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Manzanita Writers Series examines prison poetry

I’ve only been inside a working prison once. But twenty-eight years later I can still summon up its industrial smells, the echo of that steel door locking behind me. I had no desire to visit again. Most people don’t.

By Kathie Hightower

Authors Nancy Miller Gomez and Lauren Kessler are among the rare exceptions, volunteering month after month as teachers who help inmates share their experiences in writing, even teaching them to write poetry. Both authors have discovered that writing can heal, redeem, and give meaning to life in prison.

Both have written books about their experiences, and will read from their books as well as interview one another at the Manzanita Writers’ Series event, “Authors in Conversation,” at 7 p.m. on Saturday, May 18, at the Hoffman Center for the Arts in Manzanita. Admission is $7.

Gomez will read from her book of poetry “Punishment,” and Kessler from her book “A Grip of Time: When Prison is Your Life.”

Gomez volunteered at the Salina Valley State Prison, a level four maximum-security prison. She taught in a room with fifteen inmates, many belonging to different gangs.

“In that room, gang affiliations didn’t matter. Neither did skin color or age. In that safe place we’d created, the men allowed themselves to take risks and be vulnerable,” Gomez said. “Their respect and support for each other was heartfelt. No one shows up to a poetry class in prison without a sincere desire to discover and share their truth. Including me.”

The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Kessler spent four years teaching inmates at the Oregon State Penitentiary. She says her mission was to “learn about this hidden world. So that we all could. I could teach these men to craft stories. They could educate me about prison life. I needed to know—I thought we all needed to know—who these people were that we put away, far away from us, in a country that puts more people in prison than any other country on earth.”

On the last day of Gomez’s class, one inmate, Manuel was scheduled for release. He came up to Gomez with a question, she writes:

“He stammered a bit, wringing his hands, then asked, ‘Do you know where I can get my kids poetry lessons?’ He asked this as if he wanted to find a piano teacher or a tennis coach. ‘Poetry lessons?’ I said.

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I want my kids do learn how to do this.’ He said it quietly but every man in the room was listening. I didn’t respond because my throat had closed up, so Manuel filled the silence. ‘I want to share this with my children,’ he said, sweeping his hand to indicate all of us in the room.”

Kessler’s students were similarly impacted. When she told the inmates that she’d finished her manuscript about her time with them, one inmate asked a question. Kessler writes:

“I just want to know one thing,” Jimmie said. “Are you going to leave us now?” he asked. “I mean now that the book is done.” His voice was low, but I could hear the catch in it. We all could…

“I’m in it for the long haul, Jimmie,” I said. And then I gave them another prompt, and they all bent their heads to write.”

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