Teaching in the Prisons: An Interview with Richard Shelton

Richard SheltonInterview by Elizabeth Maria Falcón

Richard Shelton is the author of numerous books of poetry and nonfiction, including Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer (2007), and The Last Person to Hear Your Voice (2007). In 1974 Shelton founded the Creative Writing Workshops at the Arizona State Prison, which is still serving prisoners and which has since served as the model for many other prison writing programs. He is an emeritus Regents' Professor of English at the University of Arizona and has been associated with the Poetry Center since its founding.  Richard Shelton will give a poetry reading at the Poetry Center on Thursday, September 2, at 8:00 p.m.

Elizabeth: So before we start talking about your work in the prisons, what brought you into the profession of teaching?

Richard: I guess I always wanted to be a teacher.  I think I always knew.

Elizabeth: And how did you get started teaching creative writing workshops in the prisons?

Richard: I received a letter from a young man who was on death row, who was a mass murderer.  He said he wrote poetry and wanted me to read it.  He had read one of my books, so I agreed and he sent me poetry.  It was not bad, it needed some work, but it wasn't bad.  I was very curious and he asked me to come visit him.  We worked in the visiting room then; there's wire mesh between you and the inmate with a little space to slip papers underneath.  We worked back and forth that way.  And then he and another inmate asked if I could establish a workshop. I went to the Arizona Commission on the Arts and asked them if they would sponsor it and they said yes, they would, so we started in 1974, after I had been working with him for a couple of years.  My motives were very bad in the first place because I was titillated by the fact that he was a monster and I wanted to meet a monster just to see what it was like.  Then I found out later that he was more than that, he was really a young man in trouble facing death, facing execution, and very talented.

Elizabeth: How do you prepare for class in prison?  How did you choose what literature to bring in to your students?  Where there specific writers you were drawn to more than others?

Richard: It's sort of hit or miss.  I try to figure out what sorts of things they would respond to or what sorts of things they needed.  For the most part they were tabula rasa, but there were some exceptions.  There was a man in that first workshop named Charles Green, with a big background in poetry and other fields of literature and he had published.  But for the most part they had less than high school educations.  It was trial and error, basically.  I discovered there were some writers they liked better than others, and that they could accept better than others.  And I tried to stay clear of very esoteric writing and bring in things that were not necessarily simple but immediately accessible.  And then I had them do exercises on the basis of those works.  Right now I'm working in the federal prison and I'm just preparing to go in tonight again, and I've been working on a short short personal essay, which is a field I enjoy, and this is a field I've found that they like.  It gives them the opportunity to use the personal, the I, the personal essay, which gets so old in poetry.  The lyrical I is a different I.  They don't have to be too long.  They can work on them, they can sustain them for a short while.  There are books of these short shorts out, one edited by Judith Kitchener, and I bring in those, I bring in examples.  They like the work of Jimmy Santiago Baca, but on the other hand, they like the work of W.S. Merwin, and right now I'm teaching Kenneth Patchen.  Other writers and poets they like are the Beats and also current poets.

Elizabeth: What is the workshop dynamic in prison like?  How does in compare to the dynamic in a non-prison classroom?

Richard: It compares very favorably even to a graduate-level classroom.  These students are so highly motivated, so eager.  And they know that they're getting some education that would have cost them a great deal on the outside while in here it's free.  In a matter of fact, one of them that got out recently came to see me and said 'I can't afford you anymore.'  Which was true.  And they are highly highly motivated.  They have a very bad background, so they'll accept anything.  That is, everything is news to them.  Every little bit of information is vital to them.  And they just grab it and are very, very appreciative of what we do for them.  It's much more exciting to teach at the prison than at the university, especially at an undergraduate level.  The graduate level, I think, is very exciting to teach, but at the undergraduate level, the students are often not as highly motivated, and they don't intend to really get anything out of it except a grade in many places.

