The Paris Review – Attica Prison Diary

Enrance of the Attica Correctional Facility, 2007. Photo by Jayu, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Following the Attica uprising in September 1971, Celes Tisdale, a poet and a professor at Buffalo State College, began leading poetry workshops at the correctional facility—the first at a US prison to be run by a non-inmate and an African American. Poems written by his students were published in 1974 as Betcha Ain’t: Poems from Attica, by Broadside Press, the first major black-owned publishing house in America. Below are several noncontinuous entries from the diary Tisdale kept during that time, beginning with his first day at the facility.

May 24, 1972

4:30 PM
“Anticipation”

Many times have I basked in the glory of applause, adulation, recognition as I interpreted the Black poet masters. But, today, I wait in painful/joyful anticipation of meeting those humanity-scarred men who must express themselves or perish from anonymity.

Sitting here on my front porch waiting for Randy to pick me up, I suddenly realize that I have never sat on my front porch before. What enjoying faces on the buses! I really see their faces and talk with my neighbor next door for the first time. He offered to let me use his wax for my car. Can this heightening of perception of my surroundings be conscious preparation for what I’ll be doing later today and every Wednesday, 6–9 PM, for sixteen weeks? Can you imagine, possibly, the first Black poetry workshop inside a maximum security? Maybe I’m making history—maybe.

Well, here’s Randy in his green Volks somehow very much like himself: frantic, intense, a constant gear shift. He’s Jewish.

5:30 PM
“Before the Great Wall”

The air is hot, still, restless. Here, after an hour’s ride exchanging philosophies and expectation. A front gate guard recognizes me, he says, and we exchange pleasantries (?) while waiting to be cleared to enter the inner walls. Randy does most of the talking. My mind is too full.

6:00 PM
“Within”

Having passed all the doors, gates, guards, and the serene atmosphere of the cool passageways, we arrive in the teaching area of ​​“C” Block. I feel like the new schoolmarm in a one-room schoolhouse on the first day and I remember when I first faced a classroom nine years ago.

6:15 PM

The men are coming in now. I recognize some of them from the old days in Willert Park Projects and Smitty’s restaurant where I worked during the undergraduate days. They seem happy to see me but are properly restrained (strained?).

May 25, 1972

Our first session was spent getting acquainted with each other. The following are some of the responses to my asking what is poetry: personal, deals with emotions, historical, compact (concise), eternal, revolutionary, beauty, rhyme, rhythm, a verbal X-ray of the soul.

June 7, 1972

Angela Yvonne Davis was found innocent of all charges in California, and her trial was the topic of interest at the beginning of the session. Rather than becoming involved in a political discussion, I read a poem given to me by Nikki Giovanni called “Poem of Angela Yvonne Davis.” It brought a warm response from the group.

July 5, 1972

Tonight there was much excitement among the workshop members. They were more talkative than usual and very excited about the recent (July 4) concert presented at the facility by Archie Shepp, Black jazz musician. We discussed the concert at length, because we felt that black music is poetry and poetry is music. Christopher Sutherland (an inmate) presented a poem to the group that was a tribute to Archie Shepp.

It has been six weeks (sessions) now since we started the poetry work-shop. We had no session last week because of an entertainment group’s performance at the facility and my being involved in a play: Angela. I haven’t seen the men for two weeks and I notice today that the ranks have been somewhat deciated. In group one only ten men showed up, two of whom were new. The high interest level has been sustained.

I’ve been reading their works at home for the past three or four weeks and I’m very pleased at their poetry and have noticed a real flair for poetry among a number of the men: Boyer, “Point,” Phillips, Sutherland, Dabney, Mackey, Bryant, Sanford X, to name a few. I plan to recommend their return in the next eight-week session.

“Sonny” Walker said Hawkins has been paroled—joy. Much excitement tonite over a poem in the text: “Giles Johnson, Ph.D.” by Frank Marshall Davis.

The men are friendlier now and much more relaxed—even the reticent ones are budding, opening up, flowering. Received a compliment today, probably the most sincere ever: the brother privately told me that I was a fine example of Black intelligence and that I related well to them. They seem proud to know me and try to please, but do not fawn. I hope they know how proud I am of them. Everyone very talkative, almost festive mood. They did most of the talking and reading poetry (their own) while I tape-recorded it.

The men joke with me as we enter and leave, but I still detect great respect, almost awe, a standoffish attitude. I see them as the men I relate to every day in the world outside. How it pains me when they go back to their cells, but linger and talk before the guard hurries them along. If I could only stay here a few days more.

July 12, 1972

Felt the anger, frustration, hostility of the men, firsthand tonite. I had secured adequate clearance for the Buffalo Black Writers Workshop to sit in on the session tonite, but Supt. Montanye canceled their coming, by a phone call to Randy, yesterday. I was apprehensive about telling the men of the cancellation, and they were most indignant about this broken promise, one of many, according to them. Feel a strong undercurrent of resentment for the administration. Am convinced that another riot is in the making. About ½ of the session was spent explaining the function of Hospital Audiences, and my role as a liaison with the administration. Most of the men insisted that no change has taken place in the prison since the September incident.

Found out later in the session why the Buffalo Black Writers Workshop were not allowed in tonite. It seems some small demonstration took place yesterday by the inmates (hunger strike).

