Right now I am sitting in my spacious third floor office with hardwood floors in a one hundred and twenty year old building that used to be a ladies dormitory at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania. My office is about the size of my first studio apartment in New York City and it feels as if I’m sitting in prime real estate in an adjacent world and era. Classes ended about two weeks ago and I’m taking advantage of my quiet old world office. Although it feels a little haunted at sundown I stay put—as if I’m prepared to see a ghost—because part of my creative process involves escaping and I both enjoy and want to escape from this space.
I was hired as a visiting assistant professor two years ago. After my first semester, I was missing something. Although my students and classes were absolutely wonderful I was hungry for more, so I started to volunteer by bringing poetry workshops into the Cumberland County Prison. I work with the female population in the prison and together we escape worlds that entrap us.
In part, I was motivated to reach out to women impacted by drug addiction and alcoholism, people who are working to survive a personal battle, a battle that has gotten them into trouble. I needed to talk to people that I could relate to on a different level than those who walk the halls of a university. Although, I must say that survival in prison is not always that much different than survival in higher education.
I have a personal history with alcoholism and drug addiction and I’ve learned that I need to give it away in order to keep it. In other words, service work is like personal maintenance for my sanity and humility. It is also important to remember where I came from and not to regret the past or shut the door on it.
When I’m in prison teaching a poetry workshop, typically on a Friday afternoon, I visit pain, despair, suffering, desperation, a little hope and a lot of cold cement and cinderblocks. I visit an environment that is all too familiar. Although I didn’t go to jail I did go through many institutions where I sat behind plexiglass walls and walked on shiny grey cement that smelled like eggs and bleach; this Friday-afternoon-classroom has the same shiny cement floors and plexiglass wall that I remember from my own experience and I try to encourage the women to avoid facing the transparent wall because they get distracted by the guards passing by or visitors sitting down to talk on the phone through another glass wall.
There is a large table in the middle of this cold cement room and sometimes as many as twenty-five women sit around the table with me. We sit for about an hour, but on days when we are on a roll I will stay for up to three hours. We read a few poems, discuss them, and then we write our own poems. We consider poetry as it connects to life, culture, society, personal experience, and expression. I don’t think the women realize that they are in direct conversation with poets like Ann Sexton, Maya Angelou, Lucille Clifton, Ada Limón, Nin Andrews, Maria Gillan, Rachel McKibben, Jan Beatty, Jim Reese, Ron Padgett, etc. The women read these poets, channel the energy in the poems, and their own voices emerge as they write about their place in the world, their reality in jail, their families, losses, and hopes for the future.
Together we revisit some of the darker moments from our pasts and together we gain trust and courage. I often claim that we are attempting a cleansing process—to capture the darkness in writing, in poems, makes room for more light to enter the crevices where pain tends to burrow and breed. Where there is sorrow we reach for triumph and where there is darkness we reach for light. The dark moments that we write about tend to have less strength when they live in poems and those poems live out in the world away from the self.
I use poems as models and I bring in lots of prompts. The goal is to sit in prison, to center the conversation on poetry, and to engage in the act of writing. After reading a few poems, we sit in silence and the women—no matter how big or small the group is on any given Friday—either write as if it will carve a tunnel to freedom, or they sit studying and thinking about the poems that we read moments earlier. Sometimes we end up talking for an hour before we get to the writing.
For instance, a few weeks ago I brought in a batch of poems for us to read: “The Mother” by Gwendolyn Brooks, “I Go Back to May 1937” and “Ode to the Condom” by Sharon Olds, and “Before” by Ada Limón. After we took turns reading these poems aloud the one that echoed our conversation for the next hour was “The Mother”—it was the content that the women related to. We talked about abortion and many of the women shared their experiences. Almost all the women in the room had either young or grown children and one woman was seven months pregnant. We also talked about relationships and took turns defining what toxic and healthy relationships look like. We talked about personifying certain problems or personal defects of character. The conversation was long and the room was not as cold as it was when we started over an hour earlier.
Many of the women wrote poems in the form of a letter. Some addressed their living children, some their aborted children, and others wrote about life and motherhood. One of the poems from this workshop begins, “Oh, sweet innocent baby growing inside of me / I am so proud to call myself your mamma.”
All the women shared their poems with the group that day. Sometimes a few people choose to save their poem for the next class or they don’t read aloud to the group at all. No matter what they decide is okay, the letting go already happened in the writing. I encourage no disclaimers because some of the time we spend together is about building self-esteem and courage; it is about acceptance and healing. Not self-shaming or negative self-commentary. I say all this and then when I go to read my poem, which I always do no matter what I write, I have to stop myself from saying things like, “this one is a dud, but I’ll read it anyway,” or “I fell short today ladies.” In prison, I am more positive, at least out loud, and I practice what I preach. And I mean practice.
Last summer one of the workshops focused on odes and I was grateful to leave prison that day. Well, I must say, that I am grateful to leave after every workshop. I ended up writing “Ode to Locker #17 in the Cumberland County Prison” (follow the link to read this poem). In fact, I wrote a ton of poems with the women these past two years.
I think my next book will be devoted to the work that is coming out of the prison. Speaking of “out of prison” I started taking many of the women’s poems home with me after our classes. I make copies of their work and then bring it back to them. I love having their work on my desk at home. I carry a piece of them, or maybe I carry the voice of hope and desperation out into the free world for a little while before returning it back to jail. In a way, I help them explore new territory as if this is a way to visualize change even though it is probably only me doing the visualizing in this case.
Lastly for now, I started bringing my students from the university into the prison—one student at a time. The student who comes with me sometimes co-teaches or sometimes she jumps right in and joins the class. It is an excellent experiential learning experience. One of my students wrote a wonderful article for the school paper after her visit. You can read her article here: “Poetry Heals Hearts in Prison.”
Nicole Santalucia is the author of Because I Did Not Die (Bordighera Press, 2015). She is a recipient of the Ruby Irene Poetry Chapbook Prize from Arcadia Magazine for Driving Yourself to Jail in July and the 2015 Edna St. Vincent Millay Poetry Prize from The Tishman Review. She received her M.F.A. from The New School University and her Ph.D. in English from Binghamton University. Santalucia teaches poetry at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania and brings poetry workshops into the Cumberland County Prison.