I must speak loud quietly, so that the entire tier does not hear my conversation. I stand in the prison day room right next to the bone-crushing metal door, speaking on an old black-handed phone from the 1960s. This one is embedded in cement and steel.
I ask, “Judith, what makes a poem classic?” I am soaked in sweat from a non-desert sticky heat that bubbles up on the skin – and off the windowless foot-thick concrete walls – like moss. “No Beauty in Cell Bars” and “Beauty in Cell Bars” have been published and republished for over twenty years. Are my poems classics?
Silence fills the phone lines. Silence like watching the great Bill Irwin do one of his wordless skits on Broadway. Silence like the late Richard Pryor smiling after one of his jokes that shocked an audience at the Apollo Theatre.
Then I hear Judith's voice, one of the few voices that causes me to pause, ponder, listen, and sniff the air like a big cat. ”Spoon...” Judith's stuttering speech searches for the most lucid and wise words to impart her vision. I imagine the tickled look on her face. She's probably turning her head to the sky, eyes bright with drama, there in her apartment.
“I mean” I say “who decides what makes a piece of writing a classic? Is there a board or something?”
“Spoon...” Still giddy, Judith's voice flows up and down like a brook.
“Judith, I'm serious. You know I've been nowhere but Barstow and prison.”
More silence and then “Wow!” which caught me off guard. I was waiting for Judith's answer to my question about classics but instead she says, “Man, that would make a great country song title.”
“Nowhere but Barstow and prison.”
And there she goes again, sending me down another path that eventually only brings more questions. I put the phone down and stroll back to the cell, pondering how Judith seem able to inspire magic phrases that have me creating poems, essays, and songs.
My life had no meaning, no pulse, before prison. I was ignorant about all prison ways. I came from Barstow California, the heart of the high desert, the natural world – purple and red clay mountains, open spaces – and found nothing natural about cells. Even the air was tainted and twisted with unrealness, fleeting hope, and violent unrest. I was naïve and also unconnected to any inner spirit.
During my trial, my mom and dad came to visit me. I was twenty years old and sat across the table looking at my parents. The environment did not fit them any more than it suited cattle to live in trees. My dad said one of the longest sentences I'd ever heard him speak: “Boy, you better pray!”
My trial was quick for a death penalty trial and I was sentenced to life in prison. Trying to grasp a life without parole sentence at age twenty was like trying to hold a forest fire in my hands or an ocean in a tea cup.
Pre-prison, my life had never been one of words. I could barely read, add or subtract, and I spoke as my father did to me, in one word sentences. I sat stunned during my trial by all the words the DA, my lawyer, and the judge used. I had no idea what those words meant. I told myself then that I would never again let unknown words trap me and I started studying the dictionary.
Once at San Quentin, I checked out all the books I could get from the prison library and education department. In one notebook I wrote down definitions. I used my favorite words in sentences in another notebook. I became enraptured with words and reading. I said certain words aloud many times and pondered a word in the way I thought of the garden in front of the prison chapel, or a sparrow singing in the tree by the captain's porch. I learned a few words each day and each one brought a geyser erupting inside my mind and soul. The more words I read and studied, the clearer life became.
I became richer and deeper inside. I could see, taste, feel and touch the growth taking shape inside me and understood things I had never understood before. It was like I walked down an endless hallway full of dark rooms and each room I passed, a light came on and I learned something new. I had to choose to grow, which meant to get to know myself and find my niche, bliss, and myth in life. I had to till the endless gardens in my mind, heart and soul.
On a whim, I signed up for a poetry class. Judith was the teacher and her patience and belief in me, even before she knew me, inspired me. I sat for a year in her class in silence. Judith's trust in me, along with the power of art to heal, brought my silent desert life and world to paper like fresh rains in Death Valley.
Judith had known as a child that she would be a writer. I had no indication of my fate when I was a boy. As a kid, I failed all my classes. I did not believe I could learn anything. I had accepted that I would dwell and die in the heart of the high desert, on Crooks Street, surrounded by those purple and red clay mountains that appeared to be the whole world.
