Monday, September 19, 2016

Sometimes It Has to be OK Not to Know

He walks into the workshop as eager to please as a cocker spaniel. Even though he is a man of twenty-three, he has the shy smile and air of innocence of a child. He is perennially cheerful, like he carries an inside joke, the punchline of which he just keeps grinning over, always fresh. I know he is a capable man on the yard, but he doesn't broadcast it in the workshops. He is respectful to a fault, and makes it a point after every workshop to thank me for coming.

T. is one of the long-time regulars. His genre is poetry, specifically love poems. He misses his girlfriend terribly and describes her in sensuous terms involving fruits, flowers, stars, incense, and crashing oceans of distance. They are flowing rivers of longing and abstraction. He can't seem to break out of it.

I push him to create a scene, to ground his work in some concrete particular. He, I think, finds that frightening, and has yet to go there.

Then one day he comes in with a Cheshire smirk and says, "I have something different today. It's the assignment you gave us, the one about showing a relationship through a scene."

I assume he is going to read a piece about his girlfriend, but when it is his turn, he details a trip he took with his father. In the account, he is sixteen, and his father takes him to a whore house in Mexico. He, contrary to usual emphases in pieces like this, omits graphic sex, but focuses instead on getting to, and crossing the border. His prose jumps with style, energy, and sensory richness.

It also takes a twist, has a silly, funny end, that embarrasses cops, specifically the Border Patrol, who can't discern the difference between deodorant residue and cocaine. I find it funny, but not terribly insightful.

After he reads I ask him if there is more he could include about what the trip was for him in terms of his relationship to his father.  That was, after all, the assignment, to convey something of the nature, the qualities, of the relationship.

He says "No. There is nothing more to tell. I hadn't seen more than a few times in my life before that. I don't know anything about him. He just came to take me out to make me a man. That's it."

T. does not traffic in irony. What he says is what he means. His look when he tells me this is as honest and complete as any sentences I have heard in my life. He puts a funny face on what he has with his father, which is next to nothing. 

I find the story both comic and tragic. I doubt many readers will get it without all the context, but decide to pursue publication anyway.

I file it in the category of "What might have, could have, should have, but what has never, been." That file is large. It sealed and protected by a thick wall of stories. 

It's a good piece, well written. I ask him if I can submit it to the magazine.

"Sure," he says, proud to have his work considered. The truth of it disarms me. I don't know how it will fly. 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Haiku For Fall (off the cuff)

Full cart at Costco
Blueberries and bananas
Stuck in Samsara

Moon pull-up last night
Wish I could do twenty one
Fall more than season

Cat brings mouse to bed
It looks for a place to hide
Not batting practice

Kids go to school now
Sun rises cool at long last
Papers need grading

Her hair begs touching
My hands tremble with fear
Too many bills to pay

I pull a blanket
Cooler pump self-destructed
Better turn it off

Saturday, September 17, 2016


C.C. exudes the confidence of the large and strong. His dread locks extend half way down his back, and the orange jump suit barely contains the bulk of his chest, arms, and broad back. He cocks his head when he looks at me, but he defers, at least for now, to my critique of his writing.

The first drafts of his work are all about sexual conquests. In a circle of men, that's a pretty safe subject, and, to my eye, is evidence of Eve Sedgewick's "male gaze." In her thinking, men bond over talking about women. That helps us guys overcome some of our discomfort or fear of each other. There is more to her work, but this thumbnail summary gets at some of the some dynamics of the workshops. There is inertia here, cultural inertia. Prisons are extensions and distillations of inequities and injustice. The men live in a focused beam that is intensified by sexual frustration and deprivation. In a word, the subject is touchy if not taboo. 

It's a tough moment when I bring up the topic of sexism in writing. C.C. and his portrayal of women is not the misogynistic degradation of "bitches" and "hos," but it does condescend. He bristles when I ask him about it.

"What do you mean, 'sexist?'" he asks.

"When you say Shaunny was a 'fine female' you reduce her to her gender rather than showing readers more about her, who she is, what she likes, or fears, what make her unique."

He thinks about that, as if, going beyond "female" is not exactly necessary.

