Tatiana Androsov, Mazenko:
BEFORE THEY CUT THE IVY - Christmas celebration in the dorm
Tatiana Androsov's first novel, Choices, has been published on Amazon (with editing help from Karen Wilbur). Set in the '80s, it follows a young woman working for the U.N. in Cameroon. Our website has a link to a youtube presentation about the book. Tatiana's first book, Before They Cut the Ivy (about MHC), was written when she was 22 and awaits editing and uploading on Amazon. A third book, Mangoes and Blood, is underway.
Louise was very tired. She had spent a week on her last chemistry lab report. They were doing experiments with carbon compounds and for some reason she always seemed to miss a good run through it. She was falling asleep in the room. Slowly things started dissolving. She was on a vast beach with palm trees swaying above her.
Boom! Boom! A blinding mushroom cloud rose in the middle of the ocean. "No, no!" she screamed in her dream. Boom! Boom!
"Come down," she heard a voice from far away. Louise rubbed her eyes. Sonya was standing by the open door, watching a throng of people pass by.
"O, little town of Bethlehem how still...." They were singing. What for?
There was a big smile on Sonya's face. "Come on, Louise, hurry up. We're going downstairs."
"At this time of night?"
"Yes, come on." Sonya came up to Louise's bed and pulled on her roommate's foot.
"Alright, I'm coming!"
In the dining room a hundred colored lights illuminated a ceiling high tree. On its branches hung balls, jewelry, pieces of cut out paper. Under it were all kinds of stuffed animals: small dogs, monkeys, gigantic cats, smiling tigers. A girl was playing carols on the grand. The housemother presided benevolently. Next to her, on the side of the tree, were all the Christmas presents – little gifts to friends or names picked at random from a box.
A bell rang out in the hallway. All heads turned. Santa Claus. Joyous smiles, expectant eyes – they were little children again. "Ho, ho, ho," his pillowed stomach bopped up and down. His elf, a tiny girl in a green tennis dress and a paper-leaf hat, pranced around with a big smile on her face. They came into the living room. Santa stopped and pinched someone's puffy cheeks, gave the housemother a big kiss, and sat down to start distributing the presents.
He took the big and little packages one by one. One girl got a home-made place wheel to hang on her door so that everyone would know where she was: at home, in the John, at class, in the library, the C.I., Amherst, Dartmouth....
There was a big laugh.
Patricia Roth Schwartz
Patricia Roth Schwartz, writing as Patty Roth, has published a book entitled Soul Knows No Bars: My Journey Working with Inmate Poets. It is a compelling story of her work with prison inmates, bringing her poetic prowess (editor of Pegasus, winner of Glascock Poetry Prize for Mount Holyoke) to a most unlikely population. Our website is the perfect place to share Patty's narrative.
SOUL KNOWS NO BARS: My Journey Working with Inmate Poets
by Patty Roth (Patricia Roth Schwartz), class of 1968, MHC
When I was a student on campus my aspirations were narrow. I was a poet (editor of Pegasus, winner of the Glascock Poetry Prize for MHC), and wished to remain a poet 'til the end of my days. What else I would be doing I had no earthly idea. If anyone had told me that one of the things I would do – and for a considerable chunk of my life –was to work with inmates inside state prisons, and male prisoners at that, I think my little mind would have blown out my ears. And yet it came to pass. This is how.
My work history started out spotty. First I had a job for an insurance company, which I hated. Then as a grant writer for a community college: something I also hated, due to a mentally-ill boss. After working as a volunteer for the YWCA, I was offered a job for the organization. This I loved and did for four years in the 70s, running a controversial Women's Center (my idea) inside the Hartford Region YWCA in Connecticut. Encouraged by my work with women, I entered graduate school (I had already obtained a Master's degree in English literature from Trinity College in Hartford) in a Master's degree program in counseling psychology from Antioch/New England, which involved commuting one day a week to Keene NH, while also serving an internship at a counseling center in MA. After doing all this for two years, my car died. Thus I became a psychotherapist working primarily with women, often using writing as a tool. I was still a poet, having joined a group called The Blue Spruce Poets, based in CT; each of the four members (all women) had a book published, funded by a community arts grant.
A few years later I moved to Boston where I maintained a successful private practice from a home office for thirteen years. During this time I was still a poet publishing widely in tiny, obscure literary journals. I also began to study herbalism. Sick of the city, a partner and I moved to the Finger Lakes region of New York State to a thirty-five acre property with a crumbling old farmhouse we were able to get for a song. We intended to start an herb business and I would continue to be a poet and a writer of fiction, which I had also started to do. This partnership did not last, but I stayed on. I became a community college adjunct instructor at several different institutions, once again demanding that I drive all over the place. Luckily, this time my car did not die. My poetry began to appear in more small press journals, still fairly obscure but less so. A volume of short stories had already come out in 1989 for which I won a national award. Then, after the sad passing of both of my elderly parents, the universe bestowed upon me an amazing gift: the opportunity, due to my inheritance, to cease paid work if I would live modestly and frugally. A new partnership had entered my life. My second book of poems came out, to be followed, up to the present day, by five other volumes.
