When I desire you
a part of me
Why did I choose to teach in a prison? What did I want out of it?
Did part of me go? What part?
Did I want it to go?
When you teach creative writing in a prison, there are some similarities to teaching creative writing in a university. It is tough, almost all of the time, to share writing that often feels a piece of you around the table.
A colleague of mine once called the incarcerated writers in the room a family. There was a silence. We’re not a family, one writer said. We hate each other. We’d kill each other if we could.
Some families are different from others.
Sometimes when sharing writing around the table, things can get tense. The usual way of thinking about creative writing workshops is that we’re there to be productive: i.e. improve each others’ work through feedback. When the work is close to your heart, productivity can sound like wind roaring in your ears.
One of the writers once tensed up in my direction. We were talking about his work. The temperature went up an octave. One of the other writers, sensing that something was about to go down, moved his presence between us.
I thought I was being productive. I wonder what I was.
One of the writers handed me a red folder. Read it if you like. I forgot that I wasn’t supposed to take anything out of or into the prison.
Weeks later, I got around to opening the folder: two essays, both easily as good as the best essays I had to grade of undergraduates. One essay was about the history of the prison system. The other was a critique of prison space, focusing on the courtyard of a particular prison, security issues, and a dangerous lack of sight lines.
He told me that his writing teacher at a previous prison was so moved by the prison space essay that he brought it to the prison’s Head of Education — the equivalent of a principal — who tried to use the essay to effect change in the prison. The Head of Security was not impressed.
The essay made its way into the writer’s file, marking him as a troublemaker. The writer was soon transferred to the prison where I met him.
Were I that writing teacher or heading up education, would I place my writer at risk if it meant I could effect a change I felt was positive?
We never ever touch each other. There is no handshake, no fistbump, no clapping each others’ backs. I’ve always been bad at manly ritual, but at least here it’s against the rules.
I once had to make up a class to teach with a sociologist. Prison Masculinities, we called it. That would be fascinating, one incarcerated learner said. We think about those kinds of things all the time by ourselves but would never dare talk to each other about it.
It’s hard to leave the prison, at least over time. During the first few classes, the writers would ask me How long are you here for? They were used to university folks dropping in, taking a survey, then never hearing from them again. When I said The year, I swear I could see their shoulders relax.
Once, when they couldn’t find our paperwork at the gate, we were denied entry. They didn’t let the writers know, so they sat there for a couple hours waiting for us.
One writer mentioned that it’s a bit like being visited by a loved one upon first getting in: they visit you week after week, month after month, then they stop. You never know why.