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The Carletonian

Professor Appleman presents poetry and prose from prisoners

<ast Monday Deborah Appleman, Chair of Educational Studies, gave a presentation that highlighted the brilliance locked behind bars in Minnesota. During a recent sabbatical she and her husband taught writing courses at Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater located in Stillwater, MN. They offered four courses, but the presentation was focused on was the creative writing course.

The syllabus for the writing course stated, “A writing workshop works from the premise that when a group of writers convene on a regular basis to present and help each other  with their writing, the work will improve, and students will begin to see unexpected, surprising things crop up along the way.”  Appleman indicated that writing courses were important for incarcerated individuals because “incarcerated writers become free through language,” writing is a means to gain freedom, making a course like this one important to the men serving time in Stillwater.

Appleman joked that her students were guilty of “using too many words.”  In order to help her students make their writing more precise, Appleman engaged them in activities using Haiku and the sestina. The sestina is a style of writing in which six particular words are used repeatedly throughout the writing. She said that she chose  the sestina because she wanted the men to think about questions such as: “What are the six most important words of your story?” 

For one man who had killed his wife in front of their daughter, six important words in a letter to his daughter were, “mind, end, mother, you, father, remember.” 

An essential part of Appleman’s teaching during her stay at Stillwater was a deliberate ignorance of her students crimes.   Appleman said she did not want to think of them as anything but “great writers,” and in order to do that, she made no effort to know  their crimes. A PowerPoint slide created by a student indicated that the makeup of her class included fourteen murderers, one person convicted of first degree assault and another convicted of criminal sexual assault.

Another important part of Appleman’s presentation was realizing the “School to Prison pipeline.” She indicated that “incarceration is the result of a long series of injustices.” A beginning step to the road to incarceration begins with the schools that children attend. Appleman noted that in many ways what these children learn and are subsequently exposed to will dictate whether they go to college or prison.

During the last minutes Appleman introduced the audience to her Stillwater students via their poetry. Their final assignment was to write a letter to a young man.  The first was a group poem in which they spoke of the importance of their words. One man stated, “I want my words to last forever, I am terrified of being forgotten.”

A poem by Ezekiel Caligiun illustrated his perspective on the “School to Prison pipeline.” One line read, “We are the children that used to be the future… caught in the social tsunami.”

The most heart-wrenching poem was Ross Shepherd’s “A letter to my son,” in which he apologized to his son for not being able to share all the moments that fathers and sons usually share, such as his birth, his first day of school, and his first date.  As the poem continued Shepherd revealed that his letter was directed to a fictional son, for he had been incarcerated for a large portion of his life and had never be able to love a woman or have any children. He stated that he was sorry about the life that he had “selfishly gave away” many years ago.

At the end of the presentation Appleman stated, “If you don’t take away how intelligent they are then take away how human they are.” Appleman emphasized that behind the crimes these individuals had committed were people gifted with the ability to write.

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