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Voicing the enemy

Spent six hours today doing the layout for the next issue of The Midnight Special, the magazine of prisoners’ writing edited by the men in the Thursday-night creative writing workshop. I’m very excited about this issue, which I (ahem!) recommend to everyone. One of the pieces that moves me most came from an assignment based on Gloria Anzaldua’s “We Call Them Greasers.”

Gloria’s poem is written in “the voice of the enemy,” and according to one critic, “Using the narrative voice of the oppressor, her poem “We Call Them Greasers”, illustrates how easily the Mexican-American people were robbed of their land:

I showed ’em a piece of paper with some writing
tole ’em they owed taxes
had to pay right away or be gone by mañana.
By the time me and my men had waved
that same piece of paper to all the families
it was all frayed at the ends.

For the farmers who could not speak or read English, the piece of paper was a symbol of power, a power they could not access. That piece of paper, with some writing on it, had the power to deterritorialise them, to leave them landless and powerless.”

We talked, in the writing class, about the power of paper; the power of writing; the power to give voice–to ourselves, to our enemies, to our stories. We talked about how much nerve it takes to speak in the voice of the enemy. Out of that discussion, Allen Woody wrote this piece about a prison guard:

Allen Woody
Goddamn horse is startin to get on my nerves with his restless fidgeting. He keeps it up and I’m gonna have to lay this lead sap upside his thick skull, calm his nerves a bit before we go off into the woods. I got this feelin today just might be the day. Being in the high weeds and swingin an aggie in hundred-degree weather with the river in plain sight not a quarter-mile away gets a man to thinkin, and there’s always one or two of ‘em that’s tempted and figurin the odds. Hardheaded mawdickin sonsabitches don’t ever learn. I can usually spot it in ‘em, by the way they keep sneakin glances at the tree line and back down towards the river, calculatin the distance. They know I’m out here somewhere among the trees, watchin, waitin, hopin.
Two more weeks will mark twenty years of highridin, keepin decent folk safe from the likes of this scum, and in that time, I’ve put lead in the backs of an even dozen. I can’t help but remember the last one—scrawny little bastard didn’t weigh no more’n a hundred and fifty pounds soakin wet, but boy could he run! There ain’t nothin like a bullet in the spine to sever a man’s urges though, keep him from bringin any more of his kind into the world.
It tickled me to see how it sobered the rest of ‘em up, especially as they watched the hounds chew on him before the warden got there. Sometimes you gotta set an example in order to get a man’s heart right, put the fear of God into ‘im. Which reminds me, I need to instill a little into that young’un of mine before he gets too far out of hand and winds up turnin out to be like one of these old sorry thangs. A good ass-whoppin now and then is all it takes. I just want what’s best for him, want him to amount to somethin, maybe follow in his daddy’s footsteps, just like I done with mine.

Of course, prison guards are not always “the enemy.” Many prisoners perceive guards as “doing time” with them, of being institutionalized with them; the guards often come from the same disadvantaged communities as the prisoners come from, and some are portrayed in prisoners’ writings as compassionate or at least fair.

A friend in Europe asked me how many Americans live in slums like those I described in the post called “” I told him my guess is 60%. These lines from a prisoner who calls himself Abiola describe places where the real “silent majority,” the huge “underclass” of American society lives:

Release me to the streets
Drop me off in a dark alley
Where bag ladies and dope fiends sleep
Where used-twice needles and broken glass be everywhere
Surrounding dumpsters
Housing unwanted newborns
While a brass horn creates jazzy blues
In a smoke-filled room upstairs.
I’ll live there
And write poetry all night
Sleep till noon
After dreaming of blue birds
Migrating eastward.
Drop me off in this heaven
In comparison to where I’ve been.

In a bit of shameless promotion–if you’re not yet on the mailing list for The Midnight Special, it’s not too late! Every donation of $10 (US postage) or $15 (international postage) for a year’s subscription pays for a prisoner’s subscription as well as your own. Send donations and the address to which the journal should be mailed to The Midnight Special, P.O. Box 18814, Sugar Land, TX 77496. At the moment we have over 500 prisoner subscriptions but fewer than 20 paid subscriptions. At this rate we won’t last long, so if anybody would like to help promote this journal, please go for it. I won’t be around to work on it much longer, but my buddy Gallo will, and it’s a project that I hope will grow and prosper long after I’m gone.

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One response to “Voicing the enemy”

  1. […] A new edition of The Midnight Special is out and its volunteer founder is hoping to find additional free-world people to subscribe to this literary compilation of voices rarely heard: those of prisoners, in this case prisoners involved in a creative writing workshop. […]

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