Elizabeth: In Crossing the Yard you say, 'Again and again I am reminded that one can be taught to think, and one can be taught not to think.  I spend much of my time awakening sleepers, but once they get awake, they sky's the limit because it was there all the time buried.  We think in language; I teach in language.  I understand the mechanics of language, and I understand its enormous power.' Can you speak a little more about the power of language regarding students in prison, how language, how writing has awakened them, and they might be positively empowered as a result of learning how to shape and craft language?

Richard: Well, first of all, many of them have been dumbed down.  They've been taught that they're dumb.  They've been taught that in many ways, by bad parenting or certain teachers that they've had.  And they've also been taught that it's fashionable to be dumb.  They don't want to show any smarts so they don't use their brains.  They don't know much about language just because they haven't used it in any way beyond the basic and they simple.  They don't understand that you can use language honestly or you can use it dishonestly.  They are full of sentimentality, they love sentimentalism, and I have to tell them to get over it.  I had one student who wrote a poem to his little girl, and he said 'I am there for you,' that was his refrain line, and I said, 'wait a minute, let's look at this.  You aren't there for her.  You're here and she's there.' And he couldn't accept that.  He finally dropped out of the workshop.  He couldn't accept using language honestly.  But many of them came in to do that, and when they get rid of that sentimental attitude and begin to see life through language, through the lens of honest language, and see themselves through the lens of honest language, it can make a very big difference in their behavior and in their attitude towards themselves.  And also, waking up to the fact that they are smart is really something, that is, they realize, maybe for the first time, that they are important.  One of the things the teacher does is listen to them, to give respect, to pay attention, and that gives them the chance to see that they are really people of importance, that they can change their behavior.

Elizabeth: On that subject, Walking Rain Review, the literary journal that you started for prison inmates, seems like it must have had an enormous effect on their motivation of being able to be heard.  Can you talk a little bit about that?

Richard: Well, they publish in many reviews and journals.  And they publish books too.  But Walking Rain Review is one very immediate and very tangible way--it's a sort of carrot on the end of a stick.  To get published means everything to them.  Publication can change your whole self image.  Once you see your words in print, it can make an enormous difference in your life.  I had one inmate many years ago in the 70s who published two books and had gotten a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship before he got out of prison, and had published in many journals.  And after he got out, he said, 'You know, I'm not going to be able to rob any more bars.'  And I said, 'Why?' and he said, 'Well, I'm too famous.'  And he was.  So it's true that famous writers don't rob bars.  And so if they get themselves in that position then they're safe for life.

Elizabeth: You talk about how difficult emotionally it can be to teach in the prisons, particularly teaching language stuck in the midst of the reality created by the prison administration, sometimes in a very harsh, and arbitrary, and unforgiving space to be.  What has sustained you over the last 35 years of teaching in the prisons?  How are you able to and perhaps why did you continue?

Richard: Well, when I talk about the emotional difficulty, I really am referring primarily to the losses.  That is, teaching itself in the prison is very exciting and it's not emotionally difficult at all.  What goes on in the classroom is wonderful.  It's the failures that cause you emotional strain.  I remember one of my guys got out not very long ago and went to Texas, and promptly got shot and killed in a drug deal.  That kind of failure is very difficult.  As far as working with the staff of the prison, it varies greatly from prison to prison, and I'm now working in the federal [prison] as I said, and I find the staff much more sensitive.  There have been times when it got a little frightening with the staff and it's always inconvenient, that is, such things as having someone tell you where the bathroom is.  They just don't think in those terms, they don't think in terms of you as a human being.  You're somebody from the outside who's weird, I guess, because you're educated, so often, many of them sort of resent you.  But there are exceptions.  I've had some really fine people who are on the staff and one of my closest friends now--and has been for years--is a deputy warden. I've made other friends on the staff, but I've also had moments of great anger which I did not dare show because I'd been so badly treated or because I had to watch the men be badly treated--that is really horrible because there's nothing you can do about it.

Elizabeth: How has teaching in the prisons affected your own writing, and to a larger extent, has it changed the way you see poetry functioning in society?

