Thursday, October 10, 2013
Like many who come to the workshop, Inmate B saw himself as a bad-ass. He came trailing a reputation for quick kicks tied to a short fuse. From what I heard, it was well-deserved.
He had brought something to read and let me know that he wanted to go first.
After I went through greetings, introductions for the newbies, announcements, passed out writing pads, pens, a few books, magazines, thesauri, dictionaries, and gave a brief assignment, it was time to read. Inmate B sat up, held his writing pad in front, and adjusted his glasses.
"Forget my name/Forget my face/ Forget my arms/ My strong embrace" and on and on.
Quartets. Rhyming. Self pity. Ugh.
The rest of the guys in the workshop looked to me. They didn't want to say anything.
I took an indirect path.
"So, what kind of piece is this?"
"A poem," one man volunteered.
"That's right. What kind of poem?"
"A rhyming verse poem," someone else added.
Inmate B seemed satisfied so far.
"What do you guys think about that form?"
"It's good for Hallmark Cards," another inmate offered, almost apologetically.
"Yes, it's a familiar form for love poems or family occasions, that kind of thing."
"They are usually too sappy and sentimental," a big black inmate said.
"And they feel forced. The words get jammed together and take over what you are trying to say."
Couldn't have said it better.
Inmate B stirred in his chair. I saw his knuckles go white with a strong squeeze. But he took notes.
The inmates began to offer up sharp observations about inverted structures, excessive abstraction, lack of sensory details, vividness of image, and general overload of sentiment.
Inmate B sat still and hard as a stone, except for his pen, which kept moving.
"Anything else?" He said.
"Keep working on it. But try free verse next time," I offered.
I find that free verse elicits more honest emotion, complexity, immediacy, surprise. It sometimes takes a while to stop wanting to be like and sound like Shelly or Longfellow and start sounding like one's self. As my running coach once said, "You can't be anywhere other than where you are, no matter how much you want might want to be."
Inmate B did not return to the workshop for a couple of months, but when he did, he brought a story about moonshine in Kentucky, and his conscription into the family business when he turned eleven. It wasn't perfect, but it resonated with the smells, sights, and language of the Appalachians. I published a revised version of the story in the prison magazine.
Since then, he has compiled a book length collection of stories and free verse poems.
I don't like all of them. I find many of them still bigoted, harsh, and smugly puerile. Others, however, offer a view into white poverty, closed family secrets, stunted opportunity, and a seething anger at institutions or intellectuals.
"I would have gotten mad a few years ago," he said to me recently, after finding a Post It on one his drafts that said "Low Priority. I don't much like this piece."
I had written that as directions to the volunteer typist, and she had forgotten to remove it.
"But now I can take it. I know you eggheads are full of shit." he smiled, a not completely ironic smile.
"It's true," I said. "I didn't like that piece. It is loaded with cliche and pointless, irritating meanness."
"But I keep coming back, don't I?"
" Yes you do. Me too" I said, knowing that pronoun was grammatically wrong, but right for the moment.