For the past 15 years, writing instructor Zoe Mullery has spent each Wednesday night in a small, crowded room listening to and commenting on stories written by San Quentin inmates.
The inmates, called Brothers in Pen, produce a variety of works, including memoirs, science fiction, short stories and urban novels.
“There’s something that happens in this room that’s dear to me,” Mullery says of her weekly workshops.
On one recent Wednesday, Annie Rovzar, a University of San Francisco (USF) creative writing instructor, and her students joined the Brothers in Pen.
Rovzar said when she discovered Mullery’s workshop she thought an interaction between her students and Brothers in Pen would be constructive.
Alexandra, a USF student, said when she heard about the prison’s writing workshop, she “wanted to come here and share with you guys.” Alexandra, a communications major, explained, “I took creative writing because it’s something I like doing.”
“Hopefully we can learn something from you, and you can learn something from us,” said inmate James Metters, who has been in Mullery’s workshop for about a year and a half.
Shira Steinberg took the USF creative writing class because she says, “It’s the one place I can be honest,” adding that she wants to become a child sociologist.
The students and inmates took turns reading their work, with all the participants commenting. The back and forth continued until everyone had read.
The USF students read pieces from a class assignment that required them to reflect on a significant memory.
USF student Paul read “My First Car Accident,” a childhood memory about being the victim of a hit-and-run driver. He wrote, “I remember the air being still that day. I heard the sudden drift of the tires.” His vivid recall of the event left the class asking if he fully recovered physically from the accident. He said, “Yes, I even play basketball now.”
Mitchell Fryer has been in Mullery’s Creative Writing Workshop for about six months. He read “Some People,” a poem about self-identification through comparing and contrasting life from his perspective. Fryer also read “What Would It Take,” about the trials and tribulations of living a hard life.
USF student Shelby Black read “Well Child,” a poem that reflects how she sees life. It instructs readers not to take life too seriously, keep a level head and live freely. “Buy shoes you’ll never wear, and stop texting me and talk to me.” Black is a journalism student and writes for The Foghorn, the college newspaper.
Ron “Coach” Koehler read two poems. “Fear,” which is reminiscent of Franz Kafka’s obscure tension between man and the state, as one line read: “science has disappeared into fiction.” He also read a piece that connected pre-prison life with his current prison life.
USF student, Kevin read “World Pool.” Kevin’s words brought to mind the simple act of making tea, e.g., a steaming pot and swirling leaves. However, the words transformed the tea making process into a human character being swirled into a hypnotic, drug-like state.
“World Pool” took me to an unexpected place in literature,” an inmate said.
Inmate Paul Stauffer read a poem “Hollywood Dream.” His words, “Worshiping themselves who never was,” point out the falsity and sham in the lives of Los Angeles socialites.
Steinberg wrote about her days of overcoming panic attacks through “I Remember.” The inmates were visibly moved as they listened to her internal struggle and pain. “I felt really empowered to continue writing. The Brothers in Pen were very supportive, so it made me realize that you are never alone, even if you think you are.”
Jasmine read “First Memory,” recalling what fear looks like for a child. The piece focused on overcoming pain and getting back to the state of childhood innocence. In her fear, she wrote, “I remember trying to make myself as small as possible. I remember feeling confused. I remember starting the next morning like nothing had happened.”
After listening to the USF students, Rahsaan Thomas said, “What I’ve learned from hearing your stories is that inmates are not solely subjected to painful lives. Pain is universal.”
USF student Spencer read “I Remember You,” which was about his struggle with alcoholism. He stressed the importance of getting to step one. He wrote, “I found a conscious reason not to relapse and get back on track.”
One USF student read “Treasure,” a poem about self-imagery that advocates taking great pride in yourself by seeing yourself as a treasure. Another USF student read a poem that critically examined a consumer-based economy. “House of Hell” takes a walk in the city, recognizing the power of capitalism through consumption.
Inmate Justin “Clown” Medvin ended the event by reading “The Rose that Grew from Ash,” an expressive poem asserting life could be built from ruins.
“Coming to prison for the first time was a bit intimidating, said Gabe Nikias. “I emerged with a significantly changed perspective, making the seemingly obvious observation that even ‘criminals’ are pretty normal folks at heart.”
“No matter who you are, what you’ve seen or where you’re from, we all long to be recognized, appreciated and loved,” said USF student Elizabeth M. “I could tell it was a safe space for the Brothers in Pen to share their work and tell their stories.”
Rovzar and her colleague, Stephen Novotny, began a poetry workshop at San Quentin.
The Emergency for Emerging Forms of Life meets every Sunday from 5:30 to 8 p.m, May 4 through June 22.