Back in March, we began participating in the Poetry Coalition's March theme: "I am deliberate / and afraid / of nothing: Poetry & Protest." The line is from from "New Year's Day" by Audre Lorde. The theme was inspired by a number of occasions taking place next year, including the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote and the 50th anniversary of the tragic shooting of student protesters at Kent State University. It also speaks to the role poetry has played in encouraging civic and grassroots engagement, and contributed to public debate and dialogue. Much has changed in the world since then, and we are happy to finally be able to present the rest of the winners of our contest for incarcerated writers.
Last fall, volunteer mentors who currently participate in the Poetry Center's workshop, FREE TIME: Building Community for Incarcerated Writers (part of our Art for Justice project), solicited submissions from prisoners across the country to enter into our POETRY & PROTEST contest. By our February deadline, we had received close to 100 poetry and prose submissions from writers on the inside on "the inequities and unsustainability of the American legal system and mass incarceration." Both the poetry and prose winners will be published here on the Poetry Center website over the course of the next several weeks. They will also receive cash prizes.
Today we are thrilled to feature the Prose Winners.
This Shit Is Real (3rd place winner)
by Omar A.D. Bulah
This locking us down shit is real. We are everywhere, scattered, like worthless particles of dust, blowing aimlessly in the wind. We have been systematically rearranged, mixed up, disordered, and scrambled, with both the body and the mind. This prison thing is such a peculiar institution, not much different from the old.
Ebony bodies are still in slave labor demand, and crack laws, intertwined with an assemblage of other bastardized, so-called legal statutes and codes, sure do resemble old Jim Crow to me. The war on drugs comes with a real ebony flavor. Black codes were designed for the unique purpose of breaking up, breaking in and breaking down ebony families – body and soul, by way of separating self from Self.
There are days when the madness of it all begins to work on my brain like screws, tightening up inside my head, and I often find myself fighting off the confusion, drawing bounds around the bitterness, which surfaces inside of me, due to being separated from my loved ones … or the bitterness that stems from each time I look into the dimly-lit eyes of my young brothers, who are trapped up behind these walls, wearing "natural life'' stamped upon their foreheads, behind very innocent forms of ignorance.
This shit just makes me want to holler and throw up both my hands in defense of my sanity, to safeguard against the soul robbery of my forever fading supply of humanity. Where is the love out of yester-years, that was once perceived through real ebony eyes, before multiple flavored contact lenses? What has become of the language of brother to brother, and sister to sister, The Last Poets, Marvin Gaye, and Malcolm X?
Our children used to play under the tall green street lights, right up until the midnight hour. And every mother on the block was a mother, and every father on the block knew the meaning of fatherhood. Back then, the brothers' ideal high consisted of making love, making babies, making ends meet, and making strong conscious soldiers out of their sons.
Yet now, all the ebony flowers seem to be drying up, slowing: dying up inside USPs, FCIs, and state farm-erected, concrete and steel prisons – industrial graveyard complexes, where soil is hard, cold and dry, and conscious growth has taken a backseat to basketballs, cable television channels, table-top games, commissary spending limits, telephone conversations, gang congregations, Nike tennis shoes, microscopic bags of dope and weed, and chicken wings on Mondays.
A drop of wine for the soldiers who do their battles down inside the law libraries, tearing through the pages of law books and litigating, or for the brothers who stand constant guard over their minds, and boldly go to places within Self, that no one else has ever been before.
This locking us down shit is real. Locking brothers and sisters down for a lifetime, in the name of conspiracies, three-strike rules, and for ignorance of Self, is the strangest of all known racist fruit. And the enemy's job is complete, when brothers and sisters become totally de-sensitized to their pains, becoming immune, even to "Life Sentences," whereby thoughts of freedom are surgically replaced with the mental constructs of a content slave that sleeps during high noon and lives his seemingly inactive life, groping around inside the darkness of night, without any clue concerning what freedom truly is.
This shit is real.
Omar A.D. Bulah is serving a life sentence inside the federal prison in Tucson, Arizona.
WHAT THE CELL TAUGHT ME (2nd place winner)
by Randy Gometz
The concrete floor is smooth to the touch. To make the cell appear shipshape, it has once been painted gunmetal gray and coated with an acrylic sealer to maintain a high gloss. Like bowerbirds, prison executives preen when shiny things are underfoot. This floor, however, hasn’t glistened since God hiccupped, cleared his throat, and spat me into the middle of it.
The general consensus is that I’ve gone crazy because I stopped abiding by the rules governing the “proper” way to be confined. For example, I don’t perform—like a seal?—acts of personal hygiene. I don’t shower, shave, brush my teeth, comb my hair, use the toilet, or wipe my ass. I’m naked, living in darkness, and sleeping on a floor that doesn’t get swept or mopped. There is absolutely nothing in this cell: no mattress, bedding, clothes, personal property, or movable objects of any kind. If I want something—say, toilet paper—I have to ask for it. Politely. Saying “please”. My response was to cease talking completely. That, and to start depositing my excrement on the door. The stench is probably horrific, but I can no longer smell anything. Instead, I’ve invoked my right to be silent and stinky.
