By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives by Judith Tannenbaum & Spoon Jackson

Memoirs are, in my opinion, suspect. Post-modernism has labeled the majority of narrators as unreliable.   Anyone viewing the events of their life through the lens of memory is seeing history distorted.   We lack the ability to be objective about ourselves, at least not in any real way.  I am therefore mistrustful of  memoirs  and find them difficult reading – a constant sifting through of opinions, emotions and perspective in order to discover nuggets of fact.

By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives is a joint memoir written by two poets who met through the California Penal System. Judith Tannenbaum taught poetry in state prisons as part of the California Art-in-Corrections Program. Spoon Jackson was her student, now friend, who became an internationally known poet.   He is  serving out a life-without-parole sentence.

Chapters alternate –  with each author following their own, self-contained timeline.  Judith Tannenbaum’s path as a poet led her to teach men who, by her own admission, society considers monsters. For Jackson, life has been restricted to various prisons since he was twenty years old – and in many ways it was prison which led him to poetry. These two people of different race, gender and background, still manage to form a friendship based on their shared love of words and poems.

I’d like to say that this book is the story of that friendship, but it’s really more the story of their individual development as artists, with some overlap.  By Heart could easily be split into two separate books without the reader noticing.  Its chapters do not flow into eachother. Tannenbaum in the introduction mentions that she was hesitant about writing this joint memoir – having felt she’d covered much the same ground in her earlier book Disguised as a Poem: My Years Teaching Poetry at San Quentin.   That hesitation shows, as well as a caution which is probably a result of years spent walking the political tightrope between prisoners and prison administration.  Yet the By Heart benefits from Tannenbaum’s chapters, which often provides a macro-cosmic view of the story in direct contrast to Jackson’s micro.

By Heart is also a fascinating glimpse into a world that is mostly forgotten by those outside of it.  In 2008 there were over seven million people in prison, on probation or on parole. (Thanks U.S. Bureau of Justice & Wikipedia). That would make the U.S. Penal System, if it were a city, the second largest by population – coming in after New York and before Los Angeles.  As Tannenbaum reminds us, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, a decision which comes at huge expense.  The money spent on prisons is money that  is not going to social service such as healthcare and education.  A cycle is created and continued.

Our civic conversations about how to increase the odds that all children will succeed are often contentious, partisan, and emotional. But I don’t see even those who sincerely believe in the value of standards sending their own children to school whose learning environment is entirely shaped by high stakes testing. Parents who have a choice choose schools that understand intelligence as multi-faceted, schools that create a wide variety of approaches to the process of learning and critical thinking. Parents who have a choice don’t choose schools such as the one WritersCorps worked at for ten years whose principal suddenly decreed that only the top five percent of students (as measured by test scores) would be allowed any art during the school day. My observation – after a lifetime working in public schools and prisons – is that, whether by design or unintended consequence, some of our children are being educated to assume poser, while others are being trained for prison.

Spoon Jackson’s chapters are much more raw, much less polished than Tannenbaum’s.  We are reading the thoughts and growth of a man who has spent more than half his life under lock & key – and it’s a shock to discover how normal that life sometimes is.  He discusses romantic relationships and the toll prison took on his two marriages (both of which took place while  serving his sentence).  He tells how he became a published poet and, later, an actor and playwright.  Jackson has  made and maintained friendships with people all over the world.  But he is not free.  One of the biggest reminders of this is the lack of stability in his life.  I picked up By Heart with the half-formed assumption that prison life was structured.  I learned that in 2+ decades Jackson has changed prisons over five times.  His security level has fluctuated.   “Freedoms” and privileges are given, taken away, and replaced by new ones which in their turn are revoked.  What I found most surprising, and disturbing, is the inconsistency of treatment despite the fact that the crime committed (murder) remains the same.  The insecurity of life in a place dedicated to security.

By Heart is a thought provoking book that raised more questions for me than it answered.  Which leads me back to my opening sentence – memoirs are suspect.   The fact that By Heart gives us two perspectives should be a strength,  But because of Tannenbaum’s caution we are mainly left with Spoon Jackson’s version for anything more than the superficial details of their shared history.  Jackson’s chapters often feel too self-focused to be unbiased.  That doesn’t necessarily diminish By Heart, rather it stands as proof of the sincerity of its authors.  In the end, the book tells incomplete story that leaves the reader wanting to learn more.  Which, for both Tannenbaum and Jackson, might just be the objective.

Realness eats raw meat

and does not waver

nor drift on currents.

He has the staying power

of the sun.

Realness walks only in his

own shoes.

– Poem by Spoon Jackson

Publisher:  New Village Press, California (2010)
ISBN:  978 098155935 3

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