Sojourner House, Fall 2018

Our first session was September 20th. The women had a great energy and excitement for our creative writing class. We read “self-portrait with dirty hair” from Safia Elhillo’s The January Children. We talked about the chapbook that will be created at the end of the term. Some women wanted to have pseudonyms rather than publish under their own name. The next week we did a humor class. We read  “The Fourth State of Matter” by Jo Ann Beard and listened to a selection from Tig Notaro’s “Live” album. The subject was the intersection of tragedy and humor. Usually, for comedy, the formula is Tragedy + Time = Humor. But in life, we find that this formula is reductive to the way people experience trauma. In some cases, no amount of time will make something more or less funny. Therefore, we wanted to teach the women techniques for writing about issues that could be perceived as funny when given the attention.

On October 4th we had two guests at Sojourner House: M. Evalina Galang and Safia Elhillo, who also read at Chatham that evening. Sheryl St. Germain had provided books for the women at Sojourner the week before the visit. We suggested to the women that they try to read at least some selections of the books so that they would have questions ready for Galang and Elhillo. It turned out that most of them had read the books from cover to cover, could not put them down. When our guests arrived, the excitement was evident. Each of the writers told the class something about how her book came into being, what she was influenced by and wanted to accomplish. Each writer read excerpts from her book, and then opened the class up for questions.

There was a discussion about The January Children, in which the subject of using Arabic in the poems was brought up. Some of the women wished they could have looked up words, but they don’t have internet access. Others said it was okay not to understand everything. Many of them wanted to know how long it took Galang to write Lola’s House, and how she learned another language. Both writers are “bi-cultural,” and have roots in other countries. Therefore, the subject of understanding and not understanding language was an important one for both writers, and for the class at Sojourner to investigate. Everyone in the class felt privileged to be in the company of two such accomplished women, and all were inspired by their presence and by their work. Sheryl was there to introduce the two women, and Dmitra Inteuse-Gideon came along to observe. It was standing room only! We again want to thank Evalina Galang and Safia Elhillo for being so generous with their time and sharing their work with us, and thanks to Sheryl St. Germain for providing books for everyone. There was a book-signing at the end of class. New incoming students are now asking for copies of the book, because the women who have read these books are passionate about them.

By Shawna Kent & Sam Smith, Chatham University MFA candidates & Words Without Walls co-teachers.

Sharing the Work

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It's hard to believe this will be my fifth formal reading. This semester was plagued with a series of setbacks that led to many classes being cancelled, but since my class followed a more routine high school schedule, the juvenile class still had plenty of work to submit to the chapbook. Since we spent a large portion of the class writing about freedom, I asked them to submit potential chapbook covers that would encapsulate the creative work inside. 

The top photo was created by two classmates. The first student created the bubble letters, and the second student had the brilliant idea of making both o's into broken handcuffs. (Don't worry, we photoshopped the apostrophe error!)

The second submission was less informative and much more artistic, done by another student:

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I'm never surprised by the talents of my students. Honestly, they are much more creative than I ever was in high school. Seeing the fruits of their creative labor always gives me mixed emotions. It's such a treat to see them express themselves, but I am often saddened by the fact that their minds are constantly in a state of stress, that their opportunities for creative expression are limited, and confined within the walls of the jail. One of the best things about this program is our power to take the work of our students and share it with communities beyond the jail. It's such an honor to carry our student work, to flash chapbooks at literary events and conferences, and read their words in places our students could never have imagined. 

Back to Day One

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I'm finding it hard to believe I'm almost done with my two years of teaching at the Allegheny County Jail. The first day I showed up to meet the juvenile class, I felt completely out of my league. I really wasn't sure if I had what it took to teach creative writing. Two years later, I never want to stop. I made so many genuine connections with these kids, and we encouraged each other with the power of writing. 

One kid, I'll call him M, was kind of a class clown my first semester of teaching. Their classroom teacher warned me that he was known to distract other kids. And the first semester, he never really participated, and sometimes made fun of the kids who did. But that ended quickly after he saw the first formal reading. When he realized he could perform and everyone would clap for him, his attitude completely changed. Now, he volunteers to read in front of the class, and writes actively in response to every writing prompt. 

