The Forgotten Poets of the Attica Uprising

The Forgotten Poets of the Attica Uprising

The Forgotten Poets of the Attica Uprising

When the Smoke Clears documents poetry workshops held in the aftermath of the prison’s occupation. The work produced by the inmates was visceral and heartrending.

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Turn in your “Right on’s” and “Power to the People’s.”
Feel the beat of a Cracker club in tune to “We shall overcome.”
Replace the ready-to-die make-up kit with a grin.
Boy, happy days are here again!

—Charles Johnson, “Good Old Days”

Celes Tisdale, then a professor at New York’s Buffalo State College, visited Attica eight months after the combined forces of the US military, state police, and prison guards crushed what remains the most organized prison takeover in US history. On September 9, 1971, some 1,300 prisoners occupied one of the facility’s exercise fields to protest Attica’s dismal conditions, appealing for changes as simple as more than one roll of toilet paper per month and ceasing the censorship of reading materials. They also asked for an expansion of prisoner’s rights; a narcotics treatment program; more nutritious food and sanitary mess hall conditions; increased wages, worker’s insurance, the right to unionize; and freedom from religious (read Muslim) persecution. In a context that’s almost numbing in its expectedness, these demands were informed by the fact that every guard at Attica was white and the prison population was majority Black.

Four days later, on September 13, Prison Commissioner Russel G. Oswald—who had been negotiating with the prisoners—was ordered by Governor Nelson Rockefeller (in consultation with President Nixon) to retake the prison by force. Military helicopters dispersed CS gas (banned by the Geneva Convention) and a 450-man army stormed the prison, firing more than 4,500 rounds into the exercise field; 32 prisoners were killed, alongside 10 of the prison guards who were being held as hostages. Thirty-nine others were wounded. Authorities said the hostages’ throats were slit by occupiers, but autopsies later cited gunfire as their cause of death.

As for the organizers of the uprising, several were shot and/or killed after they surrendered. Others were stripped naked, beaten, and forced to crawl across broken glass. When Tisdale arrived in May of 1972 to teach a poetry workshop—toting a briefcase full of works by his favorite poets—he described the air as “hot, still, restless.” Decades later, when the poet Mark Nowak asked him what it was like entering this monument to the carceral state, Tisdale uttered a sentence as succinct as the unanswered demands of the prisoners: “You could still smell the smoke.”

The smoldering embers of a failed revolution hang over When the Smoke Cleared, a collection of poems by Attica inmates along with Tisdale’s journal entries from the period, as well as a searing introduction by Nowak. Among the many strengths of this anthology is a blunt acknowledgment of the uprising as part of much larger historical mechanisms: namely, the last gasps of the civil rights movement and the nation’s violent reaction to Black liberation. For example, the prisoners at Attica were agitated over the killing of George Jackson, a field marshal for the Black Panther Party, at San Quentin State Prison in California. Meanwhile, writers like Tisdale, inspired by Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez, were staking out a distinct aesthetic politics, a response to the currents of Black history that we now know as the Black Arts Movement. An overtly political aesthetic rose in tandem with Black inmates’ questioning of the circumstances of their incarceration, and activists who were seeking to fill out the paltriness of prison education programs (another express demand of Attica’s occupiers) provided a much-needed sea change in consciousness if not conditions. The poems serve as a bulwark against the forgetting of the Attica uprising itself, but they also document the inner life and creative expression of the incarcerated—making for a visceral and intimate argument in favor of prison abolition.

A few months after the uprising, Randy Lerner, an arts administrator at the New York City–based nonprofit Hospital Audiences Inc., pitched the Buffalo Black Drama Workshop on the idea of offering a creative writing workshop at Attica. Lerner wound up recruiting Tisdale to lead the program. He’d fallen in with the organization in the 1960s, fresh out of Buffalo State College, where he was one of two Black English majors. He’d paid his way through school by working at Willert Park Drugs, a pharmacy, and the Panama Lunch restaurant. Tisdale spent the next several years performing in regional Black theater productions and staging his own poetry readings. By the time Lerner got to him, Tisdale had ample teaching experience, having taught at Public School 31, the grammar school he attended, and receiving an MA in English from Buffalo State before going into a PhD program at the University of Buffalo. He was well suited to understand the opportunity presented in creating something generative within the walls of the prison, and well aware of the serious implications of doing so following the violence. “Many times I have basked in the applause, adulation, recognition as I interpreted the Black poet masters,” Tisdale wrote in his journal, in May 1972, sitting on his front porch while waiting for Lerner to pick him up to drive him to Attica:

But, today, I wait in painful/joyful anticipation of meeting those humanity-scarred men who must express themselves or perish for anonymity.
[…]
Can you imagine conducting, possibly, the first Black Poetry workshop inside a prison (maximum security). Maybe I’m making history—maybe.

