27 June, 2014

Yet Another Too-Personal Poem from the Vaults


I laid down private lines
On pages long since brittle,
About touching, later being touched,
And the air being hot and still both times,
About the girl’s chapped lips on my own,
About the man’s callused hands.

In the unfurling of one week, first kisses,
Sweet then sour. It’s turnabout so like the rest:
The stately sight of French Quarter streets
Corrupted by seeing that stranger fed a busted bottle;
The love of three youthful friends buried
In the rococo gilt chill of too-soon caskets;
And, despite the once-frantic quest for life among
Fellow Homo sapiens, no admittance for the damaged.
Sterling equations get so often tarnished
By countervailing aftermathematics. Such is life;

So too death (which is, let’s face it,
Life again). And these dreary themes so long explored
By sensitive boys with their blank hardcover books
Waste paper, ink, and precious time,
And do no favors for us dead and dying.

* * * * *

I think writer John Berryman summed it up perfectly when he said, “Certain great artists can make out without it; Titian and others, but mostly you need ordeal. My idea is this: the artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business.” Yet the blade cuts both ways. I still reproach myself for using my own ordeals within my writing, or as fuel for it. This is the dilemma that I think the above poem speaks to.

23 June, 2014

At the Lazy Sunday Prison Writers Conference

The sun dawned brightly on Sunday and fast-moving clouds promised that any rainfall would be scant enough not to disrupt the scheduled meeting of literary minds, for which an astonishing two writers turned out to confab on the wide, glistening concrete yard of Crossroads Correctional Center.

I arrived promptly at 8:20 AM and was greeted by Lefty Two Apples, a pioneering member of the group formerly not known by anyone as Sub Rosa Writers, dressed for the weather in khaki shorts and a state-issued gray shirt.

“Greetings, Lefty,” I said from behind my dollar fifty-six wayfarers.

“Greetings, Skullface,” he replied.

Each of us clasped manila envelopes filled with sundry literary candy — a copy of Reality Hunger for discussion, handwritten and typed sheets of recent poems, annotations of interest — in addition to a CD of environmental sounds I carried for another acquaintance, yet to appear. There were also, glinting in the light like the sword hilts of assembled soldiers, pocketed black- and red-ink pens.

The conference commenced with a perambulation of the prison’s paved walkway. Pedestrians paid little mind as Lefty held forth on the benefits of out-loud recitation in poem composition, a presentation that met with widespread head-nodding among its audience of one, who deemed its subject “tremendously important.”

Entertainment followed. The improvisational stand-up comedian brought everyone to the ground in hysterics (as did the mounting heat). Afterward the comic mingled and glad-handed with attendees in the crisscrossed shade of a chain-link fence where they’d seated themselves.

More jocularity ensued as the comic turned his wit to more edgy fare — morning constitutionals, the questionable existence of jackalopes, and (an obvious point of mockery) the aforementioned thunderstorm CD. “Oh, look, this says there’s one with a dolphin song on it — like the soundtrack to Flipper!”

Getting into the spirit, Lefty contributed the priceless non sequitur, “If I had a large building with an elevator in it, that would be what I played instead of Muzak.”

The comedian at last made his exit, at which point began the event’s poetry workshop. Lefty’s planned submissions to a themed literary journal were our focus.

A cogent — and perfectly inoffensive — two-man panel discussion on the matter of racial poetics served to cap off the morning.

As we disbanded and wended our respective ways off the yard, this attendee was already eager for the next conference, tentatively planned for the Saturday after next, or whenever Lefty’s housing unit spends another morning recreation period with mine.

20 June, 2014

When Will Missouri Let Its Prisoners Join the Electronic Conversation?

Washington, North Dakota, Michigan, Ohio, Virginia, Georgia, Louisiana — all states that now sell mini-tablet computers to their prisoners for personal use. For around fifty dollars, vendors such as JPay and Keefe Group offer the devices to penitentiaries, preloaded with (administratively limited) software for music downloads, gaming, and e-mail, thereby affording the incarcerated another, much-needed connection to the distant world.

Of course victims’ rights groups are terrified of what the National Organization for Victim Assistance’s mouthpiece described last year as “unrestricted and unsupervised outreach where inmates can revictimize or continue to intimidate victims.” However, because e-mail is even easier to monitor than the already-permitted (and well-policed) telephone conversations prisoners are having (think: filters and automated keyword monitoring, plus ease of storage and of live-human retrieval), NOVA’s argument is a little silly. The frequently extreme perspective of victims’ rights groups should be taken into consideration when weighing what privileges prisoners ought to be granted. Many would have convicts of every stripe sentenced to hard labor and bread-and-water diets.

