A Poet Recounts Teaching at Men’s Prisons in ‘Hummingbird’

Issue 247

Eleanor J. Bader May 30, 2019

From 1992 to 2008, award-winning poet and playwright Deborah Tobola taught writing to inmates at several men’s prisons in California. Her memoir about this experience, Hummingbird in Underworld, not only indicts the inhumane U.S. criminal justice system but offers a deeply moving reflection on the frustrations and joys inherent in this work.

Her own story, as the oldest daughter of an unconventional band of hard-working, hard-drinking, working-class immigrants, is interwoven with tales of the incarcerated men who spent hours under her tutelage. The juxtapositional mash-up is sometimes jarring, but it’s also inspiring.

In fact, Tobola notes that her father had worked as a guard at the Men’s Colony, a post he held while attending college. “He liked the inmates better than the guards,” she writes, a lesson that was not lost on Tobola as she began the job.

But this is not to say that the prisoners were easy to deal with. Tobola admits to fear. “Urkel,” she writes, “is smarmy.” Smiley, she continues, has been found guilty of “L&L — lewd and lascivious acts with a minor. He’s a child molester.” This detail gives Tobola pause as she contemplates hiring him to assist her in running the Arts in Education Program, a plum assignment that pays between $42.50 and $52.50 a month. As she considers his application, she has to confront her biases and assess feelings both rational and not.

This, she reports, happened frequently. To wit: one man she interviews had been convicted of rape. As she peruses his file, she learns that he was not what she calls “a he said/she said rapist, but the kind who climbs into your bedroom in the middle of the night and puts his hand over your mouth so no one can hear you scream. Do I want to be locked up with this guy ten hours a day? No.”

Thankfully for Tobola, most of the men in her classes — as well as the men she hired — had been incarcerated on drug charges. “Substance abuse underlies their criminal activity,” she writes, and it is clear that the help they need to stay clean in nowhere to be found within the prison walls.

Unless, of course, redemption can be found through wordplay.

Tobola starts her classes with a poetry unit and utilizes a poem by Seamus Heaney: “Once in a lifetime/The longed-for tidal wave/Of justice can rise up/And hope and history rhyme.”

Is this true? Tobola asks. Although the Department of Corrections bureaucracy ultimately stifles this and other discussions — and constantly threatens to halt the program for fiscal and ideological reasons — Tobola persists, eventually provoking the inmates to write and revise not only poems but original theater pieces. Everyone, she says, is enriched by the experience. Indeed, Tobola ultimately left the prison system to found the Poetic Justice Project, the country’s first theater company for the formerly incarcerated.

Throughout, her goal has been the consistent. Using the hummingbird as an example, she describes the tiny creature as “a quick-hearted warrior who beats back the darkness with iridescent wings/Hummingbird sucks the evil out of men/Leaves them with a thirst for beauty and the trick of flying while appearing to stay perfectly still.”

While I wish that the memoir had provided more insight into how racial dynamics impacted her classroom, Hummingbird in Underworld nonetheless depicts teaching as a calling, and Tobola’s account is beautifully wrought. Her belief that a different future for the men in her classes is possible, and that they might live free from violence, drug use, alcoholism and economic instability will likely strike many readers as unrealistic. Not Tobola. “In one legend,” she writes, “the god of music and poetry became a hummingbird and flew to the underworld where he learned the secret of transformation.”

And if a bird can do it, why not men?

Hummingbird in Underworld: Teaching in a Men’s Prison
By Deborah Tobola
She Writes Press, July 2019

Photo credit: Thomas Hawk.

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