Prison English, Part II: 'When I left, my mind was buzzing'
Inside Orleans Parish Prison—one of the worst jails in the country—an English class takes place, not to help inmates fulfill GED requirements, but simply to facilitate their study of literature and books. In this three-part series, Room 220‘s Ari Braverman explores the parts of the program that make it work—and make it worthwhile—from the founder of the program, Nik De Dominic, to the many local writers who teach in it, to the inmates who take part in it. The program is currently an all-volunteer effort, though it is looking for funding.
By Ari Braverman
For many writers, teaching provides an opportunity for connection and conversation (not to mention a steady paycheck), and a chance to share ideas with students and like-minded colleagues. But sometimes the academy starts to feel a little closed in.
The men and women who teach in the Orleans Parish Prison English Program are mostly drawn from a pool of local writers acquainted with the program’s director, Nik De Dominic, who teach at local universities or the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. Their jobs provide them access to discussions about literature, but systematic conditions, often related to poverty and race, prevent much of the local population from entering their classrooms. Teaching inmates in OPP not only provides these writers the opportunity to engage a severely underserved demographic—it also reveals to them new ways of looking at literature as it relates to life.
De Dominic says he’s reached a point where he no longer has to search for potential instructors. His waiting list is full of talented people like Mark Yakich, a poet and professor at Loyola University, who feel an obligation to use their skills outside the traditional classroom.
“Helping my Loyola students is great,” Yakich said, “but even the ones who are the first in their families to attend college have a leg up, and I’d been thinking about that gap.”
I spoke with four of the many local writers who have entered OPP to talk books and writing with its inmates. Their experiences are varied, but respect and excitement emerged as common themes from one interview to the next, and each conversation culminated in an appreciation of De Dominic’s work and a profound sense of gratitude for having participated.
Anne Gisleson teaches creative writing at NOCCA. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, the Believer, Oxford American, and many other places. She is also Press Street’s Board President.
Lara Naughton is the chair of NOCCA’s creative writing program. Her documentary plays, including most recently Never Fight A Shark In Water, have been performed on stages across the country.
Michael Jeffrey Lee is a writing teacher at NOCCA whose collection of stories, Something In My Eye, won the 2010 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction.
What follows is an arrangement of excerpts from separate conversations with each of the four writers.
I. Just calm down. It’s just like your NOCCA class.
Mark Yakich: I had this desire to do something outside of a university setting. Being a professor is great—I have this nice office with a couch. But you get a little insulated.
Michael Lee: I was involved with one of the earliest classes. Nik and I have been friends for a long time. We both taught for the Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project when we were in graduate school. He’d been kicking around the idea for a few years of getting something going at OPP and I was happy to get involved.
MY: I met Nik because he went to the University of Alabama’s MFA program. I have close friends who teach there. They knew of Nik and said, “You should meet this guy, this interesting, crazy poet.”
Anne Gisleson: I started last year, and I’ve done two classes. I was nervous at first. I remember emailing Nik about it beforehand and he told me, “Just calm down. It’s just like your NOCCA class. They’re just like your NOCCA students.” And I thought, “No, they’re not!”
Lara Naughton: To be honest, I wasn’t sure at first if I wanted to participate. I’ve worked with exonerees for years, so I was already familiar with some of the issues about OPP. But I’d always worked with people who were outside of prison. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go into the prison and work because it’s an emotional place to be.
II. There I was, doing my preaching act for them.
ML: Most recently, I taught Paul Bowles’ “Pastor Dow at Tecate,” which was the best discussion I’ve ever had in one of those classes. They were really, really into the story. They told me, “We don’t know what this is about, but we want to know.” The piece is about a pastor in South America trying to convert Indians and failing miserably. It sends him on this dark night of the soul. All of his armor is slowly pecked away.
I also thought the story, about a missionary—someone going into a different place and attempting to convert—was a nifty, disturbing parallel to what I was doing. We talked about that at length. We were laughing about it, because there I was, doing my preaching act for them.
AG: I agonized over what to choose. That was one of the things I was most nervous about. The stakes are so high. You’ve got such a small amount of time in which to teach. I chose “Shooting an Elephant,” by George Orwell. We were talking about the ways in which Orwell uses language to humanize the elephant, and there was this one guy who hadn’t said anything for the whole class. He was a big guy, with tattoos all over his arms. He just looked up and said, “Grandmotherly air.” And I thought “Oh God!” Because that’s the one point in that essay that kills me every time I read it. Orwell describes the elephant mired in a rice patty, knocking tufts of dried straw against itself with a “preoccupied, grandmotherly air” right before Orwell takes up a rifle to kill it. It’s such a perfect description, and this guy picked up on the exact moment that I always do.
