Welcome back to our many part series where we share narratives from those who teach in prison, those who write from prison, or those who previously did either. If you have taught in prison or were formerly incarcerated and are writing, or know someone who currently is and would like to be a part of the series, please send an e-mail to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. A physical mailing address can also be provided.
Today’s writer is Ace Boggess.
Notes From the Poet’s Pen
I. THE PRISON LIBRARY
When I first arrived at the medium-security correctional center in Welch, West Virginia, the prison library consisted of a roving book cart pushed by a blind man. There was a room full of books somewhere, but the inmates were not allowed access. As such, the inmate librarian pushed his cart from floor to floor and pod to pod a couple times each week. Because he was legally blind, he couldn’t see to trade out the books on the cart for others from the secret room. He brought the same books every time, and they were terrible.
This was my first experience with literature in the penitentiary. Luckily, over time, prison staff permitted the actual library to be opened and, thanks to donations from various sources, it grew. Yet these were not literary books. They consisted mostly of James Patterson clones and heavily dog-eared westerns—the types of books the average con liked to read. Before experiencing this pop-fiction culture, I never imagined myself saying—as I did one day after sifting through a collection donated by a local youth-center library—“Thank God! A copy of Moby Dick!”
As for poetry, the library contained two volumes: a 1950s text book from a high school English class, and—to my amazement—a beat-up copy of Velocities by Stephen Dobyns. I had not read the Dobyns book, so it brought me much joy and inspiration as I consumed its contents half a dozen times. Even so, a poet needs more poetry than that to get his belly full and his mind working. So, I began to fill the shelves. Friends and family sent me books which I devoured and then donated as other books arrived. The growth and expansion of the prison library poetry shelves coincided greatly with the growth and expansion of my own writing.
II. THE IDEA OF POETRY IN PRISON
Inmates rarely read poetry. For most of them, their lives have been filled with drugs, booze and troubled childhoods. A few might recall a line from Frost they picked up against their will in high school, but almost none have read Charles Simic or seen a copy of, say, The Missouri Review. Their understanding of poetry is different from mine. They expect rhymes, and they expect love and God in every verse, not realizing that such things can be there without needing conjured by a name.
To someone with such a mindset, how do you explain how an ambling narrative that talks about blood and says “fuck” can still be poetry? They understand “fuck” and they understand “blood,” but not in verse. Perhaps it would be better if the two words rhymed.
III. WRITING POETRY IN PRISON
The average inmate poet has done some bad things, gone to prison and then, perhaps, discovered that writing poems helps ease the spirit during hard times. I was the opposite: a poet who did bad things and went to prison. This caused more hard times than it helped—at least, before I was locked up. A poet’s ego gets in the way, and also his self-doubt. For me, going to prison erased those things and helped me see my writing from different angles. Ego gets crushed when you fall hard enough to land in the clink, and what good is self-doubt when you can go no lower and still be alive? It was from this new perspective that I began to write.
One thing about being a writer in prison is that you have not lost everything. You still have that driving need to speak whatever truth you know in whatever way you can. No one can take that away from you, not even the State. You might lose your freedom to do most things, but your right to speech stays with you. It might be limited by the code of regulations an inmate has to live by, ones similar to those soldiers must follow. That is, you have no right to be insubordinate or to threaten anyone with violence. Otherwise, say what you will … or what you must.
So, I wrote. And I wrote. I set out to tell the truth about what I saw and what had led me there. I no longer cared if the things I said were any good or would ever see print. Now I described my life and the closed world around me. It was therapy, and it was enough.
IV. SUBMITTING POETRY FROM PRISON
Let me rephrase that. It was enough … at first. About two years into my bid, I decided to start sending work out to journals. It was an experiment of sorts, just to see what would happen. The first poem I wrote in prison, a piece titled “Prison View,” I sent with a batch of others to Atlanta Review and, to my amazement and—honestly—relief, it was accepted. That gave me the motivation to push on. I sent out hundreds of submissions over the next three years, and I soon found my poems in many wonderful magazines.
