From Inside: Arizona Prison
Creative Writing Workshops
In 1970, poet and former University of Arizona professor Richard Shelton received a letter from a serial killer asking for feedback on poetry. The exchange inspired him to teach creative writing workshops in the Arizona State Prison System.
Today, with continued support from the University of Arizona Poetry Center and the Lannan Foundation, the program has thrived, with many of Shelton's students going on to publish the works they created while incarcerated, including award-winning writers Ken Lamberton and Jimmy Santiago Baca. What began as a single workshop in the Arizona State Prison has expanded to four, with the added help of instructor Erec Toso, including new workshops for inmates in maximum security Federal Prison.
Shelton himself wrote a memoir, Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer, detailing his experiences teaching the prison writing workshops. He also founded the Rain Shadow Review (previously Walking Rain Review), a free, annual literary journal which features the work of current and former inmates. The journal is given away free, thanks to support from the Lannan Foundation. Print copies are available at the UA Poetry Center and are mailed to subscribers.
The Typist Behind the Print
For most of the men in the prison writing workshops, seeing their work typed in print for the first time is life-affirming (inmates are not allowed to have typewriters or computers). Richard's wife, Lois Shelton, who passed away in 2015, devoted over thirty-five years to typing and copy-editing the handwritten work of men in several Arizona State Prisons, for their workshops and for submission to publications.
Tree Inside a Prison Fence
Pink and creamy-purple flowers
hang heavy on the tree.
This summer the petals smell of dust.
Under the film of dust the flowers
exude a scent as sweet and faint
as a drop of honey boiling in a thimble.
We are all already strangers
so don't breathe in the scent of those flowers
if you're afraid of how private knowledge
is pure exile.
Creative Writing Workshop
Thursdays | 6:00 - 8:00pm
The University of Arizona Poetry Center, Tucson, AZ
A creative writing workshop is also held weekly "on the outside" every Thursday evening at the UA Poetry Center. Originally designed to help ex-cons in the writing program continue with their writing work after release, this writing workshop is also free and open to any aspiring writers. All levels of experience are welcome. Participants are encouraged to bring examples of their own work-in-progress to share with the group for feedback, critique, and discussion.
Additional classes and workshops are available through the
UA Poetry Center, here.
The Prison Writing Program in the News
High Country News: A Desert Poet Takes His Work Inside
PBS NewsHour: Poetry Program Gives Prisoners Unexpected Voice
Huffington Post: The Prisoners' Professor
Arizona Public Media: The Prisoners' Poet
Arizona Public Media: Writing About Prison
Arizona Public Media: Man Finds Purpose in Writing After Prison
Orion Magazine: How Long Has It Been Since You Smelled a Flower?