Louis Templeman: State-Issue Blues

Louis Templeman was incarcerated in Florida and was released within the last year. He has written a number of essays and poetry about his experience. The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world.

Here is an excerpt from Templeman’s essay “I Have A Face“:

Standing on a concrete pad where a large diesel tank had been removed, I stared out through the 12′ security fence, topped with razor wire. I saw the parade of men in blue going to lunch. It was very cold, windy, at most 45 degrees. It was so cold in the dorms that morning that one of our guards did the 7:00 a.m. count wearing gloves, insulated jacket, ear muffs and a hat. The living, moving swatch of blue shivered under cloth caps (if they were lucky) and cotton jackets. A fortunate few had long johns.

One man stood out. Octavio. I felt proud I finally remembered his name. He speaks almost no English. He is always enthusiastic in his greeting to me. Of the fifty or so men who flow by he is the only one I think I know. The way he walks. His posture. His face causes him to stand out against the river of men draped in state issue blue.

All prisoners dress alike. We live under strict dress codes. It is an attempt by the Florida Department of Corrections to separate us from our identities. This discourages staff from seeing us as individuals.

Separating us from our individuality facilitates the on-going negativism, condescension, cursing and regular issuance of suffering from F. D. C. staff. In some camps this allotment of trauma and fear comes from other state employees such as medical personnel clerks, classification and work supervisors. When this culture of fear is strong in correctional officers the non-security employees often buy into it and look for opportunity to taunt and torment the inmates.

Judges hand down our sentences. F. D. C. staff, primarily correctional officers, put the sting to it. The state employees who embrace this culture of hate do not appreciate the depth of suffering endured in the inmates’ loss of family and friends, children becoming fatherless, wives falling into poverty and promiscuity, removal from satisfying work and a pressing into an absurd counter-culture that forces an institutionalization that robs a man of his maturity, self-worth, and works to mold him into a childlike dependence on the state.

Read Louis Templeman’s full essay here.

Poet Elizabeth Alexander to read at Obama’s Inauguration

Elizabeth Alexander, poet and Yale professor, has been chosen to read her poetry at President Obama’s inauguration. Very cool! One of D.C.’s leading ladies of letters gets to come home and do her thing on the South Lawn. Alexander is a native of Washington and one of America’s leading poets.

I don’t know if Obama’s Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies reads E. Ethelbert Miller’s E-Notes, but he suggested Elizabeth Alexander back in July. That’s what I call visionary! (He also suggested Aretha and/or Stevie Wonder to sing. Let’s see what happens.)
Here’s Ethelbert’s poem in honor of Elizabeth Alexander from his collection Whispers, Secrets & Promises

Elizabeth Alexander

I like to say your
name because it sounds
like an era or period
in time when kingdoms
were won…

E. Ethelbert Miller

I suggest reading Alexander’s essay Black Alive and Looking Straight at You: The Legacy of June Jordan as a nice introduction to her thoughts on poetry, activism, and politics. “Poetry,” she writes, “is sacred speech that marks the sacred in our lives.” Below is an excerpt from that essay:

I have been thinking for a long time about poetry and politics through the instructive examples of June Jordan, the woman and her work. What is the “job” or the work of a poem, and what are its limitations? Why would a writer speak in the morning in the poems, in the afternoon their body while teaching or doing other activist wok, and in the evening in prose essays? What can each form do that the other cannot? Most specifically, what do we want to protect in poetry if we believe, as I do and as Jordan did, that poetry * is* sacred speech that marks the sacred in our lives?

There are poetry people who think that politics, per se, has no place in poetry. This is silly, and it is amazing how strong a hold this idea has had when it is so empty. For time immemorial, across geographies and peoples, poetry has taken as its subject politics, that is, the affairs of the polis, the community and its people. Some people think of themselves as gatekeepers, defenders of a culture, as though culture is something that can be owned by anyone. Culture is like ambient gas; once it is released, there is no collecting it and bringing it back home. This is a great and magical thing: Culture belongs to the world that occasions it. But we could usefully think about the rich and edifying aspects of form that mark discourses in particular genre. How should a poem attend to the business of its chosen form, the care and style with which the box is made rather than what is put inside the box?

Poets do have responsibility to make images that compel, to distill language, to write with model precision and specificity that is what poetry has to offer to other genres. It makes something happen with language that takes the breath away or shifts the mind. For the poem, which is after all not the newspaper, must move beyond the information it contains while simultaneously imparting the information it contains. Jordan’s commitment to poetry was constant, and it is in those words that we find her simultaneous devotion to the largest possible picture–her keen analyses of the world situation–and to the smallest detail–her tending of language.