22 September, 2011

Writing Under Lock and Key

For the writer seeking refuge from distraction — a place to immerse himself in his craft — I would sooner recommend a crowded lunchtime deli counter, or a county fair's petting zoo, than prison. The idea that a stint in the slammer yields limitless opportunity to let thoughts flow freely from brain to page is so fallacious as to be ridiculous. Maybe in the solitary conditions of prisons past, where some of our great literary minds were jailed, this could have been otherwise. I envision Oscar Wilde in the dismal Reading Gaol, squinting at his quill marks in the darkness, his towering form hunched over the manuscript for De Profundus. Wilde almost certainly wrote nonstop, save to slurp watery spoonfuls from the bowls of slop slid under his door, and to use the chamber pot. Hardly an idyllic retreat, but in its way enviable — in that stone-walled stillness he obviously got some work done.

My imprisonment is less conducive to productivity. A deli counter could at least offer good food; a petting zoo, more civilized company. The noise is one matter — continual shouting, slammed dominoes, dueling radios. Noise has been endemic to prisons since time immemorial. But the personal intrusions are quite another. It's the price of being favorably known, I guess, to have other inmates stopping at my door throughout the day to ask, "What's up, you working on something there?"

Politeness is tough for me to maintain when I'm interrupted mid-thought, so I'm known to respond snippily: "Well, yes, I'm trying to."

With some visitors, I meet rudeness with rudeness. One odious little troll, a downstairs resident of my wing, has convinced my cellmate to save the butts of roll-your-own cigarettes for him. Sanitary concerns aside, most people would likely just drop the habit if they couldn't afford it. being of a different sort, however, Rumplestiltskin creeps his way up to our door sporadically, announcing his regrettable presence with a now-familiar potent stink of ashtray and unwashed hair. Each time he croaks, "I'm here to pick up Bertha Butt and the Butt sisters for our date!"

When swinging by my door, the odds of catching me seated at this desk, typing, editing, or reading, are better than nine in ten. Thus, the troll's arrival rarely fails to lop short whatever thought I happen to be working through. I wince at the pain of it every time. The old man then lingers like an egg fart, counting his newest haul of secondhand smokes, then initiates some religio-political conversation with my cellmate that I wouldn't want to hear even if it were intelligent and I had nothing else going on. My suspicion is that he arranged the ongoing butt deal just as a pretense for talking at my poor cellmate. Prior attempts at hinting Rumplestiltskin away have failed; the miniature stinkpot is oblivious. If his tiresome tirade doesn't exhaust him quickly and carry him out of my presence, I vent an exasperated hiss, hold my breath, and elbow past him through my obstructed doorway. Fleeing my own quarters until he skulks back into his dungeon is the nicest sensible alternative to losing my mind.

A cellmate incapable of keeping his interior monologue internalized; a hard-of-hearing cellmate whose headphones stay at such high volume as to obviate their use at all; a popular cellmate whose chatty pals are a continual, gabby presence — the possible types of live-in distractions are manifold. I've suffered them all, at one time or another. But noise isn't the only slayer of one's muse. If it were, my earplugs alone might let me plug away at this keyboard without pause. Life as a prisoner is often lived on someone else's clock: mealtimes are determined at random, by someone else; when we're required to report to other locations is similarly at someone else's discretion; and dropping everything to present ourselves for the numerous daily head counts is mandatory. Good luck fitting periods of complex introspection in edgewise.

I see ads for writers retreats all the time, in magazines like Poets & Writers and Writer's Digest, and daydream about committing wanton acts of prose in the privacy of a woodland clearing near a rented cabin, about the peace of isolated autumn weeks spent typing on a laptop by a still koi pond, or about sequestering myself in a spartan inner-city apartment with nothing but a month's supply of coffee and the beloved sounds of nearby traffic to sustain me as I compose whatever text my heart desires. Yes, I, who am supposed by others to have all the time in world to write, go moon-eyed when I think about places I could indulge in uninterrupted intellectual exercise.

