“An Accidental Emissary” by John E. Buri

John E. Buri


“Those that teach honestly, teach ideas that are, ‘lithe and beautiful and immensely generative’.”
—Ann L. Brown’s Paraphrase of Jerome Bruner’s words

Students may become teachers, perhaps mentors and the cycle begins anew. So it is with me. I am not the be-all, end-all in poetry or anything for that matter. I can only offer what I have been taught and what I have learned from reading.

I was a member of Richard Shelton’s Creative Writer’s Workshop in the medium security, Santa Rita Unit, Arizona State Prison in Tucson. I was not a poet. I had been writing lyrical poetry for songs most of my life. Richard, of course, recognized my incompetence instantly as I read my first poem to the workshop. “What a terrible waste of punctuation. Perhaps you should try prose,” he said, holding his glasses just off his face as one would expect of a professor. A waste of punctuation? What could that mean? I had been so caught up thinking that I’d written something special; until that moment I did not know the poem was rubbish. Punctuation has no cost, but somehow I had managed to waste it! I was devastated. So now what? Just forget this whole writing thing? Yes I was embarrassed, but this was a room full of . . . how do I put this now, geeks, poets and writers. These people were not in my circle. I could just walk away and none of my friends would be the wiser.

The problem was Richard Shelton. A man so obviously intelligent and talented, Western States Book Award winner, Pulitzer Prize Nominee, and the list goes on and on, he was here every Saturday listening to novices like me present rubbish to the workshop with his confident smile. There is something mysterious and almost magical about this man, something infectious that translates to the men as easily as a virus. I wanted to be a geek! I wanted this man to someday say that I was a good poet.

After many bad poems and many workshops, I left the classroom bloody from the verbal cuts from the talented veterans. The most cutting of all of course was Richard Shelton. I began to study collections, anthologies, textbooks and literary journals. I found a section in a textbook that dealt with revision. Yusef Komunyakaa says he writes one hundred lines to get 16 very strong lines. God help those workshop members! I was determined that after the next bloody assault, I’d do revision after revision until I got it right. Some though, were sow’s ears no matter what I did to them.

Richard brought in many books for us to borrow, and one was a James Tate’s. I was making .25 an hour working as a clerk and saved for months to buy a copy of James Tate’s Selected Poems. This was a significant moment in my life. I didn’t save for a television or a pair of shoes or buy candy bars, cigarettes or heroin. I gave up snacking and smoking to buy a book of poetry! When the book arrived, I studied every word, every line, and every break. Why did he write this poem in this form, using these words? Lessons Richard taught began to make sense: Compression, Enjambing, Show MeDon’t tell Me, clichés, etc.

My work slowly began to improve. My big break came when a popular magazine put out a call for poets writing from prison. I hardly qualified as a poet, but I had the prison part down cold. Stellasue Lee, Poetry Editor of Rattle  published one of my poems. She is a wonderful lady and remarkable poet who gave me that thrill of first publication. More importantly, she returned my unaccepted pieces covered in her red-ink comments.

About this time, late 1998—early ‘99, I began sending submissions. I must admit I was rather indiscriminate as to what publication I would send my work. I would target publications I thought would take my rough poetry. Along with those easy submissions, I would pick one or two reputable magazines. I was delighted when seven out of ten submissions came back with accepted poems! Oh I had it bad now; I was infected.

Borderlands: A Texas Poetry Review published a couple of my poems. Pen in Hand took one and paid me. Rivertalk accepted one, and several others all inside a couple of months. I was writing furiously at that time, two, and sometimes three poems a day, everyday. With writing so much and having the extra money to submit, well, I was bound to write something worth reading—as my old Uncle Ed would say, “Even an old blind hog finds an acorn now and then!” In 1999, I had over twenty publications in good magazines. I was amazed that people wanted to read what I had written. Even Richard Shelton began accepting my work for his magazine, Walking Rain Review. I can bear witness that this is my most valued accomplishment.

The education department at the Santa Rita Unit asked Richard if he would read at a literature awareness function. He asked me to accompany him and read a couple of my latest poems. Quite a large turnout of fifty to sixty inmates, teachers, and administrators attended. Richard’s reading was flawless. It was amazing to me to see murderers, armed robbers, gang-bangers of every race and age enthralled in poetry. When the reading was turned over to me, the audience was primed. There were smiles, then laughs and even applause. Applause! Here I was being accepted for something other than being a tough guy or a drug buddy. This poetry disease was now incurable. After the reading, Richard fielded questions; one asked Richard who his favorite poet was.

