POETRY UNDER LOCKDOWN
(A Response to Daniel Tiffany’s
“Speaking in Tongues: Poetry and the Residues of Shared Language”)
As I sit down to write something in response to Daniel Tiffany’s essay, “Speaking in Tongues,” we’re entering the isolating days of the Covid-19 crisis. News of exponential increases in the number of reported cases of Covid-19 flood the hourly news, whose regular headline, “America Under Lockdown,” has me thinking about the banalities of everyday metaphor and appropriated diction from the vantage point of the incarcerated writers with whom I work in the Writers’ Bloc, a poetry workshop that I organized eight years ago inside Women’s Huron Valley Prison (WHV) here in Southeast Michigan, and for whom “lockdown” is literal, a real material condition, and one that will certainly not protect them from the ravages of the virus, as inmates—many of whom are over sixty and have served twenty years or more—remain bunked together in overcrowded spaces under conditions that prohibit hygienic protocols, let alone basic health care.
So naturally I’m thinking about the specificities and the generalities of so-called “prison poetry”—the poem under lockdown—and the struggle over diction that incarcerated writers often navigate, given the competing stresses their work is subject to: institutional surveillance, on the one hand, and the expectations of familiar lyrical expression, on the other.
When a Writers’ Bloc poet writes of “football numbers,” referring to sentences of more than ten years, or the “high-priced tuna,” or “bitches and bagels,” or “Keefe needs to be shut down”—Keefe Group having a corporate monopoly on all commissary products and technology services in “correctional facilities” across the U.S.—the poem bears what Daniel might call an indexical trace of “submerged social identities,” and appears like a material artifact of the conditions within which the poem emerges. Such a poem also limns the horizon of reception toward which it might be directed, say, one of the poetry readings that we organize annually inside the prison, a cherished event that promotes and nourishes various forms of much-needed solidarity, among the poets themselves, with other prisoners and invited guests from outside. A poem bearing such a trace appears like a fossil of the present. It also willingly risks alienating readers whom the poet may wish to reach outside the prison walls, and whose attention is often thought to hang on familiar forms of identification with the prisoner’s universal humanness, or some such sentimental feel, as if prison conditions, and the folks struggling to subsist within them, were somehow transparent and accessible. At the same time, however, that risk is also an invitation to “overhear,” and thus participate in a way that solicits relation, which could be the first step toward solidarity.
Community-specific diction is just one way in which the poems written by Writers’ Bloc poets flirt with their opacities, at least to outside readers, while giving the nod to those inside. At the same time, a poem might seek to achieve a different kind of clarity, whose paradoxical obscurities—both to itself and to others—are born of familiar diction unfamiliarly used. As an example, here’s the first half of a poem called “Hermes Opens,” written by a Writers’ Bloc poet, named M:
Hermes opens parchment atmosphere.
Her alphabet showers etch letters
merging sonic rays to bionic pulse.
This code colors ions imbroglio.
Can you imbibe the sound a vacuous eye publicizes?
Tattooing space between jousting mechanical
appendages, we invoke climax
isochronally, demineralizing reason, our biofeedback
exalts involution in essence.
O venturer aboard the Empyrean Voyeurism
discoverer of rue!
Rhein + Tyro!
Discern my task. Know.
Mercury captured in bay
mad as a Bolshevik in carnival,
I scorn this bottomless shallow
a vortex of empty.
Now I have one foot out and one foot in
between the lines. The lines’
space echoes, distilled agitation.
The reverberation from a matrix
broken vows coagulate our blood stream ode.
Keep it if you will.
“Hermes Opens” offers an illustration of an obscure poem that enables relation rather than shutting it down. I’m reminded here of the New Narrative writer Camille Roy’s essay, “Under Grid: An Essay on Obscurity,” which, I should note, enthusiastically engages with Daniel’s wonderful book, Infidel Poetics. In it, Roy argues that “[r]ecognition imposes a coercive order, whereas obscurity is packed with relation: communal, sexual, political.” M.’s poem resists recognition, and in doing so, it repels the coercive orders of incarceration that overdetermine the poem’s location. “Recognition is extractive,” Roy goes on quite brilliantly, “[i]t removes what is recognized from its constitutive relations. Thus an instant of recognition creates an alien deformity which is experienced as clarity.” (I just love this formulation!) Rather than offer the reader a clear representation of its own incarcerated condition, “Hermes Opens” fortifies itself by way of semantic density, pressured syntax, and unexpected diction to resist the deformity of its immediate environment, a deformity too often represented as if absolutely clear, (just think of Orange is the New Black!). The poem thus creates a rather intense force field inside its verses, while strangely arousing—perhaps by virtue of its sonic pleasure and linguistic finesse—a desire in the reader to come closer, to “overhear” that which is withdrawn from hearing. And, in doing so, I would suggest, it offers an opening to a kind of solidarity that does not require understanding or identification as a precondition.
