Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Solstice At the Prison

Standing in the cold, beneath a half moon, wind blowing from the north, waiting for a bus, Dick and I make small talk. I want to tell him I am in awe if what he does with the inmates in the writing workshop. He would not think it appropriate and would shrug it off. We are carrying empty plastic tubs. When we came in, they were full of books, pads, pens, and magazines.

Dick’s hair has grown out and started to curl. It’s the color of a baby’s, the lightest shade red hair can have; but Dick is no baby. He has been at this for a long time.

We met earlier tonight in the parking lot in front of the Main Gate at the Arizona State Prison Complex in Tucson. He gave me the heavier of the two tubs, explaining that he had pulled muscle along his rib cage and could not breathe all that well. We make small talk as we pass through the metal detectors and then entered the sally port. We had badges from our photos and names and expiration dates. A bus wearing a sign for Santa Rita sped, an apparition out of the darkness, and screeched to a stop. It exhaled hot air as the doors opened and an inmate greeted us.

The race with invisible competitors began and I hung on to my tub, glad that I had seat. A barren, raked plain streaked past the windows, white under the moon.

Santa Rita’s doors are right next to the bus stop making it look more like a hospital than a prison. We entered and were let in to the visitors room through electric doors. The lighting was bad, but the tables were set up in orderly pattern, on the diagonal, with plastic chairs.

“You think we could get more light?” I asked, noticing that about half of the inmates would be sitting in the dark.

Dick tried the switch. All of the lights went out. He turned it back on. They stayed off. “Oh Shit,” he said, “now we’re really in the dark.”

I tried the switch. Same result. I asked to be let through the electric doors back to the control room and was given permission to do so. “Do you know how to turn on the lights?” Shrug.

I went back and we searched but to no avail.

Then I noticed that one of the bulbs was flickering back on. Must be one of those half-dead fluorescent lights, I muttered. As a few of them came back on we noticed that there were no inmates.

Back though the electric doors. “Of they’re under ICS. Someone found some clothes in a dumpster, so they have to do a count.”

“How long will that take?”


OK let’s wait I think to no one in particular.

Dick and I sit and talk about this and that. He tells me he visited Emily Dickinson’s house while on tour with his new book. “She lived in a mansion. Twenty acres at least, and a huge house.”

We go on about Whitman and Simic and Mary Oliver and Sam Hamill. I won’t tell you what he said about Sam.

An hour passes. I am relieved to think we might be leaving.

Then the first of the inmates shows up. Then a flood of orange jumpsuits and jackets comes through the door. “Good evening Mr. Shelton.” Hey Mr. Shelton.”  “How you doin Mr. Shelton?” The air is immediately congenial, relaxed, almost playful.

The guys take seats around the table. Dick calls out names and distributes folders. The inmates talk about the assignments they have done. Take one line, it is raining and us that to compose some vignettes. 

After that initial draft, they will economize, will cut some of the repeated phrases. Let them be suggested. 

He asks if some of them want to read. They do. They read well. John and Steve and Mr. Garcia.  After the reading there are comments. Dick puts me on the spot a few times. I zero in. They seem to think it’s OK, but I am not so sure. Doesn’t matter anyway. I’m just going to do the best I can.

“Let’s hear that again.” “Pass that up here and let me take a look at it.” Take that back and re-work and bring it in again.”

Then a man reads about his crack cocaine addiction. The piece ends with some “Glory to God” comment, more fitted for a revival meeting than a writing workshop.

“The ending might be unnecessary,” Dick says.

“I knew you were going to say that,” the inmate laughs. “I knew it.”

“Well it is rather abstract and maybe unnecessary.”

“It is an important piece though, a breakthrough of sorts.” What I hear is that the content for the man is much more important the quality of the writing here. This piece requires a different kind of response.

Another man reads. This one is lovely, is read as a poem and takes the term from temperature, to emotional state, to spiritual hunger and soul’s despair.

“Let me see how that is written,” Dick says.

The man passes it to the front of the table. All eyes are listening. Dick reads them again. He points out that the lines of the poem are really sentences and that the piece might be better read as a prose piece. He mentions “The Bus to Vera Cruz” as an example of something he was working on, but that would not fit as a poem.

“I am convinced that any piece of writing can be successful if you can find the right form.”

Silence. I think we are all aware that there this is some great advice. I am taken by the simple profundity of the line and its implications for any student of writing.

“Take this back and re-work it as a prose piece and then let’s look at it again.”

A man reads a piece he has written before. It is a scene of domestic tension, of trying to stay out of a spat with an irate wife. The men laugh at places that ring too true, maybe too familiar.

“It’s a nice scene. There is some tension there, some good dialogue.” What do you think Erec?

“I like it when Steve tells us his thoughts about wanting to avoid conflict, and how it seems inevitable given the portrayal of the woman.” Then changing track a little, I go to the content. “It’s a good idea sometimes to just head for the bomb shelter and close the hatch until the destruction is over.”

“You know,” says Dick, “Some men can avoid the conflicts by stepping aside, others by leaving, and still others attack.” He makes a gestures of surging forward with a sword. The guys nod in agreement.

“When I was doing the women’s workshop, the one I did for about seven years, I had one woman who was very flirtatious, very good looking and I was taken with her.”

“I bet Mrs. Shelton didn’t hear about this,” one of the guys snickered, conspiratorially. A few others nodded.

“Then, two other women took me aside one day and said ‘Dick, you know that she did not just kill one, but TWO of her husbands.’ “

The table laughed and deep laugh of delight. There was more at work, of course, than humor here.

“Shall we continue? Who else wants to read?”

Another man reads a poem that stops us all in our tracks. It is about love and self deception, about helplessness and sleep. “Beer bottles fall from our drunken hands and crash to the floor. We do not know if they fell or if we dropped them.” The lines drift out into the circle of men and then hang there in a raw truth and sharp beauty. I am stunned. All of us are stunned.

“I think it is brilliant,” Dick says. “What do you think, Erec?”

“I think it’s ready to publish.”

“Give that to me and I’ll get it re-typed.” The Holy Grail of the workshop, the destination, the ringing bell of accomplishment usher in the moment of royalty. This is magic I think to myself. Our surroundings are poor. Materials primitive. Yet, the atmosphere of learning, motivation, and collegiality is charged with intensity.

“Can you help with the tables?” Dick asks when it is time to go. I join in moving the tables. We set them back into the ordered pattern, under the dim lights. We are again back in prison, but not before shaking hands, wishing a happy holiday, and gathering up the sign up sheets.

The electric doors slide open to let us out into the cold night air. A wind is building out of the north. A cold front is coming in. I carry the warmth of the room, the excitement of the talk with me into the night. We stand under a light, hoping the driver will see us, will appear of darkness, surge to a stop, swing open the door with its blast of heat.

I want to tell him that I see. I am still trying to find the words.


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