California: Disguised as a Poem

Long before the term La Vida Loca became a song hook for early-aught pop star Ricky Martin, in Los Angeles California, it denoted a lifestyle.The crazy life was a life of partying and death, liquor and drivebys, funerals and sex— in essence, the modus operandi of the gangbanger. Inviting us into his San Fernando Valley office on a swelteringly hot day, chicano writer Luis J. Rodriguez doesn’t seem like someone who’d know much about that sort of thing. Silver maned and spectacled, he looks every bit the intellectual and family man he’s become. But there were darker days. Much. Later we travel up the coast and learn from participants in the rich writing tradition found in California’s prisons. Today, we’re in California searching out prison poets and prison poetry—discovering poetry as story.


The San Quentin prison yard emerges lively. An inmate strums a guitar and sings, while, feet away, on a sandy baseball field, a dozen or so prisoners enjoy the innocent pleasures of an afternoon game. Nearby, Native American inmates fire up a sweat lodge. Over at what’s called the art trailer, a group of prison writers give a reading you’ll never forget.


At one point, Luis Rodriguez was determined to commit suicide. He tells us how he gathered what he needed to do it, and then, how something unusual—“a song”— saved him. He tries to pass on what he learned that day to the students of the prison poetry classes he teaches: “ As long as you have a song in your heart, in your head, you’re not going to die.” he says.

WORKSHOP: Judith Tannenbaum, who ran a poetry workshop at San Quentin for years, takes us through an exercise based on a poem called “ Some Advice To Those Who Might Serve Time in Prison ,” written by Turkish writer Nizim Hikmet, a political prisoner in the 1940s.


So we know that poetry offers prisoners an unfettered way to explore, and give meaning to, their stories, potentially changing their lives. But what about the people who help them get there? What  does that process look like from the other side? That’s something teacher and poet Judith Tennenbaum can speak to, she writes  eloquently about the friendships she developed while teaching poetry at San Quentin.

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