Staking Claim to Beauty & Power in San Fran's Men's Jail

Journal Entry
January 20, 2017

Twenty men of various ages, ethnicities and accents squeezed into a small room offshooting the housing unit’s common area. Most of us shared a love of visible tattoos, my first observation. The day had started with the television broadcasting the inauguration, and I was nauseous from the emotional overload. Assuming I wouldn’t be the only one, but cautious to be overly political just in case, I’d prepared a workshop that might be considered “uplifting.”

The theme of our session was I Believe: Staking Claim to Beauty and Power in a Troubled 2017.

Truth is, I was skeptical of my own ability to shake out of despair. But as soon as we began our intros, I knew there was no where else I could have been more powerfully on such a powerless day. I knew, because I’d experienced it many times before, that in a powerless space — well, that's exactly where I would touch hope. I would grab hope’s face and kiss it — a feeling I worried might soon be hard to access.

And so, we wrestled with Gregory Orr’s mini-essay, The Making of Poems. He opens with a line we all nodded to, I believe in poetry as a way of surviving the emotional chaos, spiritual confusions and traumatic events that come with being alive. We read Assata’s Shakur’s Affirmation and Elizabeth Alexander’s Ars Poetica #100: I Believe. Many  of us were struck by the same stanza in Michael Blumenthal’s I Believe:

I believe that no one is spared
the darkness,
and no one gets all of it.

And then, of course, we wrote our own declarations. We all tried. We really tried to put something of worth into the air.

This was my best attempt:

I believe that a circle of men, tattooed and dressed in blinding orange, might be the ones to save our world, and yes, yes, triple yes they saved me this morning after I watched the television become God, for real this time.

Remind me, again, that I believe in poetry’s small feet. How it slips through nearly unnoticed, or quietly throws a rope over the ledge, or lays down a red carpet over the wet mud and welcomes us to lay down into our most luminous skin. Let us flood the streets with our gold so bright it’s misnamed as sinister.

Look, even if we don't get a poem, we know we will leave this room better, whatever that means, right — or full of light, as we’ve established — and that the divine in me, tattooed clear up to the neck, will bow down to the divinity in you.
 

After a lunch break I returned as the entire housing unit’s residents were gathering in the plastic chairs arranged into audience. 50 men in bright orange jumpsuits looked curious at best, if not bored or suspicious in anticipation of this “poet from New York City." And I’ll admit it, okay, I was pretty nervous. I’ve never performed in front of solely men, never mind in a jail setting. So, I faked it. I began to sing.

The audience warmed immediately, clapping along. One of the precious moments that caught my eye was a younger man who attempted to make a small joke of my presence, a common reaction to discomfort, not knowing how to receive me. He reached his eyes to snag on other’s but was met only with stern faces that offered a wise lecture.

They said without speaking, "look, in a world where you encounter the same faces day in/day out, where days can be excruciatingly boring, where maybe we’ve been dismissed or dismissed ourselves and certainly judged, watched every moment of every day — a visitor’s desire to cross the barbed walls means a whole lot. We miss you, is what visitors say when they come in from the outside. And they mean it, even if they speak from a projected mouth — our loved ones are talking through their presence."

Pretty quickly the young man assumed the same body language of openness, after briefly turning his eyes down and swallowing, a little embarrassed. He joined us.

As imagined, the story goes that I was respected, cheered for and thanked — quite astonishingly, for example, by an elder who said I’ve always wanted to write my memoirs, but have never known how to start, until today, listening to you. But soaring above even these sky-high sentiments, of course you already know that the most profound part of collaborative readings is when workshop participants open the necessary space to carry energy beyond our afternoon.

In a transient setting such as jail, unfolding this emotional space is a tricky ask — but arms never need much twisting. Silenced throats are generally ready to shout. Over half of our workshop read, some who shocked the audience because “man, that dude never even speaks!”

We started slow and quiet, but as anger and fear and loss of joy and joy began to shake out, the sounds of being moved swept across the room, shouts of encouragement when the reader paused to gather their words or emotions, grunts of recognition, laughter. Sometimes an absence of sound gripped the room, the full-bodied quiet of profound respect. Men beyond our workshop took the makeshift stage, old raps and memorized poems spoken from the core, one after the next emerging from the crowd until we all exhaled, filled to the brim, then emptied. As we do with creativity, we transformed the space.

When it was all said and done, the doors closed between the men and I, each retreating to their shared cell. Instead of bars or solid metal, in this jail it was glass that stood between us — a human fishbowl, and a sharp reminder of the lines set down between us. I struggled to meet their eyes as I waved goodbye, walking towards an entire world that, even as it feigns it's freedom, is in desperate need of poetry. Behind these walls we touched a place somewhere beyond the physical plane, those rare moments when we feel what it really means, spiritually, to be free. In connection. Honest. And that is hope, indeed.

