Jailhouse Journal VIII

by Ella Stone

We make lists to organize our lives. Lists of food. Of errands. Of goals. “To Do.” They’re concrete things that measure our productivity, our ambition, sometimes even our feelings. This week for class, we focused on list making. The men had some experience making lists during our first class when they made lists of things that are yellow, verbs that start with “c”, and breakfast foods.

This week, however, the lists dug deeper. A guest lecturer came to class to lead a discussion on lists, and the power they have in writing. Their hidden meanings. Their unveiling significance. She read some examples of list writing from Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” and Jim Harrison’s “I Believe” and Nick Flynn’s “Same Again.” I watched the men begin to understand the power of lists, watched them intrigued by their puzzle-like quality, their randomness and yet thoughtful construction.

I made a list of my own as I sat there in the classroom: a circle of red shirts, a ring of brains, hearts that pump, beating vessels, heating chairs, feeling, listening, learning, wanting, writing, changing.

I ran into an old friend last weekend. He’s a sheriff at a county jail outside of Pittsburgh. Although a bit taken back that I was teaching creative writing at a jail, he still believes that I’m improving their lives while they’re behind bars. Giving them something positive to meditate on, providing an outlet that encourages growth and supports creativity. But he’s been exposed to the county jail system for years, and he knows that the majority of inmates who end up in jail return soon after they’re set free.

“You might change one, one out of a hundred, maybe,” he said taking a sip of his beer. I looked behind him, past the pool tables and neon beer signs, taking in the cliché-ness of his statement. I’ve heard it before. While working with inner city elementary school kids a few summers ago, I heard the same “You might change one life.” And all over again, I find myself asking “Is it worth it?”

I don’t think it’s about changing one life. I don’t think it’s about helping someone take a 180-degree turn. It’s more complicated than that. Especially with a group of adults who have made decisions that have put them behind bars, or who have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. But what makes this time so interesting, so crucial and so significant is that most of these inmates have no idea what their near futures hold. An uncertainty permeates the walls through which they walk, day in and day out. Most of them haven’t had a trial yet, haven’t been sentenced or acquitted. They’re kind of in limbo, in purgatory. Waiting.

Watching. Respecting. Reading. Reflecting. Regretting.

Waiting for Necessity to Speak IV

by Michael Simms

I think it was the short-story writer Alice Munro who said that she is always looking for a place to hide in the house, a place away from children, the phone ringing, chores to be done, the sociability of neighbors, a place to sit and stare at a blank wall, a place to get on with her real work, waiting for necessity to speak.

And eventually necessity does speak, although often in subtle ways. Sometimes a poem begins in the recognition of an oddity of language, something read or overheard that catches the poet off-guard by its metaphorical promise. For example, the French word for time, le temps, also means weather and season, implying that our sense of time is not an abstraction, but something primal that can be experienced through the senses. Another example of how abstractions are traditionally related to our sense of the body occurs in English: the word testify is related to the word testes, going back to the ancient custom of men swearing oaths while placing a hand over their testicles, swearing on their manhood, so to speak — implying of course that if they lied they would be castrated. These primal correspondences, proto-metaphors, echo with possibilities. After this initial recognition, like finding a fossil in a rock, the challenge is to use one’s sense of craft to carve the poem, make it whole, bring it to life. As Jean Cocteau calls it: teaching a statue to walk.

Sometimes a bit of language will stir the poet’s metaphysical sense of connectedness, the feeling that trees, animals, and even rocks share our struggle to live. My wife grew up in the Siegerland, a region of Germany rich in folk tradition. Eva remembers when she was nine years old her last visit to her neighbor Marianne Krebber before she died. The old woman was sitting at the table drinking tea while she told Eva that the night before a truck had hit the old linden tree in front of her house knocking off a great limb. She said she rushed down and stood in front of the tree. She could feel it suffering. She went into the house and looked up the remedy in her book Blumen die Durch die Seele Heilen — “Flowers that Heal through the Soul.” She found the recipe for “rescue remedy”: star of Bethlehem for shock, rock-rose for fear and panic, impatiens for stress and tension, cherry-plum for despair, and clematis for the feeling of being far away that often appears before becoming unconscious. She mixed the essences in water, dipped a towel, then wrapped it around the wound in the tree. She claimed the tree stopped bleeding and began to heal. She could feel the easing of the tree’s pain.

In the book, a violet that grows in wet soil is called Wasserfeder — water-feather.


