The Poetry of a Prison Uprising

The Poetry of a Prison Uprising

A new book of poems from a workshop at Attica in the 1970s reveals how prisoners resisted the dehumanizing effects of incarceration.

Prisoners in Attica on September 10, 1971 (Bettmann/Getty Images)

When the Smoke Cleared: Attica Prison Poems and Journal
ed. by Celes Tisdale
Duke University Press, 2022, pp. 152 

The story of Attica could be said to begin in 1929, when uprisings at Dannemora and Auburn prisons captivated New York state. Conditions at the prisons (including overcrowding, low wages, and more), rebellions in response to those conditions, and assaults on prisoners by police and armed citizens occasioned a visit from Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. “The time has come,” Roosevelt said after visiting Dannemora and nearby Great Meadow Prison, “when New York can no longer tolerate prisons like Dannemora and Auburn.” In the wake of the prisoners taking control of their facilities and of governmental outcry, the state did not demolish either prison (both are still operational today). Instead, it built a new facility: Attica.

From its opening in 1931, Attica showed signs of what was to come. Fifteen days after the prison began operations, Jesse Conklin, incarcerated for forgery, became the first person to escape. A year and a half later, in December 1932, the first uprising occurred. According to the warden at the time, it was caused in part by “a strong distaste among certain . . . convicts for pick and shovel work.” If there was a “distaste” for labor, the events of the following decades suggest that the prisoners resented their work because of the way the prison denigrated its laborers. During that time, according to the critic Mark Nowak, people incarcerated at Attica participated in strikes and protests (such as the “sour milk sit-down strike”), lawsuits (including more than a hundred complaints filed by Black Muslims demanding religious freedom), and even, in 1962, a sit-in coordinated across four New York prisons. Using political protests and labor actions, people incarcerated at Attica fought for better work conditions, for their rights, and for their liberation. They were not the lazy laborers whom the warden suggested deserved the punishment they received; they were workers and people who could and did resist the institution’s dehumanization.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that such a politically active group responded forcefully to the killing of the Black Marxist George Jackson, a prisoner at San Quentin, in August 1971. On September 9, 1,300 prisoners took control of Attica. Governing themselves through representative democracy, they drafted a list of demands, which included minimum-wage payment for their forced labor, an end to the censorship of reading materials, and an expansion of the prison’s education system. After four days, armed forces stormed the prison, resulting in the deaths of thirty-two prisoners and eleven hostages. 

Though the assault by the state brought an end to the prisoners’ self-governance, those who survived did see one of their efforts come to fruition in the form of a poetry workshop that started in 1972, led by Celes Tisdale, a professor at SUNY Buffalo. Tisdale’s new book, When the Smoke Cleared: Attica Prison Poems and Journal, collects poems by his students in that workshop and his journal entries from the period. Some of the work was originally published in Tisdale’s 1974 book Betcha Ain’t, but the new volume also includes never-before-published poems, Tisdale’s class handouts, and more. When the Smoke Cleared, accordingly, reveals a great deal about survival in the wake of state violence and about the uses of prison education. 

 

On the first day of the course (which was funded in part by a nonprofit and in part by the state), Tisdale was not so much concerned with the curriculum as anxious about what would happen. He wrote in his journal, “Many times have I basked in the glory of applause, adulation, recognition as I interpreted the Black poet masters. But, today, I wait in painful/joyful anticipation of meeting those humanity-scarred men who must express themselves or perish from anonymity.” In the hours that followed, he met his workshop participants, some of whom he recognized from the neighborhood where he grew up, in nearby Buffalo, and the restaurant where he worked while in college. This familiarity enabled an unconventional student-teacher relationship; the men often made fun of him, led class discussion to topics that Tisdale did not want to talk about, and more generally taught him “what they meant during that week in September 1971, when they said, ‘We are men.’”

In the ensuing months, Tisdale tried to keep the men focused on poetry, but politics regularly crept in. This was in part because the men saw the two as related. In May, when Tisdale asked the participants to define poetry, he recalled that some responded, “Personal, deals with emotions, historical, compact (concise), eternal, revolutionary.” Politics also kept coming up because current events interested the men; in June 1972, the Black Marxist political prisoner Angela Davis was acquitted, “and her trial was the topic of interest at the beginning of the session. Rather than become involved in a political discussion, I read a poem given to me by Nikki Giovanni called ‘Poem of Angela Yvonne Davis,’” Tisdale recalled in his journal. Though Tisdale only noted that the poem brought a “warm response,” one of the workshop members, Harvey Marcelin, was so struck by the verse that he paid homage to Giovanni’s poem in one of his own. 

While the incarcerated men found a sense of political unity in Tisdale’s workshop, the political climate of the prison often left them literally isolated, and it occasionally made it hard for the workshop to proceed. In July 1972, the prison’s superintendent refused to let the Buffalo Black Writers Workshop visit Tisdale’s class because some incarcerated people had staged a hunger strike the previous day. About a week later, the workshop was canceled because 900 of the 1,200 men at the prison had protested the firing of a nurse by staying in their cells for three days. “Am convinced another riot is in the making,” Tisdale wrote. “Most of the men insist no change has taken place in the prison since the September [uprising].” In the wake of the rebellion, the politics within Attica became increasingly repressive, stoking tensions and impeding the men’s access to education. 

