Price William Hall teaching in the Community-based Art Prison Arts Collective
Price Hall's Creative Writing Workshop with CBA at the California Institution for Men
Price William Hall congratulates a student in the Community-based Art Prison Arts Collective
Hanging with the Boys in Blue
March 1, 2016
by Price William Hall
“Damn! A holiday, another one...” I muttered under my breath and hung up the phone. No classes would be taught today, again, due to an issue with the deployment of correctional staff. I have been teaching Creative Writing at the California Institution for Men (CIM), the prison in Chino, for the past two years through California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB) Community-based Art (CBA). With changes in staff at the prison, our ongoing program was being reassessed and reevaluated, including the manpower allocated to ensure our safety, and so we would not have class that day. Teaching in the prison, I often feel like a wheel within a wheel, a tiny cog mindlessly directed to turn — but in only one direction — inside the throbbing of a great machine. But this time, at least, our rudimentary phone tree had caught us in time, preventing a substantial but fruitless commute to the prison to teach. We had learned from day one to be flexible, but it seemed as if this particular spring had see a perfect storm of disruptions to test us, leading to multiple closures and lost class time. Even so, my fellow teachers and I knew that every minute that we were able to teach in that gray environment was appreciated as priceless quality time and positive emotional enrichment.
We only offer our classes once a week on Fridays, so any missed class represented a huge loss of instructional opportunity. Worse, this was the third week in a row that class had been canceled. If I were a slave to my curriculum, I would have been really bummed. But I had quickly learned, and recently shared with the newest member of our team, that to prepare for institutional teaching was to expect change. This newest member had expectantly joined us for the last two weeks without being able to interact with students or even to see the bleacher-less gym in which we teach up to five classes at a time each week. The first operational guideline in teaching in this institution is to keep ones’ teaching protocol decidedly fluid.
My creative writing class would have had fun today, I mused. I had copies of an insightful interview with Ron Carlson, university professor and acclaimed author known for his well-constructed short stories, some written expressly to be discussed in his writing classes. My class and I would have collectively read the interview, taking turns as they volunteered to read the interviewer's questions. I would respond in my best professor voice reading Ron's answers about nourishing the craft of writing. He writes stories to use as examples to teach from and I would have distributed his short story, “The Governor's Ball” which they could take home, read at will, enjoyed and serving as a subject for future discussion. He tells of how a true incident sparked the story and teaches how the story emerges out of that direct experience.
I imagine that this experience would have pleased the prose writers in my class, while the poets would have cheerfully have gone along for the ride, knowing that we last wrote Cinquain poetry as a class. In order to be of as much service as I can be, I decided early on that, to embrace everyone’s interests, we would function like a pendulum, swinging gently between poetry and prose. Being a workshop class, we periodically discuss ongoing student special projects; two novels are underway, in addition to in-depth discussions on a wide range of writing experiences from prose to poetry, Saki’s short stories to the Haiku of an ancient Japan, the graphic novel to screenwriting. We cover everything from grammar and the task of punctuation to the white space of poetry and the intimate yet distant relationship between the writer and his reader separated by space and time. The current unifying goal of the class is to compile a literary journal built of the units of their creation. Short stories, Haiku, Tanka, Cinquain, free verse poetry, excerpts of larger novels underway and special student projects such as a one-page graphic story, to be printed upon good glossy-white paper and bound giving it a dignity it will deserve born of sustained and focused writing work.
The logistics of teaching in such institutions as our prisons can be daunting. Protocol must be observed and whatever one brings in must be accounted for on the way out. We writers in some ways have it easier than classes focusing on techniques, like drawing or painting, with many materials. We teach in a great gym without the bleachers, as I remember from high school; the acoustics are cavernous and the space is observed by a gunner, high up in an open position overlooking the gym as well as the yard outside. The strict clothing code dictated quite specifically what was to be worn by the distinct groups of prison society, the sand tan and olive-green of the guards, blue shirts and blue pants for inmates, the “boys in blue”, as I like to call them, and the dress that we as university students and volunteers sharing the fruits of our learning could wear, any color not to be confused with the prison color code, and no slogans.
In this land of subtraction and restriction, personal ownership is complicated. Of course pets are not allowed; after all it is an overcrowded and cramped facility of men. Yet I have seen lizards, caught and won over by inmates, become prime pets to nourish and in that process of care, provide their owners with a means to self-nourishment as well. As my students proudly sported their animal companions on their lapels, I related that I had once read that the best way to catch a fly is to aim behind it since it leaps backwards just before take off. This information on gathering food for their charges seems certainly as cogent as possible uses of the comma or the power of a question mark.
Of all the students I have experienced as an educator in various roles in the public and private sectors, none express such a sincere appreciation as inmates hungry for not only a stimulating intellectual conversation, but simply for a normal one. When certificates are ceremoniously handed out to resounding applause at the end of each session, many men return to their seat and sit quietly, gazing in a sort of awe at what is for some their first certificate of achievement. Thinking of the students slowly discovering the cancellation of class today nourished my melancholy at not being able to provide this positive experience, but then I remembered that they know we will be back, collaborating on a positive ray in a somber place another day.
I reordered the freshly printed copies of the Carlson interview in my open teaching bag, easy to search and easy to carry papers, a book or two, and three bottles of water. Next Friday, it will be Ron Carlson speaking to my class and to me through his interview. We will learn together from a gracious master sharing how to let our own voices speak and be heard in the genre of the contemporary short story. We will share Anton Checkov's observations after that, and then we will write fictions that swell and emerge out of our lives. Some may write to forget, but many, like myself, will write to remember, and so the process of writing frees the writer. Perhaps, I thought, our writing is like standing in a stream, a current of thoughts swirling on every side as if being buffeted by the wind, flowing through us like electricity.
Price William Hall
Out of that rare air on the mountaintop
of six decades of a life still accruing days yet
close enough to the apex of life's great peak
where this physical Earth meets the nebulous
gases of atmosphere embracing space beyond,
Price William Hall has long come to believe
deep inside where it really matters most,
behind his eyes in the core of his brain
in the beating of his heart and breathing
measured to last a lifetime, inside down
in the gut where every emotion is tangible,
that the acts of the range of human creation
whether sculpture, painting, the objects of art
the voice in the writer's words, the song of poetry
or even human voice and all aesthetic thoughts
made visible, documented in the endless variety
of a hundred hundred forms individually unique,
expressing that of the purest act of being human,
the celebration of life, flows proliferation of love.
Hall earned his MFA in Studio Art and Design at CSUSB in 2015 after six decades of life, having completed his BA there four years prior. Prior to finishing these advanced degrees, he invested almost two decades teaching in private elementary and middle school education, raised a family, and dreamed of some day becoming free enough to devote the rest of his life to his writing and art. He began teaching creative writing at the CA Institute for Men (CIM) in Chino with CSUSB Community-based Art (CBA) while in grad school. He found it immensely rewarding and continues to teach there post graduation. He is working on publishing a collection of student writing.