Richard: Well, I guess I think everything you do, everything you are passionately involved with affects your own writing, although it may not be very obvious in my case, with the prison. I've written very few poems about the prison or the men in the prison, and most of them were elegies for people who died or were killed so I don't think you see a lot of direct results, although prison imagery does occur more and more.  In the most recent book, The Last Person to Hear Your Voice, there was a lot of prison imagery, but they're not what you call prison poems.  They are more surreal poems, where maybe, in one long poem there is a man and woman prison guard who leave the prison and get married, there's a bird that's a thief who takes the keys to the kingdom of heaven and it goes on and on with a lot of semi-prison imagery, the Pope is a hoodlum and he's going in to wreck a bar and so on...it's weird.  But I think it has affected me--working in prison--in a good many ways in that I have been constantly informed of another sort of life that I am not part of, that is, the street life, and the life of just below the level of the legal and the life of poverty and the life of bad parenting and all of that and I think that has affected my work, somehow, perhaps made it more tolerant and less academic, and I strive for clarity.  And I think that I kind of use the people I've worked with in prison in the back of my mind as a sounding board, that is, will they understand this poem?  And will it be clear to them?  Or this prose piece? And that kind of helps.  In other words, I'm not writing merely to academics or intellectuals.  I'm writing also to those guys, and I count my success as to how they can see the work.  And they're very honest, they'll say, 'I don't get this.  What are you talking about?' and I learn from that.

Elizabeth: That's wonderful...So you talk in your book about the need for educational volunteers, and the need for major change in prison life.  As an educational volunteer for the last thirty-five years, how does one get involved, how does one start doing what you've been doing, or participating in getting education into the prisons?

Richard: Well, there's a woman in Green Valley, named Jan ------, and she had no particular qualifications except that she was retired, she was intelligent, and well-read, and she just went to the prison authorities at the federal level out at the prison and volunteered herself.  Then she contacted a group of her friends, they volunteered with her, and now she has nine working in that program.  She just did it on her own.  She was an older, very persuasive, wonderful woman.  The way I did it was--I had been visiting, of course, the inmates for some time on death row--I went to the Arizona Commission on the Arts and asked them to sponsor a workshop.  It wasn't that I needed the money, it was that I needed somebody behind me, some power, some organization.  And they agreed to do it.  And they did it.  There have been times when I was free floating, when I had nobody behind me.  For about the last 16-17 years I've had the Lannan Foundation--they've been very, very generous with supplies and things like that, books.  I think what the average person needs to do to get started is to get somebody behind them, that is, the Elk's Club, the Teamsters Union, the Mormon Church, something, and talk them into sponsoring you.  They don't necessarily have to provide money, just a sponsorship.  And that gives you a back up authority to go in and talk to the wardens and get things started.  For the most part people would be amazed at how willing the powers that be are to start that sort of thing.  They have solicited me in many, many prisons where they had progressive leadership and they wanted programs, because they know that programs cut down on problems in the prisons--there's not as much violence, etc. if they have programs to occupy the people.  So most people that are willing to do it, willing to go through the orientation, which is a nightmare, and dress a certain way, and give up all their freedom while they're in there, they could get in if they have some background.  Of course a teacher needs someone to teach, and you need a field, you need a background.  It doesn't have to be writing at all.  All kinds of musicians could go in, people could teach psychology, art--I've seen programs that were very successful in art, music.  Right now they have one at Buckeye that's really successful in music.  They had an art program up there too, they painted murals all over everything, they're beautiful.  And it doesn't have to be the Arts, some prisons would probably like people to come in and teach basic math, basic English, computer skills, speech, drama.  I've seen good programs in drama and speech at Florence years ago.  They put on Twelve Angry Men at Florence and it was terrific.  So I guess it's a matter of being willing to have some inconvenience, give up your time, have a background and try to get a sponsor--but I think you could probably get in without a sponsor in many cases.  Jan did it.  She formed her own group, and you can do that, too.

Elizabeth: Great.  Well, thank you so much, Richard, for talking with us today.

Richard: You're Welcome.

Elizabeth: Your book is amazing...I was crying this morning finishing the last chapter on my way to the Poetry Center.  Your work is so important.

Richard: Thank you.

Created on: 
Tuesday, August 31, 2010
Arizona Board of Regents