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Reforming Prisoners Through Poetry


While this may be the most peaceful era in human history, there's still plenty of violence and suffering to support the pessimist's view. Our prisons are full of men and women whose lives reflect that. But for the last 40 years, the poet Richard Shelton has been helping prisoners in Arizona reclaim their humanity through writing. In a section of this month's Orion magazine, he highlights several pieces from his students that show their relationship with nature.

RICHARD SHELTON: A great deal of the work they have done over the years has to do with the natural world, or probably more predominant, the lack of it. That is, what does it do to a person to never see a tree, never see a bug, never see a bird? Many of them use that as a theme, and that was the theme of my introduction.

RATH: Let's hear a poem written by one of your students. This is called "In The Absence Of The Moon," read by our intern, Julian Burrell.

JULIAN BURRELL, BYLINE: (Reading) The wind is cold and barbed, and the moon is buttering dreams in another land. A day of snow grazed the night. My breathing clouds the air with possibilities. The wind refuses quickly to consider. In the absence of the moon, decisions of the wind are absolute. A campfire burns perceptions down to coals of truth. The smoke is gone. Beyond the edges of the ember light, yellow pairs of eyes stalk back and forth, testing the air for answers to hunger and desire. Tonight, I choose to howl, a song, a prayer, in the language of the lost.

RATH: "In The Absence Of The Moon" was written by Arizona state prison inmate Michael Small. Can you talk about what it is in these poems that impresses you, especially as a fellow poet yourself?

SHELTON: Well, the simplicity of language, honesty, intensity, compression - all the things that make a good poem. Those are just good poems, whether they were written by somebody in prison or not.

RATH: There's obviously been a lot of intense debate over solitary confinement in this country recently. And we most often think of that in terms of isolation from other humans. But you write about the toll taken on an individual being cut off from the natural world. And you even use the phrase - calling it a crime against humanity.

SHELTON: Well, it can create a kind of psychic death. It does terrible things to people to have them cut off from the natural world. Charles Dickens said it destroys them. They will be destroyed for life. They often become almost catatonic.

RATH: You write about how your own life has been enriched in a way by the people that you've worked with in the prisons who have resisted this psychic death. Can you explain that?

SHELTON: Well, it has made me much more willing to accept other people. The first one I worked with was a murderer. He'd assisted in killing three people - three girls. I decided that my policy would be - what I saw written out in front of a church on a billboard said you have no past here, only a present or a future. And I thought as long as he treated me decently and I knew he was not involved in any ongoing crimes, I would treat him the same way. He turned out to be a very talented writer.

RATH: And you do make a point of saying that this is not all prisoners that we're talking about here. There are people that you would not be able to work with.

SHELTON: Not at all. I say in the introduction that some people seem to be beyond the pale. They're mean as hell and always dangerous. But then the majority are people who've made mistakes. These are young people, very often, who got caught with a little bit of drugs. Given a little more time, they would grow up and take their place in society.

RATH: At the same time, though, you write about how the cycle can be broken by publication. You say the publication changes lives.

SHELTON: Absolutely, yeah. As one of them said to me, he wasn't going to be able to rob anymore bars when he got out. I said, why not? And he said I'm too famous. And he was. He had published two books and won all kinds of contests.

RATH: Richard Shelton is a poet and the guest editor of a special section of this month's Orion - writing and art from America's prisons. Richard Shelton, thanks very much.

SHELTON: Well, thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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