Corey Campbell (fiction, ’12) recently spoke with Arizona State University about her experiences teaching fiction to prisoners.
Friday mornings start with the 63-plus mile drive across Phoenix, past Apache Junction, and into the desert. “Usually I’m nervous before class,” she says. Then she hastens to add, “But not because they’re prisoners, and not even because they’re sex offenders” (that detail she learned the week before her first class). No, what Campbell worries about is whether her lessons will encompass all their interests and needs! “I try,” she notes modestly.
Campbell’s regard for what the prisoners themselves are trying to do is very clear in some of the following stories she shares about them: “Marcus writes a fantasy trilogy about an ancient fighter named O.M.A. (One Man Army). Bobby’s poem, ‘The Birth of Hope,’ describes an inmate’s desire for a rainbow, the only lover who dares visit him in prison. Then there is Notso, initially the most confrontational—writing a monologue from my point of view for the first assignment—who has become my biggest supporter, submitting an encyclopedic history of elderly war veterans on a park bench remembering. Notso’s last name is Smart, so he calls himself ‘Notso,’ and asks that we do the same: Notso Smart.”
“Then there’s Wesley, missing his front teeth, who told me once that everyone appears to be friends in workshop but on the yard are only acquaintances. His first submission described a beaming couple planning their wedding while on a Caribbean vacation. In detail he described the succulent jerk chicken they ate, how the sand gloriously rubbed their feet, where they planned to snorkel the next day.” Reading the rich description of this imaginative journey, Campbell realized that Wes was writing to take a vacation. “He didn’t care when we demanded he add tension and conflict; the piece had already served its purpose for him. He wanted to get away!”