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When Celes Tisdale led poetry workshops at Attica State Prison, soon after the 1971 uprising, some of the prisoners were still recovering from gunshots. Their writings demonstrates the power of poetry to help oppressed people heal from trauma and organize their political thinking.
The Worker Writers School (WWS) is an experiment in solidarity. Over the past fifteen years, our workshops have created spaces for participants to reimagine their relationship to work, nurtured new literary voices from the global working class, and produced new tactics for social change. WWS workshops have engaged workers in the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, Panama, South Africa, Belgium, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.
Eight months after the Attica State Prison rebellion, Celes Tisdale, an assistant professor at Erie Community College in nearby Buffalo, began facilitating a poetry workshop for the prison’s inmates.
WWS seeks to distinguish itself from the short-term engagement sought by most literary workshops, which might only last a week or month at a particular library, school, nursing home, or literary center. By contrast, WWS forms long-term bonds with worker centers and then recruits people from those fields—domestic workers, taxi drivers, fast food restaurant workers, and others—to become part of our ongoing collaborative project. In fall 2019, for example, we are celebrating our ninth year in collaboration with Domestic Workers United, the group that organized and fought for the first domestic workers’ bill of rights ever signed into law.
Who inspired this idea of using poetry workshops to organize social movements and working-class solidarity? My new book, Social Poetics, details what I have taken to calling, borrowing from Howard Zinn, a people’s history of the poetry workshop. In the United States, it traces that thread through uprisings that include the Watts rebellion and the New York City teachers’ strike of 1968; globally, the scope of this history includes the Sandinista poetry workshops of Ernesto Cardenal and anti-apartheid trade union poetry workshops in South Africa. Even more specifically, WWS has consistently drawn inspiration from the writings of incarcerated individuals who have used poetry to document their political struggles.
One of the key workshops in this “people’s history” took place in New York’s Attica State Prison. That story begins at another prison, San Quentin, where on August 21, 1971, prison guards killed writer, activist, and Black Panther Party member George Jackson. News spread quickly, inspiring acts of prisoner resistance across the country, which included a silent breakfast fast the following morning at Attica. Heather Ann Thompson’s definitive history of the prison uprising, Blood in the Water (2016), describes the protestors “wearing a strip of black cloth as an armband” and, “even more unnerving to the officers, no one ate a thing once they sat down in the mess hall.” One prisoner described the protest to a corrections officer as a “spiritual sit-in” for Jackson.
Two weeks later, Attica prisoners rebelled in a much larger insurgence, taking control of the prison’s D Yard and upward of fifty hostages. On September 13, after four days of failed negotiations with the state, Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered troops to retake the prison. Rockefeller’s mandate caused the death of forty-three prisoners and guards. To lay blame on the prisoners, prison officials initially told journalists that the inmates had slashed the throats of some correctional officers and severed the genitalia of others. But an independent coroner’s report later concluded that everyone who died during the prison raid had died from, as the prisoners dubbed it, “a bullet that had the name Rockefeller on it.”
Eight months after the rebellion, Celes Tisdale, an assistant professor at Erie Community College in nearby Buffalo, walked into Attica to begin facilitating a poetry workshop at the prison. Tisdale’s journal entry from his first workshop at Attica on May 24, 1972, reveals the personal connection that he had to some of his new students at Attica: “The men are coming in now. I recognize some of them from the old days in Willert Park Projects and Smitty’s restaurant where I worked during the undergraduate days. They seem happy to see me but are properly restrained (strained?).” In the prison, Tisdale found something quite different from the irrational prisoners the media portrayed. “Their sensitivity and perception were so intense,” Tisdale writes, “that each Wednesday night, I came home completely exhausted.” Tisdale’s workshops, and the writing produced in them, remains instrumental in my own thinking about the model that has grown into the WWS.
‘And Attica is a maggot-minded black blood sucker / And another page of history is written in black blood.’
Two years after Tisdale’s first workshop at Attica, Detroit’s Broadside Press published an anthology of the participants’ poems, set alongside Tisdale’s journal entries, in a book called Betcha Ain’t: Poems from Attica (1974). Historian Joy James’s description of what she calls the “(neo)slave narrative”—a term she borrows from John Edgar Wideman’s introduction to Mumia Abu-Jamal’s Live from Death Row (1995)—is helpful when reading the Attica prison poems. For James, (neo)slave narratives “reflect the languages of master, slave, and abolitionist.” From the discrepancies in power and the social tensions between these three subject positions, according to James, imprisoned writers “created the language of the fugitive or incarcerated rebel—the slave, the convict.” James believes that “through their narratives, imprisoned writers can function as progressive abolitionists and register as ‘people’s historians.’ . . . These narratives are generally the ‘unauthorized’ versions of political life.”
A single-stanza poem by Brother Amar (George Robert Elie), “Forget?” offers an example of the kind of “unauthorized” history James describes.
They tell us to forget Golgotha we treadscourged with hate because we daredto tell the truth of helland how inhuman it is within.
Isaiah Hawkins recounts the bloodiest day of the revolt, September 13, 1970, in his poem “13th of Genocide,” while Mshaka (Willie Monroe) chronicles the aftermath of the Attica rebellion in “Formula for Attica Repeats”:
They came tearlesstremblers,apologetic grin factoriesthat breathed Koolsmoke-ringsand state-prepared speeches.They camelike so many unfeeling fingersgroping without touchingthe 43 dead menwho listened . . .threatening to riseagain . . .
