At my yoga studio’s holiday party last weekend, these words, in swirling letters, were my present, in the form of a framed reprint of calligraphy by the great Buddhist peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh:
This semester I’ve team-taught a literature and creative writing course to 11 imprisoned men as part of the Prison-to-College Pipeline Program that my colleagues Patrick Alexander and Otis Pickett are creating, under the auspices of the University of Mississippi. I partner with Patrick in instruction; we divide the three-and-a-half hour class between his specialty, African American literature, and mine, poetry. We teach this course at Parchman/Mississippi State Penitentiary, formerly known as the Farm because of its regimen of convict labor. The youngest of my students is 28; the oldest is in his 60s. Three are white, eight are African American. They are all part of the pre-release unit, which means that they are due to be released within two years—except that some are serving life sentences. All have GEDs or high school diplomas, and several already have a college degree or have earned credit toward one.
And I’ve learned so much more from them than I have taught them.
I’ve just been reading Rebecca Solnit’s new book A Paradise Built in Hell. Writing about Hurricane Katrina, the San Francisco Earthquake, the London Blitz, and other disasters, she argues eloquently that in times of crisis, ordinary people often reveal the best of themselves, putting aside self-aggrandizement and improvising communities for mutual comfort and support.
In our classroom at Parchman, our 11 students have created such an improvised community. They often speak of living in a more or less constant state of crisis. I don’t know all the details of their lives, but I do hear from them that living and learning behind a razor-wire fence is a challenge. In their poems, they write of their daily lives. One,* referring to the green-and-white striped uniforms he and other men in minimum-security confinement wear, writes:
Wake up call
Four o’clock in the a.m.
Three toilets, four sinks,
Everyone trying to get in.
. . .
As far as I can see,
Everyone looks just like I do.
No matter what the day,
Green and white has me blue.
Here are two stanzas from another:
The first law is to be a man,
A man without shame;
But the judges sitting upon the bench
Are waiting to put a hammer on your game.
We’re told that we’re free,
And yet we’re bound;
Each time we try to rise,
We’re knocked back down….
And finally, here are three stanzas of a poem from a man who did not finish the course:
The more I hurt
The more bearable
The pain becomes
. . .
The farther I travel
The longer my
Just as I thought
My pain was over
I realized it had
Yet our class has been a series of present moments that are, unforgettably, wonderful. I realized this most strongly the day after the election, when I was so demoralized that I spent an hour hiding under the covers, unwilling to hear the news about Trump. Later I rode out to Parchman with Patrick and a visitor, our colleague Susan Grayzel, all of us sunk in grief—as, when we got there, the men in the class were sunk in grief. Some of them said that only the thought of class had got them out of bed. In Patrick’s part of the class, we pored over the pages of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. We reflected on Angelou’s unswerving belief in the power of community and literature, even as she grew up in the daily danger and degradation of the Jim Crow South. In my part of the class, we workshopped the poems the men had recently turned in. We read and discussed Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, especially “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian,” about the way a community gathers spontaneously one day around a fig tree laden with fruit. We also talked about the sorrow we all felt, the struggle sometimes to keep believing that life is worth it, the necessity for resistance and courage going forward. As the hours progressed, the collective sense of honesty and love grew stronger and stronger: the sense that we were in it together, whatever our pasts, whatever our futures. How can I say it?—that day, our hearts were stripped bare and we held each other up.
All we ever have is the present moment.
I will miss these men now that the class is over. I’ll teach at Parchman again next fall, with Patrick, but as I said to the class, I hope I won’t see them again because that will mean they’ve been released. I told them about the Buddhist saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear”: that they’d been ready—ready to read and write, ready for poetry—and that I was honored to be their teacher. But even more, I said to them, they have been my teachers. They have shown me, in their writings, that the conditions of their lives only partly define them. They have written works that make me so proud of them—funny poems, tragic poems, moody poems, angry poems, philosophical poems, tender poems, as well as short prose pieces about their lives. In their dealings with Patrick and me and with their fellow classmates, they have been men of courage, intelligence, good will, humor, and, yes, unabashed gratitude and wholehearted love.
I will go forward more sure in my own forms of resistance, my own determination to become always braver and more open-hearted, because of the dignity and humanity that I have seen in them. And I will remember them always.
* These men have signed release forms as members of the class, and therefore it is permissible that I quote them. But now that the semester is over, I cannot be in touch with them personally—communication being exceedingly difficult—and so I am not using their names. However, when I can, I will share this with them.
Read poetry by Ann Fisher-Wirth previously appearing in Terrain.org.
Header photo of men silhouetted on mountainside by Unsplash, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Ann Fisher-Wirth by Robert Jordan, University Communications, University of Mississippi.