San Quentin News staffer, Kevin D. Sawyer received an honorable mention by PEN America. Out of thousands of submission annually, it’s a big deal in the prison literary world.
JH: What does getting an honorable mention by PEN America mean to you?
KDS: PEN America’s honorable mention raises my creative writing profile to a national level, in addition to the same type of recognition I’ve received for writing as a journalist through the Society of Professional Journalists and receiving The James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism. It’s always encouraging to receive recognition. It means I’m probably doing something right.
JH: What inspired Triple Sessions?
KDS: The start of football season always makes me look back at the years I played high school football. I was reading a couple books about football a few years ago and they made me recall the science behind the game. It made me think about the days in the summer when we practiced three times a day. It was like boot camp, but there was so much more involved. Only a boy who’s played multiple seasons of high school football can understand what it was to have been a member on a football team and all it took to be a part of that team. It’s like solider who goes through basic training and combat, you’ll always remember that—hopefully more good than bad. But, in the end, it was never about the sport, it was about the life lesson of teamwork.
JH: How does the inspiration for the story fit into how you see yourself today as opposed to then?
KDS: I realize even more today how important it is to be a team player— because none of us are in this world alone, because we’re interdependent on each other.
JH: Talk about the patriarchal perspective in that boys don’t cry — specifically when you broke your finger and you didn’t quit or tell anyone so that you could stay on the field.
KDS: It was part of the thinking of that time, and it’s probably still the thinking today. Boys are generally taught by men to be tough. Tears were a sign of weakness was the underlying message. But that was part of the psychology coaches used to keep us focused on what was important, and that was the team and the game. It’s why I tried to push through practice with a shattered finger. But as a man more than 40 years removed from that experience, it’s easier to understand why it was necessary to condition young men to operate that way. But it wasn’t about weakness or the game, none of that. It was about life. That’s what we were preparing for.
JH: Talk about violence being part of the game.
KDS: People tend to put violence in one bucket, like it’s all negative. Sometimes we fail to look at violence as part of American football, wrestling, MMA, basketball being a contact sport, even soccer or rugby, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad thing, as long as it’s controlled. When you can control your violence like in sports, that’s the ultimate self-control. Somewhere in the story, I wrote that violence in football has to be tempered with discipline. In a way, it makes sense because we’re all animals, but as men we have the ability to think at a higher level. Because of that, we can change our behavior. A lot of people don’t learn that, but that’s what a good coach teaches. They also teach us to not quit. Never. No matter what. Even if the score is 44 to nothing, we’re taught to play hard the full game. Vince Lombardi once said, “I never lost a football game, I just ran out of time.”
JH: Talk about three of your writings that best describe your style.
KDS: My writings pose the classic “Man verses State” scenario, sort of Kafkaesque. I try to push people to think, generally from a political perspective. In my creative writing class, I’ve also written The Award Winner’s Idiom and Power Distribution. Both deal with men facing state- sanctioned psychological and physical violence. My characters try to slow the state’s gradual march toward totalitarianism. That’s what all the movements are about today. If someone doesn’t come away with something profound to think about from my characters’ point of view, what’s the point in writing?
JH: Do you know what story you’re going to submit to PEN this year?
KDS: I’m thinking of submitting a memoir-based story my sister encouraged me to write about the struggle of two African-Americans earning their college degree. That’s a recurring theme in our community, but it’s an important subject when you consider our history in this country.