Jailhouse Journal VII

by Ella Stone

A colorful baby boy’s room. A quiet fishing lake. A tight-knit urban neighborhood. A woman’s steady arms. A lively street in NYC.

These are the places where the inmates of ACJ want to be. Places they want to remember, places they choose to re-create. As each man reads his piece to the class, I start wondering if they’ve ever shared these places with anyone else, if they’ve ever let anyone into this positive space in their heads. Does the judge in their trial see these places in their eyes? Do the security guards feel them when they walk down the hall? Are they even the places each inmate sees when he looks into the mirror?

This week our lesson plan focuses on sense of place. I want the students to really think about their surroundings, to see the power that place can have in writing. We talk about sense of place, and about how to evoke different landscapes and environments. Minds wander to hometowns and vacation spots, to summer nights in the streets, to where water meets land, and land meets mountain.

I know very little about each inmate—where they’re from, what place they grew up in, where they spend their summers—and I have assumptions going into this lesson. I choose to read excerpts from writers Janisse Ray and Nick Flynn. Ray’s excerpt exemplifies her complex and lyrical language, her intimacy with writing about the natural world, descriptions of large lands and forests. Flynn’s excerpt displays his solid, rhythmic writing that evokes the nitty-gritty of Boston streets and homeless shelters. Both excellent. Both different. Both good examples of creating a sense of place. But all along I think they’ll respond most to Flynn.

The men each read a paragraph of Ray, slowing down their pace to grasp her language, trying hard to convey her voice. They tell me afterwards that it was difficult to read, and in some places hard to follow, but they want to talk more about her words, her syntax, her creative voice. Then we read Flynn. His writing is easier to read out loud and easier to follow the first time through. And although they really like him, they want to read more Ray. About the Georgian land, the junkyard she grew up in, the wide, open sky full of deep blues and stars. I see them challenged by her language, see them thrive off her choice of word structure and punctuation, see them find solace in descriptions of vast land and empty forests, skies that stretch forever.

Once I really think about it, it seems obvious that they might respond to nature writing like Ray’s. Day in and day out, they sit in small cells, surrounded by painted concrete and dirty bathrooms, constant chatter and unattractive light. Ray’s words take them outside of the jail, to see and feel an openness and freedom, a way of life without boundaries. But what really intrigues them is that it is a place of unfamiliarity. And just as they, pleasantly surprised, find something special in a world of unfamiliarity, I realize that so have I.


Back to School

by Publius

Mr. Eagleton is scheduling his classes according to the National Weather Service. He’s not from here. So he comes into my room, and asks me about “the rainy season”. He doesn’t have any shades on his windows, so his plans to show movies on days when it’s overcast.

Depending on where you are in the building today, there’s either a cold snap or a heat wave. Some rooms actually have frost on the inside of their windows. In others, it’s a bit more like the Mekong Delta on a balmy day.

No one’s schedule is fixed, even though students will be here on Monday. I think I’m going to be teaching Freshman English and Junior English, but I could be teaching history. Or astrophysics, for all I know. I’ll likely have about 150 students. But, if all my nightmares align themselves with Jupiter and Mars, I could have 250.

Since the Social Studies Department is short two teachers, those students are being dumped into other classes. Given that, Mr. North is looking into the possibility of using the auditorium for his classes.

We’ve got professional development planned for all day tomorrow. Tomorrow’s subject? How to write the lesson plan. There’s a new form. Actually it’s the old form, but now it’s online, and has electronic links which, when I looked it up, don’t work. Which is OK, because nobody reads this stuff anyway. A lot of folks turn in the exact same lesson plan all year, and just change the date.

Speaking of which, I had to apologize to my buddies. We were emailed explicit instructions to, “at a minimum”, write in the correct year and correct school for our professional development plans. I’ve been turning in the same one for almost ten years now. I just now realized that my form was dated 2001-2002, and was from my old school. My bad, my bad …

And it’s only 9 AM.


