On storytelling and social justice.

On storytelling and social justice.

Recently, Dave Eggers joined four local panelists (Lindsey Badger, Michelle Brekke, Max Smith, and me) to discuss writing and incarceration, especially the role of storytelling as a force for social justice.

When I discuss poetry with people in jail, we often get sidetracked into conversations about outer space, pharmacology, neuroscience … as it happens, the latter is particularly relevant to any discussion of storytelling.  Because your consciousness has evolved to create stories.

When you choose to do something, like picking up a pen, the first thing that happens is that, unconsciously, your brain will send signals toward your muscles.  You will begin to act.  Then, once you are already in motion, your consciousness will be informed of your decision.  Thats when your brain generates a story to explain why you chose to pick up the pen.

First, we act, then we concoct a narrative.

A human consciousness will typically create a story explaining why we chose to do something even if it wasn’t really our choice.  If a researcher sways someone’s action through the use of transcranial magnetic or direct current stimulation, most people will still offer up a coherent explanation explaining why they chose to act that way.

Personally, I think this sort of research into free will and mind control is fascinating.  I could continue rattling off more facts.  By reading this essay, you might learn something.  But it probably wouldn’t change how you act.  Knowledge doesn’t spur behavior, emotions do.

In Mama’s Last Hug, Frans de Waal writes that:

The Portuguese-American neuroscientist Antonio Damasio reported on a patient, Elliot, with ventromedial frontal lobe damage.  While Elliott was articulate and intellectually sound, witty even, he had become emotionally flat, showing no hint of affect in many hours of conversation. 

Elliott was never sad, impatient, angry, or frustrated.  This lack of emotion seemed to paralyze his decision making.  It might take him all afternoon to make up his mind about where and what to eat, or half an hour to decide on an appointment or the color of his pen. 

Damasio and his team tested Elliott in all sorts of ways.  Even though his reasoning capacities seemed perfectly fine, he had trouble sticking with a task and especially reaching a conclusion.  As Damasio summarized: “The defect appeared to set in at the late stages of reasoning, close to or at the point at which choice making or response selection must occur.” 

Elliott himself, after a session in which he had carefully reviewed all options, said “And after all this, I still wouldn’t know what to do!”

After all, there is no way to prove, mathematically, how to be good.  Your intellect will invariably fall short.  Only by trusting your emotions can you decide that one course of action is better than another.

And that is the value of stories.

Eggers, who devotes much of his time to teaching young people, says that you could provide them with huge quantities of information – about mass incarceration in the U.S., or how we mistreat undocumented workers, or Muslim Americans after 9 / 11 – and it wouldn’t change anything.  “But,” Eggers said, “if you give them even a 15-page first-person narrative, they become activists.

By way of example, my co-panelists discussed several local stories that could be presented in a variety of ways.  For instance, the kid who recently died in our local jail because the jailors stopped providing his medication after his eighteenth birthday.  I’ve written about his ordeal previously; Max Smith had become close friends with him while they were confined in a small cell together; Lindsey Badger met with his mother after he died to preserve stories about his life that depict him more accurately than the terse denunciation he received from our local newspaper.

Michelle Brekke added that, although she hadn’t read the article about this young man, she knows that when she was sentenced, “If you were to look me up online, on a database or whatever, you would see that I’m a drug addict, you would see that I’m an intravenous drug user, you would see that I’m a drug dealer, but today, and even then,  that’s not who I am.  I’m actually a very kind, loving, caring person, who has had a really crappy way of life shoved onto me, so that’s the way of life I chose to take.  I’m an overcomer, and I’ve been able to overcome that.

Luckily I was on the inside when I got arrested because I’m sure that the things that were said on social media, there couldn’t have been anything good.

During her time in prison, Brekke began to write, which allowed her to tell the whole truth.  She refused to let other people dictate the narrative of her life.  “To be able to tell your story, or to hear somebody else’s story, you get the beginning, the middle, and the now.

The last prompt from the audience was, “I’m curious about each of the panelists’ perspectives on how writers can hurt readers in a way that’s inspiring for people to act.”

Smith and Brekke answered for the panel (perhaps you could argue that Eggers has already provided an answer in his books – by intermixing levity with pain you can create stories that are sufficiently fun that they’ll reach an audience, but still convey a spark of indignation that compels people to work to change the world.  After two hundred pages of comic antics in The Parade, Eggers concludes with an incandescent flash of horror).

Smith said, “Unfortunately for many of the people who are incarcerated, just being true to their experience hurts readers.  It’s a horrible, horrible experience that is hard to imagine if you haven’t been exposed to it.” 