The drive from Buffalo to Attica was 35 miles. The first time Tisdale visited the prison with Lerner, he wrote in his journal that he was recognized by one of the guards while waiting to be cleared for entry. In “C” block, the education area of Attica, Tisdale was then recognized by some of the men who were to be his students. He knew them from the Willert Park Projects where he grew up, and the Panama Lunch, where he bussed tables as an undergrad. Though the journal entries are brief, they show Tisdale wrestling with this personal network of race and class, the intimate histories that knit the reality of incarceration. The disjuncture of Tisdale’s social status aligning him, first, with the prison guard, only to be reminded of his previous poverty by the recognition of him by the inmates from his neighborhood proves jarring, and sets the table for the pedagogy he then deployed to coax inmates into expressing themselves.

His most innovative technique was the Tis-O-Gram, a grid system in which concepts undergirded by visceral emotional experience, such as trust, joy, violence, poverty, expectation, and fear are paired with their sensory recall—hate looks like [ ], or energy feels like [ ], and so on—as a method of pushing the inmates to write more concretely about abstract ideas. In its dredging of hyper-specific imagery from ostensible clichés, the system resembles Gwendolyn Brooks’s famous color grid, a system developed to deploy certain hues to evoke specific moods, qualities, or feelings, which the poet outlined in The Red Book or the Merry Book:

red—ashamed, shame, disgrace, fiery, fierce
brown—songster, gleeful, ambitious
green—envious, jealous
gray—shadowy, gloomy
yellow gold—avaricious, desireful, love of riches
purple—beauty, beautiful, fine, artful
blue—heavenly, religious, pious
white—clean, righteous, pure
pink—blushful, pretty mountain maiden
black—flower of crime

Tisdale was not a student of hers, but as Nowak makes clear, Tisdale’s interests were overlapping with concerns of other Black writers during the era. This meant constructing a literary history and pedagogy specific to the interests of Black Americans while maintaining an insistence on personal experience. “If you have murdered in a garden, the grass and flowers (and weeds) will mean something different to you than to someone who has only planted or picked,” Brooks wrote in her essay “A Few Hints toward the Making of Poetry,” which in the context of this anthology reads like an abstract parallel to the Tis-O-Gram’s concrete, unbendable rules: “Responses should be one word; no responses should be used more than once.”

One wonders if the prison administration thought Tisdale’s expertise should be used more than once. For the story of poetry education at Attica is also the story of thoroughly entrenched institutions that have no interest in substantive change. The impulse to keep Attica’s population in line frequently cuts against the workshop’s goals of affirming inmates’ experience and humanity. External chaos was used as an excuse to rescind services and keep prisoners locked down, and the daunting nature of penal time, paired with the prison administration’s indifference to presenting the workshop as an option, effectively starved the creative writing program to death.

As Tisdale’s journal reveals, every quasi-radical element inserted into his lesson plans—reading Nikki Giovanni’s “Poem of Angela Yvonne Davis” to honor the activist’s being cleared of murder and conspiracy charges, or discussing the shared valences of jazz and poetry in connection with a July 4 concert at the prison by Archie Shepp—appears to have been blunted by the prison’s meddling. In July of 1972, a number of prisoners staged a hunger strike to protest living conditions, which had remained unimproved after the uprising, leading Attica’s superintendent to declare a state of emergency and, in the process, the temporary cancellation of Tisdale’s workshop. When the workshop was in session, Tisdale faced a number of challenges as a teacher: His students were routinely brutalized by guards (the euphemism that the prisoners used was “bitten by a dog”); their parole fortunes and their incarceration’s toll on their families—some of whom Tisdale knew personally—affected their mood and willingness to participate. Meanwhile, the paroles that did go through, coupled with prison transfers, releases, or even dueling interests, such as the opportunity to take courses for college credit, gradually caused the number of enrolled students in the workshop to dwindle. “Maybe, the workshop has run its course,” Tisdale wrote on August 7, 1974. “I won’t push too much anymore, because I think I have something to offer as a teacher—I do not need to have this feeling of being prostituted.”

His frustration is well taken, but his modest assessment of himself obscures the workshop’s impact. Tisdale’s efforts were chronicled by the Buffalo Evening News, and the poems that his workshop produced were eventually included in Betcha Ain’t: Poems From Attica, by Broadside Press, the storied Detroit-based Black publishing house. While the workshop only lasted through August 1974, it serves as one of the first examples of creative writing education for incarcerated persons, and it is perhaps the first that sought to pair the effort with a Black revolutionary politics.