“I have so many, but one of them is sitting right over there.” Richard said pointing at me. This is what I had been waiting for since I wasted punctuation that first workshop. Yes, I had publications, but until that moment I did not feel like a real poet. Anyone can scribble a few lines and call himself or herself a poet. To have Richard Shelton include me among his favorites in the society of poets was the proudest moment of my life!

In late January of 2001, Richard’s Creative Writer’s Workshop, our workshop, came to an abrupt end. The Department of Corrections, in response to racial conflicts between Mexican-American and Mexican National inmates, decided to have the Santa Rita Unit exclusively house Mexican National inmates. The fifteen workshop members would be transferred to any number of other units throughout the state.

That night, our last workshop together was incredibly emotional for us all. I can only liken it to the day I was sentenced to these 36 years in prison. This workshop was so much more than literature; it was a key to self-worth, a small piece of humanity, something just as good as people enjoy in the free world and now it was over. We shook hands and Richard said, “You have it in you now, John. I do not expect this will stop you. You can send your new work to the magazine; I will make my comments and get it back to you. The process will be slow, but it’s all we have.”

I arrived at the medium security Tonto Unit situated just below Graham Mountain in Safford with 67 other refugees from Santa Rita; none of which were members of the old Creative Writer’s Workshop. I continued to write and submit it to Richard at the magazine. In one of his return letters, he suggested starting a Creative Writer’s Workshop of my own. I had some experience while at Santa Rita, holding mini-workshops, mid­week, between our regular Saturday workshops with Richard. I had been meticulous in keeping lessons and assignments Richard had given us and believed I had a firm grasp on his methods. However, I was filled with doubt. This would be an enormous responsibility.

I took a job as an administration porter. In prison, the word porter and janitor are synonyms. I knew though, working among Wardens, Chiefs of Security, and the program supervisors could be beneficial when trying to gain approval for a new workshop. I worked as if I had the stamina of a teenager: mopped, polished, dusted and cleaned toilets, windows, ledges, and coffee cups. Every poet should take a job like this at some point. It is humbling, only speaking when spoken to, smiling at all the right times, trying to be the best porter this administration had ever seen. The head of programs, CO IV Jon Foote, called me into his office one afternoon. A no nonsense kind of fellow, old school, is what we call an officer who has worked his way up through the ranks over many years. He looked me up and down, saw that I was sweating and said, “You don’t look like a porter to me, Buri. What is it you want to do here at Tonto?”

“I’d like to start a creative writer’s workshop.” He had heard of such programs, but they were always directed by Richard Shelton and not an inmate. Mr. Foote began firing questions at me and to my surprise; my responses were quick, accurate, and apparently persuasive. I gave him a current copy of the Walking Rain Review, issue VI to take home, and read over night. Mr. Foote called me in again. He told me he did not know poetry could be like the poems of Walking Rain Review, and said, “You can teach this kind of thing?” I explained to him Richard’s format for a workshop and that it was more a gentle guiding and suggesting. I told him that Richard thinks I can do this and so do I. He was impressed and asked who would pay for the program. I explained to him Richard Shelton’s workshop is supported by a Lannan Foundation grant and he would help with materials and occasionally come to Tonto to monitor its progress.

I took a job in the unit’s library. Prison libraries are quite small, one room, 28’x 36’ I would guess and only one sixty-year-old book of traditional poems. The Unit librarian was unusual by DOC standards; highly intelligent, computer savvy, a love of literature and poetry! I’ve never seen her equal in the Department of Corrections. In the employment application, she asked what qualifies me to work as a clerk in the library? I responded by saying, “I can recognize a book, as a book, four out of five times.” Sometimes a little humor can get you in the door. I proposed the idea of a workshop to Ms. Marion (the librarian) and to my surprise she was very interested. She explained to me the chain of command, those who would have to approve, so I arranged through Richard Shelton, to have a copy of that same Walking Rain Review sent to them all. In the weeks to follow, I had countless staff coming to me saying they’d read my book, many wanted to read more, had no idea poetry could be so contemporary and so in your face. I learned that day; poetry affected anyone with an open mind. Not just those of us who wanted to write it and that perhaps this workshop might get off the ground.

