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The Midnight Special Shines Its Ever-lovin’ Light

Thanks to Kate, at Bootsnall, for mentioning our prisoners’ literary magazine in her Volunteer Logue. We now have 510 prisoners who get free subscriptions to The Midnight Special, and 17 free people who donate $10 for a year’s subscription. It would (ahem!) be really nice if more people who aren’t in prison would subscribe. There’s more about the magazine on the website for The Prison Show, a Houston radio program for prisoners and their families. The main thing I think the magazine has to offer people who aren’t in prison is literature strong enough to jerk our heads around (and up out of whatever other areas they might have been stuck in). In addition to that, every free-world subscription provides ten prisoners with a magazine and gives them a chance to read what other prisoners have written.

I could talk for a long time about why I love working with prisoners who sign up for creative writing workshops. A few quick reasons: They think. They read. They have time to write. They invest passionate effort into developing their skills as writers.

Here’s a different perspective. One of the blogs I read when I can is The Evening Class, by Michael Guillen, often devoted to film and interviews with people in film. Recently Michael offered a link to a nervy, hilarious, offensive, but compelling interview with Amy Sedaris. This piece of the interview really bit me: “I’ve always been drawn to people with problems. Not just physical problems, but mental problems too. Like depressed people or killers, all that stuff. When I was growing up in North Carolina, I was determined to work at the local women’s prison in Raleigh. I’m sure that it wouldn’t have been as great as I imagined. After a while, I probably would have thought it was just depressing and awful. But I’m still very curious about anybody who isn’t able to function in society. And if they’re really nuts? I’m all over them.” This woman, who insists she is not a “comic” (too much pressure to perform) certainly has nerve, and she speaks aslant of people and issues I care about, so I find her fascinating.

I disagree with Amy’s generalizaton that people in prison can’t function in society. There is nothing one can say about all people in prison; many people are in prison because of racism and poverty and mental illness and addiction and racial profiling and I won’t carry this rant further because it tires me, but Amy’s remark gnaws at me because I see reflections of my own tendencies in her being “all over” people “with problems.” Some of the people I know who are in prison have rebelled against–let’s not call it “society” but what Agnes Anderson rightly called “the machine,” and that goes for many people who are artists and who live, as I have been saying, “authentic” lives. Some of the people in prison have made radical life choices, and that draws me to them. Being in prison sucks, and while it’s not uniformly gloomy, it’s certainly not where I’d like to live. Still, I spend as much time there as I can. I guess one generalization I CAN make about prison is what Mark Twain said of hell: you’re sure to meet interesting people there.

And what those interesting people write, in my opinion, is often worth reading. So let me shut up and just include a couple of samples. See for yourself. Here’s a piece of “flash fiction” (short short fiction with a twist, an unexpected ending):

Yard Time
by Allen Woody
My time is almost up, and as overjoyed as I am at the prospect of leaving my home of the last fifteen years, I will miss this yard. I know it with such intimacy: each dip and rise, the softest spots where we would sometimes sit in the evenings as the ground began to cool, swapping stories and sometimes sharing secrets, breathing in the scents of summer mingled with fresh-mown clover.
As I make my final lap and gaze out beyond the fence into an uncertain future, I do so with hope and optimism, and with a sense of sadness for some of the things I leave behind. There are memories here. On the evening of this day two years ago, we sat drinking homemade wine, giggling like children as we watched distant fireworks at dusk, the staccato beat reaching us just as the light began to fade.
I suddenly realize with a start that the staccato noise is actually the blade of the mower chewing up one of the half-dozen anthills which have appeared on the yard in the last month. I choke and sputter along with the engine as a small cloud of dust engulfs me. I glance down and notice the ants single-mindedly marching up my shoe. Pesky little bastards—another thing I won’t miss once the divorce is finalized next week and I reenter the land of the free.

