Tuesday, June 16, 1987

Napa State Hospital Poetry Journal, June 15 & 16

Napa State Hospital Poetry Journal

June 15, 1987: I'm nervous before my California Arts Council Artists-in-Libraries residency. I dreamed about teaching a class and that the patients won't listen. I keep changing my lesson plans and don't have complete information on any of them.  It's as if I had forgotten all the pieces. NO one pays attention. Can the ground please just open up and swallow me whole? I don't know if I can do this. It's great that the CAC has so much faith in me, now I just have to believe in myself. It's only a three-month pilot program.

6/16 Tuesday Day One. Nothing scheduled. I haul in boxes of books and art supplies. Today is my first day up and about after my knee operation, and I'm still shaky. Patricia, the librarian, introduces me to several patients. It's an informal drop-in visit. 

I began my residency. I spread my books out on the table and worked with patients individually.  The first inmate I meet is Liebel, who has several books of poetry out, as well as essays. It's clear that Leibel knows more about poetry than me. He quoted from Vosnesenski, and his own work. He asks me if I am a radical and had I heard of the red papers? Shades of John's red diaper baby stories. I guess he's an old commie. We talk of poetry. He quotes me several sonnets he had written to his wife—some in the style of Khalil Gibran, the inevitable jug of wine and that goddamn loaf of bread…must be a hockey puck by now.

We talk more of Andrei Vosnesenski, the role of form and content in poetry and we verbally spar with some Bantu rhythms to make a ghazal of sorts. I wonder why he's in here, in this place—he's missing a leg, he says he's not on the mend. He knows more about poetry than I do. We discuss Alexandrine couplets and Alexander Pope.

Then I meet Cecil, a black man who talks so fast I can only catch one word in six. We read Nazim Hikmet's Things I Didn't Know I Loved. I encourage Cecil to "write" that is, he dictates a poem to me. He listens when I read it back but interrupts. Short attention span. He also mutters under his breath when I talk directly to him – unless I'm reading a poem. It's disconcerting, and also a challenge to keep him actively engaged. He doesn't seem to like eye contact. I memorize the stripes in the carpet.

Bart Swain, one of the NSH staff, drops in, he taught my class last week when I couldn't be here because of my knee operation, and he was amazed at what the kids came up with. We discuss lyric poetry, music, content and form. I read him Carl Sandberg's Rain poem, and he gives me a line of his own for each Sandberg line.

It seems the only way to proceed here is to begin a conversation in the middle of things—in medias res. Lesson plans are far too rigid. I interview them, find out what they know, and from that conversation, an idea for writing presents itself. They don't seem to want to write, so I take dictation.

Mark C, a sociopath I'm told, is a bright light. As it turns out I've already read his work in the February issue of ArtScan. Actually he has a collection of poetry. I read his poems and make comments. We play with stanzas that are unclear, we take the poems apart and put them back together. He has several fine poems. I mostly make punctuation suggestions and offer technical advice. 

He likes to read John Berryman. Shades of Leonard Cirino, who was in this very library as an inmate himself. Leonard probably checked out that same book. Mark says he'll be out next month. Patricia warns me they will all say that. After I'm out... becomes a mantra. After class, I find out that he's served six years for killing someone with a steak knife—but he seems so together. So charming. I have to look up the definition of a sociopath, as I don't know what it is. I am horrified. And amazed. Like with Leonard, I realize that genius and madness are one thing.

I meet with the therapist to schedule more patients. An exhausting first day. Big learning curve. Long drive back to Forestville at dusk. There is so much to process, I dream of teaching inmates all night long. Like herding cats.

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