Where Does Poetry Come From? II

by Michael Simms

From the beginning of Western literature, there has been a dual attitude toward the source of poetry. The ancient Greeks saw the poet as a maker, and they also had the tradition of the poem being a gift from the muse. The poem is simultaneously made by the poet and it is given by a deity or spirit. In other traditions you see similar tendencies to equate inspiration with divine gifts or with spiritual enlightenment. Lorca’s duende, a supernatural force which comes to inhabit the flamenco dancer, is his metaphor for this possession of the poet by an outside spirit. The Buddhist principle of letting go of the ego in order to be at one with the cosmos; Keats’ idea of negative capability, a receptiveness to the poem; chance methods of composition such as those by John Cage and Jackson MacLow, the principle of simultaneity in which juxtaposition in itself becomes meaningful, such as occurs in the coin-tossing reference system of the I Ching; even Eliot’s objective correlative — all are versions of the idea that the poem is not something that is made but rather received by the poet. The poem stands halfway between the listener and the gods.

In the many creative writing workshops I’ve attended through the years, only once were the principles of imagination, inspiration, and creativity ever mentioned. In 1974, on the first day of class, Michael Ryan said that we would not be talking about these things, not because such things don’t exist, he said, but because no one knows anything about them, so there’s no point in discussing them. Incidentally, Bill Matthews said the same thing a few years later on the first day of class, but this time the subject that the teacher refused to discuss was rhythm. You have to understand that these are two of the best teachers, not to mention smartest men, I’ve ever known, yet, between them, they had ruled out as subjects of discussion imagination, inspiration, creativity, and rhythm. I wonder now why they ruled out these subjects which form the heart of poetry…. Perhaps the answer lies in their own uncertainty about these subjects. There are no definite answers the teacher can give, so — the teacher reasons — let’s don’t lead the students down a path where we have no map to guide us.


The Core of American Life

by Songyi Zhang

Just a couple of weeks ago my American friend AZ suggested we should go to a Pirates game. At first, the idea didn’t appeal to me. “The sport is like rocket science to me,” I said. “I don’t know how to watch a baseball game.”

This is true. My American friends have tried to teach me the sport a dozen times. They drew a diamond on the ground and pointed at the bases; they played baseball video games with me; they shouted and flung their arms as they watched games on TV. But none of the tactics worked. My mind just couldn’t fathom the intricate rules.

The French-born cultural historian Jacques Barzun once said that if you want to know the heart and mind of America, you must first understand baseball. I can’t agree more. Flipping the pages of my old notebook of English vocabulary, I remembered I actually have learned quite a few phrases originated from baseball: to hit a home run, out of the ballpark, big leagues, swing and miss, touch base, strike out…. Not until I lived in America as a student did I realize that Hollywood isn’t an accurate representation of American life; the soul of American entertainment is sports.

Before I came to Pittsburgh, my American friends already gave me a pre-cultural shock warning about the Pittsburgh Steelers, Penguins and of course, the less-glorified Pirates. I thought, “What? The whole city is just about these three sports teams? What about the climate? What about the people? What about the food? (Coming from a gourmet metropolis in Guangzhou China, food is essential to me.)” No, no, the well known seven courses in Pittsburgh are an Iron City six-pack and a Primanti Bros. sandwich.

Since I am not a sports buff, I was a bit apprehensive going to the ballpark. I was afraid I would sit silently through the game like an Egyptian mummy. Well, it turned out I enjoyed sitting in the grandstand inside PNC Park on a rainy night. The ballpark was illuminated beautifully by the floodlights. The huge screen was showing the good old days of Pirates’ last World Series in the 1979.

Due to the bad weather, the game against the San Francisco Giants was three hours late and started after we had left the ballpark. Sadly, I didn’t get a chance to make use of the rain check, a new baseball idiom I learned.

But I did have a good evening in the ballpark. I appreciated feeling the breeze in the open air, listening to the old Pirates games and watching the magnificent skyline of Pittsburgh’s Golden Triangle in the rain. I guess that is why the Pirates still have so many loyal fans waiting in the rain: it’s not about competition but participation.


Jailhouse Journal VI

by Ella Stone

I taught my first creative writing class at the ACJ (Allegheny County Jail) this week. I thought I’d be nervous but the moment the fifteen male inmates walk into the room and sit in a circle, I feel calm, comfortable, eager. I suppose that’s how a teacher should feel approaching his/her first class. The inmates seem excited to be here, looking forward to something new, something different, interested to hear what I have to say.

A range of inmates participate. Through introductions, I learn that a few are writing 400-pg novels, some have never written before in their lives, and others just want to do something that might better who they are. I think they deserve a second chance.

I’ve been worried about teaching in a jail, worried that I might label these individuals, whether subconsciously or not, now that they’re locked up. I’ve worried that I might filter too much of how I act or what I say because these students have made mistakes, decisions that have led them behind bars. I fear that all these worries might uncover a truth about myself that I don’t want to see, the truth that as much as I try not to judge, I do.