"So if I say something about he does her hair, that'll work better?" he says, trying on the different description.

"Yes, that's going to help make her more of a character, not so flat or stereotypical."

We go with that for a while.

As an assignment, I ask C.C. to render a specific scene with her to help show not just more about how hot she was and how good he was in bed with her, but something about him, some reflection on his actions, something that might make him a bit more human, complex, something honest, in which he might not look so good.

Other men around the table nod in reluctant assent.

One says, "Yeah. Where you afraid she might say no?"

C.C. sits with that, takes a deep breath, about busts the seams of his jumpsuit, and then lets out a sigh.

"OK, I think I could do that," he says, making it something of a challenge, a competition.

He re-assumes his Alpha stance.

"I went with a chick once, who only had one breast," he said. "I gotta say, that bothered me, turned me off. Problem was I really liked her. She liked me too. Until I saw her topless, that is. Then I went with another girl. Something about that didn't feel right, but I felt like I had to go with what got me off better. I just couldn't see eff'in some chick with only one tit."

"Now that is a story," I said. "Let's hear it, your side of it, how you worked that conflict out."

"OK," He said. "OK." 

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Skin in the Game

"You'll have to vouch for him -- work, place to live, awareness of parole obligations -- if he's going to leave the halfway house," he said.

He was the manager of the Federal Bureau of Prison's halfway house. He was a big guy, bored and weary. He looked like he had seen it all and then some. Nothing could surprise him.

I felt like passing him a hundred dollar bill just to see how he would react.

The place was sad. Grimy. Defeated men and women wandered around the "campus" with heads down, feet shuffling. Folding chairs sat in the sun next to doors that opened onto a parking lot. It had been a hotel at one time.

The place next door advertised itself as the "No Tel Motel."

We were in a tough part of Tucson, not the best place, I thought, for a halfway house for men and women tying to get away from a life on the streets.

"I can do that," I said. "He'll be working for a magazine as an editor, and he has a guest house to rent on the east side."

He looked at me with an expression, "who do you think you're kidding? This guy is an addict, a hard-core, a ticking bomb," but handed over the paper, a kind of contract, for me to sign.

Here goes, I thought, I'm putting myself on the line here. If he falls, I may be on the hook for something, though I don't know what.

I pulled my pen out of my pocket and signed. He notarized the document and stamped it.

"I'll make you a copy."

As I folded it, J. came in the door with a question on his face. I nodded. He left to get his stuff -- a box of clothes, books, and a blood-red electric guitar. The guitar stuck out the box at a rakish angle, barely balanced, threatening to cascade out of the box onto the cold concrete.

I held open the chain-link gate so J. could squeeze through.

This was much bigger than leaving a half-way house. We were going out into the free world. He would be sleeping on his own tonight. No cellie, no counts, no flashlights in your face in the middle of the night, no screaming down the block, no watching your back.

He looked sheepish. unbelieving.

He blinked in the bright, knife-edge light of a December dawn.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Mr. G. Takes It To the Mat

Mr. G. stands like an Aztec fireplug when it is his turn to read. He takes his feet after pushing in his chair, looking around the circle, and taking a deep breath. He gathers up his hard-won dignity and pulls authority up from somewhere deep inside and feeds it into his voice. He is breaking new ground.

It is the first time he has read in the workshop. Yes, he has been attending, listening, and watching, for several months. I think he has been sizing me and the other men up. He has three large dots tattooed above his eye brows. Looking at him, I find it hard to focus on his eyes; I lift my gaze to those strange dots.

"I've never read in front of people before," he says.

I nod and tell him he is brave. Other men nod the knowing nod, having been there before.

"I was in the Mojave Unit when I met a man who thought he was a woman," he began.

He went on to tell the story of Misha, a "maricon," who had suffered greatly in prison, and who now was standing alone after a gathering of a church group.

Mr. G. had found religion in prison. At first it was evangelical Christianity but had morphed into a kind of Aztec pantheism. He was a devotee, a disciple, who lived and breathed his creed.

He read on, how, after the Bible study about loving your neighbor, the men had broken into groups, leaving Misha outside on his own.