Once the words are on paper, there are further blocks. While not outright banned, publication is hindered significantly by the policies of the Department of Corrections. I know a handful of prisoners who've published books — some with small presses, some with self-publishing outfits — and all but one (that I know of) have been subsequently issued conduct violations for "conducting business" or sued by the State under the Missouri Incarceration Reimbursement Act. A judgment in a MIRA suit places a permanent lien against the prisoner's account, so that ninety percent of all funds sent to him or her are seized, up to nearly $17,000 a year, irrespective of the funds' source. Keeping only ten cents of every dollar of your hard-earned royalties would be bad enough; keeping only that percentage of a gift from your kindly great-aunt Helen would merely add insult to injury.

It's not only book publication that could land an incarcerated author under the boot of MIRA or the yoke of disciplinary sanctions. Being paid for publication in a periodical also does the trick. Signing a contract, likewise. A writing career based exclusively on a few contributor copies, the occasional laudatory byline, and donated pieces is no less artistically respectable than one that yields a five-figure income, but how then to buy basic necessities — typewriter ribbon, stationary, and postage? Free-world writers may struggle financially, from time to time, but never like this.

And don't get me started on how MFA-centrism has restricted the field. The words I'd employ would be unpublishable.

In spite of the challenges, obviously, I manage to write. I also publish. It would be impossible not to; the words are in me. For any writer out there who wishes aloud for space and time enough to make your hobby your life, I have little sympathy. Writing is a discipline — sometimes a tremendously rewarding one — which means knuckling down, doing it, sacrificing "x, y, or z" to achieve your writerly ambitions. Nearly everyplace is unaccommodating and hectic. If you're serious about it, you'll find a quieter deli counter, or a petting zoo with fewer rowdier goats. Start searching now, don't expect an idyll, and try appreciate having options. Some of us have few, yet make do just the same.

12 September, 2011

My Toe as Produce

Never mind how it happened, what matters is that the fourth toe on my left foot — the one beside my minimus, or little toe — appears to have merged at the atomic level with the largest red grape known to mankind. Taut-skinned and the color of eggplant, rimmed furiously red, my toe is more than twice its natural size... and getting bigger. The pain is one matter, but what I truly fear is having to endure the prison's medical treatment for this poor, distended digit.

I hobble up the boulevard this afternoon to an uncertain fate.

The shoe comes off and a nurse covers her mouth, says, "Holy hematoma!" The doctor is called. Busybody nurses with more important tasks at hand nevertheless stop to ooh and aah at the sight. These medical professionals aren't reacting very professionally.

"Oh, my god, what did you do?" asks one.

"What is that?" asks another.

A nurse who appears to be in charge pushes them all aside and declares, "I've never seen one that big before!"

Flattery, my dear, I think, will get you nowhere.

Even the doctor, when he arrives, is alarmed. He opts to drain it. To the emergency room! (It's not what you expect, just a padded table surrounded by cabinets of gauze, a person-sized green tank of what I imagine is nitrous oxide, an articulated lamp, and other triage equipment to be used if the ambulance is undergoing too-lengthy a search procedure on the way into the prison.)

I lie down on the table, uncomfortable with not being able to see what's being done. Thankfully, I have not inherited my mother's squeamishness about my feet being touched. Still.

Eighteen-gauge needle. A brief fumbling. Squirt. A woman I can't see yelps an "Oh!" that makes me laugh. Then the draining, the squeeze. Normally the stoic, I involuntarily flinch.
"Sorry," says the doctor, but I'm the one making someone's job harder.
"No, that was my fault," I say. Unpleasant. Gritted teeth. A light sweat. The bandaging may be worse than the proceure itself.

