When the young Scottish lad Scott J. Lawrie was introduced to the country’s most famous poet, Robert Burns, it was the beginning of his fondness for poetry. His introduction to American poetry came through the Beat movement. However, his connection to San Quentin came through an obscure poet who did time here—the late Ed “Foots” Lipman.
After Lawrie researched Lipman’s works, he published Only By Flashlight and sent a copy to Zoe Mullery, who holds a weekly creative writ- ing class at San Quentin. Only By Flashlight was reviewed in the March 2018 edition of SQN.
Lipman’s “deliberate and brutal honesty, wit, humor and intelligence” moved Lawrie.
He added, “I feel that a poet must leave part of them- selves on the page. No matter what the subject matter is, the reader will connect emotion- ally and that is what will bring people together and help people understand one another.”
Lipman’s poetry and what your research has revealed, describe your understanding of San Quentin, then and now.
Lawrie: My under- standing or first impression of San Quentin came to me in my early teens through Johnny Cash’s concert. I have listened to that album hundreds of times, especially during this project. Reading Lip- man, I developed a sense of its early injustices, its violence and solitude. This inspired me to find out more about how the prison is today. I discovered the wonderfully accomplished podcast Ear Hustle, which I have been promoting alongside the sales of the collection to help people have a deeper understanding of San Quentin and everything it is achieving.
My understanding now of the prison is that there seems to be a collective effort to better its inmates and to encourage art in all its forms. I recently watched the short film More Than Basketball (there’s a link to the film at www.san- quentinnews.com), I was truly moved and inspired by it. I have never played basketball; I have never been to prison, but I was touched by the humanity nonetheless. I hope that is what Lipman’s poetry can, for others, go some way to achieve.
Mullery: Did or does this affect the way you feel or think about prison and prisoners?
Lawrie: Before this project, I hadn’t given much thought to prison and prisoners. Which I suppose is the unofficial mis- sion statement of the system:
you don’t see them and you don’t have to worry. During the time I have been working on this project, I started to explore my own moral self. How was I in society? What was my place? Was I that ignorant? How did I feel about the justice system—about prisons and rehabilitation? This took a lot of time. I was torn creatively and morally. I was going to release a collection of poetry by a man who had broken the law. On the other hand, I was going to release a collection of poetry by a poet. I asked myself , “Can one man be both?” I think you can. I think the existence of his and many others’ poetry proves that you can. I think the existence of art in the most desperate of surroundings proves it. I came to the understanding that a man who is in prison has already been judged. I am not a judge.