As a boy and a young man I mainly saw the destructive aspect of myself, but for eight years after I came to prison I read, studied, debunked, and peeled off layers of false history propaganda that had clogged my vision and dreams – those misguided histories I had been force-fed like a motherless lamb. For eight years I stayed to myself at San Quentin and avoided crowds. Although my heart, mind, and soul burned with thoughts, vibes and feelings, I let none surface and stepped over wounded, dying or dead bodies as everyone else did.
In the poetry class, I began to see the unconditional beauty and love in myself that mothers see in their sons. Judith inspired me to reach into the empty pockets inside myself to bring forth treasures of realness. She validated what I did not know I believed in: the magic of words to heal and free, like the sun validates a seed.
I began to see this magic shape my fate as my poems began to be published, as doors opened to other arts when I played Pozzo in the 1988 San Quentin production of Waiting for Godot, as I heard of miracles like Samuel Beckett reading my poems. Despite the fact that I'd been in prison for a decade at that point, this magic gave my life a purpose.
Now I've been behind bars for over three decades and I know all too well making a life of meaning can make being in prison harder or easier. Living with meaning is harder when I don't get to travel, meet people, sit out in nature, give poetry readings, promote the books or CD's I've been part of creating, or meet with other artists and publishers. A life of meaning is easier when I get to mentor young people, give back, and be of service to people. It is especially pleasing to be able to detour and inspire a youngster to stop and ponder a bad choice and not stroll down a dark path to prison. We always have choices and it's just that often we are not conscious of that fact. I think that being a bard allows me to touch young people in the way only poets can. I can relate to failing, being unloved, abused, lost, violent and biased on so many levels because I lived that life. I can assure youngsters that we are all eating from the same bowl of soup.
I know how sometimes, the older kids become, the more life can seem like a prison. Friendships that were once free, kind, fun and real become cruel, complicated, empty and heavy. All of a sudden reasons for not liking, and even hating, other people appear like new mountains. Color of skin issues arise. We find trouble outside and inside ourselves. It's like being chin deep in an endless pond, where you must keep your head up and not allow the water to seep into your nose and mouth.
But at some point in most of our journeys, we want to redeem or restore ourselves. Each of us must explore and restore our own inner heart and soul. Rehabilitation is always self-rehabilitation. My journey led me to Judith and her poetry class. I could have gone on serving this life sentence in silence, longing only for the deeper silence of a raindrop falling gently to earth, but Judith saved me from that fate. She helped introduce me to the voice inside me, wanting to come out. I learned how to poet and write mainly because Judith believed in me and trusted me, even in my silence. This is very important for teaching artists to understand: because Judith knew how to listen, the silent language of the soul gave my pen wings.
Yes, at first, I saw Judith as the good looking, splendidly weird woman coming into San Quentin. But after awhile, I saw the person, the poet, the teaching artist, the human, the brilliant light – a brave woman who came into our dungeon class room to teach poetry. A woman who became my mentor, my friend, and my big sis. I found out that I could share a relationship with a woman not based on sex, but on a deep, powerful, soulful, and enlightening friendship that can last lifetimes.
Despite the fact that Judith is a small, Jewish, white woman, and I am a sturdy black man over six feet tall and a decade younger than she is, some people may think: Oh Judith must be another one of those goody two-shoes liberal white women rescuing an ignorant black man from sinking further into the abyss of San Quentin. In fact, though, we both understood that human beings must rescue themselves. Still we can be there for each other and believe in each other, as Judith believed in me and I believed in her. Because we shared our two different lives and backgrounds – putting ourselves out there, heart first – we enriched each other and forged a friendship based on realness, respect, art, trust, uncommon and common ground, and love. My weakness may have been her strengths and my strengths her weaknesses. Like wolves that know they are howling at the moon in common, Judith and I have always known that we have humanity in common. This truth led me to my undiscovered self, to a heart of bonding with Judith, to finding that I am a writer and to the realness that can mend or heal all things wrong or wounded.
Ani DiFranco composed music to a poem by Spoon with the same name as this essay.