Thursday, December 2, 2010

"Lyric on the Inside" by Alex Chambers

Guest to the blog, Alex Chambers meditates on teaching poetry (particularly documentary poetry) in the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Program. Just when we think we know what poetry is for, it flees our (prisoning) visions of it. His experience reminds us that poetry may be different from what we supposed (pace Whitman). It may also end up being what we feared it would be.

"Lyric on the Inside" by Alex Chambers (

When you walk into a prison—but already the description is a problem. You don’t just walk into a prison. You park in the visitor lot that the director of the prison education program has warned you might be bugged, and, if you’re at the oldest still-running prison in Alabama, shout up to the guard in the tower (the guard in the tower, as if you’re in a fairy tale and the princess has been locked in the dungeon for a hundred years), then wait for the guard to motion you to the heavy entrance gate, where the next guard will buzz you into the waiting area. When you walk into the prison proper, after a few more gates and a search of your books and handouts, you are surrounded by men in white watching you from behind their bars or their bunks or as they pass you in the hall. By the end of the semester, you notice a word passing among them as you walk, and the word is poetry, and it’s not often you hear the word spoken outside the English Department with such significance, and it feels good. You’ve brought something.

The position of the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Program was that we could not be activists in our teaching. Our activism was the teaching and writing itself, sharing literature with people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to encounter it. I sympathize with program’s reasoning. Its presence in the prisons depends on positive relations with the overworked and only sometimes sympathetic prison administrations. Also, most other prison programs, at least in Alabama, proselytized, and the APAEP wants to be an antidote to such position-taking rather than another instance.

And yet, as a teacher, I want to create in my students a sense of political possibility. Meaningful change only happens when people realize—imagine—they can do it themselves. Another way of saying this is that the only people who change an element of society, who shift power toward the powerless, are the ones who realize they can make things happen. Therefore as activists (as teachers) we must help people realize they can come together and make a stand. It’s dangerous idea in a prison, taking a stand, and I never actively encouraged it. I only approached the idea indirectly.

Rereading the previous paragraph, I ask myself, Is this an essay about poetry or teaching?

Then I ask, Is poetry about poetry or teaching?, and remind myself no, it’s not about teaching, not exactly.

I am trying to think about poetry, especially documentary poetry, and its political possibilities. This is about text. It is a question of what a poetic text is, or what makes a poem, and why that might matter politically. Or not. Inevitably, it is also about teaching, because teaching and poetry are both shapers of culture.

I thought one way to marry the poem with the politics would be to assign a documentary poem. In the week preceding, we read some of the documentary poems Phil discusses in his Poetry Foundation article on the subject. I encouraged my students to look around them and record conversations they heard, to appropriate text from the prison walls or (anonymously) from their own or others’ court proceedings (as in Reznikoff), to write the histories of their places (as in Rukeyser), to note as many realities of language they could. I could have asked them to note where the power was. Notice the people and places who are underrepresented, I suggested, and represent them. “Give voice to stories of people and movements that the mass media tend to ignore or misrepresent,” I wrote in their assignment, after Phil’s article. At least tell a story from your own life.

When I came back the next week they shared what they had written. The poems were surprisingly conventional. One talked about his small hometown in abstract terms, with sentiments about everybody knowing your name. He didn’t refer to any individuals, and even the town remained nameless, somewhere (maybe) in the South. Another student, a man who each week showed me one of his chapbooks, recited, from memory, a verse he’d written about love, already printed in the chapbook, as he did every week. One student came closer, by recording, in a rhyming list, the major stories from the year in sports. That was one way of thinking about historical memory.

And then the oldest student, had buzzed hair and the gaunt face of man who had been homeless when not in prison, read his poem. He had, over his many years in and out of prison, been talking to convicted killers, asking them to tell their stories and why they had done what they’d done. His poem was a simple list of quotations from his interviews. Its juxtapositions of horror and numbness were a shock. I didn’t keep the poem—the APAEP’s policy is that all materials stay with them—but I remember lines like “All those flies. / I walked up to my ex-wife’s car window and shot her in the face. / There were bodies all over the house. / All those flies. / I looked in the fridge to see what was to eat.” The banality of hunger surpasses our human cruelty.

It was the most memorable single piece of writing I experienced there. Why did I have so much trouble getting more tense, raw writing like that?

Because “poetry” signifies, as Phil pointed out in suggesting I do this post. I think both the program and my students had an idea that the goal was to write traditional lyric poems, poems about their families, fresh air, green grass, the ocean, and birds. Good things.

I failed. I wanted poetry to help my students look at language differently; they wanted to make beautiful objects. For me, as a reader and writer, poetry is a way to examine assumptions and, out of that examination, create a new thought. I see it even as a way to record and think about power, instances of power that would otherwise go unsaid. To embody linguistic possibility. To remind us what we hope for. Maybe what we hope for is as simple as the clich├ęs.

I wanted poetry to give my students a way to speak truth to institutions.
I wanted them to look around and report. My students, for the most part, wanted poetry to let them escape, at least for the moment of the writing and the reading of the poem. Clouds, open fields, birds. The men in the prison didn’t have a single tree to touch or see in their daily lives; can I blame them for insisting on traditional (Hallmark) lyric?

What I hope for, still, is that writing poetry can give us ways to think beyond dichotomy. That probably means breaching the false wall I’ve created between documentary-linguistic experimentation and romantic-lyric verse. It also means, though, that we keep pushing to see the whole world, the razor wire, the posters about the reentry program, the language of institutional power, as strange and interesting, and worthy of thinking about in the poem.


Maureen said...

Thank you for sharing this wonderful post.

How many people would put the words "poetry" and "prison" in the same sentence, believe it possible to use poetry to show the incarcerated a "way out"? That one of Chambers' students understood means, to me, the initiative was not a failure.

My son, while a student at NYU, took a semester-length poetry and composition course that took him and others in the class to Rikers. My son told me it was one of the most powerful experiences he'd had and only wished that it might have involved more opportunities to do more there.

Philip Metres said...

Thanks, Maureen. I think that that sort of class would completely transform how we (the MFA industry) "do" creative writing.

I have only done one "class" in a prison or jail, and it was a bible study.

Michelle said...

Alex -- Loved finding this blog entry by you. How you are missed! Listen, have you read Mark Salzman's TRUE NOTEBOOKS or Wally Lamb's COULDN'T KEEP IT TO MYSELF? Reading your piece reminds me of those, each wonderful, raw, real, painful, hopeful, tragic. Such power words have.

Philip Metres said...

Michelle, Alex's email is listed above!