To be fair, there are prisoners who might try to use electronic means to commit their nefarious deeds, but no more than are currently doing so with cell phones smuggled in by guards and other prison staff. (It’s interesting to point out here that illicit cell phone use in Texas prisons plummeted when the Lone Star State installed telephones in its facilities’ housing units, a statistic one Texas prison official attributed, on record with techno-culture magazine Wired, to most prisoners simply wanting to call home.) For public and institutional safety, the channels for contraband need to be closed. Until staff members are caught red-handed, breaking rules, it’s an unfortunate fact that prison administrators tend to treat their staff as being beyond reproach. This would have to change before truly effective security measures could be enacted. Maybe victims’ rights groups should recalibrate their sights to aim at greater institutional scrutiny of prison employees.

Prisoners with a supportive social structure beyond the facility walls have been shown, in study after study, more likely to rehabilitate and less likely to reoffend, and there can be little doubt that being able to send and receive e-mail will improve prisoners’ feelings of connectedness to loved ones and society as a whole. I’ve personally bemoaned the inconvenience of snail mail for years. Not only would my contacts appreciate not having to fold, seal, and stamp everything they send my way, the editors, scholars, and businesses I sometimes reach out to would be more apt to reply (you might be amazed by the number of people for whom an enclosed SASE is not sufficient motivation).

Yes, mine is a biased opinion. I’m ready to get back to Information Age communication methods. This ubergeek struggled mightily, while awaiting trial in the county detention center, with symptoms of Internet withdrawal — disconnectedness from always-on friendships, mainly — and the thirteen-year interim hasn’t done anything to mitigate my frustration. Being able to tap out e-mails from my bunk and view pics in my inbox of my mother’s trips abroad, my godson’s childhood milestones, my friends’ #humblebrag Instagram posts (I’m far less interested in games, or even MP3s) would do so much to reduce the isolation that is my normal. Loath as I am to entertain thoughts of things to make my prison stay more comfortable, it seems as though, as long as I have to be sequestered by injustice, buying a gadget to ease the pangs of separation seems like a worthy consideration.

It took until 2004 before the Missouri Department of Corrections gave its prisoners the go-ahead to buy CD players. It started selling us flat-screen TVs a few years later. Devices are one matter, social betterment is quite another. So is money. States that offer prisoners the mini-tablet computers I mentioned earlier don’t only profit from markups on the hardware. When Keefe Group introduced its MP3 player and penitentiary approved music-download service in 2009, it netted more than a million song downloads, each of which deposited a percentage into the state’s coffers, too — and that’s solely music, a luxury. E-mail satisfies a deeper craving — that for human contact — and is self-perpetuating, since nearly every click of Send leads to another click of Read, which, in turn, leads to a click of Reply. There’s money to be made here, broke Missouri, and I’m willing to let you have mine.

12 June, 2014

From My Courtside Seat

Watch him dribble, the kid in the white stocking cap and brown gloves, all by himself on the half court. Watch him switch which hand he uses, simply trying to keep the ball from getting away. Even I can tell that his technique’s all wrong. Maybe it’s the gloves. He hits the ball open-handed, the way a baby smacks a toy it doesn’t want. He’s too rigid, and that’s why, every third or fourth bounce, his dribbling arm has to apply more force, spend a longer time traveling downward. There’s no fluidity to his movements; he stands mostly still, letting the angle the ball takes determine when and where he steps.

Just as he doesn’t know what he’s doing with that basketball, he probably doesn’t know what he’s doing here — that is, how to spend his time. He undoubtedly sleeps late, past eleven, and reads bad novels from the library into the afternoon. If he owns one, or if his cellmate does, he stays up late watching TV. He might draw, or write letters, but nothing more. What else is there? The gambling, drugs, games, and tattoos aren’t pastimes for newbies, they take connections, which take a while to forge. The kid almost certainly finds himself in a daily battle against boredom and depression. I doubt he’s been here a month yet.

What do you suppose he’s in for — burglary, drugs, robbery? Could just as well be kidnapping, child molestation, manslaughter. Rape. Murder. No, I don’t actually care, it’s just the natural question that comes to mind, particularly with the young, whose apparent naïveté is at odds with these hard surroundings.

The kid dribbles and dribbles. He attempts a fake left, then right, and they’re terrible, spasmodic and flailing — about as bad as I would do if I ever felt like failing at something abysmally. He’s so awful at it yet keeps going, as though he’s up against a bet that he can’t bounce a ball 500 times, or for a straight thirty minutes.

Dark eyebrows, slender face, clean-shaven — from a distance he looks a little like I did when I first got here. Of course, you know well about appearances. I’ve fought my way, with determination if not confidence, through every one of the procedural appeals available. It’s taken a long time. People I meet are still reliably shocked when they find out how old I am, how many years I’ve been locked up in prison, but I spend less and less time looking at my reflection, and it isn’t because I’m growing less self-conscious with age.