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Disguised As A Poem
My Years Teaching at San Quentin
Judith Tannenbaum




Northeastern
2000 • 224 pp. 5 1/2 x 8 1/2"
Memoir / Poetry / Criminal Justice

$24.95 Paperback, 978-1-55553-452-3



“Tannenbaum reminds readers not only that men and women behind bars are human, and therefore deserving of our respect and compassion, but that they have much to tell us about our propensity for both barbarism and beauty.”—Booklist

This honest, unbiased account of how one woman artist came to share purpose and inspiration with the prisoners at San Quentin demonstrates the power of human bonds and the power of poetry and other art forms as a means of self-expression and communication within and beyond locked cells.

When Judith Tannenbaum last met with her poetry writing class at San Quentin prison, one of the students commented, "Now I'm going to give you an assignment: write about these past four years from your point of view; tell your story; let us know what you learned." This beautifully crafted memoir is the fulfillment of that assignment.

In stirring and intimate prose, Tannenbaum details the challenges, rewards, and paradoxes of teaching poetry to maximum-security inmates convicted of capital crimes. Recounting how she and her students shared profound and complicated lessons about humanity and life both inside and outside San Quentin's walls, Tannenbaum tells provocative stories of obsession, racism, betrayal, despair, courage, and beauty. Contrary to the growing public perception of prisoners as demons, the men in this poetry class-Angel, Coties, Elmo, Glenn, Richard, Spoon-emerge not as beasts or heroes but as human beings with expressive voices, thoughts, and feelings strikingly similar to the free.

Tannenbaum provides revealing views of conditions in the cellblocks and shows how the realities of prison life often paralleled her own life experiences. She also relates such events as visits to her group by prominent poets (including Nobel Prize-winner Czeslaw Milosz); a prison production of Waiting for Godot sponsored by Samuel Beckett himself; and the presentation of her students' work to a class of sixth and eighth graders, who connected to the prisoners' words by writing their own poems to the inmates.

Reviews / Endorsements:

"Not only the story of an emphatic and courageous woman but an engaging testament of the power of poetry." —Teaching Artist Journal

Disguised as a Poem is the best book in the field. No one has written more profoundly or sensitively or autobiographically about workshop practice in prisons. I assign it half way through the term, after my students have four sessions in their workshops behind them, and it deepens their understanding and awareness of what is already engaging them. They love this book.—Buzz (William) Alexander, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English Language and Literature, University of Michigan

"This is one of the more remarkable works I have come across during many years in the study of writing about the American prison experience." —H. Bruce Franklin, author of Prison Writing in 20th-Century America

For five years, at the University of Illinois and the past two years at the University of Colorado-Denver, I have assigned Disguised as a Poem to the students in my "Communication, Prisons, and Social Justice Class." And every semester the response is the same: the book blows their minds, it touches their hearts, it takes them inside the prison and into the lives of the people who struggle there both to learn and to reclaim their lives. Merging passages that are philosophical, ethnographic, anthropological, and political, and always written in clean lines and with a poetic sensibility, it is a perennial student favorite.—Stephen John Hartnett, Associate Professor, Department Chair Department of Communications, University of Colorado, Denver

Since 2000 when it was published, Disguised As a Poem by Judith Tannenbaum has been a central text in my Art Workshops in Prisons class at the University of Michigan School of Art and Design . In this class, pairs of students facilitate a weekly studio art class in an adult prison or juvenile facility for an entire semester. Their reading of Disguised As a Poem at the beginning of the semester is the single, most important preparation for their workshop and in most cases the most profound reading of the semester. Judith’s lucid and honest account of her struggles and the trust she has in her own process of discovery allow them to begin their workshop experience with the openness, curiosity and self awareness that is required. They are also captivated by Spoon and Elmo, and many of them speak particularly of Spoon’s poetry and sense of himself.—Janie Paul, Associate Professor, School of Art and Design. University of Michigan



Author Photo

JUDITH TANNENBAUM serves as Training Coordinator of the WritersCorps program in San Francisco. For over twenty-five years she has taught poetry to prisoners, primary-age children, continuation high school students, and youngsters at a summer program for gifted teenagers. She has written extensively on issues of community art and cultural democracy and is the author of Teeth, Wiggly as Earthquakes: Writing Poetry in the Primary Grades, The World Saying Yes, four chapbooks, and a portfolio of her poems. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.



Wed, 4 May 2016 10:03:46 -0500