Pen on the Brothers in Pen

We were honored to have KQED writer, photographer, teacher, and author of OG Told Me Pendarvis Harshaw feature Brothers in Pen on his KQED blog. Sweet article, thanks, Pen!

In This San Quentin Class, Inmates Write Their Way Into a Better Future

 

I used to teach in a prison.

For three Saturdays a month for five months, I’d drive to the California Medical Facility, a state prison in Vacaville, California, to teach writing classes.

The experience proved to be cathartic for me as well as the fellas in the class. The guys would write haikus, essays and personal statements. And then they’d share them, often showing their back teeth as they laughed hard about common experiences.

I walked away from that time period with a billion thoughts about justice, art, religion, relationships, stifled human potential and more. But most of the time, I just wondered how something as simple as teaching a class in prison could impact the American economy.

(click here for the whole story)
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Finally, The Long-Awaited Big Shindig: The 12th Annual Public Reading

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Brothers in Pen on October 21, 2018. Back row (l to r): Kevin Sawyer, James Bottomley, Charles Daron, Richie Morris, James Metters, Lloyd Payne, David Taylor, Alex Briggs, Paul Stauffer, Udukobraye Pela, Joe Krauter, Mesro Coles-El. Middle row: Michael Zell, Osbun Walton, Michael Calvin Holmes, Raheem Ballard, A. Kevin Valvardi, Terry Kitchen, Juan Haines. Front row: J. B. Wells, Carl Merton Irons II, Watani Stiner, Zoe Mullery, Rahsaan Thomas, Talib Brooks, Stu Ross, Jose Camacho.
(Photo: Peter Merts)

 There is an electricity that comes with these readings. I’ve come to expect it. I have begun to study it. I have great curiosity about it. I have become a San-Quentin-Annual-Public-Reading-Electricityologist. It’s not just the crackling energy that is always present in a good live performance of theater or music or dance, though that’s part of it. It’s not just the palpable giddyness of readers who are not used to this kind of thing getting their first taste of the bronco-ride of vulnerability in performing their own literary work in front of friends and strangers, though that’s there too. It’s not just the adrenaline rush and insatiable curiosity of audience members who have never before been inside a prison, or the audible sound of stereotypes breaking. It can’t be reduced to the sense of a kind of carved-out protected and excellent space within the often chaotic or less-than-excellent spaces prison provides. It does have something to do with all of those, and the richness of a variety of literary worlds to enter, and a tremendous amount of smiling, and some other ineffable ingredient that is impossible to capture in a word.

We hadn’t had an Annual Public Reading since November 2016. I’d postponed the 2017 one till spring, which turned into summer, and then there was a lockdown which pushed it to October 21, 2018.  This time we got to do it in the Catholic Chapel, which means more space–about the same number of outside guests, maybe 60 or so, but more room for those Incarcerated Americans to come and join us. The day finally came. 

 

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Juan Haines, being literary

Mesro

Mesro Coles-El, dramatizing

As always, the readers outdid themselves. Everyone was ready, rehearsed and exceptionally present. It was audio-recorded and I hope to soon be able to post the audio here. Meanwhile, you can look at our program and the mini-anthology of stories that were read that day. We also had the inspiration of four Brothers in Pen who have graduated beyond the walls return to share with us: Watani Stiner, Carl Irons, J. B. Wells, and Jose Camacho. Jose paroled as recently as last year, Watani in 2015, and Carl and J. B. have been out for quite a few years and both are involved in wonderful, interesting, fabulous things. In fact, Carl and J. B. were in the class in the early 2000’s (next year will be my 20th year teaching at San Quentin!). Watani represented for longest continuous student, having been in the class for 13 years (and still NOT QUITE finished with the memoir he’s been working on since 2003! Watani, we all await its completion.).

 

Watani

Watani Stiner, pondering the completion of his memoir

Lloyd

Lloyd Payne, making his point

We continue to be blessed, again and again, by the tremendously gifted photographer Peter Merts who comes to EVERY reading and takes beautiful portraits of each writer, as well as photos of the event in general. You can see all the photos from that day on his website, as well as those from years past, and all the other cool stuff he photographs.

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Richie Morris, expansively

With all the changes happening in the state, the country, and the criminal justice system, some things keep rolling, and I’m glad one of them is that the William James Association keeps finding ways to fund Arts in Corrections / the Prison Arts Project so that this class can keep its electricity flowing. Gratitude to WJA Executive Directory Laurie Brooks, San Quentin liaison Carol Newborg, Community Resource Manager Steve Emrick, Public Information Officer Lt. Sam Robinson, Raphaele Casale who does the all the clearances, and Warden Ron Davis, whom I’ve never met but who runs a prison where such events happen. Thank you

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Reunion Recap

As always, I’m a little behind the curve on keeping this blog up to date.

