A desert poet takes his work inside

Richard Shelton has taught writing in prisons for 30 years

  • Jay Canode

Desert Water

once a year
when infallible toads
begin to sing
all the spiders who left me
return and I make room for them

I am too proud

to mention their long absence

then the owls
send a message in code
from saguaro to saguaro
and the toads stop singing

a sea of warm air
rolls over quickly and relaxes
we wait for the promised rain
for the second coming
of water

each time it arrives
like the flood and I know
I have not wasted my life

spiders still come
to my house for shelter

During one of Richard Shelton's creative-writing workshops, gunshots erupted outside the classroom. His students leaped up from their desks and barricaded the door. Then, for the next two hours, they continued their discussion of literary theory, while tear-gas fumes and the sounds of rioting seeped into the room.

One of Shelton's students was later murdered -- beaten with a pipe, stabbed 15 times and drilled through the forehead. At least two others got stabbed to death in different attacks. Another was locked in solitary confinement, but kept writing poetry and sending it to Shelton for his critiques. Some students had their typewriters confiscated by the authorities, but they never stopped writing.

Shelton's been with the English Department of the University of Arizona in Tucson for 48 years, but much of his passion is focused behind bars. On his own time, as a volunteer, he's run writing workshops in prisons for more than 30 years.

His hundreds of students have included a guy who'd murdered 13 people, a doctor who'd hired someone to kill a partner in his clinic, a woman who'd killed two abusive husbands, various robbers, sex offenders, con artists and druggies.

With Shelton's encouragement, many of them have become published authors and poets. One went on to win a National Book Award after his release from prison. Another received the John Burroughs Award for nature writing. Several of his students have become college professors.

Shelton himself escaped from a rough early life. His poverty-stricken childhood in Boise was "disastrous," he says -- a family member abused him until his grandparents stepped in to help raise him. He's written a dozen books, mostly poetry and some nonfiction -- including Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer, which came out in 2007 -- and six chapbooks. At age 76, he still teaches one or two prison workshops each week, along with a workshop at the university's poetry center that draws ex-cons.

Recently, Shelton talked about how the act of writing can help troubled people reform themselves:

"Prisons are viewed as a human garbage dump. We (the United States) lead the world now -- we've even surpassed Russia and China (in the percentage of the population that's behind bars). It says that we're a very violent people, and we know we're violent, so we're also fearful. There's a terrible cost, because prison isn't doing much to help (the inmates) -- it's just holding them out of society. It's simply punishment. But I think of it as an opportunity instead of as a punishment.

"Men and women in prison have a whole different set of life experiences than most college students have. They were not raised in comfort. Often they were raised in poverty, with parents who didn't know how to handle things, or parents who were junkies and prostitutes. … They have a lot to say. They're also exciting to work with, much more exciting than college students. They have more motivation (to write), they're more willing to learn, more willing to revise and revise and revise, and they have more experience to back them up.

"The big thing they're learning is to use language honestly and accurately. That's what I work on, so they can examine the world and themselves with an honest approach. It becomes a tool for them in doing everything. … One of them wrote a poem in a letter to the parole board, admitting that he had committed murder -- it was the first time he was able to be that honest -- and (the board members) knocked six years off his sentence, they were so impressed with it.

"Self-expression is another big part of it for them. And I listen. Sometimes I think I'm the only one who's ever really listened to them. It makes a big difference. They feel like they are being taken seriously. We have a good time, too, but they feel like they're being taken seriously. … I push them toward publishing. It's life-altering for them to publish. They feel some sense of self-worth that they didn't have before."

Article on Richard Shelton
Sandy Fackler
Sandy Fackler
Mar 08, 2009 11:38 PM
What wonderful work Mr. Shelton does, elivating prisoners to human statis in their own eyes. Thank you for this article. I wish more would listen to their voices and more compassion would be shown them.
Marty Weiss
Marty Weiss
Mar 21, 2009 12:06 AM
When I was about 12 years old, on Friday night I would put on a sport coat and a tie and ride a bus for an hour down into the inner city of Chicago. I went to a jazz club called the Birdhouse, which was roped off to provide a non-alcohol area for minors like me. I was usually the only kid there. I saw live the greats of Jazz. Cannonball Adderly, Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt and many others-- going week after week like a moth to flame. But my hero was Miles Davis, whose quintet included John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones. I would often see the performers leaving the backstage area between sets and I wanted so much to talk to Miles. But I didn't know what to say. Finally, out of desperation, I asked Miles "What about embouchure?" (the positioning of the mouthpiece on the lips)-- Never one to waste words or notes, Miles Davis said to me, "Ask your teacher."
I tell this story to honor your work. You are a truly human being.