Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Disguised as a Poem: My Years Teaching Poetry at San Quentin

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Disguised as a Poem: My Years Teaching Poetry at San Quentin

Article excerpt

Disguised as a Poem: My Years Teaching Poetry at San Quentin. By Judith Tannenbaum. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2000. 199 pp. $42.50 (cloth); $15.95 (paper).

It should not surprise me that in the end Judith Tannenbaum, a Jewish poet and teacher, was intentionally a channel for divine attributes, disguising love in San Quentin as a poem. Why disguise? Because she always walked a fine line between the Director's Rules-"Employees must not discuss their personal affairs with any inmate or parolee"-and her task as teacher of poetry in the Arts-in-Correction program, which was to draw out personal truth and to speak personal truth in return (p. 142). In spite of the profound risks to prisoner and teacher in the prison setting, she challenged her students to use the power of language to stand on its own in stark reality. In this place where the chips are so very down, it may be more acceptable to drop pretenses and work with truth. Having horror out in the open was a relief.

She used the power of her art to heal. Part of the healing was giving voice to the voiceless prisoner in the greater community as she brought poets into San Quentin and published poems of her students for the world outside to hear. By doing so, she made it possible for her incarcerated students to be "elders" talking straight to youth in tough neighborhoods as only they could.

One of Tannenbaum's students told her that her innocence was the most potent and effective weapon in the face of the giant that was all the hatred and violence and deceit at work all around her. She chose innocence, she said, to look at San Quentin through the eyes of Love. Sometimes inmates scrutinized her intent and challenged her to be honest about why she was really there. …

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