Bright skies matched the mood in the sanctuary of San Quentin’s Catholic Chapel as visitors from around the Bay Area trickled into the prison to celebrate publication of Six Cubic Feet, the new Brothers in Pen anthology.
Brothers in Pen, San Quentin’s creative writing group, have been crafting stories since 1999 through a class taught by Zoe Mullery. Six Cubic Feet is the fourth anthology in the group’s self-titled series. In honor of this anthology’s release, 12 of its 18 contributors agreed to share excerpts at this pubic event.
For some of the Bay-Area visitors, this was their first venture inside a prison: a trek through security checkpoints, a first glimpse at cellblocks, and a first encounter with men in blue. Also present were volunteers from other San Quentin programs; for these attendees, this was an occasion to honor the literary talents of men they know as students or colleagues.
Mullery opened the event with kudos from the authors’ courage, creativity, and spirit. She invited the audience into a practice she engages weekly: the “art of listening with both ears” in a way that “illustrates care and respect…and binds us to each other.”
Rose Elizondo read the foreword penned for the anthology by Pulitzer-winner, Junot Díaz, who visited Muller’s class twice at Elizondo’s urging. “Let these stories…remind us,” Díaz had written, “[that] the people we are locking up [are] our brothers and sisters.
Over the next three hours, the writers claimed the microphone – transporting the audience into a series of diverse worlds, prompting laughter, tears, knowing nods, and surprised head-tilts.
Troy “Kogen” Williams escorted the audience into North Block for the 2008 election’s aftermath, letting us eavesdrop on the hopes and doubts of incarcerated African-American men.
Ivan Skrblinski flew into a World War I battle scene to witness a German soldier’s last ragged breaths.
Michael Harris smuggled listeners onto a slave ship to witness the rebellion of brave warriors we never learned about in school.
Watani Stiner’s exile in Suriname drew everyone into the political and personal loyalties that pulled his heart in opposing directions.
Keshun “Daleadamown” Tate’s amazing theatrical performance of an emancipated cotton-picker who couldn’t shake his slave identify was overpowering.
The attendees were also drawn into childhood dreams, domestic ironies, and secret struggles:
Puppy love with a pretty classmate and the after school trashing that Arnulfo Garcia took for bravely facing Dora’s ex-boyfriend brought laughter and moans.
Aly Tamboura’s experience of playground bigotry and family strife was a lesson in what it means to be angry, and what it means to have faith.
Andrew Gazzeny’s boyhood dream of owning a pet store had the audience beaming, but the long demise and eventual death of his father drew a collective sadness.
With Micheal “Yahya” Cooke, the listeners explored the crevices of a criminal mind, seeing through the eyes of a bank robber who has refined his illicit art through trial and error.
Everyone inside this chapel was drawn into surreal scenarios and flights of fancy:
Paul Stauffer told about a mysterious stranger who spooks the cops with slick jujitsu but really just wants to share the Gospel.
Jimmy Carlin shared a poem about a “pumpkin girl,” delivered with cool shades and a Brooklyn inflection.
JulianGlenn “Luke” Padgett lured everyone into a Tolkienesque world of telepathic elf-wolves who, just barely, evade their enemies by slipping through the Portal Gate before it shuts forever.
Being the last reader on the agenda, Padgett powered through his excerpt so that all the writers could slip out the door and, just barely, make it back to their housing units before the evening count.
These acts of storytelling left powerful imprints on listeners.
Two days later, first-time visitor Elaine Wigzell reflected that, in addition to being moved by the stories, “I find myself thinking about the small freedoms in my life…I am filled with questions, about incarceration, about [the authors’] lives.”
Carol Newborg, who has been involved with Arts in Corrections for nearly 30 years, was impressed by the authors’ political awareness and amazed by Tate’s piece, which she felt exerted a “shamanistic power” and was “full of bitter truths.”
Summer Brenner was inspired by the authors’ poise and presence. “The men were so confident and sure of their voices, so deliberate and measured in their delivery, and so beautiful as souls making their journey here as meaningful as possible,” she said.
Alicia Keen was so absorbed in the stories that it felt to her like “having a conversation” with each author. She was most compelled by Stiner’s and Gazzeny’s stories of loss and sacrifice, which, she said, “humbled me, and made my cry, sharing some of my own grief.”
Ella Turenne blogged about the reading for The Huffington Post. She noted that each author illuminated the human experience. In engaging the audience as “writer, friends, teachers, creators, lovers, brothers, sons and fathers,” Turenne felt, they created a unique space of shared compassion. “The reading reflected a peace we rarely find in…the outside world,” she said.
Echoing this sentiment, Newborg felt that “[the authors’ stories] should reach a wider audience. It would help people to support rehabilitation over punishment in corrections.”
Mullery takes these reflections as evidence that stories dissolve barriers and catalyze connections. “There are always gratifying moments in these public readings when the sound of stereotypes shattering is almost audible: preconceived ideas about prisoners, and perhaps prisoner’ preconceived ideas about audience members,” she said. “Broken stereotypes release a healing vapor that mends hearts toward unity.”
To capture her vision of the afternoon, Mullery quoted Chinua Achebe: “People create stories create people; or rather stories create people create stories.”
Six Cubic Feet can be purchased at brothersinpen.wordpress.com. The site includes information about the William James Foundation, which enable the group to keep publishing stories.
Kony Kim is a Prison University Project volunteer.