And here’s a fragment from another Writers’ Bloc poem, entitled, “My Howl,” by K:
THEY suffocate beneath hypothetical honor
novel youth staunch and vigor
downtrodden miscreants and mislead gospel twines
laudable arsenic and frivolous RAPE
With wall-eyed optimism and aromatic guises
creditable vermin create fatted shits
floating in a florid flush of narcotic vitality
that hoard stack and suspend
pulsating bassinets of maggot righteousness
Prejudice and perverse they exasperatingly glorify
baseless whitewashed justice forged and fetid in wickedness
yawning indolent and slothful
they pelt and stone
basting moral existence in stagnate comfort
Amass inept and pregnable admissions
balmy atrocities infecting intrinsic reproach and robust laceration
they wax and wane in contrary orbit
oscillate somber and contrive impotence or havoc
While K.’s poem makes a more explicit plea for solidarity, the strange densities of both these works create a formal tension between the poem’s opacity and its expressivity, a tension arguably inseparable from the lyric’s decisive refusal to submit to sanctioned codes of intelligibility, or, as Daniel puts it, “the tedium of the formulaic,” or “the maddening transparency of poetic kitsch,” in order to register something radically specific about its situation. And the resulting kind of obscurity, as Camille Roy says, “gives writing the freedom to manifest its own obscure condition.”
With New Narrative in mind, it’s but a short step to the specificities of a particular kind of queer cant (always slipping on camp), and this recalls Bruce Boone’s essay on Frank O’Hara, “Gay Language as Political Praxis,” which argues that O’Hara’s initial reception into the canon of twentieth-century poets by the likes of scholars like Marjorie Perloff and Helen Vendler came at the expense of O’Hara’s irreducible queerness, the way his poetry nourished an often obscure gay diction whose subtlety and nuance had social consequences and political implications having everything to do with community, exclusion, surveillance, and violence. For Boone,
O’Hara’s poems expressed an awareness of gay language and social life, and the poetry itself was fast becoming an occasion for community discussion of internal and external problems in gay newspapers and magazines. This discussion of O’Hara’s poems within the community, however, was effectively passed over by the official criticism. O’Hara’s poems became a language without syntax, or entertainment and gossip. But not gay language. And the sex poems are found to be “not very good.”
This evaluative statement directed at precisely those poems most pronouncedly bearing the material trace of the community that nourished them is telling, and underscores how the academy itself performs a policing function.
Much more recently, but closely related still, I just read Eric Sneathen’s collection of sonnets, I Fill This Room with the Echo of Many Voices (eyelet press, 2019), which, in Sneathen’s own words, “collages together materials related to the life and myth” of Gaétan Dugas, the Canadian airline steward who was identified as “Patient Zero” of the AIDS crisis, a story replete with sex and surveillance, community and cops. Sneathen’s sonnets “distill” (to use Audre Lorde’s term from “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” which we recently read in the Writers’ Bloc) a very specific queer language under intense pressure: “rimming water,” “jungles of sperm-fire,” “inward baths and corridors,” “the biggest slut that ever / was such a large trend,” “my nodes / like horses,” “patients under quarantine,” “my dick / like diamonds,” “I’m his ass engaged in seed, mouths fallen / slack,” “a roil of bathhouse mercury.”
But they did want to fuck, to look laid
On divans of body pouring onward,
To hear you’re the first for his next cock.
The Hispanic male was down his throat,
No gulping, no hallway for resting against
The wall, no slurping, no gagging, nothing.
The neoliberal discourse: to be more
Responsible in his mouth full of gyzym.
At no time was there physical contact
Of any kind. We were safe in that room.
Oh, there was booze everywhere, drugs
Everywhere speaking of sex. He pulls
Down his jockeys like a window screen.
Oh, to be locked from the inside out.
While this one sonnet sings of sex under moral supervision, others blend forensic, police, and medical language with the diction of gay porn. According to Sneathen’s afterword, the poems are sculpted from materials as various as Dugas’s questions at an AIDS conference in Vancouver, “reports of plainclothes cops, who were monitoring bathhouses, sex clubs, and hook-up locales of SF before their closure, by law, in 1984,” as well as Sneathen’s own “reflections on public sex and bathhouse culture.” I love how Sneathen’s poems crunch seemingly incompatible dictions, absorbing, metabolizing, and distilling them, not into a creamy meringue that loses touch with the work that made it, but a crustaceous confection preserving all the treacherous faults between the colliding worlds that made the AIDS crisis the cataclysmic event it was, while preserving, too, the ecstasies and joys that the crisis threatened to erase, so the poem’s not so much the index of a discrete community, but rather the fossil of an historical moment—“a world that is out of range” (that’s Daniel)—in this case, a world on the other side of a now remote cultural divide, one that these sonnets return to clarity at a time when we need to recall our mourning, our activism, and our bequest.
