Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Michael Simms: A Few of my Favorite Jailbirds

But I’m Starting a New Life: A Words without Walls Anthology, Anthony Ciotoli (ed.) Chatham University, Pittsburgh, 2015

Many important writers and poets have spent time in jail or prison, and their sentences have not always been just or consistent. William Burroughs, for example, was a heroin addict implicated in two homicides, but because of his family’s wealth and influence, his jail time was brief. Etheridge Knight, on the other hand, was sentenced to serve a 10- to 25-year prison term for a mere purse snatching. Other writers have been, perhaps foolishly, caught up in love affairs gone wrong. Sir Thomas Wyatt was imprisoned and nearly hanged for treason after making love to the Queen of England. Oscar Wilde served two years at hard labor after a love affair with the teenaged son of a powerful nobleman. And still others, such as Nelson Mandela, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Dante Alighieri, and Gandhi, were incarcerated for their political beliefs. My friend Benjamin Spock was arrested so many times for his anti-war activities that he joked about jail being like a second home to him.

A prison cell becomes a crucible for many writers, burning away vanity and dishonesty to reveal the essence of their vision. Malcolm X’s life-changing conversion to Islam occurred while he was serving time for burglary. Martin Luther King wrote Letter from Birmingham Jail while awaiting trial for organizing protests against segregation, and his philosophy of nonviolent resistance was influenced by Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience — also written in jail. As a teenager, Anne Perry helped bludgeon her best friend’s mother to death, spent 5 years in prison, and went on to write a series of successful and highly regarded novels that explore crime and redemption. The first published works by O. Henry, E. E. Cummings, and Jean Genet were composed in prison. François Villon is said to have written his Testament, a powerful long poem of searing satire, while in a Parisian jail on charges of theft. Miguel de Cervantes penned Don Quixote while serving time for not paying his debts. Marco Polo spent many months of his incarceration recounting his travels to a fellow inmate who compiled them into what we now know as The Travels of Marco Polo, a book that changed the course of western civilization. Without the many poems, essays, and stories written by convicted criminals, the world would be a much poorer place.

Words without Walls, an outreach program sponsored by Chatham University, has empowered the inmates of the Allegheny County Jail and the State Correctional Institute of Pittsburgh, as well as the residents of Sojourner House, to transform their strength, experience, and hope into evocative poetry and prose. There is no more important work than this enabling of the wounded human spirit to find a voice. Pain, regret, resentment, humiliation, love, fear, acceptance, and forgiveness are all here. In one of the poems, Chris Westbrooks asks, “Have you ever heard a jailbird sing?” In this anthology, we hear the jailbirds sing, and they do so beautifully.

Copyright 2015 Michael Simms. A version of this essay appeared as the introduction to the anthology.

9 comments on “Michael Simms: A Few of my Favorite Jailbirds

  1. jenneandrews
    December 19, 2015

    Yes..Yes…so brilliantly illuminating. I was very close to Etheridge at one time; still hear his voice. Been in handcuffs twice myself and perhaps I need to write about the disempowerment and shame that set in when under suspicion and scrutiny. xxxxj

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Daniel Burston
    July 30, 2015

    This sounds like a splendid anthology, on a an extremely worthwhile and important theme. Kudos to all concerned, and to all who inspire prisoners, helping them to find their voices. But unless I am mistaken, Ezra Pound was never “incarcerated”, or at any rate imprisoned, for his fascist and anti-Semitic beliefs. Instead, the Allied authorities who arrested him after WWII bowed to pressure from the literary world, and as a result, he was deemed “mad” or insane and sent to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital (NYC), where he languished for many years, rather than face real prison time (or a death sentence) for being a traitor – which in point of fact, he was. Thanks to the interventions of Hemingway, Gertrud Stein and other Modernist novelists and poets, he was not imprisoned, but enjoyed a luxurious sojourn in Bedlam, complete with unsupervised overnight visits from female admirers bearing gifts of alchohol – a privileged status that other, less privileged residents of the hospital could only envy.. (All this is documented in considerable detail in E.Fuller Torrey’s book, The Secret of St. Elizabeth’s.)

    My point is simply this. For all his astonishing literary talent, at the end of the day, Pound was a fascist and traitor, not a patriot or a deeply principled critic of “the system.” Putting him in the same category as Oscar Wilde,Gandhi, MLK, Malcom X, Nelson Mandela, Alexander Solzheytizin and other principled political prisoners who suffered for the sake of their convictions can only be a political slight of hand or an expression of astonishing näiveté. (In this case, I am quite confident, it is the latter.)

    Daniel Burston

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vox Populi
      July 31, 2015

      Thanks, Dan. As always, your comment is insightful. Just to clarify — after the war Ezra Pound was held in an American prisoner of war camp, really a cage exposed to the elements, for several weeks, then flown to the US to stand trial for treason. His broadcasts on Italian radio during the war had gained him notoriety as a Fascist supporter. So it is accurate to say he was “incarcerated for his political beliefs.” As for his anti-Semitism… as you know, these despicable attitudes are not uncommon, even among famous writers and poets that we might admire for other reasons.


      • Daniel Burston
        July 31, 2015

        Thanks, Michael. And yes, you are right. I’d clean forgotten that Pound was in fact incarcerated for his political beliefs – a fact that E.Fuller Torrey mentions briefly before diving into his time at St. Elizabeth’s back in the USA. But when all is said and done, placing Pound the same category as Gandhi MLK, Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela still strikes me as awfully incongruous since he was not just anti-Semitic, but thoroughly racist, and would have vigorously opposed their leadership and their causes.


        • Vox Populi
          July 31, 2015

          I agree with you, Dan. Pound was a literary genius, but his anti-semitic and racist views were deplorable. Including his name next to that of Nelson Mandela was a mistake on my part. I’ve deleted Pound’s name from the essay.


          • sharondoubiago
            July 31, 2015

            well, since we’re at it, I’m going to finally say it: I’ve never liked Pound as a poet!!! I’ve read him on and off my whole life as a poet, always trying to give him another chance, and because he more or less founded the whole new poetry of the 20th century and no doubt because he was H.D.’s first great love–she was my first poet– but you know, his assholishness comes across that way too. Oh well, poor guy,


  3. sharondoubiago
    July 30, 2015

    Wow, Michael, this is awesome! Thank you. I myself am against all jails and prisons but I know how disturbed people get when you say that! As I remember Genet wrote his book in prison on toilet paper.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Vox Populi
    July 30, 2015

    And my hat is off to you, Paul, and the many poets and writers across the country who lead writing workshops in jails and prisons. Helping the powerless find their voice is God’s work. Thank you!


  5. paulnchristensen
    July 30, 2015

    As a former poet-in-the-prisons (Texas), I can attest to the great value of such anthologies. My hat is off to you, Michael, for being such a strong advocate of prison writing. It is profound therapy and perhaps the first time real feelings are given their liberation into words, Paul

    Liked by 1 person

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