Mr. G. approached him, struck up a conversation. He wasn't shy.

"So many people feel that homosexuality is the result of sexual abuse as a child. I was abused. I am not asking you about this without knowing what that is like."

The room went silent as the men around the table locked onto Mr. G.'s narrating. Suddenly the air went out of the room.

"I was wondering if your liking men came from an experience like that," he read, the tone one of curiosity rather than condemnation.

"Misha said that yes, he had been abused, raped several times, but that he did not attribute his attraction to men to the abuse."

Here Mr. G. pauses, takes a breath, and began to reflect.

"I have always been one to shun men I called 'putos' or 'maricones.' I wanted to beat them up, to shove them into a corner. But talking to Misha I saw that he was different, and had a right to be different."

Some of the men in the workshop shifted in their seats. Mr. G. was approaching a taboo topic, and it was uncomfortable, prickly.

"So I here to say, to stand and say, that I respect Misha for who he is."


Then applause.

Knock me over with a feather.

I need to stand back here to state that I  am not trained as a therapist, that I do not encourage inmates to write about their demons or their wounds. That said, I don't forbid or discourage their doing so either. I am interested in the writing, and if the writing grows out of a painful moment, then so be it.

Mr. G. absorbs the applause, flushes a little, takes most subtle of bows, and then says something that takes me even more by surprise.

"Since I started writing in this class, I have looking at things that have scared me all my life. I am finding that if I write about this stuff, it bothers me less. I've been having fewer nightmares lately. I feel pretty good."

This triggered some of the other inmates to jump in with experiences of their own.The talk sounded something like a men's support group, but I didn't mind.

I thought of Terry McMillan, a teacher of mine when I was in graduate school. She said "If you feel blood pop out your forehead when you are writing, you'll know you're on to some good stuff."

Well said, Terry. Well said.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Sucker Punch Then Haymaker: How Prison De-Humanizes Inmates

N. has shaved his head again. He has also bulked up over the last couple of months. Crude tattoos sprout from his forearms. He walks with more of a swagger, a don't-fuck-with-me cockiness. When he joins the workshop, he first scans the tables to see who else is there. Most often, he loosens up before giving me a nod and smile of recognition. Sometimes, though, he sits outside the circle, back against a wall. 

N. is twenty-two years old, bright, interested -- deeply interested  -- in writing screen plays. He has written a few that he has entered in the Pen Prison Writing Contest. So far, he has not won or placed. He keeps trying though, keeps knocking on the door.

N. is in on drug charges, like many of the other young men in the writing workshop.  He grew up poor in Phoenix, the only son of a single mom. He learned early on to fight, to hold his ground. Raves and the fast life of ecstasy dealing proved too much to resist.

He should, in my view, be in college. If he were at the University of Arizona, he would likely be one of the star students in film or writing courses. He works hard at his craft, taking it far more seriously than even my best university students. He reads well. He devours the books on writing that I bring in.

I know because he cites them when he makes a comment on another man’s work. He is a fine critic, with a good ear. 

I mention N. because he is a case study in what is lost when a country locks up too many of its men and women. He has become invisible to the “free world.” He is losing something of himself that he may never again recover. He wages a losing battle to feed the fires of humanity that burn strong in him. I ask myself how one might feed that humanity. What would it take to keep the burning, to add fuel to the flame? All I can offer is language and its ability to express some human truth, to ask a shared human question. I can bring in words and ideas that may or may not be enough to offset the soul hungry maw of prison. He needs dignity, fire to create, a chance.  He is hanging by a thread, a thread of what he believes as humanly possible. What is "humanly possible" rests on what he imagines as "human," and what is human is composed in his experience, his imagination, and what he sees in books, film, music, and the storm of discourse that is language. Language holds the key to what he will imagine as possible.  

He is one of over two million and counting of Americans who are locked up, which is more than any country on Earth. We are champion incarcerators. But it's killing us, even if we don't know it, especially because we don't know it. 

Money from education has decreased about as much as funding for prisons has increased. Incarceration cost more that drug treatment, and is far less effective. Prison serves to perpetuate poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, and organized crime. It makes our nation a less desirable place to live. 

