by Andrew Steinmetz, BA’89
Sometime in 1992, I went to Bordeaux to lead my first creative writing workshop. By Bordeaux, I don’t mean the wine region in France but the medium-security prison for men on the northeast tip of the island of Montreal. That Bordeaux.
My previous writing workshop experience was limited. Five years earlier, at McGill, I’d participated in a workshop led by the Montreal poet Michael Harris. We assembled on the third floor of the Arts Building, a fairly homogeneous group of wannabe-nobodies, all vulnerable, every one of us nearsighted and solip-sistic, slow to open our eyes to the brightness of self-criticism. When it was my turn to present my work, Harris was as adept as a defence lawyer at spinning the evidence in my favour. Ultimately, his job for one year was to lighten the sentencing of our peers, for the Beats-inspired howls and misdemeanours we’d commit to paper.
With that small taste of writing workshops—and no experience teaching, and only some little in life itself—I applied at Bordeaux because prison seemed like an ideal place to get my start. For one thing, administrative responsibilities would be minimal. No report cards, hopefully no Meet the Parents Night. And if I was a lousy leader, well, at least here I’d have my captive audience.
At 8:45 my first day, a guard escorted me through the front security gates. The academic sector was housed in a new building. Outside the door, 50 or so inmates gathered with their admission slips, waiting for the second bell to ring, I suppose.
The teachers’ lounge was crowded and hazy with blue smoke. Killing some time before my class was scheduled to start, I split the spine of a paperback and caught the opening lines of Philip Larkin’s notorious poem “This Be the Verse.” Larkin uses language that is both lyrical and crude to evoke the damage that parents, often unwittingly, do to their children. I figured it would resonate with this crowd.
There was a rap at the door, and in stepped a man wearing loose gray sweats and a light blue T-shirt—standard issue prison wear.
“Hey Jean!” called an excited voice. “I’m back inside! But I’m not gonna take your French class again, don’t worry, I’m taking poetry.” A quick glance around and he slipped back into the hall.
Across the room, Jean, another teacher, propelled himself in a swivel chair. “He’s a good student,” he gave me a wink. “Back in to complete his master’s. It’s a maximum sentence of two years minus a day here, so they have no choice but to return and do another two in order to graduate.”
My class was given in the library. Between the comic book collection and an aisle of crime fiction, there was a large wooden, seminar-type table. I found no apple on my desk that morning, but everyone seemed genuinely happy to see me. I had eight students. Before anything else, they wanted to introduce themselves, shake my hand. Z was the first.
“Hi, I’m Z and I need structure.” He was a tall man with a white beard and a lumpy core. There was a grandfatherly Farley Mowat-ness about him.
Under the assumption Z was talking about literary form, I circulated Larkin’s derogatory blame-poem, which is set to rhyme like an early-reader primer.
Larkin’s poem didn’t represent any feelings I had, but I’d be lying if I wasn’t projecting his fighting spirit onto the class.
Z wasn’t impressed. In fact, he was nonplussed. At Bordeaux, attendance was voluntary and fluctuated weekly, but Z, from a protective custody cell block, was a regular.
He was also prolific.I remember one of Z’s long poems in rhyming couplets about a tired man who uprooted his family and travelled from one village to the next, banished because he snored too loudly at night.
The type of poems we workshopped included cautionary tales, love poems, elegies, childhood memories, and even utopian visions. All in all, it was pretty tame stuff. Any preconceived notion I had about these men ranting in free-form/free-associative verse was dead wrong. Prison is not a sanctuary for anarchic ideology. That’s a university.
Experience of life lived, Harris told us at McGill, is what readers relate to most.
At Bordeaux, the inmates often talked about life on the inside. They boasted about their familiarity with that place, insinuating secret knowledge, but nobody put it down on paper.
I’ll admit, when I applied for work in a prison, I was seeking an experience out of the ordinary. But really, the inside as only an initiate can correctly refer to it, is not geographical. Whatever the inmates meant by it, they had brought it with them into Bordeaux—from the outside.
The outside. That’s where the doors to any number of experiences—poverty, human error, revenge—open and close in the thin air.
Andrew Steinmetz’s novel Eva’s Threepenny Theatre is published by Gaspereau Press. He is the editor of Esplanade Books, the fiction imprint at Véhicule Press.