In January 2017 I found myself at San Quentin, surrounded by fifteen men in prison-issued yellow rubber rain overalls. The classroom presented as an old New York artist’s studio: giant windows rattling under rain, wood floors un-sanded, art tables boasting leftover scraps of projects, paintings cluttering the walls. Our circle seated us in a mismatch of scrappy office and folding chairs. When it was time to write, pens scratched and old school Internetless laptop word processors clicked under busy fingers. The room was as alive as the rain.
This setting was one of many stops on a reimagined book tour that paired public speaking engagements with opportunities to work with incarcerated writers. Though I’ve facilitated numerous creative writing workshops for imprisoned people, on this stormy night I witnessed again — as if with fresh eyes — how a group of forcibly contained individuals call forth radical self-determination and curiosity through creative writing. These men were impressive: award-winning journalists, poets and novelists who used the expressive process to find redemption, redefinition and rekindled personal worth in a setting robbed of hope. I left San Quentin rain-soaked that night, but spirit-warmed by the writers’ tenacity, vibrancy and brilliance.
This powerful community, hidden behind walls and barbed wire, vibrated with the electric energy that I strive to infuse into the spaces I touch outside of prison: a gnawing hunger for learning and contribution, a sharp-eared listening to peers, a complex and nuanced grappling with civic and social issues, an ability to critically reflect on process and product, a sense of responsibility to self and community, a continuous commitment to growth, action and necessary risk — and the skill to dismantle harmful narratives, forming a cohesive, and often disruptive alternative that opens possibility for change on personal, communal and eventually, societal levels. Whew! That is a long sentence and a lofty set of goals. Befitting, as often this work leaves me both energized and breathless. The men at San Quentin reminded me that each student has a gift to impart, each member of the group is a teacher.
As a writing and social justice educator with over ten years of experience in public schools, prisons, universities, needle exchanges and other settings, I am now interested in approaching the communities I teach in as collaborative partnerships. I am consciously cultivating more opportunities to soften — and perhaps eventually eradicate — the barrier between the traditional roles of teacher and student through a questioning of hierarchical models, employing a more horizontal engagement. A special lens I bring to the work is this deep investment in literary citizenship, connecting writers to community, teaching the art of facilitation and co-creation, and discovering the many ways writing and expression interact with non-academic settings.
In this vein, I also value stepping out of the silos of strict creative identity, and into an environment of encouraged experimentation. It is this elasticity that allows us to locate our greatest contributions, and leans on a vision of an intersectional, multi-voiced society. I consider poetry and artistic expression to be a place that can and should complicate the tremendous conundrum of humanity, and address the serious issues we are facing as a society through a conscious engagement with our complex world. What a crucial role this is, the need becoming more pronounced in light of our country’s split landscape. I believe, as many predict, creative expression will be very important during our next four years as an informative place of refuge, questioning, connection, dissonance, spirit and resistance.
My approach to teaching is craft-centric, but also deeply considers the world around us, and our relationship to it. In each endeavor, beyond the common goals prescribed by the particular teaching placement, it is important to note my practice infuses the pedagogy of three key areas:
1. Critical Assessment and Inquiry, where students deeply question history, media, literature, representation and society. A non-prescriptive approach honors and cultivates students natural curiosity and sparks an interest in developing informed, independent and expressed opinions about relevant world conversations and issues — and creativity’s relationship to our everyday human experience.
2. Self Awareness and Personal Development, in which students consider their own behavior and actions in relationship to societal norms, examine interactions with peers and loved ones, dissect identity and pursue a future based on passion and growth. How can writing bring us into a more complex, nuanced and layered understanding of self and others? How can we best exercise our findings towards our sense of and execution of purpose? How does the act of critique inform our writing, but also our personhood?
3. Local and Global Community Engagement invites students to place themselves in a larger narrative, defining interconnection and examining positive difference, ultimately identifying and implementing their own contributions to the page, the classroom community and beyond.
It is a core belief of mine that creative expression is a profound necessity. To support creators in their growth is to encourage the very aliveness of our world. I am interested in walking with writers and artists on their journey towards expanding their library of traditional and contemporary artists and writers, to deepen and sharpen their craft, and to envision the many ways to be a writer/creator. While guiding students through workshopping, readings and publication, I feel a simultaneous call to also nurture their craft as a meaningful conversation with humanity. It feels especially important to urge students towards a personal definition of the artist and writer’s role in society, and the development of distinct voices that forge uncharted creative paths.