Sunday, January 10, 2016

Beauty and Celebration: The San Benito County Jail Book Project

“Though it was at my heart’s bidding that I chose the universe wherein I delight, I at least have the power of finding therein the many meanings I wish to find: there is a close relationship between flowers and convicts.”––The Thief’s Journal, Jean Genet

The project took many hours. We spoke often of our subjects: addiction and sobriety in one group; struggle in another; love, in the third. Golf pencils in hand, writers approached their pages in monastic silence, writing quickly to stay ahead of inner censors. Let poor spelling not stop us, we cried. Let our pencils take us where they will.

Surprised and inspired by what paper and pencil had power to produce, some carried fresh sheets back to their cells in manila folders with author’s names delicately rendered in gothic lettering, while pencils, which were allowed but rationed, were tucked away in elastic waistband or bra awaiting additional discovery and expression.

Each week people returned to our classroom with new poems, small essays too, hand-written in partnership with cellmates. Artists created images to match the words: broken hearts; skeletal women; a fairy lifting off from a tender blade of grass. The work reached ever outward to explain something to someone but to what and to whom? The condition of souls? Incarceration––its distinct qualities and sounds? The meaning of love, its illusions, traps, and ability to liberate and redeem? Who would listen?

My job was to facilitate discussion, lead us into writing, and gather the results. I’d arrive back at my office on a small community college campus in rural California with folders full of poems, stories, and drawings meant to accompany them. I then scanned the artwork, typed other’s words into my computer, and began to design a sequence to best showcase the passion and intensity of our classroom experience.

The following week, I’d return to the jail with crisp, printed versions of what we’d produced. Is this what you wanted? I asked. Is this how the stanzas should flow?

Yes and no and maybe.

When possible, pieces were reworked. When not, they weren’t. Some writers we saw only once. They came to the room, wrote with us, and were released before a next class meeting, a few unedited lines the only physical sign of the time we shared.

As a final deadline drew near, the work came in a rush. Last minute flashes of inspiration led to book titles to which everyone suddenly and immediately agreed. That’s good! That’s good! we said. It took hours to type up new pieces, to print out and proofread, and printout once again. But what relief there was in meeting a deadline––the strange peace experienced when something is dropped off for a printing.

In the pods, perhaps they were sleeping or carrying on with ever more writing. As for me, I sat in my home watching a very pretty documentary, Dior and I, which tracked the creation of a designer’s first couture collection. That man, Raf Simons, had a tight deadline, a dedicated crew of artisan assistants, and millions of dollars with which to play.

Simons studied what inspired his predecessor and the subtle repetitions and trashed elegance of modern art, directing this aesthetic to the creation of new prints and surprisingly simple sketches, which he delivered to the ateliers responsible for turning sketches into realities.

In and out of workrooms flew the garments, hand sewn muslin prototypes draped over stuffed mannequins until just the right shapes were formed. A Dior trained international army of artisans approached their work as if the pieces they fashioned were sacred, and to me, encased in my own haze of creative release, it seemed possible they were.

Light-as-air skirts of impossible volumes required hundreds of small folds be carefully stitched into place. Late into the night, a dozen hands sewed beads on to bodices, so the next morning a long girl with a golden ponytail could stride across a showroom and Simons, the designer, could tell the artisans exactly where they’d gone wrong.

It was he that chose the backdrop for the unveiling of his collection––a once fine Parisian apartment in a wealthy district. It rooms were in disarray. But here would sit the wealthy and fashionable people for whose critical gaze Simons created his collection.

Would the already well-explored aesthetic of chipped paint and scratched floors be celebrated or dismissed when juxtaposed against Simons’ precise and polished pieces? He studied the apartment anxiously––its appealing shape and marble staircase. From here he somehow recalled Dior’s gardens and artist Jeff Koon’s giant sculptures rendered in living plants. Why not cover the walls in fresh blossoms? He wondered, and because he thought it, it was done!

After a frenzied 48 hours, dense walls of white orchids reached from floor to ceiling in one room, roses in another, delphiniums in a third––their fresh blossoms heavily scenting the air.

A younger me would have stood in judgment of the extravagance, pondering all the mouths that could have been fed with the cost of all the flowers alone. But that night I saw something different––connection! What teamwork!

How very human it is to want to create beauty, no matter the cost! We make excuses to do it, form communities, expend great resources, while also establishing entire hierarchical structures, ranking systems, etc... in order to judge our efforts and inspire the making of more and more beauty, so deeply do we long for it in new forms.

I couldn't help but look at Simons, all the busy laborers he employed––the seamstresses, publicity men, models lined against a wall waiting stoically––and think to myself, but it’s just like jail! I mean, the jail I teach in, the incarcerated writers I work with, my college, me, the woman who ran the copy machines that brought our books to life, so I could return to the classroom with separate editions for each pod and host a book release party on the last day of the term. That party was our runway.

It was a stupendous experience, our show. We shared it with the jail commander, the college’s vice president, the program director who brought college classes to jail, and all the contributing writers and artists who were still behind bars the day of our book party.

The three books contain fragmented stories, many poems, and a few illustrations rendered in the weak lead afforded by jail-approved golf pencils. The work is based on the lives of the incarcerated people of San Benito County in Hollister, California, a rotating team who found themselves together for at least one hour, and some for many more, in the fall of 2015.

We’ve distributed our titles to the discerning eyes of our colleagues, other writers, family members, friends, acquaintances, and now to you should you click on the links below. We hope you find beauty in our creation:

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