Teaching creative writing to prisoners.
What is the program at the Pen?
It’s not really a program. It’s not like some kind of program was set in place down there by the system. More or less, it’s something that I’ve been wanting to do for a while—just go down and teach creative writing. I’ve been down there for readings and such in the past couple of years and just thought that it would be nice to come down and have my own version of a creative writing class with that element of our society, you know?
When did you go there for readings?
I think I was down there twice. During Peg Norman’s municipal campaign and also for her federal campaign. [She was running for the NDP]
How did it all start, the creative writing thing?
It started with the readings. At the time it was an idea that I tossed out there, and, of course, Gerry Rogers [a local filmmaker] got a hold of it then and she called me up and said she’d really like to film something like that. I let her sit on the idea, and then suddenly her schedule allowed for another film. She got the ball rolling, I just went along with it. Then suddenly I was actually down there, doing it. She’s filmed every class.
How has it been going?
It’s been personally challenging, I guess. And really rewarding at the same time. It’s been a real eye-opener. I started off with twelve guys and due to time and circumstance I’m now down to six. Some guys got released, some guys got transferred, and I’m liable to go down there on Thursday and a unit might be locked down and that might mean four guys from my class might be there, or a guy might be in the hold for different reasons.
You know, you see guys going along so great and getting really involved and coming outta their shells… being really productive in their writing… Then you come down and you find out that they are in the hold for really, really serious reasons. Know what I mean?
How is it rewarding for you?
These are guys that have never written before, who just expressed an interest, and they’ve got that new energy, you know.
There are guys in this program that I have come to really care about and connect with and believe that I would be real good friends with, probably, in another life or in other circumstances.
…At the end of the day I was thinking about it, there are some guys down there who really fucked up and there are some guys down there who really really fucked up. And there’s a fine line between you and them, and sometimes the only line is the fact that they’re locked up and you’re not. I’ve heard some of their stories, well I’ve heard all of their stories in great detail, and it is alarming how close it was for me, and how close it still is for me. Everybody, and not just for HMP, but probably for nearly every prison across Canada… it is drug and alcohol related. Ninety percent of it is drug and alcohol related…
Is it just that they were with the wrong people at the wrong time, or doing the wrong thing at the wrong time?
No, I wouldn’t want to discredit them by saying something like that, some kind of blank statement… They are the wrong guys at the wrong time. And I mean that in a funny way—the most humorous way possible. No, there’s not a lot of ‘followers’ in my class.
And how is it being a teacher of not-followers?
I don’t know what it is, or why, but they seem to have given themselves over to me, for the most part. Some days I walk out of there wondering, “what in the name of Christ have I gotten myself into?” and “what is actually being said when somebody is telling me something?” I try to filter it all and try to go back fresh; to develop a level of familiarity that enables us be communicate on a certain level.
How long will you do the course for?
It was supposed to be a twelve-week course, but because there have been a few setbacks I might just carry it on into the first week of April or so. It’s supposed to end in the last Thursday of March. Now it feels like, fuck, it’s taken so long to just dig in, and understand who’s who, and who’s gonna take it seriously, that skinning out now feels like you would be abandoning them.
But I guess that’s the nature of it. Fact is, I can walk away and that’s my date and a lot of them still have a long time to serve.
The offences they’re in for, how serious are they?
If you are down there, locked up, no matter what you’ve done is serious enough to warrant that. But by the time you’re down there, there are different levels of security for individuals based on your background, based on how vulnerable they are within the prison system. And you know a lot of other things are taken into account like their emotional state, their mental well being, you know? I guess people are judged based on their security risk. A couple of guys from my class, a few weeks into my class, were transferred to the kitchen, which was great, because it brought to light that they were considered a lower security risk. There are other guys who would never get to work in the kitchen.
In your play “Say Nothing Saw Wood” the lead character was reflecting back on his life after jail. Have your experiences with the course changed your ideas about prison?
He mentions at some point that he could talk about prison if he wanted to. But I kind of, you know, felt like when I was writing that, that it was a whole other story to talk about that aspect of his life. I tried it out a few times but moved back into the immediate story. I am developing that now, further, that manuscript.
How about the writing the inmates are doing—what will happen with that?
The ideal end result would be to gather up enough material with the guys to compile an anthology. I’m editing it as we go along. I’ve got a lot of material for it now, but it’s very difficult to do any one-on-one work with anybody in there. So what’s been going on is, I’ve been giving out general assignments—writing ideas—with the hopes that the guys will come back with something written. Most often than not they do. Sometimes somebody’s had a hard week so they don’t get to it.
A couple of real writers have emerged from the group and I’m just compiling the material. They’re all writing by hand and I am transcribing it onto the computer and rearranging. Minimalist editing. I’ll rearrange if a sentence doesn’t make sense, you know, to clean it up as best I can. And I’ll bring that printed page back to them, with a note attached, about how best to proceed. Because the most important aspect of the writing, is the re-writing of it.
How do they feel when they see it typed up?
They really like it. It’s really rewarding to them. It’s become a piece of writing, you know? It’s almost like they printed something off and sent it to be published, and back it came, published!
Some of the guys do a lot of rewriting and some of them just don’t bother with it.
Like some writers?
Now we’re trying to troll the prison system for an illustrator for the cover. We’re going to have a contest or something for somebody to design the cover.