We had a wonderful time on October 5 at Alley Cat Books in San Francisco for our first ever Brothers in Pen reunion. 

We had reunions…

Literary offerings…

Good listeners…

And good company.

Left to right: Watani Stiner, Noble Butler, Kenny Brydon, Zoe Mullery, J. B. Wells, Yahya Cooke, Carl Irons, and Jimmy Carlin. Somehow we missed getting Ernie Laszlo into any of the photos, even though he came all the way from Mariposa. 

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Brothers In Pen Reunion – October 5

Come on out to the first reunion of some of the Brothers In Pen who are out and free. It will be at Alley Cat Books in San Francisco, 3036 24th St. (close to the 24th St. BART station) and will entail readings, snacks, hobnobbing, and general literariness. Some copies of our latest anthology, Pens Up, Don’t Shoot, will be available.

Please come!

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Pens Up, Don’t Shoot

Cover imageThe title of the latest anthology in the “Brothers in Pen” series, Pens Up, Don’t Shoot, arose from the phrase protestors rallied around after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014. So much has happened since then. This book’s first stories began to be compiled in 2015… but due to its editor’s molasses-like qualities, it was not finished until now.

Now.

Now it is finished! It’s all done! It’s out in the world! And you can purchase it:
lulu.com/spotlight/NorthBlockPress
I still want to create an e-book format, but haven’t done that yet; however, it is available in paperback ($20) and hardcover ($27). All the proceeds go to support our program through the William James Association, who makes it all possible.

Our good friend, comedy writer Mike Larsen, wrote a lovely foreword for us, and San Quentin artist Omid Mokri provided the artwork that I think makes a really strong cover image.

Please read it, pass this post along to announce its arrival, and if and when you have feedback, reviews, questions, or interesting thoughts about the stories, please post them as a comment here, or send it along to brothersinpen ••at•• gmail ••dot•• com. Writers love to get feedback.

From the back cover:
Brothers in Pen is the collective name of the writers in an ongoing creative writing workshop at San Quentin State Prison. This book contains selections of fiction in many genres: memoir, creative non-fiction, and some mutant hybrids… the common denominator being story. This is the ninth anthology produced by this class; as with Scheherazade of the Arabian Nights, the stories keep coming and keep enthralling.

Ursula Le Guin said, “As you read a book word by word and page by page, you participate in its creation, just as a cellist playing a Bach suite participates, note by note, in the creation, the coming-to-be, the existence, of the music. And, as you read and re-read, the book of course participates in the creation of you, your thoughts and feelings, the size and temper of your soul.”

The Brothers in Pen invite you to participate in this book.

Table of contents:
Wayne Boatwright: A Deplorables Tale
Kenneth R. Brydon: Rat’s Ass
Noble T. Butler: Comfort Food and Story for Mama
Jose G. Camacho: The Boulevard Show
George “Mesro” Coles-El: The Warning
Micheal “Yahya” Cooke: Extortion, Inc.
Eric “Turk” Curtis: Coming Home
Emile DeWeaver: Dying in the Dark
Arnulfo Garcia: The Tour
Juan Haines: Breakfast with Arnulfo
Michael Calvin Holmes: The Session
Adnan Khan: Saturday Morning
Joseph Krauter: I Never See Her Face
Justin Medvin I Created a Monster; Definition Defined;
    Occupational Hazard; The Best High; Caloric Consequences;
    Humane Circumstances
James Metters: The Quick Way to Fall
Richie Morris: The Scoundrels
JulianGlenn “Luke” Padgett: The Live Room
Lawrence Udukobraye Pela: My Momma’s Baby
Stu Ross: Space Oddity
Kevin D. Sawyer: Power Distribution
Paul Stauffer: Down by the River
Aly Tamboura: The Trying Game
David Taylor: The Reassurance of Love
Rahsaan Thomas: After Life
Kevin Valvardi: New Brooklyn Lake
Michael Zell: The Protection Policy
Anonymous Public Figure: Born to Hunt
Zoe Mullery: The Easy Chair
A Pictorial History of Brothers in Pen

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Brothers Out of the Pen

I haven’t done a good job of keeping up with all the Brothers in Pen who’ve gotten out of prison and are out ornamenting the world with their sincerity (to paraphrase Jack Kerouac).

In addition to Kenny, who I posted about below, others who’ve gotten out in recent history are Yahya Cooke, Jose Camacho, Justin Medvin, Aly Tamboura… who am I forgetting? It’s been almost 2 years since Aly got out, in October 2016, and apparently I never wrote anything about that. There has been lots written about him elsewhere; here is an article written when he left San Quentin, or check out this podcast featuring Aly. He is currently very busy with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative working as a Manager of Technology & Program Delivery—utilizing the training he got at San Quentin learning to code. When he can, he puts in time scuba diving. It’s been great to see him blazing that big Aly smile out in the big world. He’s been wildly busy doing wildly interesting things.