The writers in Tisdale’s Attica workshop were becoming, in James’s words, “the storytellers of the political histories of the captives and their captors,” perhaps none with such intensity as John Lee Norris in his poem “Just Another Page (September 13–72)”:
A year laterAnd it’s just another pageAnd the only thing they do right is wrongAnd Attica is a maggot-minded black blood suckerAnd the only thing they do right is wrongAnd another page of history is written in black bloodAnd old black mamas pay taxes to buy guns that killed their sonsAnd the consequence of being free . . . is deathAnd your sympathy and tears always come too lateAnd the only thing they do right is wrongAnd it’s just another page.
Long out of print, Betcha Ain’t has been all but erased from contemporary conversations about twentieth-century poetry, social history, and prison abolition. Even Thompson’s Blood in the Water makes no mention of it, and it warrants only a passing mention in Melba Joyce Boyd’s excellent history of the Broadside Press, Wrestling with the Muse (2004). In this, it is hardly alone, and it may principally be a problem of genre: poetry anthologies that stand as documents of radical political moments—other examples include anthologies of poetry from the Watts uprising and the New York City teachers strike—are rarely embraced by historians as valuable primary texts. When the authors are incarcerated people, that bias is exacerbated.
Poet and publisher Joseph Bruchac spent much of his extraordinary career facilitating poetry workshops in prisons and publishing anthologies of imprisoned writers. He published poets from his own workshops and workshops run by others in such quintessential volumes as Words from the House of the Dead: Prison Writings from Soledad (A Facsimile Version of a book produced INSIDE Soledad Prison and SMUGGLED OUT) (1974), The Last Stop: Writing from Comstock Prison (1974), and The Light from Another Country: Poetry from American Prisons (1984). When I asked Bruchac about the critical neglect of the Soledad anthology, he responded: “We did that anthology in a small edition and sold it out within a year. (Though we did charge only $1.50 for it.) People I spoke to directly liked it, were impressed by the sophistication of the work, were surprised because they had preconceptions about inmates being illiterate or not thoughtful enough to be writers. But I do not recall our getting any reviews, so there was little or no ‘critical response’ to speak of.”
‘I was told many times that when they were in the workshop they did not feel as if they were in prison. They trusted that I saw them not as inmates, but as human beings.’
The poems in Bruchac’s anthologies are passionate and fierce, skillfully crafted and politically astute. In the preface to Words from the House of the Dead, the incarcerated authors suggest that their writings “should not be regarded as an attempt at artistic art, but rather as social art.” This is a theme echoed throughout all of Bruchac’s prison writing anthologies, and it is not a theme imposed by him. Indeed, the first prison writing workshops he ever facilitated started only four months after the Attica uprising and in a nearby prison, where he found that the inmates attending his workshop were also profoundly interested in the potential of poetry as a “social art”:
Half of the men in my workshop were survivors of the massacre that took place at Attica and a number of them were still recovering from gunshot wounds. So they were more than interested in poetry as a societal statement and a mirror of everything that had happened and was still happening to incarcerated men and women. Some of the things they wrote—which I did not publish at the time, quite frankly, to protect them from repercussions from the powers that be—were directly about their experiences during the take-over. . . . My students—who were a varied group ethnically, black, white, Hispanic—were very aware of all that was going on around the country.
In the workshops, Bruchac exposed the students to other politically conscious poetry that spoke to the themes that interested them, and encouraged them to think of it as a space of social solidarity in which they could freely talk and write about their experiences.
I made it a point to expose the men in the workshop to a very wide range of poetry, including poems by Amiri, by Etheridge Knight, and many others. I was an editor back then of BLACK BOX, a poetry magazine on cassette, and played for them the issue that included my old friend Etheridge reading a number of his poems, including “The Idea of Ancestry.” They were galvanized by that. I told them from the start that I would never judge them on the content of what they wrote, only on how effectively they managed to communicate what they wanted to express. I was told many times that when they were in the workshop they did not feel as if they were in prison. They trusted that I saw them not as inmates, but as human beings.
These important volumes by Bruchac and others, nevertheless, have been and continue to be erased from our historical memories, our literary histories, and the very institutions that are meant to safeguard materials such as these. My copy of Words from the House of the Dead, formerly the property of Cuyahoga Community College’s library before I bought it online, has “WEEDED” stamped in black on its first page. Likewise, my copy of The Last Stop, published in 1974, is stamped “WITHDRAWN” from the Reference and Loan Library of the Wisconsin Division for Library Services in Madison. My copy of the important anthology Folsom Prison: The 52nd State, published in 1976, is also stamped “WITHDRAWN” from the very same library. It surely is not incidental that these books—which speak so powerfully to issues of police and state violence—all were removed from state-owned libraries in a part of the country suffering an epidemic of police violence against black and brown people. To “weed” and “withdraw” them is a way to destroy the evidence.
For us at the WWS, however, the prison workshops of Tisdale, Bruchac, and others have become essential models for the aesthetic production of people’s histories (of the Attica uprising or taxi driver protests in NYC, for example), new working-class resistance literature, verse documentaries about prison conditions across the country, abolitionist manifestoes, and poetry as “social art.” In these historical workshops and anthologies, we have discovered ways to create innovative spaces where writing poetry in community with other workers becomes a new form of solidarity—and a new form of insurgency, too.
This essay was adapted from Mark Nowak’s Social Poetics (Coffee House Press).
Mark Nowak’s books include Shut Up Shut Down, Coal Mountain Elementary, and Social Poetics, all from Coffee House Press. He is currently editing a revised and expanded edition of writings from the Attica poetry workshops of Celes Tisdale (1972–74). A native of Buffalo, Nowak is the founding director of the Worker Writers School.
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