And Brekke added, “I would want a reader to feel my own hurt, through the writing.  To not feel sorry for me, but to be able to feel the truth and the pain that I once felt.

The written word does not accomplish much if a tale is too unpalatable to reach its audience, but when the sorrows come from a place a deep integrity, or when the hurt is leavened with a touch of humor, readers might trust an author enough to continue. 

And I am grateful that so many deeply committed people are willing to share hard stories in a way we can appreciate.  Because we’ll need the emotional wallop of powerful stories to compel us to change the world.

Featured image: Max ribbing me. From a recording of the panel created by Jeremy Hogan.

On clarity, Matthew Zapruder’s “Why Poetry,” and reading Bruce Weigl.

On clarity, Matthew Zapruder’s “Why Poetry,” and reading Bruce Weigl.

Some people approach poems as though they are puzzles.  My high school English teachers implied that poems are full of symbols that we must decode.  Which simply isn’t true.

Billy_Collins_Poet_at_San_Diego_State_UniversityIn Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry,” he exhorts his students to enjoy the experience of reading a poem, of feeling each sound leave the mouth and spill outward into the world.  His students balk.  That’s not how they were taught to read poetry!  Instead, Collins writes,

 all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

 

They begin beating it with a hose

to find out what it really means.

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Matthew-Zapruder-Why-PoetryMatthew Zapruder began writing Why Poetry to explain the difference between the idea of symbolism taught in high school – a one-to-one mapping between words on the page and the author’s veiled intent, a parlor trick like the parallels between James Joyce’s Ulysses and Homer’s Odyssey – and actual symbolism employed by regular ol’ human poets.  In Zapruder’s words:

If what we mean by “symbol” is a word or phrase that has some specific, hidden, secret meaning, then we don’t really find those very often in poetry.  The idea that we do is inimical to a true experience of reading it.

When language in poetry becomes resonant, and charged with meaning, it achieves a symbolic status.

Zapruder is saddened that readers think writers would intentionally hide the meaning of their words.  Let alone that writers might actually do it.

Clarity for me in poetry is a kind of generosity, a willingness to be together with the reader in the same place of uncertainty, striving for understanding.  To give the impression that something important is happening but that the mere reader cannot, without some kind of special, esoteric knowledge, have access to it strikes me as deeply ungenerous, even cruel.

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Our poetry classes in the jail have had high turnover recently.  New Leaf New Life previously ran a “recovery dorm” inside the jail.  The dorm was a miserable little space – an underground concrete room with a shower, a toilet, twelve bunks, and two tables for eating, no exterior windows, just a view of central booking and the elevator – but people chose to live in there, sometimes for years, to have a modicum of autonomy and access to volunteer programming.  Things like our poetry class, AA meetings, a weekly game night.

We were able to work with the same group of people for long stretches of time.  We could provide a full curriculum and work on revising our own writing.  Everyone who wrote for the recent Monster House Press publication was incarcerated in this dorm.

Since this program was canceled (replaced with court-mandated rehab), we’ve been teaching poetry classes only for general population, for people in one of the rowdier cell blocks.  One week, our class was totally derailed by a group of roughnecks extolling the gang control they’d imposed on the block.  Other weeks people come just to grab a pencil and a few sheets of paper, then promptly ask if the guards can come and take them back.  Or, when their block was on lockdown every day for weeks, pushy dudes who didn’t want to read or write would fill the sign-up sheet just for the chance to stretch their legs on the walk down the hallway to our classroom.

Some weeks class falls flat.

I don’t blame them for signing up.  I’ve never lived inside a jail, but it sounds like the pits.  I’d sign up for programs I didn’t care about, too, just to break up the monotony of days.

Still, some weeks we get lucky and have a room full of (unlucky) dudes who really want to read and write.

Since we’ve been seeing so many new people, we’ve been reading poetry by Bruce Weigl several times each year.  Weigl writes powerful narrative poems that deal with trauma and violence.  We begin with “The Impossible,” which opens:

Winter’s last rain and a light I don’t recognize

through the trees and I come back in my mind

to the man who made me suck his cock

when I was seven, in sunlight, between boxcars.

 

I thought I could leave him standing there

in the years, half smile on his lips …

This is a hard poem for guys in jail to read.  It’s a hard poem for anybody to read, but in our classes, particularly, whomever is reading it out loud first might stop at the third line.

AR-160539927The opening is perfect, though.  As with Proust’s mind flooding when he stumbles over a pair of uneven paving stones, or hears a long-forgotten tone, or smells tea and cake exactly like his aunt used to eat, Weigl’s memories swell unbidden when he glimpses light shining through tree leaves in a particular way.  Once, when I was seven, there was just this light … and … and …

He thought he could forget his trauma.  Thought he could “leave him standing there / in the years.”  He was wrong.

