While conversation often takes a certain turn in various social interactions outside of literary gatherings when the word "poet" rings out in response to the sooner-or-later query "what do you do?" (which usually stands in for what do you do for a living, which isn't actually what I do for a living, poet, but it is my vocation, unless you count teaching which isn't, as we know, the actual writing - I digress...), soon as it comes out that I teach poetry in prison even the ice clinking in glasses comes to the proverbial stop.
So I started collecting bits and pieces of my responses in order to hand out as index cards at the next party, and then paragraphs formed, and then some of them found their way into print. I'll offer excerpts here:
From an upcoming piece:
Poetry is not a path guidance counselors ever recommend. Not that there aren’t career poets. Those prize winners, grant recipients, and endowed chair holders who paid their dues back when dues paying paid off. Even assistant Profs can ride tenure track to a lovely life of summers free, semesters on sabbatical, and even occasional paid travel as Visiting Poets.
It used to go something like this: BA at an esteemed liberal arts school, MFA or MA, maybe the PhD. Publish. Teach. Keep publishing. Retire. Yes, William Carlos Williams was a doctor and many of the Beats didn’t teach. Plenty I suppose have dug ditches or graves or waitressed (which I’ve done) or split for Paris (not done) or joined the Peace Corps or something else noteworthy or noble to eat to live to write. But teaching feeds my writing. I’m in the poems when I’m teaching. To be in them is integral to writing them. [Now that I teach, see how I describe it differently, above? Many blessings to teaching poets everywhere.]
At least, that’s what I’d heard when I signed up for an MFA a few years ago. Now the PhD is required (the new MFA!) and there are no university teaching jobs, except in Dubai. Unfortunately, nobody told me that that first degree is the gateway drug and you don’t come out with any option whatsoever for paying for your own “room” anymore anyway. Or even plane tickets.
But when I was getting the MFA it was my job to set up a teaching gig as part of the degree. I lived near Albany so SUNY seemed ideal. Better yet, NY State Writers Institute. Now there’s a feather in the beret! One of the bigs had an upcoming reading. Surely I could corner a staffer at the event, prove my passion for poetry (and for teaching for free), and land the ultimate career swag. All went according to plan, save for the stupid CIA joke I made when my “dossier” was requested, and hand shaking with hearty “talk to you soon’s” ensued.
Then, nothing. If there’s one thing poets know how to do, it’s wait. Rejection letters can take years to arrive. I, however, needed to teach to graduate, and semesters were disappearing with nothing to show on my CV (Latin for resume). I was literally losing sleep every night until one morning, and I’ve no clue why, but on this particular day I shot up bolt right in bed and knew: forget feathers. I want to teach in prison.
From Open Book Toronto:
Here’s how it goes down. It’s much like any other room where students sit at desks and there is a teacher. These students know I have a high tolerance for chaos so poems on papers might literally fly around the room in the wind of an opened window or often enough overtalk among them takes over. Other times I stride in the room focused on Modernism and automation or Black Arts and the military-industrial-banking complex and don’t stop talking for ten okay twenty-five minutes when it’s time to hear their thoughts and poems from during the week. Then we are all all ears. Take notes on each other and feed them back.
Much like any other room where students sit at desks and there is a teacher we do have an outline of study. Or do now. For years we rolled with what I got my hands and head around that morning. There is a xerox machine I can use in the superintendent's assistant’s office and I take full advantage of the state budget. Like any other room where students sit at desks and there is a teacher I bring in poems and essays on poetics and historical context and sometimes seemingly unrelated material that we connect through a constellation of dots back to the poems. We curse the government. We write the revolution will not be a status update (yes they know about Facebook) and create our own cosmologies. Rewrite creation mythologies. Look up all sorts of words in the dictionary (I bring in an unabridged whomper every week).
Much like any other room where students sit at desks and there is a teacher I don’t know if I’m not also “the man” in some subtle way. That the best that I can hope for is modelling some sort of reverent irreverence for syntax and form and the lineage of any particular trope (“you gotta know when you say rose in a poem that it comes with all sorts of baggage, right?”). I tell them I found out that publishing didn’t save me or anyone but that writing might. And that there is something bigger than me. Than them. That we take part in. And that is language. And that is the writing. And that is society’s currency and when we get our fingers and teeth on it we like Kathy Acker says whenever we “engage in discourse, [we are] using given meanings and values, changing them and giving them back.” That we are changing something. And much like any other room where students sit at desks and there is a teacher maybe that writing never leaves the room. Maybe it changes nothing outside that room. Maybe the only thing the class changes outside that room is me. I can’t speak for them.
The prison class started at the end of 2005. Sometimes I struggle with what to say about it. I mean, in many ways it really isn’t any different from another classroom. And then, it is very different. My awareness of my role is heightened. No matter what I might think about whether this is unjust, corrupt, modern day slavery, how do we deal with criminal behavior, what is individual what is systemic, etc etc., fact of the matter is that the students right in front of me are in a singularly disempowering situation. This might manifest in a number of ways. For example, yesterday there was a new guy. His edge was very hard; he was testing me at every turn. There are times to move past that quickly and times to let that play out a little bit more before attempting to steer it into the energy of the group conversation. Like I said, any classroom. Yesterday was tricky, though, because we’re in the middle of a longer project right now. We’re using the text of Bernie Sanders’s filibuster from last December to make poems. So we’re doing a variety of things with his language. This particular day I happened to be talking about Sapphic meter to see if we might make our own extant fragments as a contrast to how we’d been working on it, having already done some revolution will not be televised versions and collaboratives and erasures and rhythmic repetitive rant chants.
So I’m in the middle of dactyls and trochees and I haven’t been sleeping well because Spring is on and he’s interrupting, and like I said his energy was, well it seemed to me that he was angry, which some might say was a reflection of my lack of sleep. Either way it is understandable and nothing new and there is usually room for that, but he keeps on, he’s asking me, what does politics mean to me and what do I know about the Black Panthers and some lady came into another prison where he was to teach poetry and took all their poems and they supposedly got stolen so if he gives me a poem it better show up where I say it’s going. Which is fine and absolutely part of the process; the issues he was getting at aren’t anything we don’t usually talk about on any given day, but he couldn’t know that yet. And he wouldn’t have any reason to trust me yet. Nor I him. Anyway, after some tongue biting on my part, we got to the place where he wanted to recite one of his own poems, so he did. Then he asked me to do the same with one of mine. So I did. That seemed to level something in the room.
We look at an immense amount of enviro-politico-socio-identity-gender-race-economic issues/art/writing, as well as complications of those categories and of categorization generally. And I’m often nearly anarchical in my approach to classroom structure. So to write about a scenario where I’m bringing Official Verse Meter and frustrated with interruptions might misrepresent how the class generally rolls. Or to assume that OVM wouldn’t or shouldn’t be taught. All of that’s in the way but also the very point.