The rich connotations of this language may well be remote from that of any dictionary, but there is an uncanny resemblance—if only in form—to the specific diction associated with some communities of prison culture. The Prison Dictionary that sits on my desk as I write this, for example, is the result of a project curated by incarcerated writers inside at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre, Missouri in 2014, and it offers a rich lexicon of otherwise inaccessible semantic fields familiarly used by convicts at this particular prison, while offering insight into the way language morphs under the pressure of violent enclosure. According to several of the book’s incarcerated collaborators:
One of the main challenges faced in writing this particular dictionary was in deciding what words to include. A four-part set of criteria was developed. First, only words unique to the prison community were included. So square, meaning cigarette, was not included because that usage is common in communities outside prison. Second, words understood only by a minority of the prison population were excluded. For example, the verb to bink was excluded because only two of the fourteen workshop participants were familiar with it. Third, after much discussion, we decided to exclude words that would jeopardize the dictionary’s printing and distribution within the prison. Many racist, sexist, and scatological terms were excluded on this basis. Finally, a number of words were left out because it was decided that it was best not to divulge their meaning. Like many surveilled communities, prisoners have evolved a secret language to prevent outsiders from understanding what is said. We chose not to interrupt this process.
So even the dictionary, as a form, is a fossil record under the pressure of censorious conditions that produce very different needs to withhold language from the catalog, for reasons having to do with protecting the very communities whose means of expression hangs in the balance. And we get entries like:
jail v. To get along well with others, especially as a celly; to possess a mature, responsible and respectful attitude: John is a good celly; he knows how to jail.
mud n. 2. A secret that one keeps in confidence: That convict can’t hold his mud.
screws n. Obsolete. A custody officer who applies unwarranted pressure of punitive measures: Smith isn’t like the rest of these screws; he seems fair.
skins n. Cigarette papers (synonym: sheets): Let me burn some skins.
skittles n. Psychotropic medications: Prisoners are lined up for med-pass to get their skittles.
tip-to-tip n. The monthly state pay period for prison wages. The storeman will float you two for three tip-to-tip.
“This dictionary reflects almost every aspect of social lifestyles within this prison. It deals with economics. It deals with what is considered good moral conduct and the things that reflect bad conduct. It deals with how prisoners view each other as well as correctional staff” (L. Griffin). According to another of the incarcerated editors of the dictionary, “it records the existence of a forgotten and resented society that is also in constant flux,” (D. Rivera). And for the project advisor, P. Lynch, “our arguments revealed how much our word choice shapes our identities and the meaning we ascribe to our experiences.”
I often like to say that the Writers’ Bloc works closely together “under the sign of poetry” because I’ve learned by way of the work we do inside how poetry can be a vehicle, a Trojan horse of sorts, under the cover of whose controlled appearance, seemingly benign and neutral, many fugitive things can happen. As we were all discussing inside the prison just last week, we like taking advantage of how “poetry” is often seen as an innocuous form of expression—sentimental and consolatory—a semblance of harmlessness protected by what Daniel refers to as “the plain style,” denuded of any specificity, as if its speakers were in no way marked by any social location, community, or position—be it one of race, class, gender, sexuality, or citizenry, let alone one’s status as a convict or inmate—and whose mimicry of a false universal yields a semblance of lyricism often associated with “poetic language,”
a distillation of countless clichés deployed at once by the greatest and the meanest of poets; an artifact so thoroughly conventional in its diction that it defies particularity and nuanced analysis. [that’s Daniel again]
As we all like to quote, “poetry makes nothing happen” (that’s Auden, of course); but it’s interesting to think about the power of that “nothing” in a world where what counts as “everything” coincides with the violence of everyday life. So, the impression of poetry as harmless self-expression—a kind of “nothing”—offers the Writers’ Bloc a screen behind which poetry can assert itself, not as a set of inert things called poems, but as a dynamic practice of engaging the world, and working against the linguistic violence I would associate with a style that expunges every indexical trace of a writer’s life while simultaneously appearing to express that life.
The Writers’ Bloc uses “poetry” to hold a hospitable and safe space inside an otherwise inhospitable and unsafe prison where, in the words of an incarcerated poet named D., one is “allowed [to] collaborate with fellow poets creating a bond that is stronger than the circumstance” of one’s incarceration. D. wrote this sentence in an essay called “Poetry as Resistance,” specifically in response to the Department of Corrections’ recent forced quarantine of the entire inmate population at WHV—a lockdown within a lockdown—and the systematic use of Ivermectin, typically used to treat worms in horses and dogs, on every incarcerated woman, ostensibly to stave off the effects of a mysterious, itchy rash that broke out over a year ago.