Prison, in this man's America, strives to punish rather than rehabilitate, crush rather than foster, reduce to the lowest common denominator rather than enlarge an offender's humanity. This punish and let-them-rot mission of mass incarceration produces monsters rather than fully functioning human beings. The system operates with clinical, if not fully thought through, efficiency.

Prisons exacerbate chronic social ills; they fan the flames of racism, reinforce a toxic form of masculinity, perpetuate cycles of poverty and violence, deprive inmates of contact with nature, and actually strengthen organized crime by letting gangs run the show on the yard. Education programs have been eliminated; vocational opportunities have disappeared. The prison complex in Tucson used to grow much of its own vegetables in a large garden that is now barren, scraped dust. 

Prison culture is racist, misogynistic, ultra macho. Prison populations are the throw-aways of society: the poor, the people of color, the under-educated, the marginalized, desperate, and mentally ill. The message of prison is one of despair more often than hope.  

But the greatest damage prisons exact on the men and women unfortunate enough to end up there is that it deprives them of voice, removes them from the horizon of social visibility. They become forgotten ghosts to all but those who make the trip to visit or volunteer.

N. is trying. He wants to write. He wants to find his voice. He wants to learn. He wants to be heard, to be seen, to find out who he might become, given half a chance. 

His work is good, and he has published some poems, stories, and essays. He has explored how his identity as a man is tied to combat; he wrote an extended essay about his father that was published in the prison workshop literary magazine. That might give him some confidence, open a door to another possibility. His learning to express his struggles, his gaining a awareness of the forces aligned against him might provide a larger world of possibility. Reading and writing can illuminate and expand his horizons beyond the perimeter of razor wire. If he accepts prison life as all there is, he is doomed.

Odds aren't good, but he is young enough to learn to dodge a punch, absorb a blow or two, especially if has vision to see what's coming. 

Monday, September 12, 2016


The sinking comes on strong, out of nowhere. You were OK a minute ago, smiling even. Just another day until it hit you. The triggers are everywhere -- a chipotle salsa, fat moon, giggle across the room -- and then it happens. You fizzle in a very unspectacular dud of a downer. Then you can barely drag yourself into the next second, much less the next minute or month or anything like a favorable future. The sting comes from having run when should have taken a stand, gone down the hard road, said yes. It's a disgrace, a wound, a great big target that says fuck up. While you can't see them, most everybody else is carrying these things around too. They are the regrets, the maybes, the might-have-beens. In this compromise of a half-baked life, they stink. At least mine do. It's a hard thing to do, but comes a time when you have to stop, turn around, take a hard look, take the blame, and get down to the hard work of hack-sawing, chiseling, filing, or even chewing on the steel chains with your teeth. If you have to, cut your leg to free yourself from the trap. It's that or stay stuck in the coulda-shoulda blues. You may have missed one chance, but the only way you will have another is to face the thing you most fear, the thing you most desire. It will feel like you stuck your finger in a light socket: the wind, sun, and dust so bright suddenly you will stagger back on your heels. Don't fall you say to no one but some hopeful part of yourself. Dig in. Lean into it.Don't let the next chance get away.

Saturday, September 10, 2016


It's falling apart. A couple of nails, tacked in as afterthought stand between it and a quick crash to earth. A stiff breeze would blow the thing down. I have to tear the ramada down and re-build it. Better. Getting from here to there is a problem. That problem throws down the glove of challenge. The challenge is to engage with the chaos of not knowing exactly what to do. I can either run away, do it sloppily, or take the hard path of thinking it through, getting the right materials, and making a plan. Not the way I usually operate. So, crossing the grain, going against the grain, I pull out a pen and begin to sketch a possible plan. It's rough, so I scrap that and start over. I draw in the roof-line, the hurricane strips, the stringer that will run the length of the re-build, the joist hangers, the rafters, the perlins, the notched 4x4 s, the piers. The lines are straight, show the perspective, take into account a vanishing point. Mindfulness guides my pen, quiets the fears, the resistance, the avoidance. It pulls me forward is a tug into the unknown, new ways of doing things. The ramada is a place holder, the surface covering an ocean of things loved and lost, things too terribly dear to say out loud for fear of becoming. I don't operate like this because I decided long ago to not achieve out of spite. Those old habits don't want to go quietly, but I comfort them and step forward, drawn to you, my love, what I have lost,  by urgency to shore up all that has been broken, left undone, all that waits for recognition, embrace, a call home. I will not rest until I hold you close, finally, after all these years.  