I get crutches, ten days' worth of unnecessarily potent antibiotics. My gauze- and pad-swaddled foot will not fit back into my shoe, even though I wear a 9½ EEE. Having never before walked on crutches — not even for childhood sprains, bone-breaks, or instances of dramatic malingering — I feel ridiculous. Trying to hold my shoe and my medication while teetering around proves challenging. Under the very best of circumstances, I am fairly physically inept. Vaulting from the housing unit to the dining hall is going to be a pain, I can already tell.
On the walk back, guys I know are yelling good-natured jibes from the nearby yard. Someone runs to open a door for me, then another. Good of them.

I'm scarcely back in my cell, situating myself awkwardly at this desk, when company arrives. All of my acquaintances are checking up on me, eager to hear the gory details of my bloodletting. There are jokes about amputation, of course. I don't mind.

This could have been worse, in all. Like everyone, I've heard horror stories. But there remains the difficulty of taking a shower tonight with a mummy foot, followed by the harrowing returns to the infirmary for dressing changes. If I survive that long, there will be visits to enjoy this weekend; if I don't, someone out there, tell my mother that I love her. And for crying out loud, don't play any of that schmalzy organ music at the funeral — spring for a live band and have a little fun.

01 September, 2011

My Beef with Actor Peter Coyote

Ordinarily, when my writing is published in a periodical, I won't mention it here. This month's issue of The Sun, however, begs that I break the precedent. In June, the magazine featured an interview with Peter Coyote, in which he spoke his mind on such broad-ranging subjects as drug addiction, communal living, and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While Coyote's opinions differ significantly from my own, I chose to write a letter quibbling with a minor point. The letter appears in the September issue:
I found your interview with actor and activist Peter Coyote to be one of the better ones of the past year. Just one thing troubled me. Coyote says, "All the kids I have met who look like punks have been, without exception, sweet people, but they are not hopeful. I think they are trying to keep a part of themselves sacrosanct from the culture by violating norms of fashion and behavior, making music that is so angry and unbeautiful." 

As one of those pierced and unconventionally dressed punks, I have a problem with his implication that anger and hope are mutually exclusive. I have many proudly iconoclastic friends whose anger about the state of the world only fuels their work for a better tomorrow. To quote old-school punk John Lydon, "Anger is an energy." I challenge Coyote to show us a revolution that wasn't based on people's frustration boiling over.
Coyote's response followed:
Byron Case is right in parsing what I wrote, but I didn't express myself very well. I don't think that anger and hope are mutually exclusive. I have found, however, that expressing anger rarely solves anything. It makes us feel powerful but also draws lines between people, subtly reinforcing one's own "correctness" at the expense of others. If we look deeply, we'll see that we possess the same noxious qualities and practices (expressed differently perhaps) that we target in others. By placing them outside ourselves, we make ourselves feel purer. My model is the Dalai Lama and not John Lydon. Hatred is an energy, too, but....
Without getting into my thoughts on Coyote's fuzzy-wuzzy "we are one" ideology too deeply, his original point about punks (a label I adopted as shorthand for someone who "violates" their culture's homogeneity; although, I do get a kick out of almost everything by the Dead Kennedys) seems to fly in the face of his printed rebuttal. In the former he denounces unpopular fashion, behavior, and music; in the latter he decries the practice of "drawing lines" between ourselves and others in order to feel superior. It's possible this apparent hypocrisy is simply a matter of not thinking his argument through, and I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But is he so credulous as to believe in a universal beauty? The only way in which all people are identical is that each of us is unique — everyone outside of one another. Unity is all about accepting each other's differences.

Our disagreement about anger seems to reside principally in matter of scope. Coyote referred to the microcosm that is interpersonal relationships — two players scuffling during a basketball game, a scorned lover slashing his ex's tires — whereas my opinion focused on more of a macrocosmic and constructively channeled anger — a voter referendum, the overthrow of a tyrannical dictator (viz., the recent rebellion in Libya). Because my model is neither the Dalai Lama nor John Lydon but George Carlin, I believe that context is key. Few would argue that barroom brawls and crimes of passion are the results of anger improperly expressed, which society would be better off without. My point was not that anger was some sort of universal good, merely that it was frequently a crucial ingredient in meaningful societal paradigm shifts.