Literature on Lockdown: Alternatives
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 Brian Batchelor.
Prison is where inspiration goes to die – or so I believed. I’m an inmate of 12 years, the cold cuffs locked around my boney wrists at the still-in-bloom age of 17. I have spent all my adult life behind brick coated in boring hues: white, off-white, eggshell white, gray-white, and the occasional “what the hell is that” splattered an crusted on walls (think greens, yellows, and browns) adding a bit of (real?) color. The cells aren’t much bigger than graves, possessing similar damp and cloyingly pungent scents. As for the fashion, well, I’ve seen miniature dogs on television with more style than the white T-shirt, blue-jean clad clones lurching around the prison. Even the yard – our outdoor retreat as small and claustrophobic as an elementary playground at recess – has trouble dying itself spring greens. My point: this place is bland. Arid. Exasperatingly lackluster. I challenge the ghost of Robert Frost to pen an inspired pastoral here, or the whimsical brush of Winslow Homer to capture a vibrant landscape inside these walls. Creativity has such little flight here and even less sustenance to power its beating wings. That innate drive humans have for creation through inspiration suffocates on the stale air prison secretes. So the question is, how can anything artful be crafted in this environment? Where can beauty be glimpsed and admired when even the sun’s arms reach weak and insipid across the prison?
For years I stumbled around in dim conditions, desperately searching with outstretched arms for something inspiring – something beautiful – to grasp. Eventually my eyes dulled, along with the rest of my senses, and I withdrew into myself, blurring the reality around me. Aspiration became a smoldering bundle of dying embers. Insolence superseded passion.
A few years crawled by until I found myself enrolled in the prison’s college program, choosing to participate for no other reason than to break the monotony turning me into a pale husk of lassitude. During an Intro to Literature class, my professor planted a few pages of poetry in my limp hands. Ambivalent about poetry and all its stereotypes, I took the pages back to my cell and read them in gray dusk. Slowly the cell swelled with light, my body becoming a lantern of wonderment as I hunched over the poems clutched in my grip. My passion’s wick had been lit by the fervency of the words cascading down the pages, and as I read the last poem (“We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar) I knew I was experiencing an awakening. The next day I visited the prison library and checked out a thick book of assorted poetry; I ate each page with famished eyes. A new awareness burnished my sight as I gorged my soul with delicious stanzas filled with sweet metaphor. I read about the good, the bad, and the ugly…then it hit me: had my years of searching for motivation been misdirected? Beauty wasn’t the only face of inspiration; maybe it was the ugly I could praise, that the marred and bloodied wings of the caged bird was something worth singing about.
There are things in this country nobody has described: the sun turning razor wire silver at high-noon; how when a guard moves, their ring of keys imitate a wind-chime at their waist; or a tattered, dog-eared book of poetry’s satisfying weight in the tender hands of an inmate seeking salvation. Pages brim with the glorification of things aesthetically pleasing to our senses, but beauty is lessened without its counterpart – rugged ugliness. Just as manure helps flame a rose garden red, barred windows cut the landscape into a striking mosaic, each iron-framed sliver multiplying its splendor. I am surrounded by things that, ostensibly, twist the face in disgust, but it’s these distortions that deserve a writer’s speculation. Creativity and imagination can transform the unsightly into poignant art, and an urgent desire to do just that rages through me. So my duty then, as the port Pablo Neruda remarked, “is to express what is unheard of” and give narrative to my current reality – a blemished setting disregarded by the world.
Prison doesn’t have to be inspirations or creativities gravesite. The transformative power of imagination can be cultivated in any environment and ripened through words. Imprisonment is only the situation, not the slow degradation of identity and expression it can seemingly be. “Imagination / creates the situation, / and, then, the situation / creates imagination,” James Baldwin declared. I have the fortuitous option to view my environment through a writer’s vividly attentive eyes, creating a relationship between conscience and the present, fueling inspiration. I can create poetic beauty from the rubble and give it to the world as unique testament, thoroughly satisfied as I cap my pen. Awareness is what I was lacking those years when my sense’s atrophied, conscious of only the repulsive surface of things looming around the prison. No creative impulse – no satiating inspiration – stimulated my mind into action until a couple pages of poetry stirred the diminishing embers. Now my “situation” and “imagination” work hand-in-hand. Possibilities for inspiration and creativity have opened up, as Adrienne Rich has written:
The imagination’s roads open before us, giving the lie to that
slammed and bolted door, that razor-wired fence, that brute dictum
“There is no alternative.”
The alternative to beauty is Dunbar’s “torn and bleeding hearts,” his “tortured souls,” and I discover unobserved alternatives frequently, pen at the ready to honor them in words.
Brian Batchelor had been incarcerated since 2002. Over the last couple of years he had been taking writing workshops through the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop (MPWW). He is also a member of the Stillwater Writer’s Collective.