We free-write towards the end of class. They each choose a prompt and we write for thirty minutes, teacher included. For a moment while I’m writing, I forget where I am. I feel a circle of writers around me, an energy that feeds the room, a creativity that travels from head to head as we sit in silence, crafting. I look up to think of a word, scan the short haircuts of still men around me, and forget I’m in a jail. I don’t notice the red of their inmate suits; I just see their pencils moving.

For a few of the students, this is their first time attending a class at the jail, and for one it’s his first time in a writing class. After the free-write, he shares his work. He wrote about how he was born into a single-parent household with a mother addicted to crack, how difficult it was to fight his circumstances, how it seemed inevitable that he would get into drugs, start using, start selling. He holds the face of a sincere child when he reads, the voice of a friendly neighbor and he listens intently when other people speak, nodding his head slightly, absorbing the words like dry wood in a needed rain.

A second chance. I re-think what I mean by second chance. Based on my first three hours with these inmates, and my first writing lesson with them, I start to believe that they never really had a first chance. I don’t know all their stories yet. I’m sure I’ll find out more through their writing. But this new student, who was so eager to share his first piece of writing, represents the whole room for me. He was born into circumstances out of his control, and so what if he wasn’t able to overcome them and turn everything he knew into good? What if he’s not looking for a second, third, fourth chance at life? What if he’s searching for the first one he never had?

Where Does Poetry Come From?

by Michael Simms

Let’s talk about where poetry comes from… or at least where one poem came from. I offer one of my own, not because it is an example of a great poem (it isn’t), but because I know the situation out of which it arose.

For a period of time a few summers ago, I kept a notebook in which I wrote everyday. Usually I did free-writing: scribbling down whatever came to mind as quickly as I could. During these sessions, which usually lasted only fifteen minutes or so a day, I didn’t bother to think about punctuation or line-endings or poetic form; however the words came out was the form of the piece and I usually didn’t revise. On June 18, I wrote a piece which I knew was not a poem, but which had an interesting tone and rhythm. I especially liked the last three lines:

darkness descends
and the birds become invisible on their branches
their nests like the thoughts of old

The next evening, my wife, who is a psychologist, and I were talking about writing because she had been asked to contribute a chapter in a textbook of Jungian studies. I mentioned to her that I had been free-writing everyday for several weeks. She said, or at least I thought she said, “Yes, you have to write everyday, because you never know where a poem is sleeping.” The statement made a deep impression on me. I sat on the couch, stunned by the enormity of the metaphor. After a few minutes, I went upstairs to my study. After half an hour or so, I had this draft:

You have to write everyday
because you never know where a poem sleeps

It might be coiled around a branch
high in the air
a snake dozing in the speckled shade

It might be catching a few zees
in the attic

Aunt Zelda loved

or dozing in the picture of your grandfather
in his Sunday best
framed and ready to go
through generations of dust

It might be dreaming
in a story you loved
when you were a mouse
in a wall much larger than now

A poem is a box in a box
in a cloud a boy watches
thinking of sleep
and the one time he went fishing with his dad

But you have to let it happen. You have to listen real hard
The poem can survive if it knows
you’re looking for it
under the stones of the river
in the high ears of the corn field

I needed a strong conclusion, but I was stuck. I didn’t know where to go from the words “corn field.” Then I remembered the free-writing I had done the previous evening. When I wrote the last three lines at the bottom of the new poem, they fit.

I knew I had a poem, but it seemed rough. There were some things I didn’t like, such as the business of Aunt Zelda and the picture of the grandfather. Those characters seemed cliched and inauthentic. (On a factual level, the characters are inauthentic: I don’t even have an Aunt Zelda.) Also, some of the rhythms, line-endings, and shifts of perspective seemed awkward. So I went over the poem, reading it aloud to myself hundreds of times, recopying it dozens of times, each time changing a detail, sharpening an image, smoothing the rhythm, letting the poem emerge from the scribbles of my initial draft. After a few days, I had a finished draft:

Where The Poem Sleeps

You have to write every day
because you never know where a poem sleeps

It might be coiled around a branch
high in the air
dozing in the speckled shade

It might be dreaming in a story you loved
when you were a mouse
in a wall much larger than now

You may find a poem in a cloud
a boy watches, thinking
of the one time he went fishing with a bear

But you have to let it happen
you have to listen real hard

The poem can survive a night
in the woods alone, curled up
under an elm tree
after a day of looking for you

It can even be happy as a stone in the river
if it knows you are waiting for it to come home

And you are waiting
as darkness descends
and the birds become invisible
on the branches
                               their nests
like the thoughts of drowsy mathematicians

Shortly after the poem was published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the poet Maurice Kilwein Guevara, whom I had never met before, contacted me and said that he read the poem on his mother’s refrigerator. She’d saved the poem because it reminded her of her native Columbia.


