INMATES SHOWCASE THEIR WORK AT THE ANNUAL PUBLIC READING
Despite massive cuts in prison arts programs throughout the state, some arts programs managed to survive. Teacher Zoe Mullery and her San Quentin Creative Writing Class, produced another outstanding anthology for this year’s Annual Public Reading.
Approximately 40 outside guests attended this years reading exposition which was held July 13 in the Addiction Recovery Counseling (ARC) building on San Quentin’s Lower yard.
They were noticeably impressed with what they heard.
After reading his creative non-fiction story “22.8 Miles,” Writer Kris Himmelberger said, “I look forward to the creative writing class. I find that it helps manage stress and helped me gain a sense of direction. Zoe’s guidance is a blessing.”
With such an eclectic groups of writers in Zoe’s class, one never knows what will be presented from week to week.
One writer, Charles Talib Brooks’ story, “A Summer of Love In the Haight of San Francisco,” exemplifies what is right about drawing the reader into the piece. Brooks’ fictional description of his birth in the backseat of a taxi cab in 1967 (read by fellow writer Kevin D. Sawyer) is incredibly poignant. His story captures the smells, sounds, music, troubles and tumult of the late 1960s.
“I am honored to be a student in Zoe’s class,” said Brooks. “I can practice my craft with projects like—‘A Summer of Love In the Haight of San Francisco’— which is my first, near completed novel.”
Fictional tales, journalistic accounts, poetry, memoirs, and spirited conversations can all be heard in Zoe’s Wednesday night creative writing class. Critiquing by the students of one another’s articles is often decisive and brutally honest. The Creative Writing Classes’ operation is not only an imperative place of learning, it is an organized think-tank, enhanced by Zoe’s ability to create an atmosphere of learning with quintessential prison overtones.
Artist/writer Tommy Winfrey’s story “City of Angeles” is of one period which may have influenced the rest of his life. As an eight year old boy moving from Beaumont Texas to Los Angeles, he recounts stops along the way. His description of small town Texas is detailed right down to the “freakish fluorescent lights casting shadows on the shifty underbelly of the city.” The story concludes in Los Angeles where he described, “The boy had entered the jungle and there was no more looking back.” It’s a story many prisoners can relate to in hindsight.
Winfrey is a dedicated member of Zoe’s Creative Writing Class and has become a prolifi c contributor to the San Quentin News. He attributes a great deal of his writing ability to lessons learned in Zoe’s class.
Weeks before the Creative Writing Classes Annual Public Reading, writers spend an enormous amount of time going over their projects. Last minute tweaking is essential in order to present a polished piece of work to the public. Zoe takes great pride in her students accomplishments and praises the hard work of all. These public reading events fuel confidence and encouragement that stimulates and motivates them.
One outside guest, Andrew Parsons from National Public Radio said, “I think it’s great what these men have accomplished. I’m impressed with what I’ve heard here today. I feel all writing from inside the prison system is important.”
Aly Tamboura’s “Where the Sparrows Scream,” is a written dream sequence about his decision to save his father from “a ferocious ascending sparrow” that was more like a pterodactyl during this life-like dream. “Wiping the sweat from my brow with my right hand, I hurtled the spear with my other, mustering all of my might, aiming at the giant bird’s body,” wrote Tamboura in a realistic description of his reverie.
“I’ve decided to write and move into a new territory in the infinite power of the written word,” said Tamboura, who is a long time member of the Creative Writing Class.
Like clockwork, Wednesday at 5:30pm, writers from all over San Quentin, including H-Unit fi le into the Arts In Corrections classroom on the “upper yard.” Zoe greets them one by one as they arrive. A large circle of chairs is formed and the weekly readings begin.
Arnulfo Garcia is Editor-inChief of the San Quentin News. His contribution to the public reading was the accidental death (by car) of their family dog named Blackie. It is a tense, non-fiction story about him and his two brothers fearing their father’s reaction to the news of Blackie’s death. It wasn’t pretty. His father beat Arturo with a belt in the car on the way home, while young Arnulfo was crying, trying to hide behind his older brother. “He was pissed, and we were scared. We tried to explain what happened, but he didn’t seem to be listening.”
Garcia’s powerful story concluded, “It has taken me many years, but I still don’t seem to understand how someone could have such deeper feelings for his dog than his children.”
The day before the public reading, writer Emile DeWeaver prepared for Saturday’s big read. “This read is very important to me. In other prisons, I felt socially crippled, unable to communicate with free-world people. San Quentin enabled me to resocialize myself. I have that opportunity in San Quentin, especially in Zoe’s Class,” said DeWeaver.
DeWeaver’s anthology contribution was “Superman,” an attention grabbing fictional story of a boy finding comfort in a small Superman action fi gure given to him. It was like one he had when he was six. “The day my mother had bought it for me, a grin had swelled my cheeks and misted my eyes,” wrote DeWeaver. “I had idolized Superman, and what wasn’t there to worship? Speeding bullets, burning rockets, and getaway cars bounced right off him…”
One by one, members of Zoe’s class took the podium, each with a personal writing style as diverse as their stories. Among them were: Eric Curtis, Jeffrey Little, Kenneth R. Brydon, Kimya, Thomas, Micheal “Yahya” Cooke, David Taylor, Andrew Gazzeny, Ivan Skrblinski, Jerome Powell, Sr., Kevin D. Sawyer, Paul Stauffer, N. “Noble” Butler, James R. Metters, Jr., Jamal Green, A. Kevin Valvardi, Julian Glen Padgett, and Ronald L. Koehler.
Zoe told the San Quentin News, “Even though I had heard all the readings before, I was stirred by each student’s presentation. I was moved, as always, by the sparks of connection between the invited guests and the prisoners receiving them with hospitality, with something to offer. There is such a disconnect in our society between the people in prison and the people not in prison.”
There was a lot of excitement in the room after the event. Guest Patricia Clark told the San Quentin News, “What a wonderful reading this has been. I absolutely enjoyed all the writers and their work. They are enthusiastic and extremely talented,” she said.
Watani Stiner, author/reader of “No Where to Run, No Where to Hide” said, “This is my seventh reading presentation as a student in Zoe’s class. Nothing is more spiritually rewarding and healing than humans coming together and sharing stories.”
“I know the answers are not simple, but I believe wholeheartedly that we all need to continue to see each other as human beings. We put people in prison for their failures to treat others with the respect and dignity all human beings deserve, and I think it is an offense if society does the same in return. So I am a big believer in people being face to face with each other in all our complexity,” said Zoe.