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By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives by…

By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives

by Judith Tannenbaum

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I've been remiss in recording what this book means to me, a small betrayal of the "early" reviewer program. But part of the delay came precisely because I was so moved from the start that I wanted to savor the presentation. I was actually a bit afraid to go on beyond the first pair of chapters -- by the "free" teacher and the imprisoned poet -- and lose the sense of wonder with which my reading began. When I did push on, I did find a level of detail that sometimes made me rush past to find what happened to the writers because of what the people were reporting. But the insights didn't stop, and I think I'll be going back to the book for a long time.

I must acknowledge a certain jealousy of Judith Tannenbaum. I've never studied poetry in any formal way, don't seek it out, have written it only occasionally, but have applied twice for one of the writer's residencies that she says helped her turn around to begin telling us in the free world about her experiences teaching poetry in prison. As I listen to my neighbors shouting morning routines with their children, I can more than appreciate the value of seclusion in which to just write. I hope it's not just my jealousy that made me find a bit precious the chapters detailing Tannenbaum's fairly ordinary life before she began her teaching in prison. I'll try to chalk it up to being too obedient to the structure of alternating chapters, allowing her life to intrude into what is really Spoon Jackson's story.

I think I can also appreciate the seclusion of imprisonment that, paradoxically, allowed Spoon Jackson to just write. I've never been imprisoned, but spent a summer gathering data for a national sociological study of jail and prison inmates, and can only admire Mr. Jackson for finding seclusion rather than exclusion in his sentence of life without parole. What I'm afraid of is that Spoon Jackson's life might have been more wasted if he hadn't committed thoughtless murder, hadn't been told by society that that act would define him for all time, and that containing him would be society's only interest in however many days his body lived, if he hadn't chosen to let words become his world.

I'm not sure how understandable the transformation can be to someone who doesn't have their own observations of the American prison system and what it demands of the people we store in it. But I'm thrilled with what Spoon Jackson has managed to find within that system, crushed that our educational system denied it to him, and that my society is willing to leave the lives of so many Spoon Jacksons meaningless, wordless, and desperate.

I believe in the power of words. I'm not surprised that they've saved Spoon Jackson. I'm only sorry he had to find them so much on his own. ( )
  bkswrites | Jun 28, 2010 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
A collaborative memoir, By Heart: Poetry, Prison, And Two Lives explores the journey of Judith Tannenbaum and Spoon Jackson into poetry and understanding. Tannenbaum is an artist and educator who has taught poetry in many different settings including the Arts-in-Corrections program in California. Spoon is an inmate serving a life sentence. The two met at San Quentin Prison in the 1980’s.
By Heart is a moving encounter between freedom and prison, art, beauty and desolation, silence and voice. The story is told through alternating chapters in which each tells the story of their lives and the insights they gained through learning, creating, and sharing poetry. Storytelling was an inherent trait of Tannenbaum’s extended Jewish family. The teachers she encountered during her school days promoted her imagination and helped her to harness her energy into creating stories that gave her new life and freedom. She volunteered in her daughter’s kindergarten classroom and began her journey into teaching poetry.
Spoon grew up in a small town on the edge of the Mojave Desert. As one of fifteen boys, Spoon ran a little wild. He spent his early years exploring nature, spending many hours hanging out in the dry riverbed behind their shack. His school years were largely negative. It appears that early on he was a target for corporeal punishment at school and beatings at home; he received little to no affirmations during these formative years.
Spoon is “real” with his life in prison and what put him there in the first place. He takes full responsibility for his actions while examining what went wrong in his early life that led him down this path. Spoon enrolled in high school and college classes offered to prisoners, spent hours reading and thinking during lockdowns and long weekends. Silence became a powerful friend that allowed him time for self reflection and growth. He had grown as a man during the eight years before he met Tannenbaum in the poetry class.
Tannenbaum does not save Spoon through poetry. The two poets grow through their encounters by sharing their work, exploring voice, and influencing each other’s work. They examine other poets both famous and well known as well as the poems of children and other prisoners. This is about growth and the exploration of humanity. It is easy for society to shut the prison door and forget that there are human lives closed within. By Heart shows us how humanity survives and flourishes within enclosed walls and communication.
There are many issues that can be explored as book clubs share this book. It is passionate and tender, raw and realistic. It is a love story but not love between people; it is about love for ourselves and our humanity. As an educator I was deeply moved by the story of Spoon and Tannenbaum. This is a book that I would wish for every educator to read. It is inspirational and thought- provoking. I recommend this book for book clubs, educators, and all who need to be reminded about humanity and generosity of spirit. ( )
1 vote booksfordeb | Jun 3, 2010 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
As someone who is incredibly addicted to both writing poetry and teaching, and someone interested in working with underprivelaged youth and prisoners through arts classes, this book fell directly in line with my interests. Because of that, I feel like I should start out this review by making clear my bias--I'm not sure this book is meant for everyone, but for the right reader, it's well worth the while. That said, for readers who are interested in the power of poetry OR the need for arts and personal development classes in prisons OR memoir, this is well worth your while.