Jailhouse Journal V

by Ella Stone 

“I share a cell with another guy. It’s more like a bathroom. There’s a sink and a toilet, and where a bathtub would normally be is our bed. It’s horrible,” one of the inmates says.

“Gosh” I say, eyes wide, trying to imagine living in such a small space.

Big things come in small packages.

A person’s a person, no matter how small.

From a small seed a mighty trunk may grow.


This week we open class with a video about a British artist who sculpts miniscule figurines. He constructs them through a magnifying class, balances their grain of salt-sized body parts on an eyelash or in the eye of a needle. He re-creates all sorts of characters from the Incredible Hulk to the Last Supper scene to the Wizard of Oz cast. I can’t fathom the hand-eye coordination needed to build these figurines, the patience, the self-discipline. The artist’s name is Wigan, and his inspiration comes from a discouraging childhood of dyslexia when teachers told him he would never amount to anything big. And he agreed, in a way. He listened to their words, to their put-downs, and decided to build something bigger. He discovered good in a world of minutia.

Wigan has become internationally renowned. He holds exhibits and sells his miniature sculptures for tens of thousands of dollars. He’s been highly profiled for his skill and has been awarded an MBE (Member of the British Empire) for his services in art.

As I watch the video, I contemplate these microscopic creations, and I can’t help but think about how many of these inmates might have had similar discouragements growing up. The more and more I come to the jail, the less I can ignore the socio-economic and racial implications around me. Those in these walls are predominately of ethnicities other than white and most likely come from a lower income bracket. It’s a social discussion I don’t want to or feel I can tackle right now, but one that’s constantly got me thinking about most of these inmates’ past and current circumstances.

Towards the end of class, a tour of kids walks by the classroom. The jail calls it “Scared Straight,” a program that’s meant to show children what can happen if they break the law. A few of the inmates mention how the officers bring the kids right through their cell blocks, and the discussion veers back to the cells.“They’re awful. And small,” the one guy says to me. “You know the size of that bathroom down the hall that you’ve been in. Like that,” he says. “So small.”

Small, I think. Small. How are they going to find inspiration inside that tiny block? How are they going to write themselves out of a life and a world that lies on the bottom rung of our societal hierarchy? A cell. A jail. Incarcerated. Constrained.

And then I think of Wigan. Of how he’s learned to slow his heartbeat in order to prevent his hot fingertips from pulsing too much while sculpting. Like learning to beat an addiction, like pulling a finger away from the trigger of a gun, he focuses on what makes him live: finding good in the small and unnoticed.


Waiting for Necessity to Speak III

by Michael Simms

     Nowadays, many poets learn their craft in creative writing classes. We call them workshops in order, I suppose, to suggest a correlation with wood-carving or perhaps clock- making. And the best teachers do a great service to the students by emphasizing how a poem works, as well as how it could work better. As valuable as workshops are in passing on the craft to the next generation and providing employment for established poets, what is missing in creative writing classes is a way to talk about the real guts of the writing process. There seems to be a fearful cynicism in these classes that prevents people from discussing the way poems are actually made. For example, the word imagination is rarely mentioned. And the traditional language for describing the moment of receiving the poem seems antiquated and even a bit silly in a classroom where down the hall people are looking through microscopes at human cells or listening to a lecture about the statistical analysis of the behavior of white rats. A student who dared to name his or her muse would be summarily dismissed as a flake. It is ironic that almost any other idea, no matter how neurotic or far-fetched its origins, will be treated seriously in a writing class, but if a student dares to talk about the act of inspiration (literally, a breathing in), his classmates will roll their eyes and change the subject. I have heard the most paranoid paradigms of human relations — the idea that all heterosexual union is a form of rape, for example — put forward as critical interpretations of poems in graduate workshops, and yet a discussion of love — which seems to me the source of all great poetry — is met with yawns and snickers. What have we come to?