Life With Poetry, But No Parole
My father moved to California due to the racial violence of the time. My father hit my mom, and they both hit me. I fought at school, fought with my brothers, and fought with Crooks Street friends. The teachers gave beatings. I broke my brother Jimmy’s arm with a two-by-four when he threatened to take my money. My brother Jerry went off to war in Vietnam. My brother Arthur was scalded with hot water and stabbed by one of his many girlfriends. All of the whippings, at home and at school, only toughened my ass, my resolve, and my resentment. I grew numb.
I knew I would not be able to make things work in regular high school. Besides, they kicked me out when I got in a fight with a white guy who’d just called me a nigger. I did not quit school, though, because school is where I could find girls. Plus the words of my elementary school principal echoed in my soul. I could not let those words—“Boy, you’ll never graduate from high school”—come true.
Not long after graduation, I was on one of my runs. I got caught up, was shot, and then killed someone. In the depth of my heart and soul I felt that what I did was wrong. I did not set out to kill anyone that night, but the fact is I did. After they found me guilty of the murder, I awaited the sentencing of life without possibility of parole or death. The jury could not choose between the two, so the judge gave me life without parole. At nineteen, one cannot grasp the depth of a no-parole life sentence.
I was ignorant about all prison ways. I came from the desert, the natural world—purple and red clay mountains, open spaces—and there was nothing natural about cells. On the prison yard I kept my mask on, my dark shades, non-smiling, dead-eyed gaze, and silence, but when I was back in the cell writing letters I opened up and released the realness and feelings inside me. Letters were like blood veins or life lines: I lived through them and only ate and slept in prison.
When people told me I had a way with words, I did not equate that with being a poet and writer. I just wanted to expand in areas I knew nothing about, and my word trail led me to sign up for two poetry classes.
Poetry was still a puzzle and mystery, but deep and enjoyable. I thought poetry must come from some hidden, magical place, a place heavy with knowledge and wisdom. I thought I could never be intelligent enough to write poetry. I now saw poetry in some of the songs of Stevie Wonder; the Beatles; the Rolling Stones; Earth, Wind and Fire; in some old blues and Motown sounds.
Some spirit, muse, or magic moved me to create my first poem one Christmas Eve. Somehow I let go of my pre-conceived notions of what should and should not be. Some force, some sweet realness, engulfed me.
The next Monday, I caught my teacher, Judith, in the hallway of the education building and handed her my poem. I had been in Judith’s class, shades on day and night, in silence, for over a year. When she read the poem, all she could say—with tear-filled eyes—was “outrageous.”
After I began to write, I gradually realized that all my letters had been poetry, too, that all along I had been writing poems. My life was the melody that flowed like free verse.
People from many walks of life—teachers, professors, stockbrokers, college students—complimented me on my work. Reverend Smith at the prison chapel said, “I never liked poetry, but I like yours.” I had never heard such kindness about anything I had done before.
Spoon Jackson has been serving a life sentence since 1977. This essay is adapted from the book By Heart: Prison, Poetry, and Two Lives by Judith Tannenbaum and Spoon Jackson (New Village Press, 2010).
Judith Tannenbaum has taught poetry in a wide variety of settings from primary school classrooms to maximum security prisons. She is the author of several books, including her memoir, Disguised as a Poem: My Years Teaching Poetry at San Quentin. She currently serves as training coordinator for WriterCorps in San Francisco.
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