By Ismael Santillanes
For the first five years in prison, nothing more closely describes my life as this: I existed. Nothing more. Then I met Gary, incarcerated by then for many years. One day, out for a walk around the prison yard, he pointed out someone whose eyes were lifeless. He pointed out the head tilt, the Buglar-stained fingers, the endemic lifer’s coffee mug, how he moved past others without being noticed. As far as Gary could determine, our subject was walking around without a soul. Then Gary predicted quite honestly, “If you don’t change, you’ll end up like that.” There has been no stronger a catharsis for me to change.

Soon, I landed a job as a college clerk. Within this college program, I met Shaun Griffin, who volunteered his time to run a prison poetry workshop. And so for the next 23 years, Shaun became my mentor, my father, my brother, and my priest.  Shaun's first “rule” (what I call The Griffin Imperative) was/is, “Write only what you know.” Now, while that might seem an elementary task, when I first sat to write only what I knew, I failed — quite a few times. Seemed that of the many things I knew, nothing was worth writing about.

Then came a somewhat conceited idea that has driven every line I have written since, “I know me.” So I began to write poems that reflected what I understood then as personal perspectives.  Meanwhile, Shaun’s steady hand guided and encouraged the path I had taken. Then I noticed something unexpected.

The more I wrote, the more I found out how little I actually knew about myself. All my life, I thought, I had been simply doing time, not worrying whether or not what I did or thought or said had any profound meaning. Even the psychological and emotional, falsely stoic, position of simply existing those first five years of incarceration were selfish. I went there because I didn’t want to deal with it.

So here is where poetry saved my life. Like Joseph Campbell said, “It’s the journey…” And so it was (still is) with poetry. The more I sat to write a line, the more I searched for that one concise and transcendent word. Poetry’s succinct quality forced me to search deeper into what I truly wanted to express. That one act was each time a question into who I was. And so the more I wrote, the more I searched, and the more of me I found. It was during that journey of searching for the right word, that I found my own sense of humanity.

I’m still searching.


Ismael Santillanes is a poet, an artist, and a desert dweller.  His poetic mindset is xeric, trying to water only those words that need be said. His artistic vision comes from the faces he conjures to the surface. So mote it be.

You can experience the work of Ismael Santillanes in Razor Wire—the current Nevada Humanities Exhibition Series—on display at the Nevada Humanities Program Gallery in Las Vegas through January 23, 2019. He is one of the featured poets and artists participating the Razor Wire exhibition, curated by Shaun T. Griffin. This exhibition showcases recent art and poetry from the Razor Wire Poetry Workshop held at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City.

Cheyanne TreadwayThomas