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Book Excerpt – By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives (Judith Tannenbaum and Spoon Jackson)

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Community Arts Network Reading Room

By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives” by Judith Tannenbaum and Spoon Jackson (Oakland, New Village Press, April 2010)

Judith Tannenbaum and Spoon Jackson met at San Quentin State Prison in 1985 while Tannenbaum was teaching writing classes for prisoners. They have corresponded and sometimes collaborated ever since, producing, as this book’s publisher New Village Press puts it, “very different bodies of work resting on the same understanding: that human beings have one foot in darkness, the other in light.” For me, the book puts a finger, tenderly, on the essence of what is so vital about art for social change – the kind of change that happens in the soul. — Linda Frye Burnham, Community Arts Network

This excerpt, by Spoon Jackson, is from Chapter Two.

Chapter Two: In SilenceIndian summer at San Quentin and the sweet sun brings back the times I ran the dry river with the greyhound dogs and lay under the heavy black railroad bridge as the trains rumbled across, shaking the soft sands. In those times, I watched the shadows of the railcars dart by, and when night fell on a hot day, played kick-the-can in pure desert darkness. There were no street lights on Crooks Street when I was a boy.

A boy with no one to listen becomes a man in prison for life and discovers his mind can be free. A woman enters prison to teach and becomes his first listener. And so begins a 25-year friendship between two gifted writers and poets. The result is “By Heart” — a book that will anger you, give you hope and break your heart. — Gloria Steinem

My skin feels warm and alive this San Quentin September, as though I am a lizard sunning on a big rock. Instead I wear prison blues — shirt, pants, coat — plus brown high-top boots and dark shades, the coat and the shades I put on whenever I am outside the cell. I sit in my spot on the winding metal stairs of the San Quentin education building and see Judith bouncing down the steps from the Arts-in-Corrections office. I notice her healthy pale skin, (to read more go to the Community Arts Network Reading Room).

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Written by Jeffrey Callen

March 24, 2010 at 3:14 pm

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