Each week for the last two months, I’ve had the pleasure to teach creative writing to fourteen men incarcerated at Faribault State Correctional Facility, a medium security prison about an hour south of the Twin Cities. As with the other classes I’ve taught in prison, it’s been an incredible experience to work with a group of writers who are so committed to their work and so eager to learn and discuss elements of craft.
This class was a little different from the ones I’ve taught in the past, primarily because it was focused on more experienced writers, several of whom have many years of writing experience. While I continued to choose our readings and give personalized feedback on student work, the fact that several of the students have been writing for a long time has changed the classroom dynamic somewhat, in that I felt more comfortable ceding some of the responsibility for facilitating the class to the students themselves. One of the best parts of this experience was watching them supporting one another, praising and critiquing each others’ work. I was constantly learning from them, as well: every classroom discussion of a story or essay or poem brought to light something that I had never noticed or appreciated before.
The dialogue between students was especially fruitful because this class did not focus on one particular genre, but touched on elements of poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction. Some students worked entirely in a single genre, but many branched out and tried something new. One student, who focuses primarily on song-writing and slam poetry, wrote and revised a beautiful short story; another student, who is working on a memoir, turned his attention to poetry for a few weeks before combining elements of both genres in a moving and thoughtful lyric essay. The students said that this “cross-pollination,” as they put it, gave them a greater appreciation for work in other genres and added some zest to the conversation.
Last week, on the last day of class, each writer stood in front of the room and read aloud from a polished piece that he had been working on. It was a powerful experience to listen to them present writing that they had labored over and of which they felt proud.
Many people in our country, including President Obama, are beginning to pay more attention to issues of mass incarceration and to point out that the way we treat people who are incarcerated is often profoundly dehumanizing. I’ve never been more convinced about the value of working in prison and attempting to counteract their dehumanizing influence through artistic self-expression. After the final class at Faribault, we shook hands and said our goodbyes. Many of them thanked me for coming into the prison to teach. I thanked them, as well, because I’m sure I learned as much as any of the students did and because the experience of teaching in prison is humanizing for me, too.
I’m very grateful to the Human Rights Program for providing the support that made these classes possible. Now that I’ve finished with the teaching portion of my fellowship, I will turn my attention to writing. I’m happy to have another month before classes begin to work on an essay about my experiences and the importance of arts education in prison more generally. I will also be helping to organize a public reading of student work, which will take place at the end of October.
-By Mike Alberti, 2015 Human Rights Scribe