Attempting to run a prison library is a challenge, at best. Funding is sparse and the allocations were generally $7.00 (plus or minus) per inmate per year. All purchasing of books, periodicals, newspapers and library equipment must come from this pot of tax dollars. I learned to be creative. I learned to negotiate the best deal possible. I would find the address of publishers of request donations for our Creative Writing Workshop to supplement those donated by Richard Shelton, Regents Professor of the English Department of the University of Arizona. Richard was the volunteer who established Creative Writing Workshops in the Arizona Department of Corrections. He is an accomplished author in his own right. You can read about his excursion in his book “Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer.”
One such publisher I contacted was thrilled to send volumes of poetry and prose our way. They were new, never touched books to thrill the inmates so inclined to devour them.
A number of the books that were sent were bilingual, then translated into English. One such book was authored in Bosnian and written in Cyrillic script, then an English translation followed. Amazingly, there was a young man in the prison who was from Bosnia. I held the book of poetry out and waited for his arrival to the library. When he did, I called him to the office and showed this young man the book. He was not proficient in English, but the look on his face and the and tears in his eyes spoke so very much.
Communication in one’s Mother tongue is an amazing thing. The inmates made a homemade card and signed it. I forwarded it to the publisher. I included a note with this story. He called me and promised even more books. He was good to his word and abundantly generous.
I shared books with a number of prisons, preferring not to hoard them at my facility alone.
April was always National Poetry Month and we would host Poetry Slams – well, the best we could on the inside. Inmates were allowed to read original works as long as they were “socially acceptable” or other published works. When an inmate had read his poem, to show appreciation, instead of applause, we “finger snapped”.
It was good “training,” if you will, for the time they would be released and then be subject to job interviews. This was practice for maintaining composure and learning to practice “presence”.
Sometimes, just on a lark, if things were slow in the library, I would select a poem written in Spanish then translated to English. Being a “border” state, we never lacked for Spanish speakers in the prison system. I would ask for a volunteer to read the poem in its mother tongue, then I would follow up with the piece in English.
The poem below is a grand example of this.
in the original Spanish
Por Roque Dalton
Yo como tú amo el amor, la vida, el dulce encanto de las cosas el paisaje celeste de los días de enero.
También mi sangre bulle y río por los ojos que han conocido el brote de las lágrimas. Creo que el mundo es bello, que la poesía es como el pan, de todos.
Y que mis venas no terminan en mí, sino en la sangre unánime de los que luchan por la vida, el amor, las cosas, el paisaje y el pan, la poesía de todos.
translated into English
By Roque Dalton (Translated by Jack Hirschman)
Like you I love love, life, the sweet smell of things, the sky- blue landscape of January days.
And my blood boils up and I laugh through eyes that have known the buds of tears. I believe the world is beautiful and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.
And that my veins don’t end in me but in the unanimous blood of those who struggle for life, love, little things, landscape and bread, the poetry of everyone.
~The Prison Librarian