Thursday, September 8, 2016

September Is the Month of Moths and Spiders

The moths gather on the deck around the pool, their eyes reflecting the light of my headlamp. They are thick this year, and throw themselves into the water when the pool light is on. It's off now, so they fly into the beam of my headlamp. I have to wonder why they so desire the light. The spiders too have taken over, but they are on the porch. Their eyes shine with an even greater intensity in the beam of my lamp. Some of the webs are the tough silk of black widows. Now those are ones to watch for. I see webs streaming off the ends of branches and prickly pear pads when the wind blows at sunset. The light catches the threads as they dance like banners of some arachnid clan gathering. Moths are desire. Spiders are weavers. I need them both in this fall of scribbling, this windfall of changing season, of this call to wake up.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016


They rise from a waxy skin covered with spines. Where before there was only the smooth exterior of the columnar cactus they sprout, as if from nothing, into long stems that lift what will be an impossible bloom when the sun sets. In the darkness they will open, white and delicate as falling snow. Through the night they wait for the attention of a moth whose touch will mingle the desires of pollen and egg. Sweet sex. With the first light, the petals will close, sealing the magic of growing fruit. Cloistered, the stem dries in the heat. Life grows from the spark. The flower surrenders and fades. Does it remember the moth, the touch of wings in the night?

Tuesday, September 6, 2016


Nectar bats have drained the hummingbird feeder. They are here this time of year but will migrate south soon and leave the feeder to the local hungry hummers. Most people take their feeders down after dark, or cover them with screen to keep the bats from guzzling the nectar. I take the dimmer view that they should have the goods while they are here, that they migrate for food, and will leave soon enough. The empty feeder in the morning is a small price to pay. The dry glass hanging from a steel cable reminds me of all I have lost, all I have longed for and never attained. At least the bats will have a frenzy to look back on when they again head south, over the walls that close off movement, possibility, the urge to taste the delights of this short life. I can give them that then, my bats of the hungry heart. 

A Good Goddamn

Eden closed its doors after I was given the boot. That was a long time ago, and this country of scramble and compromise has been an unforgiving home -- the curse a result of seeing two sides, gray, and unresolved, a case of asking a question too many times. I pried open the vault containing taboos, forbidden doubts. I have been wandering ever since, not that I mind that much. I have company from time to time. We reminisce about the golden glow of knowing for certain, the peace, the comforts of obedience. Those still burn late at night. It's impossible not to grieve. Unrequited love wanders the windswept stones left by glaciers long since receded. This excommunication is a price to pay, and it hurts. But my heart still beats; I still stand, even though my legs have begun to tire. I walk the walk of the damned, but it's a good goddamn.

Monday, September 5, 2016

No Man's Land

I am not good company on prison days. Aloof, irritable, withdrawn, I sleep-walk through Saturday morning chores. I have gone inside and need space to gird my loins, armor myself, visually rehearse my routine: go to Bookman's for used books, magazines, dictionaries, then to an office supply place for pads of paper, accordion folders, and pens, then to the University for copies of inmate work, and turnout lists that I print out. Then the long drive from the sculpted lawns of the university to the strafed, naked ground of the prison. The physical and material preparation is nothing compared to hardening of the psyche though.

My usual life -- and the moralities that go with it -- don't apply in prison. Prison rules of the road fall more into the Darwinian, opportunistic, and brutal plays of dominance and power. Yes, there are power structures in the free world too, but they are less naked, overt, urgent, less desperate, less unrelenting. In prison there are no breaks from the scramble to survive, even the boredom of the place feels close to fatal.