Remind me, again, that I believe in poetry’s small feet. How it slips through nearly unnoticed, or quietly throws a rope over the ledge...

Here is what the guys said:

It was a good experience and exercise to expand our creative writing squad.

Blowin’ up the block, this workshop rocks. Dostoevsky from the streets, waves upon the rocks. For today my edges have smoothed away — a soul’s journey with my mind free to play!

I am not a poet, and I surely know it. My voice is loud, mental telepathy… I’m not forgotten, embracing the stage of solitude, at times… I think not.

The class was awesome, very motivational, inspiring, empowering. She is a great teacher and I think I might have wrote something decent, which is great! Thank you!

I really appreciated this class. You’ve opened my thoughts and new doors. Words from others were very inspiring to m. Key words I kept thinking of were inspiration and meaning.

I love all the poets and the call of all! Keep it up.

I’m pleased and greatly honored to be in the presence of such a beautiful woman and a great American poet such as Miss Caits Meissner.

My happiness and future hope is that we can all help and strengthen ourselves no matter what the circumstances are. And I appreciate all the unity and strength of this group.

Never have I participated in a writing workshop, and this won’t be my last. You uncovered a gift and exposed a great many truths! One of which is that I’d love to do this again. Thanks!

San Quentin on a Stormy Night

Journal Entry
January 18, 2017

The rain is relentless. Palm trees sway with such force, I fear the wind might snap the heads clean off. The ocean moves violently. I wonder if we might need to pull the car over and wait out this storm. At the front gate my clearance is nowhere to be found and I swear I overhear a rumor that might swiftly turn the night into a serious lockdown situation. I am shivering wet from an umbrella-less run from checkpoint to checkpoint. The fog weighs an ominous blanket fogging out anything that lies beyond the few feet in front of one’s face.

But, after a little patience and a few held breaths of brief come on get me in I came from New York prayer, I manage to get into the room where I meet and greet sixteen men dressed in uniform faded blue clothing under raincoats — some donning yellow-ducky rubber overalls. The space we inhabit looks like an old New York City artist’s studio (the kind no one can afford anymore): the large windows’ thin glass rattle under the rain, wood floors lay chipped and un-sanded, art tables boast leftovers scraps of projects, paintings crafted from talented hands clutter the walls, a particularly unsettling bunny mask with frightened eyes and a brown bowtie lurks overhead. Our circle seats us in a mismatch of scrappy office and folding chairs. When it’s time to write, which is right now, the pens scratch and old school Internetless laptop word processors made for elementary children click away under busy fingers. The room is as alive as the rain.

Outside these walls it looks more like a prison, of course: gates, guards, a chill of cruel history narrated as we walk — there is the very place George Jackson was shot, and there was his administrative segregation cell, in that building, where death row inmates are held. But in here we are writers who are writing and some of this brutal past washes away. Let go. It will return, memory, as it always does. The prompt is simple, but even simplicity can open surprising depth. Free associate with a color. I choose yellow:

Raincoats, sun, the middle of an egg, joy — I mean, that’s what I’m trying to get to. The light that sparks under the beloved’s smile. When I feel in my sacred spot when I’m turned up and glowing. Dog piss in the snow — but who wants to think of that? Or how bright it is when I remember to take my multivitamin. TMI? Black-eyed susans, my high school boyfriend’s mom’s favorite. I drew them for him when she died. The tulips at Nancy’s memorial. My sister as a child, her spirit was certainly yellow and sweet to the taste. Lightning outside a room full of people, but I can’t see anyone’s in memory but one lit up when the sky cracked, a frame on beauty. A halo around slick skin. Yellow is summer, sweat, tastes like a dragonfly somehow, I’m guessing, like lemonade, we all know. It tastes like the life I am leaning towards.

*

That’s all I got down in my own notebook during free writing, wasting my precious minutes on setting the scene, which felt nearly cinematic on that stormy night. With time keeping as my excuse for poor writing, I worked hard to slither out of sharing aloud. I learned quickly that I was in a community of serious peers with abilities sharpened to squeeze out sun on the spot. San Quentin is known for the level of vibrancy pours out (and upstream) of its facility, and the wide variety of programming offered to a willing participant. In the room there were two time novelists, pushcart prize nominees, published writers, podcast contest winners, literary journal founders and journalists with San Quentin News — the first inmate-run newspaper to come out of prison. Suffice to say, and sorry for teasing, the work shared was immensely inspired and inspiring and you’ll just have to trust me on that one. It was the most cohesively talented group of writers I’ve ever had the pleasure of sitting among.

Luckily I had a chance to bypass the free write, sharing my polished work in my opening set, an introduction to who-the-heck-is-this-guest-facilitator. I felt nervous to read a poem that I’d earmarked, written for a former student who had been released from prison. I wondered who I thought I was to deliver this particular story in this particular space. But when I saw tears in the eyes of the men, I remembered what reflection can do — there is a bit of all of our stories in there. To receive is certainly beautiful, but to be received is also a form of love, acceptance, being seen. When in connection, we get to have it all, to see and be seen in endless loop.