The care and rigor of Tisdale’s pedagogy is studded with instances of genuine admiration and care for his students. The lives of poets long forgotten—or, if we’re being honest, entirely unknown save for this anthology—are preserved throughout his journal. Hersey Boyer’s prison beating, Sanford X’s tendency “to want the last word” in workshop discussions, Harold E. Packwood’s parole denial, news from former inmate Christopher Sutherland following his parole—“’73 Cadillac, a woman, and a job”—appear as matter-of-factly as the weather or brushing one’s teeth. But their inclusion as people, rather than anonymous historical subjects, is the anthology’s most radical act: As evidence of  the creative expression of those who survived Attica, it makes a strong case for the wisdom of abolition as the only answer to the spiritual and material indignity of incarceration. Poetry for these men could be a balm, but it was also one of the ways they reflected on their conditions, and the ways they preserved their inner life amid so many depredations.

The greatest contribution of Tisdale’s poetry workshop is likely the diversity of the work his students produced. The goal wasn’t to compile an Attica documentary via poetry, though there is some of that—Isaiah Hawkins’s “13th of Genocide” and Chris Sutherland’s “Sept. 13” vividly retells the climax of the armed standoff between prisoners and guards, while Sam Washington’s “Was It Necessary” deploys the form of rhetorical questions to note the discrepancy between the inmates and the power structure. Rifles and shotguns against sticks and knives, and the declaration of troopers “killing with hate and glee,” put forth a resounding “no” to the poet’s inquiry. In another poem, by John Lee Norris, dated September 13, 1972, “And,” is used again and again to record the monotony, depression, and quiet fury of being stuck in the same place after the uprising was put down:

And Attica is a maggot-minded blood sucker
And the only thing they do right is wrong
And another page of history is written in black blood
And old black mamas pay taxes to buy guns that killed their sons
And the consequence of being free…is death
And your sympathy and tears always come too late
[…]
And it’s just another page.

Norris’s poem “Betcha Ain’t”—a surreal gamut-running inquisition of whether one has seen “the old wrinkled black hands / of / a Zulu chief” or an “Egyptian sand storm / swirl and twirl and dance / before / the eyes of the Sphinx”—is where the original anthology takes its title. Several of the anthology’s poems work in this way of conjuring absences or missed opportunities from an incarcerated space. “To Moms,” written by the poet Ronald Williams, also known as Chico, fills in what most people miss when “speak[ing] of soul things,” such as “drying young tears” or “soul love kisses/in between bandaging scraped elbows and knees.” A contrasting sensibility sits right on the following page in Bill Dabney’s “Cage Kill Label,” which personifies incarceration and anti-Black racism in the form of prisoners perceived as different animals. (The most dangerous, and therefore the most worth killing, is the Black Panther.) The tenderness and longing of some poems, sitting next to the howling fury of others, capture the prisoners’ panorama of feelings and the way the desire for intimacy and solidarity grew alongside their sense of injustice.

Although groundbreaking in its comprehensiveness, the anthology writ large does present a slight technical problem. In marrying the concept of prison abolition to the Black Arts Movement, Smoke obfuscates the Black Power movement’s shortcomings: the misogynoir and various prejudices that blocked off paths for further solidarity. Some of the selections embody these contradictions, their vitriol vibrating off the page. In Harold E. Packwood’s “Hop-Sing, Lesson No. 1” the poet attempts to conjure a space where one’s standing in the one’s community moves beyond labels; but such an appeal is pockmarked by a bigoted caricature of Asian Americans. Elsewhere, anger has allowed for more complex readings: Jamail’s “Pre-Sentence Report” seems at first glance incendiary, but in reality may be one of the strongest pieces in the anthology. Printed here in its entirety, the poem turns the insanity of racism and xenophobia into a commentary on how slurs beget other slurs in the name of defensiveness—words long scrubbed from the lexicon ricocheting off one another in a shocking twist that bestows empathy, if not understanding, on the poem’s speaker:

Dumb honkie called me an
irresponsible para-military
black rabble-rouser.”
—Faggot European doctor
called me some dumb shit too,
lots of Latin nouns that
old Sigmund couldn’t EVEN spell,
but I saw what they entered
in the court journal—
Bad Nigger—Watch him!

These moments stick out for their rarity among the whole and for the casually bigoted nature of their application; yet one would still wager that it’s uncharitable to deem Tisdale, or his students, as being such. If anything, their inclusion testifies to the desire to tell the entire story, rather than the bits that paint the historic workshop in the best possible light. Creative writing instructors work with what they have, and if the only criteria for success is self-expression, then what is reflected will inevitably be what is on participants’ minds.

Perhaps the lesson we might draw from this book comes from one of Tisdale’s own poems, “Remember This,” which was written in his notes and dated “September 9-13, 1971”; it serves as an epilogue to the entire assemblage. “Why must we remind the world we are men and should be treated as such” it begins, before walking readers through the injustice of the violence directed toward the prisoners at Attica, and the eventual resignation of meeting one’s death at its hands. Tisdale understood, as revolutionaries often do, that restaging past grievances must always come second to informing present and future generations of their historical meaning. “What will we remember to tell the others who heard and could not understand why this, why that?” he asks. It’s a question whose only answer is the truth.

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