darkest moments, pulling strength from it, when he felt at a loss.  I think it helped him see the goodness of his capabilities.

WJ:  What inspired you to keep writing? Were there times you lost the motivation? If so, how did you find it again?

LC:  I don’t recall losing motivation.  On the contrary; my cellmates would have to pry me off my journal, bring me down to earth, and encourage me to exercise and joke around. I formed tight bonds with my cellies. We fueled one another with ideas and inspiring stories. Art kept us sane. We balanced it with spiritual practices and kept each other laughing.  

Excerpt:

Zach didn’t waiver from his routine, and his daily yoga session piqued Rick’s interest. By that point, I joined Zach a few times a week, and it improved my flexibility. The floor got cramped with three of us, so I let Rick take a lesson. Zach gradually taught him the steps and proper breathing techniques.

Rick’s body trembled, as he labored to maintain a stance.

“Zach, I can’t hold it. I’m losing balance,” Rick pleaded

“You gotta breath deep with the motion, bro. You can do it.”

Rick’s feet slid on the smooth concrete, “This is way harder than I thought.”

“Yoga ain’t no punk, Rick.”

WJ:  What gave you hope? Who/what inspired you?

LC:  Seeing my dog Jack again. He means the world to me. On the day of my arrest, I got far more concerned for his well-being than my own. When the cops allowed me ‘my one phone call’ it wasn’t to a lawyer. I wanted to verify that Jack was safe and cared for. My friends and family came through in a big way.

WJ:  What advice would you give to other creative thinkers who are locked up? Or to artists and writers who teach in prisons/jails?

LC:  Keep it unfiltered. Don’t get influenced by history. The art you do doesn’t have to be monumental. That’s not the point. Your goal shouldn’t be to impress others. Real art isn’t about your ego; it’s the release of ego that makes it sincere. If it doesn’t heal you, don’t expect it to help others.  

While finishing the final draft of my book, page by page, I’d follow one instruction:  Did I keep it real and from the heart? Then, I’d ask two questions: What am I bringing awareness to?  And, am I ready to put this into the world?

To be a teacher in that environment, well, I think you have to create a circle of trust and safety, or the results won’t happen. Everyone involved has to be comfortable and meet at eye level before they open up. My cell mates were hesitant when they saw me keeping a journal, but once they trusted my intentions, they wanted to be involved and contribute to it. I’d quote ’em all day long.

Excerpt:

July 20th – Through the windshield of the transport bus, I witnessed sidewalks busy with people, wandering, arms full of shopping bags, wanting things. I saw advertisements for phone plans, menu options at fast food restaurants, and bands wearing the latest fashion. I wasn’t missing anything; Cell 846 was my comfort zone; I’d power through the day, and go to my bunk and rest.

My gaze shifted from the windshield to a black man seated in front of me, in the maximum security section; an iron gate divided us.  He reminded me of Tupac Shakur – maybe it was the nose ring. How did he get to keep his nose ring? How strange, that you can sit next to a person on a bus, and say nothing to them – and a month later, that person changes your life forever.

WJ:  What gave you the confidence to publish your story? What impact do you hope it will have?

Well, I felt a sense of obligation to publish since it wasn’t simply my story.  I promised those men I’d see it through.  

I have a dear friend, on the outside, that read the book. Unfortunately, his long term relationship with his girlfriend had hit a rough patch, and they decided to take a break. She moved out of state. Unbeknownst to me, he would read the book to her over the phone at night, and it helped them to rediscover and be grateful for what they had built. That touched me deeply. It made my struggles worthwhile. That’s what I want for the book; to have the reader find a negative in their life and convert it into something positive. That’s the victory.

WJ:  What are your goals for the future? How has the transition coming home been for you? Have you continued to write? If so, has it served a purpose during the transition?

LC:  Actually, I’m studying for my degree in floral design. I’d practiced Ikebana, Japanese flower arrangement, throughout my adult life. It brought me peace. I committed to making it my new career when I got out, so I’m really concentrated on that now. The transition was rough. By the time they kicked me to the streets I’d lost my home, my car, my camera and computer equipment, both of my jobs, etc. On top of that I now had a criminal record to contend with. At least I had my dog, and solid friends. I think that’s ultimately what the book is about; true friendship.  

Logan and Jack
Logan and Jack

If you’d like to connect with Logan (or Jack), email films.by.logan@gmail.com.

Hands Down: A Story of Incarceration, by Logan Crannell