Many people who have survived abuse try to forget and move on.  But the memories can fester.  After class one week, a man lingered, asking a guard “Can I … can I talk for him a minute …” and, when the guard nodded, said to me, “Like, something happened to me … kinda like that poem we were talking about … do you … do you think there’s a way I could get some help with that?”

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spotlight.jpgIn Tom McCarthy’s film Spotlight, a character finally agrees to be interviewed about the priest who raped him.  He is asked how he coped.  He turns out an arm riddled with needle tracks.

Most men in jail suffered disproportionately before they were locked up.  Many began taking drugs in lieu of the psychiatric care they needed but couldn’t afford; now they are addicted.  And behind bars.  Beneath fluorescent lights for nineteen hours a day.  Somehow they are expected to heal there, inside the jail, with even fewer resources before.

“The world needs to know,” we tell them.  “Write about that.”

They balk.  “I can’t write about this shit.”  It cuts too deep, the pain’s too raw … and they feel ashamed.  Our society has a tendency to blame victims.  In an interview with Blast Furnace, Weigl says that his father “was shocked that it had happened because I didn’t tell him at that time.  He said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’  I said, ‘Because you would’ve beaten my ass for letting it happen,’ and he knows he would have, too.  That would’ve been his response, Why did you let someone do this to you?

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But Weigl wrote openly of his trauma, and his words help others come to terms with abuse.  It must feel nauseating to re-live certain experiences in order to write them down – but that act of generosity could save someone else.  And in “The Impossible,” Weigl teaches us how to write about the things that seem impossible to write about.  The poem ends,

Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what.

On changing a life.

On changing a life.

Back in the 1990s, a buddy of mine was locked up repeatedly for possession of heroin in California.  The drug itself is illegal, and apparently my buddy was making some poor choices while under the influence.  You know, little mistakes, things like turning & running backward to flip off a cop while he fled, only to flip over the hood of a police car coming from the other direction.  Liberating quarters from coin-op laundromats.  Moving meth to fund his habit.

As a condition of probationary release, he was sentenced to rehab.  Required to participate in AA meetings.  He’d show up sullen, at least for a while, then start showing up stoned, then quit altogether as his addiction took hold.  Nobody can force you to get sober, he told me.  You can be forced not to use – if you’re locked up without it, then you’ll kick.  But that’s not the same as being sober.  You can’t be clean – not really – until you have a choice.

Unfortunately, that first moment of choice often comes at an awful time in people’s lives.  Incarceration is traumatic; so is release.  From Susan Burton and Cari Lynn’s Becoming Ms. Burton:

burtonThere’s also no logical reason why federal prisons offer halfway houses to those newly released, but state prisons provide nothing.  Four thousand newly released women arrive in Los Angeles County every year to nothing.  No re-entry programs, no counseling, no services, no assistance.  You have no house key, no credit card, no checkbook, no driver’s license, no Social Security card, no identification of any sort because anything you were carrying when you were arrested has been destroyed by the state.  You’re just one woman in the crowd of mostly black and brown faces, one number in the recidivism stats that are decidedly not in your favor.

Like vultures, the pimps circle, eyeing you, assessing you.  The drug dealers circle.  You know them from the old neighborhood, and they call you by name, offering their brand of a welcome home party.  You have little incentive to say no.  Ego tells you you’re gonna make it by any means necessary.  Ego tells you you’re a grown woman.  But you’re scared.  How do you calm yourself?  How do you connect with something healthy and hopeful when you’re surrounded by Skid Row?  When you haven’t been allowed to make a decision in five, ten, twenty years?  When all you want to do is wash prison off you, but you can’t, because it’s in you.  It’s seeped into your psyche and into your soul.

All I wanted was to ease the fear, ease the self-loathing, ease the hopelessness.  It seemed the only thing in the world I was certain of was how to escape by taking drugs, by self-medicating.  Three days: that’s the average time for someone to relapse after getting out of prison.  I knew nothing about statistics, but I knew that, in a drug high, I could escape into silence.

It takes a lot for an addict to get sober.  I don’t fault the people who want to get clean but keep slipping.  Still, this much is clear: you can’t change your life until you choose to.

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I started teaching in the local jail because I felt ashamed.  I am a citizen of the United States, and the horrors of mass incarceration are inflicted on behalf of all citizens.  I personally owe an apology to those who’ve been yanked away from their lives unfairly … and to those children whose parents were taken away … and to those parents whose children were taken away … and to those who lost their neighbors … and to those whose loved ones were harmed by the violence begat by entire community’s loss of trust in the police, which required inhabitants to take justice into their own hands … and …

Given that some 2.5 million people in the U.S. are currently incarcerated … with another 5 million on probation or parole, a tiny slip away from being shipped away again … and which surely means tens of millions more whose lives have been sundered by the loss of a loved one … many of them innocent children … there is no way I could give a personal apology to everyone who deserves one.  I’m sorry, as a citizen of the United States, that your mother was yanked away on my behalf.

