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Open Invitation

If you have participated in the project and would like to contribute to the blog, please contact Gregory Sale.

Tuesday March 1, 2011, 3:00 Tucson

We, Ken Lamberton the ex-prisoner, Jerry Marzinsky the retired prison staffer, and I a prison volunteer met in Tucson at UA Poetry Center to carpool up to Tempe for our talk at “Not Just Black and White,” an art installation on the subject of incarceration. Ken carried a box full of Walking Rain Reviews , the prison literary magazine, copies of his own books , and some articles published by the Poetry Center Prison workshop.  Jerry had a folder with copies of his latest essay. I had my book bag with a copy of Richard Shelton’s book Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer along with, ever the teacher, some writing activities for the evening.

On my way to meet these guys I had passed through the Little Chapel of All Nations to check on some submissions to the new prison magazine. Constance, one of the Little Chapel staff, had asked about the event up at ASU. She knew about as much as I did, that it was an art installation about prison put together by visiting art professor Gregory Sales. She remarked to another staffer that I was going up to see the installation.

“Not quite,” I said, “I am going up to BE the installation.”

And so it was.

We did not know what to expect, how many people would show up, what materials we would have, whether or not the audience would be friendly or hostile. Just like a prison workshop, I thought, always shifting, dynamic, subject to lockdowns, room changes, roll-ups, and missed chances — but also full of the possibility of magic.

5:30 ASU Art Museum

We arrived at ASU, where we were met in the ASU Art Museum gallery with paper, pencils, books, and the desire to express; we had the ingredients. Gregory had even provided a white board and dry-erase markers. Ah, now this is the life, I thought.

As people filtered in, I recognized Sherry Rankins-Robertson, the ASU Instructor and PhD candidate who has put together a program that provides inmates with on line feedback on their writing by pairing university English students with inmates. There was Joe Lockard, an ASU literature professor who gives classes at the state prison in Florence, Gregory, the mastermind behind the show, Kristin Valentine, a 40-year-plus prison volunteer. Then there were also students and interested folks from the community.

We began by invoking Richard Shelton.  I read a passage from his book “Crossing the Yard,” in which he tells the story of one man who entered prison illiterate, but who went on to earn an AA degree in psychology and counseling. At one point, Richard asks the man “What’s it like to be illiterate?” The man replies “It’s bad… It’s like being inside a big dark box. All you know is what you need – food, water, drugs, sex. You don’t know what’s outside the box and you don’t know how to find out. You’re scared all the time” (29). He continues to tell the story of this man who beat all the odds and ended up being pardoned by a rare and perceptive governor. The odds were a million to one.

Richard calls this “too hideous a gamble.”  But he also calls it a miracle. He writes “I call for more miracles, but we shouldn’t have to send our children to prison to teach them to read and write”(30).

Then Ken read an excerpt from his prison memoir and essay collection Wilderness and Razorwire.  His account of becoming a writer  — how that happened because of the prison workshops  — drove home the possibilities inherent in a workshop. Jerry followed with a harrowing  account of a “cell extraction” that involved sadistic guards and an inmate suffering from, but strengthened by, a psychotic break. He silenced the hall. After he read, we began to workshop his essay.  The group shared the common task of responding in dialogue about the ideas and presentation of Jerry’s essay. Critiques and responses were offered and writers bent to their work. Consistency of point of view, vivid, prison-specific language, reportorial pacing all made their way into the conversation. The better angels of literacy and human desire to say it well powered our conversation as the clock ticked away.

Finally, we collaborated to compose a surrealist poem using the “Exquisite Corpse” exercise. Lines were written, papers were folded, and chuckles punctuated the writing. We were a group of writers sharing the task of finding new connections and associations.

As participants read the work of the group, the process was complete. In the space of two hours, we had come together, had created a container of shared creation, poignancy, horror, and laughter. We were writers marveling at our humanity and trying to make sense of it all.

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