Of course, submitting work is a lot more complicated in prison. The officers cannot legally stop you from mailing it out (although they might open and examine anything you send). Nor can they stop editors from responding, accepting and publishing your work. However, they can make things difficult by limiting the amount of postage an inmate possesses or access to the typewriter. There is no internet access for inmates, so the switch by many journals to online submission managers makes choosing the right magazines even more important, but also more difficult. Also, inmates are limited to a certain number of books in their possession and, we might as well face it, the average person cannot tell the difference between a literary journal and a book. In fact, journals look much more like books than magazines. When my contributor’s copies began arriving regularly, often in pairs, it caused a bit of confusion which resulted in many of these journals being donated straightaway to the library.
Another issue is the release form. Inmates, under the prison regulations, are not permitted to enter into contracts (this is meant mostly to keep the cons from trading with one another or, worse, the guards). I spent a lot of time thinking about this problem, but signed every release form just the same. As a law-school graduate, I knew I could make a reasonable argument that release forms were not contracts. Still, if any of the staff were out to get me, that argument would not have carried much weight. I could have received up to thirty days in the hole. Thirty days for poetry? Now that would have been a story to tell the grandkids.
The issue never came up. Still, the real problem would have presented itself if I received a book contract in the mail. As I compiled these poems into a manuscript, I knew this was a possibility, unlikely as it seemed at the time. Nonetheless, I sent the manuscript for my book, The Prisoners, off to a publisher for the first time in February of 2012. As luck would have it, I received my acceptance letter on the day I made parole.
V. TEACHING OTHER INMATES TO WRITE POETRY
From time to time, after seeing a poem of mine in one of the journals I had donated to the library, other inmates came to me with their poems. They asked for advice, which really meant they wanted to know if their poems were any good. A few showed promise, but most were the usual moon-spoon-June imageless drivel so many new writers start out composing (I was one of them once, before I learned to drink). I never discouraged them, however. I explained to them that if all they wanted was to see their poems in Dear Abby or make their girlfriends smile, then those poems were perfect. I also told them that if they wanted to go beyond that, I would be happy to help.
A few inmates took me up on my offer, which led to the inevitable discussions of similes and metaphors, voice and description, rhythm and enjambment (a word which, now that I think about it, sounds like it should have been a prison term). I gave them experiments to try, including the one I most often give to new writers which is this: count the number of words in your poem and cut out exactly one third of those. There were many confused looks and sometimes an angry stare my way. Needless to say, after I served them that meal, few came back for seconds. Still, I hope all of them continued to write.
VI. THE PRISON LIBRARY REVISITED
By the time I made parole (the hearing occurred in the library of all places, which was sacred ground to me), the poetry section covered three full shelves. There were collections from voices as diverse as Billy Collins, David Lehman and James Tate. I had managed to acquire and accumulate a complete run of The Best American Poetry starting with 1994 and going all the way up to 2011. Then, of course, there were my contributor’s copies from the many journals that had used my work. Editors of journals such as Mid-American Review, River Styx, Rattle and Rhino probably would be amused to think of their magazines in a prison cell passed around by the cons. Then again, when we first see Hannibal Lector in the film The Silence of the Lambs, what is he reading? A copy of Poetry magazine. Maybe somebody donated it. I have no way of knowing, just as I have no way of knowing which issue it is that Hannibal devours so greedily. I imagine the words of some old convict printed there, describing as well as possible the beauty and the horror of a life lived or endured behind bars.
Ace Boggess is author of two books of poetry: The Prisoners (forthcoming from Brick Road Poetry Press) and The Beautiful Girl Whose Wish Was Not Fulfilled (Highwire Press, 2003). His writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Mid-American Review, Atlanta Review, RATTLE, River Styx, Southern Humanities Review and many other journals. He currently resides in Charleston, West Virginia. He won a fellowship from the West Virginia Commission on the Arts and spent five years in a West Virginia prison.