Another writer in the group my friend John and I facilitate right now is Kevin Maryland–a powerful reader of his own work. His performance of the work is half the thrill of the work–hearing his controlled strength, his passion, his “cool” in the words, seeing his strong jaw, feeling the snap of his intellect, his eyes behind glasses that make him look the intellectual he is but doesn’t claim to be. Here’s a piece of one of his poems I love, called “The Pay Back,” about a young person and a more experienced person who taught him the ways of love:

With sentiment whispering
in your ear, you taught me,
taught me to push the boundaries
of desire, your every motion in rhythm
with the peaks and valleys
of the core of my yearning,
pleasure & pain underlining my embrace
while you, the conqueror of many,
baptize me with the unholy.
I devour the moment for every
morsel of pleasure it provides.
So until the dawn of your return
I watch the sparrows
usher in the change of season,
hoping my tutor is in tow.

There’s more, of course. Stories, memoirs, haiku, flash fiction, and “all the literature that fits” the eight-page photocopied layout that the Thoreau Unitarian Universalist Congregation can afford to publish. Interested? If so, a subscription can be ordered with a donation of $10. Make check out to “TUUC” and send it, and the address, to P.O. Box 18814, Sugar Land, TX 77496. Remember, every subscription covered with a $10 check pays for ten prisoners to receive the magazine free of charge.

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-6 responses to “The Midnight Special Shines Its Ever-lovin’ Light”

  1. stephenbrody says:

    I think I’d agree that you’re sure to meet “interesting people” in prison. The trouble is that I don’t think they’re so interesting out of it. What does that say about ‘society’?

  2. admin says:

    That it’s stratified by class? That some of us have class-bound ways of socializing? That the boundaries provided by a writing workshop create a means for prisoners and folks like John & me to “see” each other that doesn’t exist “outside”? I’ve known people who were in prison and got released, and they were just as interesting “outside” as they had been inside, but once they were outside, they didn’t have the leisure time to spend reading, writing, and talking about literature that they had when they were inside. As I clawed my way up into the middle class, I came to enjoy the privilege of being able to write, read, and talk about literature in my “free” time. I didn’t have that privilege when I was working multiple part-time jobs, trying to support myself and my kids. The prisoners I’ve known who got out became so absorbed in the effort to survive that we didn’t have a way to hang out and read poetry any more.

  3. stephenbrody says:

    Yes, partly what you say, the moral being that all of us might benefit from a spell of ‘free time’ in jail, so perhaps there’s something wrong with ‘outside’ – the something that makes so much pointless activity necessary and puts the ‘lazy’ or unwilling away? But I was referring too to the fuelling power of indignation or sense of outraged justice or whatever it might be which must accompany incarceration. There’s nothing like frustrated passion for turning the mind to ‘poetry’

    At the same time one might be wary of sentimentalizing here: this is not really very good writing, however commendable may be the inspiration or however unfortunate the plight of the writers; had it been the work of a respectable bank clerk would you have noticed?

  4. admin says:

    Chacun son gout. Not really very good writing? Compared to what? Kevin’s surprises me and moves me more than that of Ted Hughes, who was the UK’s poet laureate for a while. I have three books of flash fiction, and Woody’s is as good as the best in them. Their work is better than anything my college students are writing. It stacks up favorably against much of what comes out of poetry slams (and gets published) in this country. If I found a respectable bank clerk writing this stuff, I’d certainly encourage her and pass her work around for others to see. It’s silly to compare it with Proust or Yeats. Who are the great writers in 2007, in your opinion? This should probably become a new thread or shift to email.

  5. Katie says:

    I’ve read these comments with great interest and it has taken me some time to try to organize my thoughts and words (I still might not get it just right).

    I think the great thing about the written art is that it can show you the world from a different perspective, and prisoners are in a prime position to do this. Talk about life experience that many others don’t have. Not having time in the free world for these endeavors is hardly a sign of laziness – to find examples of people without time you don’t have to look far for “regular” people who are just busy working to survive.

    I think it would be unfortunate if there was a checklist for what counts as good writing. Certainly there may be for “what sells” or “what receives public praise” but I really believe that much of what is valued by society is valued so much because …it’s valued by society. Do people really think independently about what’s good and what’s not? In some cases, sure, in many, I think not.

    I’m from the US but have lived in Eastern Europe altogether for more than three years, and also spent five months in India. I think many of the realities of the US such as the class stratification system, the justice system, and the nature of the job market would surprise a lot of people without personal experience of it.

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