Each time I entered prison I signed in, locked my coat and purse in the locker and put on a bulletproof vest. A guard led me down one hall and up another, our stride punctuated by waiting at several locked doors to be buzzed through. Each week I tried to memorize where I was going.
Writing workshops were in a concrete room painted off-white. There were no windows, no colour except for the red fire extinguisher and the clock on the wall with its red numerals. Triangular desks were arranged in a semicircle; chairs filled with sand were too heavy for prisoners to use as weapons.
“Poetry addresses individuals in their most intimate, private, frightened and elated moments…because it comes closer than any other art form to addressing what cannot be said,” the poet Merwin says. For years I had been teaching poetry in the creative writing program in a university in Halifax. Now I wanted to use poems to inspire inmates to write about what mattered most to them.
I contacted a society that worked with inmates and outlined a writing workshop that would encourage participants to write about their lives. The society arranged for me to meet with a committee at the prison. I was in luck. The head officer was looking for new programs and I was given permission to volunteer.
I had to go to a presentation given by a security risk officer who warned me that inmates would try to manipulate me, would feign interest in the workshops and try to gain my trust. He showed a display of weapons prisoners had made which had been smuggled into prison, and noted the body’s orifices in which they were smuggled. He said all prisoners were bad, otherwise why would they be there? Then I was free to leave.
I too was judgmental, especially about the risk officer. Unlike him, I believed the men and women I would work with would be complicated people, that their stories, if they chose to share then, would be important to hear. As Bryan Stevenson, an attorney who fights for the wrongfully accused on death rows, said, “People are more than the worst thing we’ve ever done… Even if you kill someone, you’re not just a killer.”
Now I was given a chance to work with people trapped behind bars and show that it might be possible to find freedom, even in prison, by writing about experiences that were baffling, joyful, and painful, but whose memories lingered. I knew writing clarified thoughts. And when thinking became clearer, actions were more comprehensible. But it was not the stories they wrote that were the most important part of the workshop.
At the very first workshop, just before the guard left to bring in prisoners, I knew the door would lock behind him leaving no way out and asked what would happen in case of fire. He pointed out that the room was concrete; nothing could burn. The workshops too, I would soon understand, would be more a gathering place of tears than fire. And yet, as soon as the inmates came into the room, something ignited in me. I was glad to be there.
There were six inmates in the workshop the first day. I handed out the poem “How I Go to the Woods” by Mary Oliver, which ends,
If you have ever gone to the woods with me, I must love you very much.
Randy said the poem reminded him of his favourite place. Randy, a Black man in his early 20s, was very handsome; he could have been a model. He was keenly attentive and respectful when he talked to the other participants. There did not seem to be tension between white and Black men in the workshop. All six men wrote about being near water—a lake, an ocean, a river—that brought them comfort. Randy’s piece was about a lake near his house where he used to walk his dogs. “I know the lake, and the lake knows me,” he wrote.
One man asked what my favourite place was. I told him I loved going off the path when I walked in the woods though I was always a little afraid a bear would attack me. I said that my husband was not an alarmist and he explained there were no bears in the woods behind our house, but still I worried.
Randy said, “My aunt is an—what did you say—alarmist. Someone walks past and she looks out the window and worries about who is passing by.” He asked, “Tell me what metaphor is again?”
When I explained, he wanted an example. “Chaos is a friend of mine,” I said and he wrote it down. “Bob Dylan wrote that,” I said, but none of them had heard of Bob Dylan.
The following week I asked them to write about something that happened with a friend or sibling when they were younger. I said, “If the memory lingers, even if the incident seems trivial, it’s important in some way.”
I only knew Randy for six hours over a six-week period but his interest in the poems I handed out, and his desire to work hard to express himself, was like a force field. At the end of one workshop he said, “You know it’s a good class when it lasts a half hour longer than scheduled!” When Randy wrote about an accident he had in Grade 5, I told him he needed more details and a week later he brought in the piece filled with descriptions and information.
He wrote about the place where he and his two best friends went their separate ways at lunch hour and how, at that spot, he was hit by a truck. He managed to struggle home for lunch but did not tell his mother what had happened, though she knew something was wrong. When he limped back to school, the principal called his name over the loudspeaker. His heart raced as if he were being hit again. The man in the truck had come to the school to call an ambulance and wanted to know why Randy had left. For some reason Randy had thought he would get into trouble. He ended the piece saying repercussions still remain because of the accident. Everyone in the group was interested in what he wrote.
