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 edits 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. 

James Anderson

 

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.

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