But I can go in and teach.  Last year, I spent about five hours each week inside the most miserable place in town.  Even now, after one of my classes was canceled, I spend close to three hours a week in there.  And I hate being in jail.  Everyone does.  It’s loud, bleak, malodorous, filled with stale air and flickering fluorescent light.  Full of angry people who won’t make eye contact when you talk, but will stand at the front of their cells and stare.  If you don’t see a dude, he might bang the glass and shout – I jump.

The elevator has buttons.  The buttons do nothing.

There is waiting.  Lots of waiting.

But the time I spend with the men in class (only men – the administration has declared all female inmates to be manipulative, irresistible seductresses and will not let male volunteers work with them, for the volunteers’ protection) is great.  They love our poetry class.  Despite the fact that many of these men stopped out of school and never looked at poetry on the outside, they are astute readers.

Several of the men in our classes grew to love writing as well.  Monster House Press has put together a literary magazine featuring some of their work, available here.

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Each week, we met with mid-level offenders in a classroom, and with recovering addicts inside the New Leaf New Life dormitory.  This latter was an incredibly grim space.  Twelve men lived inside this dormitory full-time; there were two steel tables with uncomfortable round seats attached for their meals in the “living area”; there were bunk beds in the “sleeping area”; they had a toilet and shower, the only portion of the room not under constant camera surveillance.  The concrete walls were painted gray, and the only window was a small, wire-reinforced pane in the door: this window looked out to the booking desk on the ground floor of the jail.

So: no exterior windows, no glimpse of sunlight, no fresh air, twelve grown men crammed together for months in a space smaller than the living room of my own (small) home.  A wall was shared with the drunk tank – sometimes somebody would be kicking & shit everywhere.  Sometimes a schizophrenic would sing ceaselessly for days.  Sometimes an angry inmate would rhythmically kick the steel door, every three seconds another KLOOOM reverberating through our skulls.

New Leaf had been granted this space by the jail because no one else wanted to be in there.

And yet that is where we held our best classes.  Even though the space was wretched, the men chose to be in there.  Volunteers – like J-M & me, and a dude who held AA classes, and a local linguist, and others – came in to offer some “enrichment.”  The men also created their own programming: one of the twelve conducted a meditation session each morning.  After our class had been going for a while, the men started reading poetry out loud to each other.  They were suffering, but they learned to suffer together.  In that small, crappy space, dudes riddled with Aryan Brotherhood tattoos befriended black men.  A dude forgave the informant who’d put him there.  Together, these men weathered the deaths of their parents, girlfriends, wives – mass incarceration has ravaged our country.  In the devastated communities left behind, people die all the time.

Hell, mass incarceration caught up with my wife and me, too.  Last November, my wife’s mother was murdered.  It’s unlikely the killer would’ve done it if he hadn’t been so severely distanced from his friends and family, locked up for a decade for a pair of low-level, non-violent drug crimes.  He sold crappy amounts of cocaine; ten years of his life were yanked away; now my mother-in-law is dead.

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To publicize the Monster House Press magazine with the men’s poetry, we made a video using the text of a poem from the collection, Max E.’s “San Diego 1985: I Felt Your Presence in the Absence of Time.”

 

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I love this poem for its depiction of epiphany.  It’s hard work to change your life, but before that work can even begin, you have to want to change.  As much as I hate the way we treat “criminals” in this country, many men have told me that they’re glad they were jolted from their routines – their lives were on a bad course and jail shook them awake, making them realize that they needed to change.

Surrounded by angry angels, this poem’s narrator realizes he’s made a mistake.

Given a reprieve from fate, that is when the hard work begins.  Here’s another excerpt from Becoming Ms. Burton:

Drugs are insidious.  A social ill for some folks, a criminal ill for others.

Jail had done nothing to stop my addiction.  Education, hard work, dedication, a support system, and knowing there were opportunities for me and that my life had value: these were what had made all the difference.  For the past twenty years of my sobriety, I deployed each of these facets, every day.

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Few people find the right path on their first attempt.  Collectively, nobody in the U.S. can claim to be on the right track.  We’re wrecking the environment, we’re wrecking lives … some of us try to tread lightly, but the world is still being wrecked on our behalf.  We all share the blame.

We, too, need to be jolted into change.