A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
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.