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Teach: Broadsides in Prison Writing Workshops

by George Franklin

An essay/lesson plan exploring the spirit of broadsides and the possibilities they can open for students in prisons and jails:

Broadsides are a wonderful way to introduce incarcerated students to making their own interpretations of texts—creative reading. This is especially important to them because they lack autonomy in almost every other area of their lives, and the message they receive every day is that their preferences and opinions don’t matter.

It’s been more than a month and a half since all classes at Florida state prisons were shut down to prevent the spread of coronavirus.  My March 12 class was all planned and the poems I was going to use to teach that week were all printed out.  Then, I got the phone call.  For the last four years, I’ve taught poetry workshops in the prisons one day a week, and now it’s unclear when those classes will resume.

When the classes do resume, though, I know exactly what my first class will be about.  I’ll walk up to the bored guard at the window where I present my ID, enter my PIN, and put my hand on the fingerprint machine.  In a folder under my arm, I’ll have color copies of two poems, both by prisoners and both beautifully illustrated.  They will be the broadsides of “Firm Hands,” poem by Emilio Fernandez, art by Stacy Isenbarger, and “Prison Pantoum,” poem by Mark Jantz, art by Bob Bailey.

I have a personal connection to these poets, as they are former students from my classes at Everglades Correctional Institution, and there is a good likelihood that whoever my students may be for that first post-viral class they’ll know Emilio and Mark.  However, I believe that any teacher in prisons or jails could find the following plan useful for their work.

Select Broadsides to Use/Study

  1. Using broadsides of poems written by prisoners increases the students’ immediate sense of “I have something to say about this.” The poems by Emilio Fernandez (“Firm Hands”) and Mark Jantz (“Prison Pantoum”) would work quite well for such a discussion.
  2. Give your students some initial uninterrupted time with the broadsides. If possible, give them out a previous class, and let them take them back to their dormitories or cells.
  3. An easy way to begin this class would be to ask how your students’ experience of prison differs from these poets’ experiences that they describe in their poems and how it is similar.
  4. Caveat: for teachers new to teaching in prison, don’t press students to discuss topics that are often traumatic, such as gangs, violence, sexuality, or discrimination. If they go there on their own, OK, but if not, respect their privacy and autonomy.  There are plenty of other aspects of prison life they’ll want to talk about in the context of this discussion.

Talk About the Broadsides

  1. Ask the students how the poems in these broadsides compare with other poems or stories that the class has discussed or used as prompts.
  2. If the class has previously written ekphrastic poems, ask them how broadsides like these are different.
  3. Broadsides embody a conversation between the poet and the artist, in this case, between poets on the inside and artists on the outside. Do these poems convey the reality of being incarcerated to someone on the outside?  If so, how?
  4. Discuss with the students how to “read” an artwork. Spend some time asking them to talk about the images and colors so that they’ll focus on the details.
  5. Ask your students to consider how that the artist’s side of this conversation between artist and poet differs from:
    1. A casual reading by someone who might have spent a couple of minutes reading the poem in a magazine;
    2. A critical interpretation that situates a poem by reading it in light of history, social theory, literary traditions, poetic forms, or the author’s biography;
    3. An interpretation where another author uses that same poem as a writing prompt;
    4. A different visual interpretation by another artist—how might the artist have approached it differently?
  6. Did the artists for these broadsides (Stacy Isenbarger and Bob Bailey) get it right? If so, why?  If not, why not?
  7. How does a reader on the inside read these broadsides (both the poems and the artwork) differently from a reader on the outside? Explain why.
  8. Ask your students to look for what seems unclear to them in the text and in the artwork. What do they understand the least?  Then, ask them to come up with possible explanations for what they don’t understand.
  9. Ask your students how they would illustrate these poem

Make Broadsides

Each of the poems in these broadsides could be the basis for poetry assignments as well.

  1. Write a poem based in your memories of a family member.
  2. Write a pantoum about some aspect of your life in prison.  (My students usually love working on pantoums.  They give a real feeling of accomplishment.)
  3. Finally, there is the possibility of asking the students to make broadsides of their own poems.  They can exchange poems with other students who will respond visually, coming up with illustrations that embody what the poem causes them to feel.  There are lots of ways to go with this.

I have to wait, though, to give those assignments.  For now, I just miss my classes.  I shelter in place and work from home, imagining what it will be like again to pass through the metal detectors and the hallways and the off-white, grim, cinderblock walls, look out the windows that always open on a fence, and wait for my students to trickle in and sit down, to introduce myself to the new guys, shake hands with the returning students, and then take out my beautiful color copies of these broadsides and say, “Hey, Guys, I’ve got something for you!”