Thirteen years since I started teaching my Creative Writing class at Douglas County Jail just outside Lawrence, Kansas. Thirteen years, hundreds of classes, thousands of inmates in my class over the years.
I’ve taught for over twenty years at the University of Kansas. I’ve taught in France, Senegal, Zambia, Japan and England. But there’s no doubt at all that my writing class at Douglas County Jail has been the best teaching experience of my life.
I was there again on Thursday, same time, same place, in the classroom with tiny windows of a facility that’s been described as looking more like a corporate headquarters than a county jail (or “correctional facility,” to give its proper name).
Here are some of the voices we heard in this week’s class:
In the echoed word misheard, spoken
from lips unseen, I hear your name.
Not enough time outside to blossom and bloom
Slowly he starts to realize he’s stuck in a tomb
I used to act my age
Then I got stuck in this cage
which put me in this rage
I can’t seem to turn the page
She lights a cigarette and pours a cup of coffee, she then leaves
down the sidewalk into the dark cool air of the morning.
Ring. Ring. Ring. Sounds the start of my day.
Ring. Ring. Ring. Starts the pick up and drop off
of each inmate’s tray.
I wish they produced inmates in a more natural, organic
way, like free-range chickens.
So many faces in the writing circle over the years, so many names, so many poems, so many moments of wonder indeed when inmates in the class found exactly the right words to say what they so much wanted to say, in words that reached the rest of us too. A slight pause when the inmate was done reading, then spontaneous applause.
Most of the inmates I won’t see again, they’ve moved on; I know that a few have died. But week after week a group of ten or more writers come together in a circle ready to have a go at telling something of their stories, and listening to what others have to say.
Each time one of our best writers leaves, someone else joins the group and takes over as the sort of alpha presence in the group. Then an old “friend of the class” returns to us, and it’s both good to see him and not so good because he’s in trouble again. I’ve heard the joke a few times that the inmate has only come back for “Brian’s writing class” (as it’s known in the jail).
Thousands and thousands and thousands of poems over the years, a bit of everything, story-telling, sonnets, rap, a lot of rap, and haiku and everything, really, at least you might think it’s everything until someone comes up with something else, and the class is given new life.
Out of all the poems, Michael Harper’s “methamphetamine” is probably the one that has received the most attention. It has the honor of being the poem most often ripped out of the anthology of poems from the class we place in the jail library. Too many of the inmates know exactly what the poem is all about, and yet they’ve never heard it like this before, with the artistry that Michael Harper brings to it.
methamphetamine Michael Harper (June 2007)
My name is methamphetamine, but you can call me speed
I last so much longer than cocaine, and I’m so much better than weed
I’ve had many names over the years, crystal, crank and Ice
and what I can do to the human brain, isn’t very nice
I’ll make you stay up for days & days, and see things that aren’t there
I’ll turn your wife into a whore, and you won’t even care
The more you do, the more you want to go faster and faster and faster
stealing pills, for the cook ‘cause he’s the puppet master
I’ll take away everything you love, then laugh at all your pain
I’ll make you hear voices, slowly drive you insane
You’ll do anything for me, my personal little pawn
you’ll be a walking skeleton, your teeth will all be gone
don’t even try to take me on, ‘cause you can never win
But you’ll come back, you always do, though you know you’re gonna lose
Don’t try to blame me for your problems, you had the right to choose
when you die, if you think I care, well, you are sadly mistaken
I’ll just add your worthless carcass to the others that I’ve taken
But that’s all good, don’t ya know, it’s all part of my plan
I should come in a baggie that says, “Death for Sale,” $100 a gram
Sorry ‘bout your luck, but you see I only have one goal
That is to ruin your life and slowly take your soul
So hop aboard my crazy train, I know just what you need
my name is methamphetamine, but you can call me speed
(Published in Douglas County Jail Blues, Coal City Press, 2010)
If this was the only poem that came out of the class, it would have been worth all the time and commitment of thirteen years of classes.
It’s been worth a thousand times more than that. I wouldn’t sell the experience for a million dollars.
Brian Daldorph teaches at the University of Kansas and Douglas County Jail. He edits Coal City Review. His most recent book of poetry is Jail Time (2010). Brian is featured in the North American issues 287.2, 290.3-4, 290/5, and 294.5, September-October 2009.
Illustrations by Justin Perkins, who graduated from College for Creative Studies. He is a freelance illustrator and designer, and teaches art in Detroit. Justin’s first illustration for North American Review appeared in issue 298.4, Falls 2013.