Poetry From Behind the Walls

Issue 287

Spoon Jackson has been in prison for 47 years. He recently released an album of spoken word poetry.

Moira Marquis May 16

“As artists, we have to change the narrative.” Spoon Jackson’s voice comes through the phone like an old record, vaguely scratchy and deep. He’s calling from the California prison where he’s been incarcerated for the last 47 years. The narrative he’s talking about is the story the United States tells about the people we punish with this isolation — that they’re irrevocably dangerous and we’re safer because we throw them away. Jackson’s poetry, and now music, push back against this facile understanding asking us to complicate ideas of harm and healing.

The people who’ve gathered at P.I.T. in South Williamsburg to listen to Jackson’s newly released album, No Moon, stand rapt. FREER Records founder Fury Young holds the phone to a microphone as the album’s composer and producer Nicholas Snyder asks Jackson about their collaboration. Jackson’s voice replies it “came about like the wind.” Snyder quips to the crowd that Jackson waxes nothing but poetics. 

Check out Spoon Jackson on Bandcamp to listen to No Moon and other albums.
Spoon Jackson

FREER is the only record label in the United States that publishes music by ­currently- and formerly-incarcerated musicians. Young met ­Jackson 10 years ago, and the two have collaborated on various projects, but No Moon is Jackson’s first album created collaboratively with Snyder, a composer based in California who saw FREER’s Instagram post seeking composers and producers willing to work with incarcerated musicians. 

Snyder says after responding to the Instagram post, Young “sent me a phone recording of Spoon reciting his poem ‘Sag,’ which is not what I expected, but I felt its power. I built up music around it in a two-day flurry and was really excited by the track. It was almost a surprise to me how good the song felt, how fresh and real it was. After that I wanted to make a whole album like that, and Fury put me in direct contact with Spoon.”

No Moon features Jackson’s poetry and Snyder’s music. When Snyder first reached out, Jackson was in the prison system’s ICU with COVID-19. “He was in rough shape,” said Snyder. “I didn’t know if I’d ever hear from him, but a few months passed and I got a call from Solano State ­Penitentiary. We’ve been chatting on the phone every week or two since then.” 

Jackson’s poems are mystical meditations from someone who has spent a lot of time considering life in all its ­complexity. This spoken-word poetry forms the basis of each of the 14 songs on the album. Snyder recorded Jackson through the telephone. “All of the vocals were recorded via the phone. You can’t bring a recorder into his facility. I would record him reciting a poem, build music around it and play it to him just holding the phone up to my studio monitors.” After listening to the poems, Snyder crafted sonic soundscapes around them. 

These barriers to communication with the outside world,  designed to silence incarcerated people, have been artistically used to create complex and rich lo-fi sound quality that is a welcome relief from the overly produced audio we hear so often today. The pops and crackles of the phone line are interspersed with “computer lady” — also the name of one of the songs — a pre-recorded voice of the telecom ­giant JPay, one of the two major companies that profit from and control carceral communications. This canned voice announces the limited time of the call, that it’s being recorded and that your conversant is incarcerated. 

Jackson’s poems are mystical meditations from someone who has spent a lot of time considering life in all its ­complexity.

At the listening party, the computer lady interrupts Jackson mid-sentence, her volume causing feedback on the mic, making attendees cringe. On the album, Snyder has leveled her interruptions so they form part of the background to Jackson, but in person, you realize anew the arrogance of this audio assault. “It’s designed to never let you forget you’re talking to someone who’s incarcerated,” Snyder tells the crowd. 

After Jackson’s last phone call — he gets cut off every 15 minutes and has to call back, per prison rules — Young puts on the album. Images of the lyrics and Jackson are projected on the wall of the space. People stand and watch the lyrics change, following the flow of words and images Jackson and Snyder have created. People line up to purchase a tape of the album. 

This would be a great album to have on tape. Sonically, it fits. The tape is a little piece of history in more ways than one. 

P.I.T’s space is welcoming, and the mood created with Jackson’s words and Snyder’s music leaves people lingering — not wanting to step into the Brooklyn night rumbling with trains and cars, devoid of poetry. It’s a good thing. A silence has been broken; a connection made and perhaps a narrative shifted. 

You can pick up a tape of the album at P.I.T. or stream it here. Follow FREER Records on Instagram @freer_records to listen to some amazing music and get involved in supporting incarcerated musicians. For more events at P.I.T. check out their Instagram ­­@the_p.i.t._ or their website.

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