Disguised as a Poem

My Years Teaching Poetry at San Quentin

Judith Tannenbaum

2000, 218 pages; Northeastern University Press, (Boston, Massachusetts).

In Disguised as a Poem, Judith Tannenbaum tells of her experiences teaching poetry at San Quentin, a California maximum security prison, between 1985 and 1989. The relationship between poet and institution begins casually: she is invited to read her poems and that opportunity is followed by an invitation to lead a weekly creative writing workshop. The workshop grows into a California Arts Council artist-in-residence grant to offer frequent, consistent writing workshops in the prison. For grantmakers supporting art activities in institutions, Disguised as a Poem shows that people living in extreme circumstances can hear and be moved by a wide variety of poets, and such people's writings are powerful.

Tannenbaum fills in her prison teaching story with background about her own life — her childhood, education, depression, marriage, and divorce. After living in a small northern California town, she returned to the San Francisco Bay Area to raise her daughter. This move leads to her invitation to read at San Quentin. While at times the book seems too self-absorbed, it's also fascinating to watch Tannenbaum's intellectual free spirit encounter the prison's rigid core, and the contrast would be less vivid if she wrote less about herself.

Teaching at San Quentin changes her. In spite of her “Birkenstocks and handcrafted earrings,” Tannenbaum comes to identify with and understand the rigor and the rules. For grantmakers, this transformation is a fascinating aspect of the book. It's triggered in part by guidelines from the funding sources supporting Tannenbaum's prison work. While every phase is challenging, Tannenbaum's first — least formal — year of leading weekly workshops may be the brightest point in her experience. Once she secures a grant supporting “long-term, in-depth interaction,” she's no longer bringing in poetry from the outside world, but becomes part of the prison structure. This makes her intentions to intervene artistically in the prisoners' lives much more challenging. She has to reach deeper into her self to live with contradiction and paradox, and to coax the prisoners' sensibilities along with her own through that effort.

While Tannenbaum brings great energy and commitment to this work, success is not easy. For instance, she writes of her difficulties getting the prisoners to accept the idea of writing a poem from a point of view outside their own voices, to embrace the potential of projecting sympathy in the making of art. The effort to write from another's point of view pushes against the prisoners' sense of authenticity, their deep need to unearth their own voices.

During the course of Tannenbaum's residency, San Quentin became the site of a remarkable project. A Swedish director and crew produced and filmed Waiting for Godot with Samuel Beckett's blessing — based in the prison and acted by prisoners. The production was artistically successful but, for some, emotionally invasive. Tannenbaum had slowly learned that while her prison work placed her in danger, the prisoners also were profoundly vulnerable to her or to anyone coming in from the outside. The Godot crew stirred up that vulnerability and — due to the project's scale and time pressures — never fully owned up to it. Tannenbaum, who assists with painstaking bureaucratic details clearing the way for the production, observed wryly that the experience put her into the camp of the prison authorities:

Seeing myself in the role of authority and protector of the institution for the first time in my life came as a shock. And discovering that, in fact, I did feel more allegiance to San Quentin than to these visitors who had no stake in the ongoing work of Arts-in-Corrections astounded me.

While disruptive, the Godot production also touched the prisoners profoundly. Tannenbaum often wonders whether a maximum security prison can accommodate human transformation. Prison's heart is a structure based on opposition, its life-blood is adversarial relationships, and these prisoners' goals are to live within the “code” — saving face, and “handling business.” Yet Spoon, one of Tannenbaum's favorite prison writers, readily sees the play's truth in his daily life. “This truth is universal: tragedy and humor existing within the same moment, love and hate sharing the same space.... As human beings, we all have one foot in light and one foot in darkness.”

Review by Frances Phillips