All this week Tahoma Literary Review is offering a discussion of diversity in literature, with posts from a TLR contributor or editor. We hope the series will lead to a lively discussion. Comments are open this week.
Writing as Empowerment: Serving the Underserved in the Poetry Workshop
By Shaindel Beers
Before one writes, one must feel that one has something to say. Something unique and worth listening to. I try to come at diversity in art at the beginning of the process. I teach at one of the most rural community colleges in the country. While it’s not the norm, I’ve had students who drive two and a half hours each way for class, and students who take all of their winter term classes online because they can’t safely cross mountain passes in the winter. To them, this is the norm. It’s hard for them to imagine any other type of life. Annie Dillard says in The Writing Life, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” I work to encourage my students to share their perspectives because they are unique voices. They write of winter camping where “A den of coyotes pierce the silence” or bow-hunting elk where “Guided by razors, and feathers, / The arrow flies.” With the rural population of the United States being at an all-time low of 16%, many of them are writing about a disappearing way of life (United States Census Bureau.).
Down the hill from the college is EOCI, Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution, a medium security prison housing 1,600 inmates. Five miles outside of town is Mission, Oregon, the separate unincorporated town of the 1,000 residents of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. I have taught both college courses and writing workshops at the prison and early college courses at the tribal high school. Because Eastern Oregon is remote, many parts of it sparser than Alaska, both the inmate population at EOCI and the population of the CTUIR are in some ways, their own countries within this remoteness. Jerry Brunoe, a Native American writer from the Warm Springs reservation, says of this separation, that he was “raised in a smaller nation.” Sherman Alexie describes the same sense of separation when he writes, “Our reservation was a small paragraph within the United States.”
In my classes, we practice by reading the works of published writers and identifying the basic literary elements of those works; then, we move on to the students’ work. Although, of course, I work to broaden their horizons and want them to read widely, we read a lot of rural poets, a lot of Native American poets. I want them to feel what Alexie talks about in his piece from The Atlantic, “The Poem That Made Sherman Alexie Want to ‘Drop Everything and Be a Poet,’ when he happened upon “Elegy for the Forgotten Oldsmobile” by Adrian C. Louis, and read the line, “Oh, Uncle Adrian, I’m in the reservation of my mind.” I want them to have that “intellectual and emotional awakening” Alexie speaks of. I want them to realize that they need to write because their stories are valuable. As Alexie says, “…as soon as I saw that poem, I knew I could write about myself—my emotional state, the narrative of my emotional life….I didn’t think an Indian’s life was important enough to write about until Louis gave me permission to do it.”
I see giving permission as the first step in getting students comfortable with the idea of writing and with the idea that they can be writers—whether they are from a farm town, a reservation, a prison—and regardless of which one they call home for now.
Once they understand the importance of their stories, we do the hard work of accessing memory and emotion and then transforming that raw material into poetry. We strive to follow Wordsworth’s quote from the preface to Lyrical Ballads, “that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” but also to remember the second, often forgotten half; “it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” But what is tranquility, if not a privilege that not everyone has? Where is the tranquility when you are working multiple jobs to make ends meet, or when you are incarcerated with 1,600 other men? One of the first methods of writing we try is guided meditation. If students aren’t able to have tranquility at home, we bring it into the classroom by dimming the lights and turning on yoga or meditation music. Sometimes, in a prison, even dimming the lights isn’t allowed.
Students are often overwhelmed by what comes to them during meditation exercises. A young man once wrote his Taste/Scent memory poem about working for months on his late grandmother’s recipe so that he could surprise his grandfather with it, and an older woman wrote about a long-since closed-down drive-in restaurant from her childhood thousands of miles away. Students at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institute have written about missing the simplest things—being able to eat a corn dog at a fair—on an actual stick, something forbidden to inmates at a medium security prison. In response to the “Letter to Your Younger Self” prompt, inmates have written heart wrenching poems asking their younger selves to not get into a car with someone they didn’t know too well, or urging their younger selves to turn down that first hardcore drug experience.
The opportunity to reflect on their emotions, to be vulnerable, sometimes to the point of tears, doesn’t happen often within a correctional facility. To these students, the writing workshop, the opportunity to share stories and to spend time with their memories, is a gift. It is also a chance to think about What if? It is a way to experience the second chance, that other life they haven’t been able to live since walking through the prison gates. Once, an inmate student wrote that if he could choose any way to spend a day, he would sit on a bench in a park with his son and share a bag of potato chips. He knew every detail. What the weather would be, what kind of tree they would sit under, the sound of the chips being slipped out of the bag. For him, the writing workshop was a way to live life outside the prison walls.
For farm town and reservation students, the workshop is a chance to think outside the paragraphs that have made up the essays of their lives so far. It is the chance to be a fairy tale character or to bring a figure from a Native American creation story into a modern setting, or even just a chance to be honest with oneself in a society where toughness and not showing emotion is often a type of currency.
These stories are theirs to tell, and in many cases these stories are healing. Many student-writers just haven’t realized that they own their stories. That their stories are the one thing that they have complete control over. That what gets told and what doesn’t is completely up to them. That what is normal to them is extraordinary to someone else, and therefore, deserves to be sent out, to be read by a larger audience.
The cutting away and the revision can come in the next class session, the next prison workshop. My first job, my most important job is freeing them to the idea of putting their words on paper. Of convincing them that their stories have worth.
I have gained so much, too, from teaching in these settings. The natural world and wildlife have become even more a part of my work than I would have attempted before living here. I wrote a series of pelican poems after becoming fascinated with the pelicans that sometimes call the Umatilla River home, and I feel the respect that both the farmers and the tribes have for the land and the river. Teaching writing in the prison has made me aware of everyone’s stories and the fact that so many stories don’t get told because they don’t come from a place of privilege. Every day, I am inspired by my student writers, by their stories.
Shaindel Beers’s work appears in TLR’s first issue. She is the author of two full-length collections of poetry, A Brief History of Time (2009) and The Children’s War and Other Poems (2013), both from Salt Publishing. She teaches at Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, Oregon, and serves as Poetry Editor of Contrary.