By Shaun T. Griffin
This morning, under warm sun, I weeded the roots of lavender, Chinese poppies, and the locust, an activity so benign it hardly merits mention, except of course, if it is aborted by the unwanted hands of justice. Almost every other week I go to the medium security prison to teach a poetry workshop. There are always men weeding, usually the warden’s lawn—which isn’t a lawn at all, but river stones. The weeds crawl through them like tricksters—they will be hardest to pull from dry soil.
I have watched this periodic cleansing take place in all seasons and with dozens of men in denim and knit caps and tennis shoes. A wheelbarrow presides over the day’s work. At chow they return to the gatehouse and then back for another shift of weeding. Inside the yard, the planters are clean of any debris. I have often told guards on the way to the chapel that I would give anything to have my yard look so nice. But here is the rub—it comes at some cost. The cornflowers, phlox, nasturtiums, flax, and cosmos bloom because someone attends to them daily. I cannot do that; I do not have the time. “The time” being what the men spend like coins at the canteen. The time that cannot be articulated save in the appearance of beautiful gardens. The time that prescribes obeisance, a kind a salutary defeat. Prison is not an exercise, not an injunction against time. It is a way to live outside of time so that when another time comes, the time to leave, you can almost pretend it never happened. It can be regarded as unwanted time, time not from this place, but the hardened place from which the men came. And that is why poetry, especially, is such a vivid force in this nether land of no present, no past, no future.
Literature is story, and poetry is the essence of story—emotion torn from a sleeve to reveal something below, some part of consciousness that cannot be ignored. I ask the men to dig deep when they write; I ask them not to fool with the primacy of this art form. It can save; it has saved. Dozens of the men in the workshop are out, still out, and trying every day to make their lives better because they learned to read and write and discuss real topics in the workshop—like how to stay alive, like how to behave when someone shouts you down, like how to listen when what you know is not enough, like how to coach when the young guy is not sure of what to do with his poem.
These are life lessons, they do not need a lot of translation. In the halfway house, in the DMV, on the job, in a relationship, you must master the fine art of give and take. I insist they master it in the workshop. Without that give and take—the ability to receive and offer constructive feedback—they usually walk away. I don’t know what happens to them. I imagine they retreat to what was learned, and that is another kind of time, a habitual time of unwanted things. But for the guys who remain, they manage to lose time in the brief hour and-a-half of the workshop. They seek refuge in the simplicity of a line, a word, an idea that is nearly perfectly expressed. And it is freeing like seeing the ravens or the seagulls that frequent the yard.
I’m not sure what the three men who will come to this year’s Literary Crawl will share. They may not share anything that is significant, but each of them is out of prison, have been out for some time, and learned how to use language—not violence—to express themselves In my opinion, that is why they are still out. It is not a riddle: to conform to society’s norms you must first learn what is required. They have done this.
Poetry was a thief who stole into their lives and gave them the opportunity to master such expression. One of the men said as much when he was pulled over by a state trooper—poetry required me to first examine myself. I hope their experience is not just moving, but helps all who come to listen understand that inside prisons are people. People who will, in most cases, one day be released. They cannot parachute out of prison. They need skills; reading and writing are foremost among them. If nothing else, literature teaches them this first requirement of adult existence: you must express yourself in almost all situations.
The Literary Crawl will include a second panel of volunteers like myself, who have taught literature in the same prison for several years. All of them believe in its lifesaving quality. Each of them is something of a nightingale: without their vessels of knowledge, the coveted books they read and discuss, the prison reverts very quickly to old time, time before we came in. So I sing their praises, their desire to lift a life one word, one syllable at a time. Please join us on Saturday, September 14, for the Nevada Humanities Literary Crawl to hear their stories and the stories of the men who now are living in the free world with you and me.
Shaun T. Griffin co-founded and directed Community Chest, a rural social justice agency, for 27 years. His most recent book, Because the Light Will Not Forgive Me—Essays from a Poet, was released by the University of Nevada Press in 2019. Shaun is a member of the Nevada Humanities Board of Trustees, and you can experience his panels— Writing Behind Bars and Humanities in Prisons—at the 2019 Nevada Humanities Literary Crawl in Reno on Saturday, September 14.