Prisoners in Oklahoma, once also known as poets
Earlier, I talked with This Land Press audio producer Abby Wendle, on the Stringtown Poetry Workshop.
How did you hear about this story?
“The poetry book that some of these poems are published in (Warning, Hitchhikers May be Escaping Convicts), and I wanted to do one of the poems in that book…When I had her read the poem, she started telling all of these stories about collecting those poems and working inside of the prison system in Oklahoma, and I realized there was a much larger story that needed to be told”
What did you discover?
“I was just interviewing her in her living room and [Mary] was just kinda like ‘One day towards the end of the workshops, I decided I was going to bring a tape recorder in and I was going to record the prisoners reading their poetry.’ She went and grabbed a tape recorder, and the tape where she had done those recordings back in 1978 was still in the recorder.”
“I don’t know how many hours there were…the voice that I go back to again and again in the piece is William Hougner, whose nickname was Indian Bill. And his honesty that came out in the poems about what life is like in prison and some of the dark, disturbing realities that he had to deal with, it became apparent how important poetry can be for an individual to have the opportunity to figure out how they feel and what they think about their experiences.”
Do these programs still exist?
“I spoke with the Public Information Officer for the Department of Corrections in Oklahoma, and he said no, frankly.”
“Prisoners can buy craft supplies and they can buy paint, but there’s no formal creative arts programming that happens inside of the prisons. Sometimes, if a volunteer wants to do something like a poetry workshop, they have to get everything approved by the warden.”
“There’s nothing like what Mary did. There’s no group workshop that meets regularly. Basically, it’s because of evidence-based programming. And the evidence that they’re looking for is evidence that whatever programs the prison is offering to its prisoners is going to directly reduce the recidivism rate at their prison.”
“And if there’s no evidence that a poetry workshop is going to do that, then the prison is not going to invest any money in giving the program to the prisoners.”
“I don’t know that you can quantify it. I don’t know that you can judge its value in that way. I think if you listen to the voices of the men that were in this workshop, I think you can hear the value in their own voices.”
“At the end, Indian Bill says, ‘I’m going to try to be a better man, I’m going to try to not make the same mistakes that I’ve made over and over and over again.’”