When Tisdale began another workshop cycle in August 1972, increased outside interest in the program provided the men with new opportunities to govern themselves. The Buffalo Evening News wanted to report on the workshop, a proposal the men discussed for a month. Their transformation of a poetry class into a place for democratic decision-making, however temporary, coincided with new course material. In October, after some of the students showed interest in playwriting, Tisdale wrote, “It appears that the men have greater perception of their existence and are much more concerned now with all aspects of writing.” This led Tisdale to lecture on the “mechanics of playwriting” and to assign excerpts from Charles Gordone’s No Place to Be Somebody and Tony Preston’s On the Road. In December, the men discussed “what Blacks should be writing about, today. Most of them agree that our work should reflect the times.” 

Their ability to produce such work, however, was still limited by their confinement. One of the participants had his writings and his books confiscated. Many others, one imagines, faced numerous unrecorded difficulties in accessing reading and writing materials. And one of the participants had his request for parole denied, ensuring that he continued to face these obstacles to writing. Through these difficulties, however, they continued to engage with Black poetry, not only as a means of confronting their historical circumstances but also as a way to change their relations to one another.

For both the students and their teacher, the workshop was transformative. On April 11, 1973, Tisdale wrote:

The most important point I made tonight was that we must not judge a poet by what he ‘seems’ to be or has become, because the poet’s approach often changes to fit the occasion or prevailing social/political tenor of the society: he (poet) is so elusive. One workshop member cautioned us that we should not judge people like Imamu [Amiri Baraka] or Nikki Giovanni by their past. . . . We must recognize transitions. 

This discussion led to a conversation about what poetry should be, which Tisdale found especially meaningful. “I am beginning to define and distill my reactions to poetry and its purpose,” Tisdale wrote. “Just as the men, I am still learning/formulating.” Over the next year, they all continued to grow. One participant was transferred to Albion Correctional Facility, where he hoped to take classes at Buffalo State College during the day. The Black Arts Movement poet and publisher Dudley Randall collected their poems in a stand-alone volume published by Broadside Press titled Betcha Ain’t. And even after Tisdale taught his last workshop, in 1974, some of his students continued life on the inside changed by the class and by the prison. As Tisdale wrote in March 1974, “Leonard Mackey tells me that he’s come out of Attica knowing some fantastic people. . . . Attica, he says, changes everyone, their commitments, their future.”

 

The workshop may not have ended the participants’ sentences or undone the harms of the past, but at the least, it led to the publication of a number of their poems, first in 1974 in Betcha Ain’t, and again now in When the Smoke Cleared. The poems span subjects from kinship to the Muslim faith and the Vietnam War. Throughout, the rebellion and the government’s assault loom large. Isaiah Hawkins’s “13th of Genocide,” for instance, represents the state response as motivated by racism and valorizes the men’s deaths. “I’m a man, white folks,” one Black man says at the poem’s end, “and like a man I’ll die.” In this and many of the other poets’ representations of the rebellion, the incarcerated men who took control of the prison are not criminal so much as righteous.

Many of the poems also meditate on life after the government’s violent response. In “Attica Reflections,” Hersey Boyer describes awakening in the prison “To hear MEN weeping.” “They have witnessed the slaughter,” he continues, “And heard your songs of merriment.” Where Boyer chronicles the sorrow of survival, John Lee Norris’s “Just Another Page” turns numb: 

And your sympathy and tears always come too late
And the only thing they do right is wrong
And it’s just another page.

What hurts is not simply the atrocity or even the state’s justification of its own violence but, rather, that the state assault is business as usual. For Norris, Boyer, and many others in this collection, the state response is not an end but a beginning, and life afterward continues in its desolate shadow.

In their representations of the state’s slaughter, the Attica poets often turn to the messianic, prophesying that the event might radicalize enough people to produce real change. This is the case in Christopher Sutherland’s “Sept. 13”: 

If our actions
Cause brothers and sisters to unite
As we die,
In their fighting spirits we live.

Another poet, Mshaka, broaches the supernatural. In “Formula for Attica Repeats,” he describes the government’s attack and the politicians’ speeches that followed, then envisions “the 43 dead men / who listened . . ./ threatening to rise / again. . . .” 

One might be inclined to read these poets’ insistence on inspiring mass political action as naïve. After all, they were writing as prison populations were starting to increase, on their way to what is now known as mass incarceration. Yet what shines through in these poems is the writers’ faith in the possibility of radical change in the face of deep repression, even when they lack any evidence that things might be different. This certainty is ultimately a testament to the depth of their political radicalism. They know that life and radicalism go on, even after assault. In chronicling their persistence, they not only foretell the anti-carceral movements of recent decades; they also provide themselves a vision of the future that sustains their defiance of the carceral regime that dictates their ability to write, to work, and to live.

Given the poets’ attention to celebrating life even in the face of hardship, it is unsurprising that they represent love—romantic and familial—as both pleasurable and difficult. Harold E. Packwood’s “Out of Black Love,” for instance, describes his parents conceiving him in “the ecstasy / Of a stolen moment of freedom.” He writes:

So I have loved,
With every fiber of my being,
Crying in agony
For my wounds to heal.