The workshop was approved. Now it would be seen if I could teach. Our wonderful librarian consented to come in five hours early on Saturdays just so that we could meet in the library. I must admit to you that I had much trepidation, but I also had the Richard Shelton workshop format well in hand. It did not take long to drum up enough interested people on the yard and the first meeting was a resounding success. My confidence building with each passing workshop, I began to present Richard’s assignments to the new workshop members and poems came by the dozens. Sure there were many bombs, not as bad as my first poems, I thought, and if I could do it . . . .

I was faced with problems I could not have imagined. Young, angry wanna-be rap artists, Hallmark card poets, a man who was writing his life story and couldn’t spell nonfiction. There was a man who turned in two very famous poems written in the early 1900’s as his own! I had seen Richard expose a neophyte member once and I entertained the idea of doing the same. My plagiarizer was a Goliath of a man and I thought it wise not to embarrass him in front of his peers. I decided to wait, write Richard and ask his advice. In Richard’s return letter, it seemed that he was amused with my predicament. He offered little advice and welcomed me into the fold. I did speak to Goliath in private, showed him the poems he submitted, written by Rudyard Kipling. He seemed slightly embarrassed, but admitted to nothing more than drawing them from a latent memory. “You must have a photographic memory then,” I said, “because the punctuation is perfect down to the last semicolon.” He simply looked at me as if to say, So? I gave him The Plagiarism speech I had heard Richard give, as close as I could remember and ended it by asking him not to return to the workshop.

I tried my hand at inventing some exercises for the workshop members and for the most part had at least some success and some exercises produced good poems across the board. It wasn’t long before I felt comfortable sending packets to Richard to show off a little the talent of my guys. In less than ninety days, one of the best students got his first publication. When he brought the acceptance letter for me to read, I felt like hugging this man. It felt much the same as when my son brought a failing grade in reading up to an A. As the workshop progressed, the publications kept coming, but more importantly, I saw that humanity, self-respect and worth began lighting the eyes of the workshop members. Petey, the first to sign up was writing a novel and was reading chapter at a time to the workshop. He must have rewritten each chapter ten or more times and each time it was stronger. Petey incorporated the principles of poetry to his fiction and his images took on life.

Richard began accepting submissions for Walking Rain Review VIII. I did not hesitate in sending large packets from the Tonto Unit and many he accepted. Richard encouraged me with each return letter saying “You know John, there is only one other Creative Writing workshop in the country directed by an inmate. You should be very proud.” I was!

The key, I found, to directing a workshop was not so much being vastly knowledgeable in the art. Richard told me to be a good listener. That seemingly obvious advice was what kept the members coming back and trying hard to improve. It was what kept me coming back years before when I sat in their chair.

Richard and the Department of Corrections deemed the Tonto Unit workshop a success. As with most things in DOC, the other foot had to fall. Through a truckload of errors, most of them my fault, I was unexpectedly transferred to another unit in Douglas, Arizona, called the Mohave unit. Yes, I know Mojave is spelled with a J, but tell it to the Department of Corrections. Again, I was successful in getting a new creative writer’s workshop. I did not have the kind of help provided by Tonto’s Librarian and missed it sorely. I soon had twenty-five new members. This workshop is almost a carbon copy of Tonto’s. Different men and talent, but talent. The other foot I spoke of earlier came much quicker here, though it was not quite as dramatic. Because I am still in the Mohave unit, it is not wise to go into details, but the evening Richard was scheduled to come to this new workshop to check our progress first hand, he was turned away at the gate after driving many hours in the rain.

Richard Shelton is the most respected volunteer in the Arizona Prison System and the fact that he was turned away caused a series of reactions, whose ripples are still being felt as I write this. Richard could not justify funds from his Lannan grant for a workshop he cannot even get in to see. I understood and agreed with him. He and I both know that after now twenty years in prison, I soon will be eligible for a minimum custody unit. We both know that if I don’t land at his workshop in Tucson, I will be trying to start another workshop somewhere else. It is my job now. I am the emissary.

from Rattle #23, Summer 2005

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