Way of the Master

Confucius. The 6th Century philosopher and teacher isn’t a hot topic for twenty-somethings nowadays. But for Steve, a twenty-something student in my Words Without Walls class at Allegheny County Jail, Confucius is important. He’s brought up Confucius every class. I hate to admit that even though he’s asked me to bring in Confucius quotes, I’ve forgotten for the past two classes. So when he asks again today, totally off topic from the Jamaica Kincaid story we’re reading, out of curiosity or frustration, I ask, “I don’t have any quotes today, but do you have a favorite quote you could recite for us?” Steve responds with his signature smirk, pauses, then says, “It’s something like ‘When one rules by the means of virtue he is like the North Star. All other stars pay homage to him.” That quote is awesome, of course. And I tell him and ask him to tell us what he thinks it means. It means wisdom is important, he says, and there are lots more where that came from.

Steve’s rep proceeds him. When I finally type up a page of Confucius quotes and bring them to class, he’s being held up on his pod for a minor infraction. The other students don’t seem surprised that he’s gotten himself in trouble. “Typical Steve” seems to be the look on the other students’ faces. But there’s nothing typical about Steve. There’s nothing “typical” about any of the men in my class. One minute they’re remembering hard theft from their past, the next they’re spinning metaphors and telling me, “Don’t just say my poem is good. What do I need to fix?” But none of us are typical, for that matter. I defy people’s expectations all the time. Being Black and Southern are just two descriptors that people use to turn me into a stereotype.

I research Confucius. He was a man who dedicated his life to learning, to teaching others various arts. Archery to music. Confucius also held poetry in high regard. Steve darkens his notebook with ink, responding immediately to any prompt my teaching partner, Mike, and I give him. Student and teacher alike can only get better by practice. If Steve lived in 6th Century China, Confucius would have gladly taken him in, teaching him the virtuous ways but also laughing along with Steve’s perfectly timed jokes.

--Cedric Rudolph, Words Without Walls Teacher

Looking Forward

The Sojourner House Spring Reading is today!  Here's a reflection from Aspen, one of our teaching artists at the Sojourner House:

"Looking Forward"

“I haven’t written since twelfth grade,” a woman says last Thursday morning. It’s the last ten minutes of class and we are sharing our work. She sits at the corner of our oblong rectangle, dark hair pulled up in a ponytail. Every few minutes, she twists her head to the side and coughs. This is her first day joining us for creative writing at the Sojourner House.

Like many people returning to the pen, her statement serves as a pre-apology for the product of ten minutes with ink pressed to page. It’s a thin veil that implies the lies we addicts tell ourselves: I’m not good enough; My words aren’t worth hearing; I have nothing to say; I’m for wasting your time. It’s an apology I recognize because I use it too.

When she starts reading, though, it’s immediately apparent this woman is a writer; her voice rises to emphasize, pauses to linger. She keeps us perched on our chairs. We lean forward to listen.

It’s a poem about the sacrifice of birth, how she’s grateful for the scar on her stomach for it bares testimony to her sacrifice and love for her baby. It is also a poem about loss.

By the final line, her voice cracks, and a tear glistens from her eye. She lets the small piece of paper float from her hand to the table. The room erupts in accolades.  

“You gave me the chills,” the woman sitting next to her says.

“Really?” she asks, genuinely astonished. She looks back at her paper as though attempting to solve a mystery, to see something she at first did not see. “I just miss my baby,” she says.

Next Thursday is our last class for spring. And I wonder: who will keep writing? I want to believe that this tribe of writers will beat the odds. Claim redemption. And never again, have the urge to self-damage.

But that’s not my job here. I must maintain clarity between my past and present, recovering addict and teacher. As is often said in the Words Without Walls program, we aren’t claiming to save lives. I just hope these women know they don’t have to apologize for their stories; that instead, they realize the beauty of their wisdom.

Spring Reading

Our classes at ACJ celebrated their work at our formal spring reading this morning.  Topics ranged from broken hearts, to fishing, to fatherhood.  The men's thursday class kicked things off, followed by the men's friday class, the women's monday class, and the juveniles finished things off with a several energetic songs.

For us teachers, it was one of many proud moments. The smiles we get after handing out certificates are priceless, as is the elation of an audience clapping their hands for their classmates.   Yet, as all of us learned, the magic is not only in the finished product.  We learn so much from our students every week.  We hear incredible stories and make strides in tiny moments.  

Sadly, this was the final reading for several of our teachers.  Here's to Rachel, Karen, Kellyn, and Michelle, for their hard work and dedication to this program over the last two years. For some of us, this is only the beginning.  Summer classes kick off the first week of June!

Next up is our fundraiser and reading from the Maenads on April 13th.  We'll be celebrating the work of an amazing group of women in our first year of this new program, as well as reading a few pieces from the last year of our men's program at SCI Pittsburgh.  If you haven't yet, register here: https://www.chatham.edu/events/details.cfm?eventID=18126 or feel free to donate the price of admission for someone who can't afford a ticket. 


Tickets Available for April 13th Fundraiser

We are very excited to announce that tickets have just gone on sale for our fundraising event on April 13th Irma Freeman Center for the Imagination.  The event is part art exhibit, part poetry reading.Our maenad fellows have worked all semester creating broadsides of their creative work.  We're also making unique prints of select works from our students at SCI Pittsburgh.   These men wrote ekphrastic poems and prose from Mark Perrot's collection of photographs, E Block, which will also be on display next to our students' framed work!  Prominent Pittsburgh artists will read work from SCI writers, while the Maenads will read their own work.

Broadsides and chapbooks will be on sale throughout the evening, but there is limited space for this event!

There are several ways to participate:

$30 VIP Tickets. Includes admission, broadside & chapbook.

$20: Admission Ticket.

$20: Angel Admission. Your purchase of an angel ticket will allow someone who can't afford a ticket to attend in your place.

Tickets are available at: https://www.chatham.edu/events/register/?EventID=18126

If you cannot attend, or simply would like to donate, you can always MAKE A GIFT

Again, space is limited, so act now and reserve your spot!  

Chapbook Season

It's chapbook season, here at Words Without Walls!  We've been busy with in-class revision, getting reading to submit work to print in the chapbook. The formal reading is only two weeks away. 

I thought I'd share a short poem with you all from one of our students in the Thursday men's class, J. Myers.  J. has come to class with great work throughout the semester, and he's also shown tremendous progress with his writing. This piece isn't going in the chapbook, but he gave us permission to share it here, with you all.  Thanks for reading!

"God Is Real"

So you really think the Sun, moon, and stars came from a big bang.

I wouldn’t buy that for a few dollars and some pocket change.

Maybe you think some alien’s kids are playing some big game,

On this field called a planet with little earthlings.

The body, brain, and heart should at least be some signs,

That all of this couldn’t have just popped up at one point in time.

I rather believe in something and be right,

Than believe in nothing and be wrong.

Cuz if you’re right you have everything to gain,

and if you’re wrong you have nothing to lose, maybe just your soul.

This is no debate don’t be confused it’s out of your control.

But we all have freewill when it comes to our destiny and goals!

Cause life is a gift and death is no surprise,

God is real, God is real, it’s not too late to realize!

--J. Myers