We are more than halfway through the shortest month of the year, dedicated to Black History Month. I am feeling a sense of urgency, in that there are thousands of books I would like to recommend. I stay awake at night, by overly active mind and imagination keeping me up. Instead of counting sheep, books have been playing across the screen in my mind, my mind scanning the memory banks of books I’ve read in order to make book recommendations. This sense of urgency made me think of the last letter someone wrote from death row, giving it to his lawyer before his state-sanctioned execution.
For a number of years I volunteered with PEN America, the writers’ organization, the affiliate of PEN International, with the Prison Writing Program (PWP). PWP held an annual writing contest for people in prisons and jails across the United States. I served on the poetry committee, which was the most-submitted to category. Poetry is hard, as Steinbeck attests, yet many aspiring writers begin with poetry, perhaps thinking poetry is easy. PWP received a lot of awful poetry, but there were, inevitably, gems among the piles of manuscripts. Many of these poets had no formal education – some wrote themselves out of the darkness of illiteracy, like Jimmy Santiago Baca – and no specialized training in writing; many didn’t know how to present their work. Others wrote from solitary confinement, handwriting their poems on the back of the disciplinary reports that landed them in solitary. Oftentimes, the back story, which they felt compelled to tell, was more interesting than the work submitted. The Chair of PWP during my volunteer time corresponded with people on death row. At one meeting she read the last words written by someone who was executed. He only wished that he had more time, to write, to read, but especially to write. His handwritten letter, his handwriting, seemed rush, as if he was racing against time, and he was. When I stare at a blank sheet of paper, I imagine that letter, that last piece of paper that carried his words from death row to a meeting room in Manhattan where many of us could not begin to imagine that sense of urgency, that all was lost, and that we had to get these words out before walking that last mile at the appointed time of death.
I was going to make a different book recommendation, but the above story compels me to this one, Death Blossoms: Reflections from a Prisoner of Conscience, by Mumia Abu-Jamal. For decades, Mumia wrote with urgency under the threat of death. Read Death Blossoms and just begin to imagine. . .