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.
Juan Haines, being literary
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 Stiner, pondering the completion of his memoir
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.
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