At the next six-week set of workshops that I gave, on another wing, I was informed that the men in this group were hardened criminals. I wondered what that meant. Nathan was a slim, tall, young man. He was gentle and shy, his voice soothing. When I had to miss a workshop because there was a shutdown at the prison, and I apologized at the next meeting, Nathan said he too was sorry that I wasn’t able to be there. That day he no longer had his large Afro, but a close cut. He seemed down. The correctional officer told me his trial would be taking place later that week.
I asked the men to write freestyle for 10 minutes beginning with, “It’s not true that…” Nathan wrote that it was not true that fog was depressing. He wrote how he loved walking down foggy roads, being invisible, imagining a different world than the one he was in. He talked about the effect music had when he listened as walked in a dense mist, over a bridge, the fog closing behind him so he could not see where he just was. The mood was striking and the idea of writing about fog, surprising. The other participants liked the piece and I did too.
Several of the pieces Nathan wrote were strong. He was open to my critiques. When he read his poem about a candy store I challenged him to write a poem that did not rhyme, or not to choose a word just because it rhymed.
He said, “Yeah, you found me out. I didn’t work hard on this.”
I asked Nathan if he would be interested in getting his GED and he said he’d already gotten that when he was an inmate in Yarmouth. Nathan was in his early 20s. How many years had he spent in prison?
At the last workshop one of the men said that I’d asked them to read their work but had never shared a poem of mine. I didn’t have any of my poetry books with me, but recited “Not in the Warm Earth” from memory. I told them I wrote it after I had a dream that I was on a raft with my parents and they fell off. I couldn’t save them. I said it was a powerful dream because it reminded me we are all in the same boat. Some get off earlier, some stay on longer, but we all navigate unpredictable water.
“That’s deep,” Nathan said after I read the poem. He said he liked these lines:
In the middle of the night they wake me. They tell me they’re worried. I’ve made mistake after mistake.
I never asked what inmates were accused of. I didn’t want my impression filtered through the lens of crimes they did or did not commit. But sometimes correctional officers let information slip. This is how I learned that Nathan and Randy were accused of luring a pizza deliveryman, the father of two young children, to their house and murdering him. I had heard about this crime on the news months before I began the workshops, without remembering the names of the men accused. The articles and news reports did not go into details or motives, which made the incident seem even more horrifying. I remembered thinking the men who did this were monsters. But Nathan? Randy?
I gave workshops in the prison for a year. When I left the province for a few months and returned, I continued giving writing workshops, but not in prison. I needed a break. I was worn down but not for the reasons I thought I would be.
Each week, when I’d walked down those windowless halls, the iron doors clanging behind me, I felt again and again that the pain and longing in that crowded building created a spiritual intensity which made these cells a holy place. I cared about these men because, even in these six-week workshops, I got a glimpse of what mattered to them. They shared so much. It wasn’t the stories they’d written that made such an impression on me. The stories were only a vehicle, along with poems we discussed, that elicited memories and feelings participants shared and which helped everyone in that room get to know each other better. This is why, in such a short period of time, I felt close to these men and women.
But I was also worn down because the inmates were given so little assistance or regard. What programs were there for rehabilitation?
I thought about them often. And then, more than a year after the last workshop, I heard on the news that Randy was on trial. The report said Nathan had already been convicted and sentenced to life. The announcement ripped through me. I couldn’t sleep. My husband said, “Don’t watch the news before you go to bed.” But I kept thinking about these men and the death of the deliveryman, someone they’d known. The heart of the story was missing.
“The facts speak for themselves, but never speak for us,” the writer John Edgar Wideman said.
I felt such grief. The words “All my Relations” are spiritual because they address an essential truth: we are all related. Our commonalities are more prevalent than our differences. Yet some experiences are beyond control, turning a life into a time bomb. Then a person makes decisions that cause irrevocable pain. These two men convicted of murder seemed like my relatives whose disregarded lives and experiences no one would know.
How do we help those in need? It is a crucial question because isn’t this the only way we can save each other?