One of the last adjunct jobs I had held had been as an adjunct instructor of psychology and English inside a New York State medium security prison. Despite another mentally-ill boss, I truly loved this work. When the State of New York saw fit to eliminate all higher education for inmates (a situation which continues to this day, such education being provided only at a few prisons through universities like Cornell), I lost this job. My early retirement occurred at the same time. As the incredible poet, Mary Oliver, has said, "...what will you do with your one wild and precious life?" I had to decide. I knew I would be going back to prison. I chose to seek a volunteer position at the infamous maximum security prison Auburn correctional facility in the small city of Auburn NY (the last place Harriet Tubman lived). I made this decision for two reasons: this facility was much closer to my home than the other prison; I also believed that men who had been incarcerated for long periods of time, which was more likely to happen in maximum security than medium, would have done lots and lots of writing over long years which could be brought into the program I hoped to create. After jumping through a lot of hoops (obtaining such a position is not as easy as one might imagine), I began in June 2001 to go in to this medieval fortress of a prison on a weekly basis. (Auburn is the oldest prison of its kind in the US, having been built in 1821 by convict labor.) The experiences I had every Monday night over a fourteen year period were so amazing, sometimes almost unbelievable so, yet constant in their repetition over and over for all of those years, that I knew I was going to need to document them. I wished to write about not only the individual personalities I encountered and their stories, but what happened in the poetry workshop I facilitated, along with help from certain inmates who became unofficial co-leaders of the group.
When I finished up this work in the June 2015, I took a year off, then, the next year, began to write the memoir. Because I only wrote part-time, it took me almost three years to complete the book. Then another year or more was devoted to formatting the manuscript which was amazingly difficult. (I had had a publisher lined up, a friend who had started a business putting out books, but when this deal fell through in an unethical manner which caused both the friendship and the book deal to implode, I made the decision to self-publish. Even though I believed I could find another professional publisher if I waited long enough, I would be 73 when the book came out: I felt I had no time to waste!) The volume, which came together with a lot of serious help both from my partner, who is a computer professional, and an amazing graphic designer I found, is something of which I am extremely proud.
What I recount is how I, a middle-class white woman, began to work with young men of color (whose backgrounds were everything from African-American to Hispanic to Haitian-American to Panamanian-American to Chinese-American to even a young man who had been born in Africa itself). These men, along with a smattering of white men, all came from the poorest neighborhoods of New York City: the housing projects, the mean streets, the schools full of violence and very few books, from fragmented families, usually with no fathers in sight. I could not be more different from them, and yet we were united by a common bond: poetry. I ran the class as a workshop; usually we would sit in a circle, although some of the rooms we were assigned had tables and chairs which would not permit this. First we would hold open mic (a great deal of what happened in this group was oral presentation), and then I would offer writing exercises, including one I called "Poetry Chopped," based on the TV cooking show; we used words instead of foods. Sometimes these exercises also involved small group efforts in which group poems were written, then performed as mini theater pieces.
Contrary to what many people might believe, our sessions were full of humor and often playful antics. I was treated with incredible respect, a great deal of friendship and platonic affection; we became a family. Over the course of fourteen years, with the group consisting usually of 11 to 13 men, I ended up working with over 100. I had found that maximum-security prisons, while holding men who had long sentences, did not retain a stable population. Men were often transferred from one institution to another for a variety of reasons. I had to get used to losing, from week to week, almost anybody, never allowed to hear from them again. During the course of my time in Auburn, I was able to have four volumes of the work of these brilliant, amazingly talented, often self-educated poets published. We put out a full-length anthology of their work, plus a chapbook (small poetry book usually of less than 30 pages) anthology of those not in the original book, a chapbook by one inmate, and a full-length volume by another. During this time I myself wrote a volume of poems that work as dramatic monologues, about the grim and grisly, yet occasionally inspiring, history of Auburn prison, which I had begun to research. Entitled The Crows of Copper John: a History of Auburn Prison, it is available from my website along with my memoir and all of the other books I have mentioned. I am hoping my memoir will bring to attention issues involving mass incarceration. Our current system of punishing miscreants is not working. Denying inmates higher education is stupid and ridiculous; statistics prove this to be true; there is a much higher recidivism rate for those who have not had college classes. While I respect that the profession of serving as a corrections officer is difficult and potentially dangerous, some of the behavior I witnessed openly involving racism and misogyny was disgraceful (the latter being shown toward female volunteers since of course men's prisons held no female inmates). My memoir recounts some of these experiences, along with stories of some of the other volunteers I worked with, who were amazing people.
I encourage everyone who reads article this to obtain and read my book, not in any way to serve me, but to learn the stories of these resilient, brave, and talented inmates; this is all the more important because their voices are not heard in our society, and otherwise their stories will not be told.