writing in prisons

I taught creative writing workshops at Clarke County Prison Camp, in Athens, Georgia, in the late 1970s, a “job” I secured with the assistance of my friend Thomas “Donkeyman” Bintz, who was an art instructor at CCPC. (Donkyman–now an artist who goes by the name of Captain Honk–also somehow managed to get Doc Watson to the prison camp for a free show.) 

Soon after moving to Greenville I began teaching a regular poetry writing workshop to inmates from Martin County Correctional Institute, in Williamston, who were nearing parole through the PreRelease and AfterCare program that was directed by Melvin McLawhorn in Greenville.

While living in Athens, I corresponded with Janet Lembke about her prison writing workshops in Staunton, Virginia (where she would also meet her future husband, Chief, who was an inmate). I also cribbed the title of her workshop for my own, “The Pen Can Make You Free.” Over a decade later, as I was scouring around for unheralded North Carolina writers to feature in the first issue of the North Carolina Literary Review, my friend Jerry Allegood asked if I had ever read Janet Lembke, whose River Time was one of his favorite books, and I was delighted to learn that she had, since marrying Chief, relocated to his home country on the Neuse River. We re-connected like we were old friends, and her essay “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Grackle,” published in NCLR‘s premier issue, was the first of several we published by Janet, who also became one of my favorite people.

This interest in prison writing also connected me with Joseph Bathanti and Fielding Dawson, which led to a heightened interest in Black Mountain College, which led to my introducing Lembke to Jonathan Williams–and a memorable afternoon at Skywinding Farm on Scaly Mountain hosted by Jonathan and Tom Meyer with Janet, the terrific poet Susan Meyers, and my wife, Elizabeth.

Publications related to prison writing workshops:

Dreaming the Blues: Poems from Martin Country Prison, editor. Illustrations by John Hadley et al. Williamston, NC: Martin County Arts Council, 1984. [reviewed by Piri Thomas in Crime and Social Justice 24 (1985); 143-149.]

“Art from the Clarke County Prison Camp,” rev. of art show at Lyndon House, Athens, GA: Jan. 27 – Feb. 15, 1980. Atlanta Art Papers 4.2 (Mar/Apr 1980): 16.

1986 Volunteer of the Year Award, Coastal Plains District PreRelease and AfterCare, for service as instructor of poetry to inmates at Martin County Correctional Institute.