(It seems I never posted anything about the wonderful event last August on Alcatraz–Here is a photo from that event, which featured Troy Williams and his daughter Torri Williams, and Watani Stiner and his son Larry Stiner Jr., a spoken word artist. The event was called “Connection Lost: Families Unraveled by Prison” and featured artwork by San Quentin artists. Aly was also there and added his voice to the event. Peter Merts, as always, took beautiful photos, which can be seen here.)

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Aly Tamboura, Troy Williams, Watani Stiner, and Zoe Mullery at the “Connection Lost: Families Unraveled by Prison” event on Alcatraz, August 26, 2017. Photo by Peter Merts

Jose Camacho

Jose Camacho

Jose Camacho also got out in 2016 and he is now very glad to be able to be a caretaker for his mom.

Justin “Clown” Medvin was released in 2016 as well–and last I heard was doing well, and was itching for the anthology to come out. Which it has. I’ll post news and a photo when I get one.

Yahya has been out since October 2017; nearly a year. I spoke with him today and asked him for a little news. Here’s what I got:

“I’m currently a production specialist machinist for George Martin Company in Emeryville. We make stackers for corrugated container businesses. We sell machinery to companies that make the containers. I love it. It doesn’t give me much time to pursue my hobbies, like writing, but I’ve been able to buy things like a laptop and printer. Living near Lake Merritt, in a pretty house on top of the hill. Still not married, still no children! I’ve been working with David Cohen from Patten helping guys who are getting released, getting them care packages and phones and connected to resources. But mostly my life’s just been about work.

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Yahya Cooke, looking happy and free

“My job progressions have led to better and more enriching positions. The people I’ve met along the way and the amount of helpfulness—there are opportunities all over the place for people in just coming out of prison. I didn’t have to wait to get started when I got out. The disciplines I established in prison, Patten College and the writing class… those disciplines crossbreed and set you up well for living a good solid life out here.

“Where I’m at now–I’m still getting job offers, even though I don’t need them. I’m content. I’m ten minutes from work. Bought me a 2012 Infiniti. And that improved my credit rating and scores, which I need to do. I’ve been trying to learn the fundamentals that others like you have been dealing with in normal life–you’ve dealt with life on life’s terms, I’ve dealt with life on prison terms. You don’t really think past the next day. Now I’m thinking about overall goals. Something like the so-called American Dream.

“I’d like to get back to working on the short stories, and improve on the memoir. The story’s not over! I’m excited about the next chapters that are yet to be written.”

 

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Kenny Brydon: Free as a Sunbeam

If you know Kenny, now is the time to picture him leaping like an antelope down a beach at sunset, shouting “I’m Free! I’m Free!” while trailing diaphanous silk streamers from both wrists and shaking his head as if he had a long mane of thick curly hair.

And then he breaks his foot.

Kenny’s First Day of the Rest of his Life

That’s not quite how it happened, except maybe Kenny’s emotions that day might be compared to impulsive improv ballet with streamers on a beach at sunset… and the part about breaking his foot is true (apparently while doing a fancy jump-rope exercise routine, just a couple of weeks out of prison.)

Kenny was released on August 20, 2017, after 39 years of incarceration. He had been arrested in 1978 and was in several different places before arriving at San Quentin in 1993. 1978 was a long time ago. People born in 1978 could technically be grandparents.

Kenny joined the Creative Writing class in 2003, and holds the record for the longest-standing member at 14 years. In that time, he wrote and revised several novels, wrote countless short stories, and helped many other writers with his insightful critique. Kenny’s strengths as a writer, in my mind, are his strong dialogue, his ability to portray a glimmer of human feeling within characters who are emotionally shut down or simmering with anger, and his engagement of complex moral issues and characters who are not easily categorized. He’s had a number of stories published over the years, and has had a story in every edition of the Brothers in Pen series of anthologies. One of the most prestigious accomplishments was his story “Rat’s Ass” being included in the book “Prison Noir,” an anthology of prison stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates. That story will also be appearing in our upcoming anthology.

I’ve seen Kenny a few times since his release, and one of the hallmarks of a Kenny conversation I’ve learned to expect is a rave review of something he’s recently eaten.

“Five Stars!”

I told him he needs to write the “Just Released From Prison After 39 Years Restaurant Review Guide.” It would go something like this:
Taco Bell: “Out of this world! Incredible flavors! Five stars!”
Subway: “Fantastic sandwiches! Unbelievable quantities of fresh meat, lettuce, tomatoes! Five stars!”
McDonalds: “French fries to die for! They’re piping hot! Five stars!”
IHOP: “Phenomenal pancakes, and unlimited syrup! Plenty of butter too! Five stars!”

I called Kenny today, to interview him for this post. Here is how that went: Continue reading

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