Writing in response to this crisis and the lockdown quarantine that traumatized the incarcerated population at WHV, the Writers’ Bloc collaborated on a poem in which each poet wrote a total of nine lines, one at a time, in a circular thread—one line per stanza over nine stanzas—borrowing words and phrases from Sylvia Plath’s “The Colossus,” a poem that reads like a hex against the speaker’s father, and patriarchy more generally. Here are two stanzas from the poem written by the Writers’ Bloc:
Nausea rises under the pillar of my tongue
The hours move slowly feeling like we’re stuck forever
I shake my head @ the silt that pours from their mouths
Believing Lysol would cure this
No cure, just an idea in ruins
I’ll never understand the logic
Perhaps they should have considered our feelings in this
Mourning imaginary parasites
No longer do I try
Weeping ants swim in the pool of despair
This must be historical shut down for days at a time
Weedy acres of raised rashes
Feeling every scrape in the middle of the night
Scaling little ladders across with each crustacean
Listen for instructions that never come
“Pillars” of the community are the crooks of our compound
Ruin! Ruin! Ruin! When will this end!?
They are none the wiser
While this poem could be said to presage our current crisis of metaphorical “lockdown,” it’s specific manner of appropriating Plath’s diction resists universalization, as the pillar of the patriarch’s tongue (itself a figure for the law) becomes the pillar of one’s own, beneath which a suspect medication might be placed, while the Lysol used to disinfect the patriarch’s head becomes the fantastical stuff of some imaginary cleansing of prison walls.
This poem was written expressly to create internal camaraderie and solidarity among the poets, while also responding publicly to a health crisis inside an already locked-down condition, but other poems might be written to pressure or resist the very reading they invite. Contrary to the so-called “plain style”—which, I would argue, Plath herself increasingly resisted—the diction used by incarcerated writers can be harnessed to create an opacity that might trouble or exclude readers not themselves of this “community of those without community.” This is something the women in the Writers’ Bloc often struggle with—whether to adopt the surveilled ruse of sanctioned individuality by censoring one’s diction of any indexical trace of one’s material conditions and social location, or to risk alienating outside readers by drawing on the language of one’s immediate surround. To choose the former suggests the universal intelligibility of conditions that otherwise resist our comprehension, while choosing the latter allows the “the outside” of what familiarly passes for “poetic language” to converge with the inside of a prison, and thus to achieve a rather exquisite register of so-called poeticity. As my friend, the poet-scholar Andrea Brady, has shown me, it’s significant to think about how that “outside” might coincide with the interior of a cell—could this be that “windowless monad,” or the “world that is out of range”?—the acme of poetry, where the lawlessness of lyric expression is quite literally inseparable from the police.
I’ll end here with the final lines of a Writers’ Bloc poem, called “When in Rome,” by H.:
Exhaust this inebriating malady before I’m lost in this cliché of “when in Rome.”
I long for a furlough of wildflowers, tall tales and cosmic embraces.
Illuminate the voice behind this memoir of sleep.
Note: Gratitude to Addy Malinowski and Kristina Darling for critical comments and suggestions. And to Daniel Tiffany for the invitation to respond to his essay. All the excerpts from poems by inmates and ex-inmates appear here with permission by the writers.
1 For information on the state of crisis in Michigan prisons, see https://rustbeltradio.org/2020/03/27/updates-about-the-dire-situation-inside-macomb-prison-in-michigan/
2 Camille Roy, “Under Grid: An Essay on Obscurity,” in From Our Hearts to Yours: New Narrative as Contemporary Practice, edited by Rob Halpern and Robin Tremblay-McGaw (Oakland: ON Contemporary Practice, 2017).
3 Bruce Boone, “Gay Language as Political Praxis,” in Bruce Boone Dismembered: Selected Poems, Stories, and Essays (Nightboat Books, forthcoming, April 2020).
4 The Prison Dictionary was published May 1 2015 by the Prison Arts and Education Program of Saint Louis University. You can read more about this project here: https://news.stlpublicradio.org/post/cadillac-jail-prisoners-dictionary-explains-how-words-change-meaning-behind-bars#stream/0
Rob Halpern lives between San Francisco and Ypsilanti, Michigan, where he teaches at Eastern Michigan University and Women’s Huron Valley Prison. His most recent book of poetry, prose, essays, letters, and manifestos is called Weak Link (Atelos 2019).