Intellectually, and from a distance, most people know that concrete is as unforgiving as steel. Experientially, the naked body quickly discloses its frailty when pressed into contact with its surface. When walking or standing barefooted it’ll cause deep, bloody, and painful fissures in the soles from dehydration. Sitting has the same effect on the sphincter, which produces hemorrhoids the size of Brussels sprouts. The body’s bone and muscle structure isn’t suited to resting—never mind sleeping—on such merciless ground. Laying on my side, tucked into a tight ball to try and retain body heat, only steers the pain to the areas bearing most of the body’s weight, i.e., the outside of the shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles. These pressure points rapidly become the primary sources of relentless agony. Sleeping on my back or stomach is, likewise, impossible because another characteristic of cement is that it absorbs heat from any part of the body it touches. Combine that with the natural reduction in core body temperatures when in sleep phase, and the body will automatically return to the painful fetal position in search of warmth. There’s just no escaping it. Throw in the fact that I was diagnosed with degenerative joint and disc disease 35 years ago—which is both painful and crippling in its own right—and the concrete becomes sadistic.
Between prolonged sleep deprivation and the wretchedness of experiencing life only through the medium of pain, I believe some of my faculties have been degraded by this onslaught of trauma. My concentration, memory, lucidity, and self-awareness have been compromised. I’m not even sure my mental condition even rises to the level of semi-consciousness anymore. There are periods when I’m unsure if I’m awake or dreaming. It’s Kafkaesque to drag my ass across the floor rather than ask “pretty, pretty please” for some toilet paper, but whether it occurs in the knife-thrusts at the rock quarry, or here in the nude, suffering neither asks nor answers questions from the peanut gallery. My torment simply exists. The acuity of pain is transformative. And even in silence, it’s articulate. It throbs like heartaches and heartbreaks, and mouths silent syllables in the dark to an unmoving audience of one. A grimace or an epiphany? My pain is Janis Joplin reincarnated.
Although it can’t be seen in the dark, there’s a chalk outline around my coffin-sized piece of real estate—think of it as a crime scene—and everything within its border belongs to me. This includes my pain. It’s an implied but unspoken expression of autonomy. Incursions, aka “questions,” will be resisted to the death. My choice of weapons, as the challenged party in this duel, are passivity and silence. I, too, have a dream. It’s where “The One” (or was it “The Other”?) communicates the meaning of all things to mankind while we are sleeping. Unfortunately, and like most dreams, they’re forgotten upon waking. Regardless of whether mysteries are revealed or concealed, both my knowledge and my ignorance are within the chalked lines and, therefore, belong to me, the sovereign and fearless skid mark. I owe no explanations.
Quietism, like nihilism, is the doctrine of nothingness. If it had truths, which it disclaims without comment, the truths would be ineluctable because they’d also be ineffable. Hence, there would be no need for oral argument. All appeals would be rendered moot and summarily denied.
Esoteric knowledge isn’t available through words or deeds. It’s a state of “being,” e.g., being quiet, being still, and being naked in the dark. No one had to explain to me why the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is fallacious. If nothingness means it’s nounless, then by definition that would make it Godless. The cell taught me this. I also learned there’s only one way to score a perfect 100 on a Mensa IQ test, and I scored it. How? By not taking it. Stillness, remember? To this adulterous nation that always looketh for a sign—guess what?—I give it nothing. I keep to my chalk line. Positivist logicians notwithstanding, logical necessities don’t exist because logic itself has been truncated, negotiated, and made dispensable. Apathy, standing mute, is the only reply to that kind of noise. Indifference neither demands nor promises anything. It’s self-sufficient in its nullity. There’s no room for hope in this chalk line. I just lay in my malaise, exhausted by inaction.
If gratitude is the prerequisite to happiness, then perhaps I’ll be excused for remaining silent.
Randy Gometz is serving a life sentence inside the federal prison in Tucson, Arizona.
TWO FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1st place winner)
by Joseph Cala
I will do everything in my power to help a brother out.
That’s my whole problem. I have a soft spot in my heart. I’m doomed to be a generous, helpful, sympathetic person, and every inmate knows it.
So when Shaky comes to me asking for help, I can’t resist the call. He’s 10 minutes shy of one of his infamous nervous breakdowns. He will either lock up with violent muscle spasms, vibrating like an over-tuned guitar string ready to snap, or release his nervous tension by ultraviolently attacking one of the guards again. Hence, his nickname, “Shaky,” because he always has the shakes. Thirty years in prison will do that to you. The stress levels are unbelievable.