While it takes some time to get used to the style of the memoir, in the end, you get two memoirs in one that reinforce one another throughout the full journey of the text. Both voices come across as confident and honest, giving views into the power of both poetry and teaching, as well as to the flaws in corrections systems and approaches.

That said, there were some aspects of the work that I found grew tiresome after I'd moved through the book a ways. First, simply, I wanted more of Spoon's voice in the memoir; his voice was the one more foreign to my own knowledge, while many of Tannenbaum's thoughts were very familiar, and at times somewhat repetitive. Second, I wanted more critical thought. Both voices were often nearly unbelievably optimistic, to the extent that I felt what I was reading had much more behind it than what I was actually given. On some level, this makes sense--I understand the issues of censorship that were necessarily coming into play. At the same time, it often felt watered down content-wise. Last, I suppose I just wanted more depth, more detail, and a slower approach--I wanted more in general. In ways, this came across as more of a journal than a memoir, and while I appreciated everything within, I could feel what was going unspoken below the surface, and as someone interested in both poetry and teaching, I wanted to know those details of depth and communication.

In general, it's a book worth reading IF you're interested in the material. I think that at times it is trying to be too optimistic, too focused toward inspiring as opposed to documenting, but the project as a whole is a project of witness as much as anything else, and of awareness. In those views, it's well conceived, and well executed. Certainly, I'm glad it came my way in the end. ( )
1 vote whitewavedarling | May 10, 2010 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I was amazed that I was chosen to receive this book from the ER program. I spend some of my free time volunteering at the local county jail leading writing circles for female inmates. When I saw I had been chosen to read and review a book about arts in the prison, it felt very familiar and very interesting.

The memoir is actually billed as two memoirs: teacher and pupil/prisoner. Both were fine stories but each had a different rhythm and a different ebb and flow. The more interesting story is that of the poet-prisoner Spoon Jackson. Ms Tannenbaum's is fine, but since this is a kind of follow up to her first memoir which is an actual account of her four years of teaching poetry in San Quentin, I got the impression that her chapters in this book were more to give Mr. Spoons some legitimacy or weight. I don't think they needed it; his story stood very well on its own. By the end, I really wanted to read Disguised as a Poem (Judith Tannenbaum's original memoir) and I wanted to see Spoon's own narrative fleshed out a bit more.

Any reader of this would naturally root for some change in the criminal justice system that might allow Mr. Jackson to get out of prison, but to truly be a well rounded memoir--Mr Spoon would need to explore his crime a bit more. He did kill someone and it would be interesting to hear him write a bit about what that means..even now 20 years after the crime. He glossed over it very quickly in an early chapter.

I found his experiences with the arts in prison quite profound. I thought the way the system moved him capriciously between prisons and programs interesting and I was really astounded to read that he was married not once but twice while incarcerated. (One with "family visits"; one without) These aspects of Spoon's life were the heart and soul of the narrative and I would have liked more.

I did appreciate Ms Tannenbaum's reflections os teaching in the prisons. Some of her thoughts and wisdom I will carry with me next time I go into the jail. ( )
2 vote acornell | May 3, 2010 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This book intertwines two memoirs together: Judith Tannenbaum, poet and teacher (whose life was spent mostly teaching in prisons and other community groups -- not in the Ivy Towers of colleges) and Spoon Jackson, convict, student, and poet. Out of the two life stories, I found Spoon Jackson's much more intriguing and in some ways, even more enlightening. Jackson's writing was raw and powerful, and I wanted more of his story. It would seem that Tannebaum may have already used her best work for the book that came before this work, Disquised as a Poem: My Years Teaching Poetry at San Quentin. (A book I have not read, but now want to....)

