Twenty years ago, poet Judith Tannenbaum invited me to be a guest artist at her weekly class at San Quentin prison. I will never forget my first visit to the prison. Like many people, I had vague and frightened ideas about prisoners. To my surprise, I found that the men who attended the poetry class were more committed to writing than any students I had encountered, writing with urgency, dedication and a commitment to clarity.
I remember Spoon Jackson, a prisoner serving a life sentence that began in 1977 for a murder he committed at 19. He sat in the doorway, with a protective circle of chairs between himself and the others, and wrote:
Realness eats raw meat
And does not waver
Nor drift on the currents.
He has the staying power
of the sun.
Realness walks in his own shoes.
Now with the publication of “By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives," everyone has a chance to meet and hear the words of Judith and Spoon.
Told in alternating chapters, “By Heart” is a powerful account of what’s wrong with our prison and educational systems and a luminous tribute to the transformative power of poetry. (To buy the book from Amazon, click here.)
By telling their stories in turn,we hear the ongoing conversation between Judith and Spoon, including their disagreements, as their interaction deepens over the years, from student and teacher, to poets and colleagues. Judith writes:
Early on Spoon and I recognized each other: a shyness we shared, a passion for what Spoon calls ‘diving’– deep exploration into matters of spirit, and gratitude for the gift of expression. Spoon and I have shared hope, despair, anger, joy, presence and absence. We do our best to be true allies for each other on our separate journeys, ‘one foot in darkness, one foot in light,’ as Spoon so beautifully puts it.
When two poets write a memoir, it has a vividness, substantiality and eloquence that set it apart. Unlike many contemporary memoirs which focus on a capital P Problem, “By Heart” includes the authors’ suffering without trying to market it or glamorize it. Much of “By Heart” is about the way that writers become writers. Although their backgrounds and life circumstances are immensely different, both Judith and Spoon are observant, solitary, attentive to nature and its lack.
I love the very different ways each discovers language.
Judith was raised in an atmosphere of books and words. At an early age stories were her favorite thing. Before she knew how to form letters, she dictated stories to her mother, who wrote them down of the back of her father’s research notes. “Even at four, I found it funny: which were the front sides of these sheets, which the back, my illustrated story or those typed words from my father’s university world far away from our house.”
Spoon (whose given name is Stanley) was a rural black child in the California desert. In a family of fifteen sons, he was a boy with abundant curiosity, imagination, and energy, who shut down early and gave up on learning in the face of constant harsh physical punishment, negative encounters with teachers, and cynical assessments of his future. Of his life before prison, Spoon writes:
My life had never been one of words. I could barely read, and I spoke as my father did to me, in one-word sentences, shrugs, or by nodding my head. But during the months I was on trial, I sat stunned by all the words the DA used. I had no idea what the words meant and I told myself then that I would not let unknown words trap me. I started studying the dictionary in the county jail and reading all I could. I began to awaken the sleeping student inside me and took my first steps on the journey.
Spoon was 29 and well into a remarkable course of self- education when he attended Judith’s poetry class — Judith was Spoon’s first true teacher! Spoon describes learning to embrace words and allowing words to embrace him in Judith’s workshop: “Words swarmed inside me like honeybees and took me places — imaginary and true — from the past, present, and future.” Judith respected his silence and distance. In conference, Judith listened to his words and images, hearing what he had written and what he had not yet found a way to say. Among its many other dimensions, “By Heart” is a book that illuminates teaching and celebrates the power of the learning conversation.
Judith’s teaching — grounded in the belief that imagination is a birthright and that we are born with the capacity to create — has led her to share art and poetry with many underserved populations, including prisoners, at-risk adolescents, and children. Beyond the task of sharing the tools of poetry, Judith sees poems as “a vehicle for vaster understanding.” In a poem about what she and her students share, she writes: “Call it poems/call it life/call it we breathe and we’re human.”
In these pages she gives us a portrait of the real day-to-day life of a teaching artist making a life at the margins. For in the face of daunting setbacks, including multiple abrupt dislocations to various prisons around the state, Spoon has opened up as a writer, thinker, and human being coming to terms with himself and his situation. For those of us on the outside Spoon simply says:
Trying to grasp a life without parole sentence was like trying to hold a forest fire in my hands, or an ocean in a tin cup. I knew I had to lose the usual sense of time. Indeed, a day, a month, a year, ten years or one hundred years had to become a moment, a breath in the present. To keep going and growing, I had to let go of time.
In one of the most complex sections of “By Heart,” Judith and Spoon each write their account of the San Quentin production of “Waiting for Godot” directed by Swedish director Jan Jonson in 1988. With an artist’s typical disregard for rules, Jonson puts Judith and her art-in-corrections boss in a difficult position, often treating them as the boring administrators. Judith reflects on the complex balance and boundaries that artist teachers working with prisoners must confront. Spoon details the explosive dynamics between cast members, his deepening understanding of Beckett’s work, the love affair and several year marriage between him and one of the Swedish women who was part of Jonson’s crew, the letdown that actor Bill Irwin warned him would follow the production.
Having had the privilege of attending one of the three performances that were open to outside guests from the world of politics and the arts, I have to say that the San Quentin “Godot” was one of the most real theater experiences in my life. I will never think of “Waiting for Godot” as an abstract work again.
“Godot” brought Spoon international attention. His poems have been set to music in Sweden, studied by college students, and featured in films, (with and without attribution). He has won PEN writing awards. And he has branched out to write plays, essays and memoir. At this point, when most of the programs that brought artists into the prisons are seriously cut back, Spoon has become a profound writing teacher to other prisoners.
Many classes, programs, and books offer steps to become an artist or techniques to become more creative. There are some positive aspects to these approaches. Yet for myself, I have learned the most about being an artist from reading the autobiographies, diaries, and letters of other artists. Inspiration emerges as I am reminded of the way artists listen and pay attention to inner and outer nature, the sensitivity that is both our curse and our blessing. “By Heart” is a powerful reminder that one can be creative, one can live with attention and heart no matter where you are.