Two weeks ago, we had a Haiku workshop, and he wrote some pretty incredible poems, all of which will be published in this year's chapbook. I wanted to share some of his poems with you all:

The handcuffs snapped on

my hands, constricted like snakes.

The court took my soul.

 

The root of life is:

the difference from right and wrong.

Which one will you choose?

 

On my way to court

feels like walking on eggshells,

Devil on my back.

Those are just a few of the incredible poems I've received from these kids so far this semester. I was telling the teachers at the jail how impressed I was with the education program. The classes are fairly small, no more than eight kids to a teacher. These kids are getting more one-on-one attention than they've probably received in the majority of grade school. They are so vibrant and intelligent, and it really pains me to know that some of them may spend the next ten or twenty years of their life in prison. Writing is such a powerful tool, and I'm so grateful i've had the opportunity to engage with these kids, and help them share their voices.  

Green Light, Yellow Light, Red Light

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I’m lucky. Having your classes canceled at the jail is always a possibility. If there is a lockdown, if there are not enough officers to cover the adult classrooms, a class can always be cut. One adult men’s class this semester has already been canceled four times. On Monday, my class was canceled for the first time this semester. I’m hoping to start energized and fresh next week.

I miss the women already. In our first class, at the beginning of January, we opened by playing green-light/yellow-light/red-light (credit to Sarah Shotland). In the icebreaker, the class takes turns voicing varying degrees of personal information. A green light is something you don’t mind telling everyone (“I love Teddy Pendergrass.”). A yellow light delves deeper—something about you only a few people know (“I wish I were skinnier.”). But a red light is something you may have only told God. As a lone male teacher, it didn’t feel right—especially in the first class—to nudge the women to reveal their darkest secrets. Plus, we just didn’t have time to go that deep. You need time to run such an emotional lap, time for silence, time to grab Kleenex. Instead, we talked yellow and green.

I asked all the students to write down their red light but not to share it. They isolated the feeling that arose from the red-light. I led them through imagining that feeling—shame, guilt, anger—as a physical object. The students composed excellent poems based on the exercise. Two students envisioned anvils for their objects. The object of course did not have to be heavy. It could have been light as a tooth, soft as a feather. For these two students, the emotion weighed them down to the floor. I never asked any of the women to disclose their original secrets, and in fact, I discouraged it. However, a few did share. I won’t go into those details, but my heart twists whenever a student shares an intense personal story to which I can’t relate. I’m not a parent. I haven’t been married. But I can be honest about not sharing those experiences. I can offer a willing ear.

We opened another class with dialogue from Macbeth. One student, Kaylan, described Lady Macbeth as “passionate and treacherous.” Pretty accurate. In another class, we talked spoken word and Danez Smith. Dionne spit two of her own poems that she’d memorized.

I’m lucky to have such consistency this term and to have such involved students. I know they’ll be writing this week during lockdown. The closed doors won’t dim their creative spirits.

—Cedric Rudolph, Words Without Walls Teacher

The Joy of Sharing Truths

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At our first class this term, a woman came in late with her tiny baby. She had only arrived at Sojourner House at the end of last semester. She participated in the final public reading, but as she had no material of her own, she read a poem written by a woman who graduated before the term ended. It turned out the poem expressed something relevant to her. She felt it was fate. Now, she has the opportunity to attend the class for spring term. As our first session was wrapping up she said “I’m not a writer, but I heard the writings of the women last fall and I was inspired.” She was excited to become a part of the program.

From one point of view, what’s not to like about a writing class? Ever. Anywhere. I can’t imagine anyone not loving the opportunity, particularly in the context of difficult life situations. Women sometimes ask us at the end of class: are you coming back next week? I’m never 100% sure that they are asking because they hope we will, or hope we won’t.  But I like to think, and I tend to think, they want us back. When we go around the room and hear each woman read, they are writers. The strength of their voices, their body language, their focus, tell us that they are present in that moment with a determination and an identity outside and beyond and yet because of their personal setbacks. Whatever else they are going through, you can see a kind of joy that comes from the language of sharing truths.  Creating with written words has a power and a transcendence. You feel the bonds forming in that process. As a group, the energy is positive, supportive, sometimes sad, often light; and it is definitely a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. And yet, each part is great enough.  

-Shawna Kent, Words Without Walls Teacher