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Poetry Program Gives Prisoners Unexpected Voice

For more than 30 years, poet and professor Richard Shelton has traveled to a high security prison in Arizona to run a program that encourages prisoners to write and read poetry.

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  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In some ways, it was a writing workshop like any other.

    RICHARD SHELTON, Poet, University of Arizona: Pens? You've got the pens going? I've got to get the roll sheet.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Poems were read.

  • JAMES GASTELUM, Prison Inmate:

    The vibration of a thousand hooves echoed like thunder through the valley.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Critiques were offered.

  • ANDREW JAICKS, Prison Inmate:

    The details really make a difference, you know, because you're talking about specific things and specific people. And I think that that, in a strange way, makes it more universal.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Techniques for better writing were discussed.

  • RICHARD SHELTON:

    It's always a trade-off, that is, a trade-off between the way you want the poem to look as an object on the page and your directions to the reader as to how to read it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But the participants here, clad in orange prison garb, are inmates at the high-security Rincon Unit, part of the Arizona State Prison Complex outside Tucson.

    The man in charge, Richard Shelton, a poet and professor at the University of Arizona, has been coming into prisons as a volunteer most every week since the early '70s, when a convicted murderer on death row wrote to ask for feedback on his poems.

    Did you know what you were getting into?

  • RICHARD SHELTON:

    No. I had no idea. I started out just with curiosity, and probably of the wrong kind, titillation, "This is a monster. I want to meet a monster."

    As I got to know him, I began to realize that he was real, and that he was complex, and he was in trouble.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In a new memoir, "Crossing the Yard," Shelton writes of that and many other extraordinary experiences, inmates who turn their lives around, some even achieving literacy success, others who've ended in despair and violence.

  • RICHARD SHELTON:

    Work on a more direct statement. Don't worry about the rhyme.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In the workshop, Shelton is patient but tough. He insists above all on direct, honest language, as he told me when we talk later at the University of Arizona's brand new Poetry Center.

  • RICHARD SHELTON:

    I'm not a therapist, and I don't run a support group. I don't have a background for that sort of thing. I teach them writing.

    Anything that they get out of it beyond that is gravy, and it's great. They do, I think, get a lot of things out of it.

    And one of those things is the attitude toward language, that if you can learn to use language honestly, then you can apply it to yourself honestly. And I think you can see yourself in a different light than you did before.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Most of the inmates have never written before. When they start out, Shelton says, their poetry tends to be overly sentimental.

  • PRISON INMATE:

    Forget my name. Forget my face. Forget my warm and sweet embrace.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    One poem in the session we attended led to a discussion about the use and abuse of rhyme.

  • PRISON INMATE:

    The second to the last line, you used inverted language. And that's something that Richard talks about all the time about don't use the inverted language. It's 19th century.

  • RICHARD SHELTON:

    Would you give that example? Would you read that section?

  • PRISON INMATE:

    Where you said, "Forget I said I'll leave you never"?

  • RICHARD SHELTON:

    What would the normal word order be?

  • PRISON INMATE:

    "I'll never leave you."

  • RICHARD SHELTON:

    OK, "I'll never leave you." That would be the normal word order. Why did he invert it?

  • PRISON INMATE:

    So it would rhyme.

  • RICHARD SHELTON:

    So it would rhyme. Of course. In other words, he's allowing the rhyme to run him.