LN: I brought in a story called “The Salamander,” by Merce Rodoreda, in which a woman has had an affair and is being shunned by the whole town and called a witch. She’s thrown onto a pile of sticks to be burned and, as she’s burning, her body slowly morphs into a salamander and she crawls off the fire. She goes to live the rest of her life under rocks and in rivers and under the bed of her former lover. There was a lot of excitement about the story’s weirdness, and real insight about her human nature. We all know what it’s like to be obsessed. We all know what it’s like to hurt so much that we have to transform somehow in order to hold the pain.
MY: The first thing I taught was Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” Whitman is trying to talk about the people who don’t usually get talked about in literature, and here you are with people who have been outside the system, or caught in the system in a very different way. Listening to them talk about the poem was very different than listening to my Loyola students talk about the poem. It obviously meant something to them in a way my other students, or even myself, couldn’t exactly see.
III. I found myself stepping it up as a teacher.
AG: I’ve never, ever taught a class—whether high school level, graduate level, college level—where there was the amount of focus I could feel in that room. You know that you have two hours with these guys, and that’s all you have. And they know that, too. They’re very aware they have this block of time outside the cell block where their minds are going to be engaged in a way they’re almost never engaged otherwise. I could not believe how quickly the time went by. I felt like I had to maximize every moment with them. I was constantly trying to connect what they were saying to each other and build on things, because I had such little time to do it. When I left, my mind was buzzing.
ML: There is something about the time limit, as well as the fact that they’ve been preparing for class all week. People talk about the stories or essays we give them with each other before they come to class. When we get in there, people are absolutely ready. They were so engaged and asked such interesting questions about the material that I found myself stepping it up as a teacher, very naturally asking better questions of them. It felt mutually enriching. My expectations were exceeded completely, in terms of the intensity of the discussion and the degree to which I became emotionally invested in it.
AG: The second time I was at OPP, a guy asked, “Why do people read?” It’s a question we don’t often think about because we’ve always been readers. But he basically said he didn’t grow up reading at all except cereal boxes or signs. It was never a priority. I asked him, “Well, why did you read this essay?” He read it because he saw one of the guys on his block reading it and that guy was really into it, and he wanted to see what was so interesting about it. Of course, that’s the kind of question you always throw back to everybody else in the room, and they had much better answers than I could come up with. Immediate ones were about educating yourself to get along better in the world, expanding your brain so it’s not so narrow, not confined to just what you’re seeing in the world.
LN: There were a couple of guys who struggled a little more than the others with turning on the imagination for magical realism during that writing exercise. I think imagination is often beaten out of us as adults. I don’t know what brought these men to OPP, but clearly something has gone wrong, and there probably hasn’t always been room to sit and around and daydream and imagine. Sometimes that part gets turned off and it’s not always easy to turn it back on. That’s not just people in prison—that’s adults.
IV. It’s ridiculous how few people have access to this resource.
MY: As a poet, you think: “What good is this stupid little thing I’m writing?” You think, “I can write, but can I do other things in the world?” But then I remember: “I’m a teacher!” I tell my students, “Poetry may make nothing happen, but hopefully what poems can do is give you a slanted take on things.” Teaching liberal arts to inmates is not giving them a trade, but it’s hopefully changing or molding a mindset or mode of thinking, encouraging them to question things, to look at things from multiple perspectives. That’s all critical thinking is, to me—finding something’s patterns and variations and being able to ask questions. That’s what the humanities are really good at if they’re taught right.
ML: Only good things can come out of deep engagement with language and text. It’s a great thing that this program exists. Nik’s is the first of its kind in New Orleans, as far as I know. It’s wonderful to be involved, but at the same time it’s disturbing that something similar hadn’t coalesced before now.
LN: There’s an imperative to have this kind program in every place of incarceration. Anybody who’s locked up for any reason deserves to have his or her creative and intellectual needs met on a daily basis. It should be a given. It is not a given. There are nine students in this class right now. How many people are sitting in OPP? Thousands? It’s ridiculous how few people have access to this resource. It’s unthinkable, frankly. And OPP is not unique.
AG: I do see teaching as an ethical thing. Teaching in OPP reminded me in a very shocking and stark way how seriously I take this profession. I was pouring everything into every minute. Walking back to my car, I felt so gratified, so privileged to be able to do that. There was a lot of conflict within myself afterwards, knowing these guys have to go back to their cell blocks and I get to go back to my car and drive home. But I know that participating helped me reconnect to why I love teaching and why I love literature so much, why I feel so intensely about sharing that experience with other people.
This interview by Ari Braverman is reposted from Press Street: Room 220, a content partner of NolaVie.