The workshops offer a bit of a reprieve. Often, but not always, we have air conditioning, and they get paper, conversation, and a forum. I am not naive enough to think that the exigencies of prison life don't trail in with the inmates, that some of the shot callers aren't using the time to sneak in some politicking, that notes don't get passed under the table, that looks aren't telegraphing outside prison business, but men show up. They are not just inmates any more. Many of them have something to say and want to learn how to say it better.

With all the conning, fishing, and hustle that goes on, why do prison workshops? And how did I end up here?

On a personal level, I am the last person who should be here. Introverted to distress, soft from a life of academic work, somewhat middle class, white, male, and having avoided violence most of my life, utterly absent of tattoos, guns, and locked doors, I come from a standpoint far removed from prison realities. I live in something like another country, both materially and psychologically. In many ways I am less altruistic than ignorant, or in denial, of prison realities. I don't have to fight for my place. In the eyes on inmates, I likely do not even register on the scale that measures "cred."

The boundaries between the men in the workshops and me are stark, the wall already built (and Mexico didn't even have to pay for it). And getting into prison is almost as hard as getting out. The paperwork of clearance, the doors, the locks, the searches, the occasional contempt of the cops for someone doing "creative writing," said with real disdain, all add up to hassle.

Plus I defy my volunteer directives. I carry contraband, distribute banned reading material. I am already doing what I would do if I were being fished or conned, so why bother?

Part of what helps cross the boundaries is that the usual game of prison life gets short-circuited in the workshops. There are no cops. I turn off the radio. What I am interested in is writing. I invite them to leave their territory, as I have left mine, and meet on the ground of expression. Here we overlap. Here we have stories, we have wounds, we have lost, we grieve and we rejoice. We read what others have written about love, work, death, longing, lust, nature, betrayal, unfairness, fathers, children, cars.

The common ground outside or between the boundaries shakes down my perceptions of the inmates and it opens the possibility to see writing as a kind of freedom from prison.

I am not saying this just because I think it. I say it because they tell me it is so for them, some of them anyway.

Learning to express opens possibilities, other ways of seeing. The voice on the page is not always the voice of the man speaking on the yard. The voice on the page may see an alternative to violence as an answer, may see a connection or a story where before there was nothing. It may speak from an identity heretofore unknown, a stranger.

Here I do step in to say, that I believe in writing and literacy and language as tied to creating a full humanity. Self-critical enough not to be wholly evangelical, I confide with them that believing and living this is what gets me off my ass on Saturday mornings and out to a place where I might leap across a void so impossible that it might as well be on Mars.

But then it happens. And, in a strange way, I am at home in a place I cannot live.

We meet in no man's land for a brief encounter. The air here is too rarefied for both them and me. I offer a distilled tonic of expression, share the refined riches of my life as a teacher and writer. They offer their best truths. We exchange goods, even though the currencies are mixed. It's a barter, but it's contact.

In another life, we might be friends. In this life, we will remain strangers, but for the brief taste, this communion of the word. 

Thursday, September 1, 2016


"Steel is not cool anymore," the magazine said. It is so last decade, too skinny, straight, and limited. Carbon and titanium are where it's at these days. Dilapidated hipsters, stale retirees, and desperate homeless guys were the only ones riding steel they said. I looked at my 1984 Trek 660 leaning up against the bookshelf and wondered if I was that out of it. It has elegant, road-racer lines, polished alloy hubs, low stacked and long Cinelli stem, Campy cranks, and the hottest at the time Superbe rear derailleur. It's topped off with toe clips on Campy quill pedals. Silver brazing, butted Reynolds tubing, filed lugs. The engineering and metallurgy was like that of jet fighters. The look was like that too. The bike is the same as it was, all original for the model year. The Brooks saddle came later. It's a royal ride imprinted when my mind was hungry for beauty, quality, speed, and -- something ineffable, exotic, sublime -- a taste of something that might endure. This "something" was beyond a mere bicycle; it had to do with longing, aspiration, hope that I might live the life of which I dreamed. It's hard to be in that place: young and a bit naive, a son of a son of a Minnesota dirt farmer, narrow horizons of northern Midwest rural thinking, on the verge of leaving for an adult life beyond the walls of what I knew. The vestige of the longing is still here, 32 years and counting, as beautiful as the day it was born.