I requested this book because I wanted to see more about the actual teaching of poetry in communities other than schools. I didn't get that. What I did learn, however, was about life inside American prisons and the politics of education to those who are not privileged. ( )
  karenweyant | Apr 30, 2010 |
Showing 1-5 of 11 (next | show all)
"By Heart disrupts our assumptions, causes us to question our preconceptions, and reminds us of a commonly held humanity that is always the subject of Art, the engine of Love and should be the only authority of Justice."
added by JulieatNVP | editThe Examiner, LJ Moore (May 11, 2010)
"Intriguing and a fascinating read, "By Heart" is a worthwhile addition to any literary studies or memoir collection."
added by JulieatNVP | editMidwest Book Review (Apr 1, 2010)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0981559352, Paperback)

Judith Tannenbaum and Spoon Jackson met at San Quentin State Prison in 1985. For over two decades they have conferred, corresponded and sometimes collaborated, producing very different bodies of work resting on the same understanding: that human beings have one foot in darkness, the other in light.

In this beautifully crafted exploration – part memoir, part essay – Tannenbaum and Jackson consider art, education, prison, possibility, and which children our world nurtures and which it shuns. At the book's core are two stories that speak for human imagination, spirit, and expression.

Q&A with Judith Tannenbaum Co-author of By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives

How did you meet Spoon?

I first came to San Quentin in 1985 to give a poetry reading to a small group of men. I was then asked to come back to teach and Spoon was part of our class from almost the beginning. He was my most intriguing student. Each week he constructed a circle of chairs he sat within, and for the first year, said nearly nothing. But he kept showing up.

Why did you write this book?

Spoon suggested that we write a two-person memoir. I’ve shared poetry with public school children and maximum security prisoners for over thirty-five years, and I welcomed the opportunity to describe both this work and the values it rests on. Also, I looked forward to memoir’s invitation to re-enter childhood, young motherhood, becoming a poet.

Why a two-person memoir?

Point-of-view is one of my deepest interests. Encouraging my capacity to see the world first from one perspective, and then from another, strengthens not only my vision, but also my heart. I loved that Spoon proposed a book in which we would tell our individual and shared stories in alternate chapters. By Heart seems to me stronger because it allows readers to move back and forth between Spoon’s experience and mine.

Why should anyone read a book by a convicted murderer?

One reason is practical. An enormous percentage of most state budgets goes to pay for prison; the public is asked to make many decisions about who is sent behind bars and for how long. We need every report we can get about this world we’re paying for. Practical, too, is that the best chance we have to prevent future violence is to hear from those who have known violence. Besides, people in prison are people. I believe our humanity is deepened when we open to the humanity of others.

Do you have a main point you’d like a reader to take away after reading By Heart?

Spoon writes about the many doors and windows through which a reader might enter our book. After so many years working in public schools and prisons, one main point for me is noticing which children our world nurtures and which it shuns. I hope readers of By Heart take away the recognition that all children are our children; I hope readers are encouraged to support, listen to, educate, and care for each child as they would for their own child.

Q&A with Spoon Jackson Co-author of By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives

What are you in prison for?

I was convicted of first degree murder. I have served thirty-two years for the killing and I take full responsibility for that loss of life.

Do you have remorse?

Every day, sometimes every moment. I messed up big time and I know I cannot bring back the life that I took. This is a forever wound on my soul and heart. But I can make sure my walk on Mother Earth for the rest of my life is one of service, peace, and love.

Why did you write this book?

Because I am a writer and I wanted to do a writing project with Judith Tannenbaum. Since the days we met at San Quentin in the 1980s, my dream has been for the two of us to do poetry readings and projects. Also, I hope the book will help me make amends for the wrong I did.

Why should anyone read a book by a convicted murderer?

Hopefully By Heart will open the eyes of, inspire, and detour wayward youth and others from the dark path that led me to prison. I know such is a reoccurring theme of authors who are serving, or have served, time in prison. Yet this kind of enlightenment is what happens sometimes when you wake up to the real: you want to do what is healing and self-rehabilitating.

Do you think you deserve a second chance?

No, I don’t think I deserve anything. Sometimes I think I owe my life for taking a life. My finding, or creating, redemption for the wrong I’ve done does not depend on my ever seeing the streets again. My hope and dream is that I’ve made amends and peace. I have not given up on getting out of prison. I have just let go and live as I live in the moment. If Mother Earth, karma, Goddess, God, the universe, or whatever forces govern love, life or time prefer that I spend the rest of my physical life behind bars, who am I to complain?

Do you have a main point you’d like a reader to take away after reading By Heart?

By Heart has many doors through which a reader can enter, and if someone doesn’t find a door, he or she can climb in through a window. One main point is that, as human beings, we all have one foot in darkness and one foot in light. I hope readers will feel that I’ve balanced my walk by creating By Heart.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:05 -0400)

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