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.