“It inspired gold to come out,” Rahsaan Thomas wrote. And he wasn’t kidding.

The reflections of the night were scrawled quickly in our final moments of sharing — not leaving us enough time, most didn’t have the chance to write on paper. Here is what we have:

I really enjoyed the workshop. It inspired gold to come out.

I love the workshop because it is a tool to become a better writer, thank you!

I haven’t written something that wasn’t for a job in several months. It felt so good to just write tonight and share with a community of writers. I’m re-filled, ready to go back into the world.

The workshop was excellent. Caits had some great comments and concepts to help us write better.

Excellent work, rhythmic and electric! Encore! Please very soon!

It’s always a pleasure and enlightening when guests come to SQ’s creative writing. We learn from each other. Thank you.

First Stop: A Women's Jail in Western Mass.

If you’re feeling what I’m feeling these days, stories of hope are needed — fuel to keep our collective fire burning as we figure out what to do now.

I am proud and grateful that you each chose to support stories of hope, and though only hours, they are rich, full hours where reality pauses long enough to envision something different for ourselves, personally and collectively.

This is the gift you allowed me to bring to The Western Massachusetts Regional Women's Correctional Center this past week. This is the gift you allowed the women to give me, in order to bring this story to you. We are creating waves.

I hope you read this story.

This first stop on The Humans That We Are prison poetry tour was exactly what I’d imagined when I first began to put this project on paper. Thanks to the support and efforts of the organization Voices From Inside, I began Tuesday morning at 9am sharp, sitting at a table with eight women who consider themselves writers at various stages in their creative journey. I led us through an exercise that has become a go-to in my repertoire: Love Letter to Self. 

The workshop lasted until 11 am, a packed, hearty two hours, and it was vibrant, deep and textured. But what struck me most was the reflection after we shared our new pieces. “It’s really hard to write positively about myself at all”, a writer shared, "thank you for having us do that.”

The women signed the upcoming reading program for me to show our donors. I am proud to share with you their brief reflections (bear with the ones that make me a little nervous that it sounds like I’m gloating):

“When women come together,” one woman wrote, “it is never nuthin’ less than awesome."

  • Thanks for being inspirational and sharing with us.
  • Caits, you are heavy. Very heavy.
  • Thanks so much for coming here. It’s all good for us. Really is.
  • Amazing group! Caits is very talented and amazing!
  • Caits, thanks so much for this amazing opportunity. I love your work and working with you!
  • I wish you could come on all Tuesdays, but either way, I love your poetry.  Thank you.
  • Thanks for everything Caits — for today, and for all you do everyday. I know your spirit will continue to inspire us all for a long time to come. And best of luck with the rest of the tour! P.S. Come back!


I spent the gap between performance and workshop decorating a hall with Katie, a teacher and facilitator with Voices From Inside, whose generosity and excitement propelled this whole experience to be as special as it was.

We hung crepe paper from the ceiling and ran out of breath blowing up balloons: one on the back of each reader’s chair. I had fun drawing faces on them with a thick black marker. It’s amazing what a little color can do to cheer up a grey room.

Then, the reading. The room was full of women who joined us as audience members, as well as a handful of staff. Before they entered, our readers jittered their nerves, practicing poems at the podium. I promised them I would mess up at least once in my reading (in fact it was closer to five times), which seemed to help insert a little ease into our air. Performance is nice, but it’s about the words at the end of the day, you know? The excitement was nearly touchable, tangible. Then, we began.

I had the honor of reading for 20 minutes to a silent room. It was that full, robust silence when the audience is focused and generous with their attention. Then each woman read two poems, cheered on loudly by their peers — an eruption of joy! The pride swelled! More than one person said, it doesn’t feel like jail right now. At the end, each woman came up with an encore: their love letter to self. We left elated. 

In the car today with my Dad, we listened to a recent Fresh Air podcast with Johnny Cash. Terry Gross asked him about his prison tours — I hadn’t realized the extent to which Johnny visited prison audiences with his music long before recording Live From Folsom! He expressed that he’s never had (major paraphrase from me) the kind of engagement, whooping, excitement at a performance than he got in prisons.

I laughed, knowing that feeling well. There is a hunger for connection and art, and where there is a hunger, that’s where creativity springs up on the strongest legs. Cash got it right: where there is hunger, there is profundity and a transformational movement of spirit. And that spirit is buoyant and has a blessedly loud mouth. And thank God for that.

Thank you, from me and from the women we got to serve. Of course, you already know, they served me, too.  

A special bonus: the night before the reading I had a public reading at Northampton Poetry Slam. Two women in the reentry/recovery programs through Voices From Inside came along, and one read for the first time on the mic! It was a pleasure to learn about how they are growing in their writing and now giving back to others in their community.