On writing poetry in English.

On writing poetry in English.

Throughout the month of November, in “celebration” of betrayals both past and present (Thanksgiving, land grants, sovereignty, smallpox, Christianity, Standing Rock), my co-teacher and I brought poetry by contemporary Native American writers into the jail.  One week, my co-teacher (JM) began class with an impromptu riff about the fact that, although English-speaking people had betrayed the Native Americans, it wasn’t so bad that many contemporary Native American writers composed their work in English.

JM: It might seem strange that we’re discussing poetry against oppression when all these poems were written in English.  But English was originally a language of the oppressed.  After the Norman invasion, English was a language spoken primarily by servants.  The “courtly” language, then, was French, and even now our language’s most courtly-seeming words are Latinate…

F: Which you can also see the legacy of if you consider our words for meats.  The names of the animals, which were taken care of by poor people, are all based on the original English.  But the names of the foods, that rich people were served, are all based on French.  You raise a “cow,” English, but eat “beef,” French.  You raise “sheep” but eat “mutton.”  You raise “swine” but eat “pork.”  (Although I suppose a linguist listening to me at mealtime might come to the mistaken impression that England was conquered by invaders from East Asia – you grow “beans” but eat “tofu,” “tempeh,” and “edamame.”)

JM: And English was used primarily as a language of commerce.  It has the largest vocabulary of any language because it absorbs words from trading partners.  There’s a simple grammar, and words can be used almost any way you want …

F: And it’s a good language for rude people.  If we were speaking German and I kept interrupting JM this way, you might not have any idea what he was talking about.  Essential parts of the sentence don’t come until the very end.  But in English the essential information is front-loaded, so, if you’re in a hurry, or if someone cuts you off, you still basically understand …

JM: It’s very likely that the U.S. reign as superpower of the world is coming to an end.  But English, the language, will still be used.  And the English of the future will be different from the English we use today, and that’s one of its virtues, that mutability …

That said, one of my favorite poems we read that month was Orlando White’s “Quietus,” which you can read here.  He writes of the destructive aspect of the English language: “… the c stuck between the b and d eats itself and the page will taste how desperate language is.  If you peel a sheet of paper, you will find letters who have eaten themselves…”  Which is dark, and surreal, and reminded the men of the way each sheet of paper is used and re-used, letters piling up atop each other because they can afford no clean sheets.  Poems have been given to me on the backs or in the margins of all sorts of legal documents, including a few that I was not supposed to look at “under penalty of law.”

I read the handwritten poetry and dutifully ignored the printed legalese.

I love the way Orlando White imbues the English language with an aura of mystical power: if the letters can come to life and cannibalize each other, what else might they do?  This hints at the false potency attributed to our language long ago, belligerent white men waving sheets of paper with English writing on them and claiming that those pages gave them the right to own land.  If that isn’t an evil magic, I don’t know what is.

And then, of course, there is the fact that English is eating other languages; around the world many indigenous languages teeter at the brink of extinction, buried by our burgeoning monoculture.  There is a very real worry that the spread of English will cause the words of White’s ancestors to be forever lost, “their bones scattered like dry grains of ink on a white sheet.

I speak a Smaug-like tongue; it plunders the world, hordes discourse, devastates fragile languages.  At least I try not to use it for ill.  Here: a poem (in English) inspired by the election / inauguration / infestation.


p.s.  The first two lines, which I think are the poem’s best, aren’t mine.  They are by Starlin, an excellent writer whom I had the privilege of collaborating with for about two months.

On wasted ingenuity.

On wasted ingenuity.

You should read Demetrius Cunningham’s essay about learning to play the piano in prison.  He describes taping together flaps of cardboard trash and training his fingers by pressing the places where a piano’s keys would be.  It’s a beautiful piece of writing.


And it hurts to consider what Cunningham might accomplish if he had access to more resources.

He’s not alone in striving to apply his intellect within a situation where most of his effort is – from the perspective of our modern world – simply wasted.  It’s incredible that he devised a system for learning to play piano with only cardboard at his disposal.  But we live in a world with such cheap plastics and electronics that perfectly functional keyboards can be purchased for three dollars or less at most pawn shops and thrift stores.

But Cunningham, in prison, is not allowed a three-dollar children’s toy.  He studies with cardboard.

Which is not to say that our world should be without punishment.  Those who murder need time away from society.  People should be kept safe from harm.  But I find it inconceivable that the best way to help someone who has murdered become a kinder, gentler, wiser human would be to lock him inside a world of violence, mistrust, and cement.

K’s mother, too, was murdered recently.  In her case, the man who murdered her had previously been held in New York prisons for some nine years on nonviolent drug charges.  The time he served in prison surely affected him.  Based on what little I know about life inside, that time probably affected him adversely.

So I’d argue that the state of New York’s efforts at “correction” contributed to K’s mother’s murder.  Would that man have killed her had we not shunted him into prison for nine years?  And, what of the childhood that led to his drug convictions in the first place?  Did we devote the resources necessary to ensure that he felt safe and loved as a child?  Did he have the opportunity to build a life around respected, well-compensated work?

Did Cunningham?

In my poetry classes, only one participant (that I know of) has served time for murder – in his case, 20 years thus far of a 50-year sentence.  He is an excellent writer, and very well-read, but, until our class, every time he wrote a poem or story he would crumple the pages and throw them away.

Why keep them?  The world had made very clear that no one cared what he might have to say.

Inventions are made over and over again inside: using only those spare materials allotted inside prison, how might men mimic some of the conveniences of the modern world?  In Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water, a clear-eyed description of the 1971 Attica prison riot and its aftermath, she describes the jury-rigged water heaters many inmates built for their cells.

Or there’s her passage on the amenities:

bloodinthewaterThe men needed money at Attica because the state offered them only a few items gratis.  These included a thin gray coat, two gray work shirts, three pairs of gray pants, one pair of shoes, three pairs of underwear, six pairs of socks, and one comb.  Then, every month, prisoners would receive one bar of soap and one roll of toilet paper, which meant that men were forced to limit themselves “to one sheet per day.”  The state’s food budget allotment was also meager.  At a mere 63 cents per prisoner per day, it was insufficient to meet the minimum dietary standards as determined by federal guidelines.  The reality was that many men at Attica went to bed hungry.  For this reason jobs in the kitchen or the mess hall, while more arduous than others given their seven-day-a-week schedule, were some of the most coveted.  At least on those jobs a man could eat leftovers.

To get anything beyond the supplies given them – warmer clothes, more food, toiletries like toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, razors, and extra toilet paper – prisoners needed money.  Being able to buy deodorant was no luxury since these men were allowed only one shower a week and were given only two quarts of water a day.  With this water prisoners were expected to wash their socks and underwear, shave, brush their teeth, and clean the cell to a correction officer’s exacting standards.

Prisoners had to be clever to endure such conditions.  Likewise, it takes more cleverness to survive childhood poverty than is needed for a privileged middle class existence of soccer leagues at birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese and A’s stamped on the state achievement tests.

But our world doesn’t celebrate the former type of cleverness.  We prize instead earned wealth and good grades.  And yet, think: what if all that ingenuity weren’t wasted?  What if more of our nation’s childhood survivalists and prisonyard Edisons had been given a fair opportunity?

I love capitalism and the chance for people to profit from their discoveries.  But capitalism crumbles without opportunity.  Especially now, with automation at the forefront of technology, a system rewarding past capital ownership will waste more and more human ingenuity.  The class of those born into opportunity will keep shrinking.

Of course, those privileged few – armed with their intentional misunderstandings of economics and technology – will argue otherwise.  That’s how we got here in the first place.