“I’m hurtin’ bad, 10cc,” Shaky whines desperately to me. They call me 10cc because whatever ails you, I’ve got the cure. I doubt I can help Shaky, though. He has so many stress-related illnesses, he has his own filing cabinet in the infirmary. And since he has aggravated time, the parole board will never give him a medical release. The cruel red tape of litigation keeps Shaky locked up in an environment adverse to his health, despite the fact that he’s rehabilitated, 70 years old, and poses no threat to society. One of the many inequities that propagates mass incarceration in the American legal system: Keep ‘em locked up, and throw away the key.
“C’mon, 10cc. Help me,” Shaky begs me. “Hook me up. Dial me in. Give me a dose. Just one last shot,” he pleads. “Give your old man Shaky that Get Out of Jail Free card. I can’t do it by myself. I’m weak. I’m scared. I can’t take it anymore.” Shaky begins crying.
I can’t believe he’s asking me to do this; I’m bleeding all over the floor here. There’s just no way I can help him, no way. Then he starts chanting the name to this really black Ken Kesey novel.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. C’mon, 10cc,” he says. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest…” Like I’m some kind of one-armed bandit about to pay off. He’s shaking in crazy, uncontrollable desperation now and pees his pants. What can I do, just let him suffer? I can’t take this anymore, either.
So I agree to help Shaky escape prison.
We decide to do it the quickest, easiest way. Since we both have night jobs and will be out of our cells then, we’ll jump the fences between 10 p.m. and midnight, right between count times. We’ll pack blankets to throw over the razor wire, so we won’t get cut. Then he’s home free. “And when I’m gone, you can do that self-hypnosis thing you learned from the library, can’t you, 10cc?” Shaky reminds me. “You can erase your memory. That way you won’t feel guilty for helping me. That way no will find out, huh?” It’s a good suggestion. The guilt trip would kill me.
Shaky departs, repeating, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” over and over again in ecstatic relief. I can’t believe that’s what he’s calling his escape. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test would’ve been better. But I get it. Shaky’s sister is all he has left in the world. One more death in the family will send him off the deep end. It’s better this way. I understand why Chief Broom finally escaped the mental asylum in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. No one really lives in prison. Everyday, you’re dying. Christen the penal system Big Nurse Ratched, and you’ll have a good idea of how the system will drive you crazy.
Shaky and I meet at the agreed fences. He barely makes it over, shaking in anticipation, the fence clattering loud enough to wake the fateful, grateful dead. Alarmingly, I rattle the fence even louder than Shaky, overamping with mortal fear and adrenaline. I’m not up to this job. But if I don’t help Shaky, he will lose his mind. I remind myself that I’m 10cc, the merciful painkiller. It’s what I do.
Shaky’s thanking me, saying his goodbyes. “Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou.” Then he looks into my eyes, knowing I can’t go through with it. This time, I’m the one who needs help. Shaky’s haywire alter ego comes out screaming in a howl of frustrated, betrayed rage. He decks me with a haymaker that feels like a 10-pound sledgehammer. And that’s all it takes: Two fly over the cuckoo’s nest.
Morning. My jaw’s aching. I crawl painfully out of my bunk to face the day, face the music. A susurrus of inmate gossip parades past my cell door.
“Hey, ATL. Shaky’s dead. They found him in the parking lot with his throat ripped out.”
“Did the dogs get him?”
“Naw, I’ll bet it was a gang hit.”
“I’ll bet it was the bosses.”
I wash my hands methodically, hypnotically, apathetically – there’s some blood I missed under my fingernails. Shaky thought we’d do a little roleplaying last night. I would be Chief, mercifully killing McMurphy, then I’d fly the coop. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Shaky’s great escape plan. Not this time. Two fly.
I couldn’t go through with the self-hypnosis thing. Not because I have a conscience left or anything. It’s just that Shaky had the right idea. I’ll go by the warden’s office, confess. And unlike Shaky, I’ll go painlessly, by way of the needle, an overdose. Big Nurse Ratched finally got me in the end, her institutionalized, euthanasic needle stuck in my ass, ejaculating. “This was 10cc, the cure for whatever ailed you!” Poetic injustice, by any other name.
I will do everything in my power to help a brother out. Even if a brother wants out of prison, wants to escape this madhouse, anyway he can. Myself included.
Two flew over the cuckoo’s nest. Care to make it three?
Joseph Cala writes fiction and poetry, describes himself as a “happy person,” and does yoga and meditation to stay positive. He has written a detective story called “Eureka,” a 45-page, sci-fi novelette titled “Sinergy,” and two children’s stories: “The Santa from the Planet Atlantis” and “Down Deep, A Pirate Story”. Joseph is serving a 30-year sentence in Texas.