I taught my first creative writing class in a jail when I was 20. The class offerings at the jail consisted of: Alcoholics Anonymous, a Baptist preacher's weekly visit, and my poetry class. The Atlanta Journal Constitution came and did a news story on my class because it was such a crazy concept that any sort of arts education would be in a jail in Georgia!
From then on, I was hooked. I got a year-long fellowship after graduating college to travel around the country teaching creative writing in prisons. I drove across the country (my mama came with me on the drive!) to San Francisco in August of 2003 to start my first class at San Quentin State Prison--I'd turned 22 just days before I started. So funny when I think about it. After four months at San Quentin, I went to Miami to teach at the Federal Correctional Institution there (international druglord Manuel Noriega was there at the time!), and then drove all the way up to Vermont, where I taught classes at Chittenden County Correctional Facility, Dale Women's Facility, and Northwest State Correctional Facility, a prison with a radical sex-offender treatment program, an organic garden, and an entomology lab. Crazy.
After the year was done, I moved to San Francisco for graduate school, got a full-time job, and taught creative writing one night at week at San Quentin as a volunteer. I loved those classes so much. Eventually, I was too crazy-busy to do it anymore; I was working 40+ hours a week at a group home and finishing my masters thesis, and I had to take a break from teaching at the prison.
But this past Monday night, I started up again, and it was wonderful.
I sat at a table in a classroom right off the H-Unit yard, surrounded by inmates wearing "PROPERTY OF CDC" denim shirts & pants. One of them had written quite a bit in his life, but the rest were inexperienced with poetry. I was teaching imagery, and shared Ezra Pound's famous poem:
In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in a crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
I yammered on and on about imagery until I was pretty sure they got it. When I started explaining metaphor, and the metaphor that IS this poem, I said:
"There are two words that are implied in this poem. Right between the two lines. Pound didn't write them into the poem, but they are there--we infer them. What are they?"
There was a long pause. Finally, one of the guys, still looking down at the poem, said:
And seriously, y'all--it made my whole week.