It is really easy to paint everyone in prison as being the same. Hardened criminals who are as monochromatic as the walls surrounding them with black hearts and dark thoughts that only know destruction. But that like most popular perceptions about prison is not just an over-simplification, it is wrong. Prison is a microcosm of society with people from all walks of life, many of whom I’ve tried to describe in this blog. There are colorful, creative people who have done some terrible things and are paying the price. However, rather than letting darkness consume them they are taking the proverbial lemon and making lemonade. They do this pouring out their creative energy in painting or writing. The University of Michigan Prison Creative Arts Project has for more than two decades hosted an exhibit of art by Michigan prisoners and for ten years have published an annual volume of creative writing. The annual art exhibit and reading are held in Ann Arbor and Detroit and are open to the general public.
Works of art and writing are submitted to a selection committee at the U of M Humanities School. Those that are accepted cover a wide range of subject matter from real life to flights of fancy and from poetry to non-fiction. Many of the works of art are available for sale with the proceeds going to the artist. The creative writing is published in book form that is available for sale by U of M. At the reading, mainly family and friends are invited to read on behalf of the incarcerated author. I was one of the rare authors who had paroled between the submittal and the reading and could present my own poem “Ode to Ramen.” A humorous but truthful analysis of the importance of Ramen Noodles to prisoners.
It is fascinating to see how others view their life behind bars in color or black and white. The diversity of perspectives and experience is showcased nicely through this program by U of M. So much of life behind bars is a mysterious secret that very few get a glimpse of first hand. There should be more programs like this that provide an outlet for inmates than can be witnessed by the public.
Here is the poem that I wrote regarding one aspect of prison life that was published in “Concertina Maze” The Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing, Vol. 9. 2016
Ode to Ramen
Like many prison inmates I own my very survival to your savory, salty goodness. The MRE of the penitentiary. You are always there when the chow hall lets me down to satisfy my hungry longing for sustenance.
Your noodley presence is the only constant in a place where no one knows what tomorrow may bring. More enduring than a Bunkie, waiting patiently in my locker to be called upon in a time of need.
Honeybuns and bagels may come and go, but your pasta lasts forever. You never grow old or mold, having a half-life rather than a shelf life. Meant to be crushed yet you are indestructible. Immortality incarnate.
Haute cuisine you may not be, yet comfort food you are. A staple ingredient in every dish, the most versatile of wonder foods. You inspire me to new heights of cookery as master chef of the microwave.
Flavor is your claim to fame. Packets of hot spicy intensity or meaty mellowness that travel far and wide beyond the expectations of ordinary condiments, to lift the spirits of diners in desperate need of taste enhancement.
Your value transcends your caloric content to become the currency of the land. Exchanging hands to pay our debts, you wander far before you spend your last to ensure that I will make it ‘till the dawn.
Hail to the noodle!