Packwood sees romance and pain as two sides of the same coin, and the experiences of agony that lead him to appreciate love also push him to valorize his mother’s care labor. In “Black Dolphin,” Packwood pens a lengthy remembrance of the past that is tinged with nostalgia, and he dedicates the last and longest section of the poem to the memory of his mother cooking him breakfast: 

But love
and pancakes
eased the pain
of reality.

Love, to Packwood, is not simply a feeling. Rather, it lives in the labor of caring. That caring so occupies Packwood—and so many other poets in this volume—reveals something about the antagonistic nature of an institution that purports to rehabilitate.

It also reveals something about the poets. The state has separated them from the care that helped them persevere through the difficulties of life on the outside, but their verse is a reminder that they have found a way to keep themselves alive through the tremendous difficulty of life in Attica. In their poetry, the men’s status as people victimized by the prison is, unsurprisingly, subordinate to the words and imaginations of the men themselves. This aspect of their work was particularly instructive to Tisdale. “I came to lift,” Tisdale writes in his poem “The Men,” “to tell, to read the world in poems, / and paused in wonder / at the men who really know.” This reversal—from Tisdale as teacher and speaker to Tisdale as student and listener—is one that the poems of When the Smoke Cleared imposes upon its readers as well, providing them with lessons in living through trauma.

 

The educator who becomes the student is a well-established trope in the writing on prison education programs. Tisdale helped to make it so when he wrote, in his 1974 preface to Betcha Ain’t, that his incarcerated students “taught me new meanings of freedom and dignity,” and since then, it has appeared in Drew Leder’s The Soul Knows No Bars, in Ann Snitow’s 2011 Dissent essay “Dangerous Worlds: Teaching Film in Prison,” and more. But as Megan Sweeney demonstrates in Reading Is My Window, a study of incarcerated women’s reading practices, these programs are in decline:

Prison libraries became a very low priority during the prison-building campaign of the 1980s, and many were severely depleted or closed due to diminished funding and space. . . . In 1994, Congress eliminated Pell Grants for prisoners, effectively defunding all college programs in U.S. prisons and sparking broader cuts in all levels of educational programming.

In 2006, the Supreme Court ruled in Beard v. Banks that it was constitutional for prisons to deny some incarcerated people access to reading materials. States have also increasingly defunded prison libraries. And correctional officials have advocated for unaffordable e-readers, which have only further limited incarcerated people’s access to books and to formal education. This alone is a tragedy. But because people incarcerated in the United States are disproportionately Black and working class, these cuts and restrictions especially affect poor people of color. In other words, people on the inside, who because of their race and class likely attended schools with worse educational outcomes, find themselves once more unable to access equitable education. 

In the wake of such defunding, many private institutions and organizations have sought to aid incarcerated people in acquiring a formal education. Bard College’s Prison Initiative, through which people earn college degrees, writes that it emerged in 1999 “in response to the decimation of college-in-prison nationally.” Organizations like Survived and Punished publish writing by incarcerated people, and groups like New Jersey’s Books Behind Bars mail texts to people on the inside. With no hope of a beneficent state—it is, ultimately, the same one that cages—incarcerated people, their loved ones, and those who ally with them have turned to one another, creating new coalitions to work against the state’s degradation of its people. 

As When the Smoke Clears reminds us, those coalitions must find ways to make their work sustainable in the face of the intransigence and opposition of the prison. Tisdale’s own workshop was funded in part by a nonprofit, which eventually withdrew its funding. Even so, Tisdale kept running the course until the work became too taxing, which happened in part because of Attica’s hostility to his efforts to aid the men. In one of his last journal entries in When the Smoke Clears, he notes that he called Attica to confirm that he would come to the prison for the workshop and learned that his students had not been told that they were meeting. “I stayed home. Maybe the workshop has run its course. I won’t push too much anymore, because I think I have something to offer as a teacher—I do not need this feeling of being prostituted.” Had Tisdale worked under better conditions and with more support, one imagines that he may have continued to teach the class. But as When the Smoke Cleared demonstrates, the prison would not aid anyone undertaking a project like Tisdale’s long-term. Still, supporting efforts like Tisdale’s are important, not because they reform the institution, but because they can aid incarcerated people in building inside-outside relations and solidaristic organizing across facilities.

Put differently, the more sustainable education system that Tisdale lacked and that organizations today work toward ultimately lays the foundation for a world different from the one state policy has produced: one in which people do the labor of caring for each other, organize toward more equitable opportunities, and read and learn alongside one another. Those organizations begin the difficult work, in other words, of fulfilling the task set out long ago by those who rebelled at Dannemora and Auburn, whose political efforts were co-opted to build Attica. They take steps toward empowering those on the inside and on the outside to create a world that can no longer tolerate not the particular facility of Attica but incarceration itself.


Elias Rodriques is an Assistant Professor of African American Literature at Sarah Lawrence College, an assistant editor at n+1, and the author of the novel All the Water I’ve Seen Is Running.