The men continue to produce, and some have really improved. A real pleasure to see growth. Next week, final evaluations and summaries.

July 20, 1972

Our workshop session was canceled yesterday because of Supt. Montanye’s declaration of a state of emergency at the facility. Prisoners (approx. 900 of 1,200) have stayed in their cells the past two days protesting conditions. A specific protest centered around a nurse’s termination. She was reinstated amid the protests.

When we resume on 7/26, it will be our evaluative concluding session for the first eight weeks. Have gathered much poetry from the inmates—they want to publish a book—we’ll talk about it later.

Randy very apprehensive about returning to facility—many prisoners’ protesters continue.

July 23, 1972

State of emergency has been lifted by Supt. Montany. Prisoners (about 900) were in voluntary lock-in for three days.

October 31, 1972

The inmates (workshop) and administration invited me for an appreciation reception, today 1–3:30 PM Surprised to see men sitting in chairs at reception bldg; very quiet. Coffee and Coke had not arrived when I appeared at 1:30. Usual bureaucratic holdup I suppose.

Noticed the uniform of the guards has changed—they wear blazers and gray slacks. Must admit they look less oppressive.

Men were sitting so formally, I felt need to walk around speaking to each little group. They loosened up after I talked briefly about poetic directions to the entire group. However, it appeared that the men wanted to discuss political directions and the American system. After about fifteen minutes of such discussion, I steered back to poetry discussion.

Surprised to see coffee in large pots and to find the cake tasted a bit coarse, like old home recipe. Dickinson told the group they could meet during the month of November but stipulated that political discussion must be curtailed. Frankly, I agree with him. The men promised me that they would have a play ready when I see them again, Dec. 6, 1972, for the start of the new, third sixteen-week session.

Couldn’t figure out why Harold Packwood was not present at the reception. He organized it and is the standout in the workshop. Someone mentioned that he was practicing on his saxophone.

It appears that the men have greater perception of their existence and are much more concerned now with all aspects of writing. Such respect that they show me I have never known. Fantastic!

December 13, 1972

Met the men tonite after a five-week layoff. Packwood very despondent—I’m afraid of the negative effect of a denied parole. Chris Sutherland also very despondent because authorities confiscated much of his work.

Most of the evening spent talking about poets, especially Nikki Giovanni. Generally, the men feel that her popularity has made her ego trip.

They really “come down” hard on her. Their biggest objection was to her seemingly having to explain her actions if they seem contrary to the norm. I suggested that I would bring a taped recording of her reading to next week’s session.

The remainder of the evening was spent reading original poems. The men were most eager to read and very enthusiastic. I showed them the manuscript that Ann, Beverly, and I had completed and I read some poems from it.

December 17, 1972

Packwood says he’s been suffering from “growing pain” in his writing. “I’m beginning to feel my growth as a Black writer,” he tells me, “and constantly seeking new modes of expression.” His thoughts, he says, “are just popping up from everywhere” and he’s now developing the habit of writing these thoughts down.

December 20, 1972

Tonite, we began our first two-hour session. From now on, we intend to meet 6:30–8:30 with both groups combined. More time.

I switched the tape to Imamu Amear Baraka (LeRoi Jones), and his comments provided discussion for the entire evening.

The men have become quite sophisticated in their poetic tastes and versatility. Their criticism of poems and poets is most perceptive. We really got into quite a discussion as to what constitutes a poem, and what Blacks should be writing about, today. Most of them agree that our work should reflect the times. Chris, Abraham, and Thurman were concerned that we do not lose a wide range, and Chris stressed the need for exercising the imagination more often as poets. How profound and mature!

Marv McQueen is coming home on furlough Saturday. He is staying around the corner from us. I’ll see him during the holidays.

A most interesting point came up tonite. I asked why Black poets do not seem to write humorous poems these days too often. The men said (some of them) that Black people have nothing to be happy about. When I told them that I am constantly happy, they agreed, but found it hard to believe. Strange!

December 27, 1972

Tonite, we began with one of Imamu’s earlier tapes I’d made. The purpose was to compare his tone in this speech with the one we heard last week. We especially noted his poems on the recording.

Since we began this poetry workshop, on May 24, I have noticed how reflective and philosophical a number of the men have become. Many of them have begun to use language well in poetry and very interested in the power of the word. With this in mind, I began talking about Japanese haiku poetry and taught them how to write it. With haiku, the poet must write a poem comprised of only seventeen syllables. I am eager to see what they will do by next week.

January 3, 1973

A new year—great optimism. But that’s not new—I feel this way almost every day I wake up.

Played tape recording of Don L. Lee. Men enjoyed his poetry.

We continued our discussion of haiku and read our own haiku. The men were quite good. Jamail was especially good. He appears to be well learned and is the imam in a Muslim sect. Haiku is a natural for him. Abraham (Brathwaite) finally found a poetic medium. Packwood, surprisingly, did not do well with haiku.

Celes Tisdale is Distinguished Emeritus Professor of English at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and the editor of Betcha Ain’t: Poems from Attica and We Be Poetin’.

Adapted from When the Smoke Clearedforthcoming from Duke University Press in November 2022.

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