The Poetry of a Jail Rebellion

A brand new guide of poems from a workshop at Attica within the Seventies reveals how prisoners resisted the dehumanizing results of incarceration.

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

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

The story of Attica might be stated to start in 1929, when uprisings at Dannemora and Auburn prisons captivated New York state. Situations on the prisons (together with overcrowding, low wages, and extra), rebellions in response to these circumstances, and assaults on prisoners by police and armed residents occasioned a go to from Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. “The time has come,” Roosevelt stated after visiting Dannemora and close by Nice Meadow Jail, “when New York can not tolerate prisons like Dannemora and Auburn.” Within the wake of the prisoners taking management of their services and of governmental outcry, the state didn’t demolish both jail (each are nonetheless operational at present). As an alternative, it constructed a brand new facility: Attica.

From its opening in 1931, Attica confirmed indicators of what was to come back. Fifteen days after the jail started operations, Jesse Conklin, incarcerated for forgery, turned the primary individual to flee. A yr and a half later, in December 1932, the primary rebellion occurred. In line with the warden on the time, it was prompted partly by “a powerful distaste amongst sure . . . convicts for decide and shovel work.” If there was a “distaste” for labor, the occasions of the next a long time counsel that the prisoners resented their work due to the best way the jail denigrated its laborers. Throughout that point, based on the critic Mark Nowak, folks incarcerated at Attica participated in strikes and protests (such because the “bitter milk sit-down strike”), lawsuits (together with greater than 100 complaints filed by Black Muslims demanding non secular freedom), and even, in 1962, a sit-in coordinated throughout 4 New York prisons. Utilizing political protests and labor actions, folks incarcerated at Attica fought for higher work circumstances, for his or her rights, and for his or her liberation. They weren’t the lazy laborers whom the warden steered deserved the punishment they obtained; they had been staff and individuals who may and did resist the establishment’s dehumanization.

It’s maybe unsurprising, then, that such a politically lively 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 management of Attica. Governing themselves by way of consultant democracy, they drafted an inventory of calls for, which included minimum-wage fee for his or her compelled labor, an finish to the censorship of studying supplies, and an growth of the jail’s training system. After 4 days, armed forces stormed the jail, ensuing within the deaths of thirty-two prisoners and eleven hostages. 

Although the assault by the state introduced an finish to the prisoners’ self-governance, those that survived did see considered one of their efforts come to fruition within the type of a poetry workshop that began in 1972, led by Celes Tisdale, a professor at SUNY Buffalo. Tisdale’s new guide, When the Smoke Cleared: Attica Jail Poems and Journal, collects poems by his college students in that workshop and his journal entries from the interval. Among the work was initially revealed in Tisdale’s 1974 guide Betcha Ain’t, however the brand new quantity additionally contains never-before-published poems, Tisdale’s class handouts, and extra. When the Smoke Cleared, accordingly, reveals an amazing deal about survival within the wake of state violence and in regards to the makes use of of jail training. 


On the primary day of the course (which was funded partly by a nonprofit and partly by the state), Tisdale was not a lot involved with the curriculum as anxious about what would occur. He wrote in his journal, “Many occasions have I basked within the glory of applause, adulation, recognition as I interpreted the Black poet masters. However, at present, I wait in painful/joyful anticipation of assembly these humanity-scarred males who should specific themselves or perish from anonymity.” Within the hours that adopted, he met his workshop individuals, a few of whom he acknowledged from the neighborhood the place he grew up, in close by Buffalo, and the restaurant the place he labored whereas in faculty. This familiarity enabled an unconventional student-teacher relationship; the boys usually made enjoyable of him, led class dialogue to subjects that Tisdale didn’t wish to discuss, and extra usually taught him “what they meant throughout that week in September 1971, once they stated, ‘We’re males.’”

Within the ensuing months, Tisdale tried to maintain the boys targeted on poetry, however politics often crept in. This was partly as a result of the boys noticed the 2 as associated. In Could, when Tisdale requested the individuals to outline poetry, he recalled that some responded, “Private, offers with feelings, historic, compact (concise), everlasting, revolutionary.” Politics additionally saved developing as a result of present occasions the boys; in June 1972, the Black Marxist political prisoner Angela Davis was acquitted, “and her trial was the subject of curiosity in the beginning of the session. Moderately than turn into concerned in a political dialogue, I learn a poem given to me by Nikki Giovanni known as ‘Poem of Angela Yvonne Davis,’” Tisdale recalled in his journal. Although Tisdale solely famous that the poem introduced a “heat response,” one of many workshop members, Harvey Marcelin, was so struck by the verse that he paid homage to Giovanni’s poem in considered one of his personal. 

Whereas the incarcerated males discovered a way of political unity in Tisdale’s workshop, the political local weather of the jail usually left them actually remoted, and it sometimes made it arduous for the workshop to proceed. In July 1972, the jail’s superintendent refused to let the Buffalo Black Writers Workshop go to Tisdale’s class as a result of some incarcerated folks had staged a starvation strike the day prior to this. A few week later, the workshop was canceled as a result of 900 of the 1,200 males on the jail had protested the firing of a nurse by staying of their cells for 3 days. “Am satisfied one other riot is within the making,” Tisdale wrote. “A lot of the males insist no change has taken place within the jail because the September [uprising].” Within the wake of the riot, the politics inside Attica turned more and more repressive, stoking tensions and impeding the boys’s entry to training. 

When Tisdale started one other workshop cycle in August 1972, elevated exterior curiosity in this system supplied the boys with new alternatives to manipulate themselves. The Buffalo Night Information wished to report on the workshop, a proposal the boys mentioned for a month. Their transformation of a poetry class into a spot for democratic decision-making, nonetheless short-term, coincided with new course materials. In October, after a few of the college students confirmed curiosity in playwriting, Tisdale wrote, “It seems that the boys have larger notion of their existence and are rather more involved now with all facets of writing.” This led Tisdale to lecture on the “mechanics of playwriting” and to assign excerpts from Charles Gordone’s No Place to Be Any individual and Tony Preston’s On the Highway. In December, the boys mentioned “what Blacks needs to be writing about, at present. Most of them agree that our work ought to replicate the occasions.” 

Their potential to provide such work, nonetheless, was nonetheless restricted by their confinement. One of many individuals had his writings and his books confiscated. Many others, one imagines, confronted quite a few unrecorded difficulties in accessing studying and writing supplies. And one of many individuals had his request for parole denied, guaranteeing that he continued to face these obstacles to writing. By way of these difficulties, nonetheless, they continued to interact with Black poetry, not solely as a method of confronting their historic circumstances but additionally as a approach to change their relations to 1 one other.

For each the scholars and their instructor, the workshop was transformative. On April 11, 1973, Tisdale wrote:

Crucial level I made tonight was that we should not decide a poet by what he ‘appears’ to be or has turn into, as a result of the poet’s strategy usually modifications to suit the event or prevailing social/political tenor of the society: he (poet) is so elusive. One workshop member cautioned us that we should always not decide folks like Imamu [Amiri Baraka] or Nikki Giovanni by their previous. . . . We should acknowledge transitions. 

This dialogue led to a dialog about what poetry needs to be, which Tisdale discovered particularly significant. “I’m starting to outline and distill my reactions to poetry and its function,” Tisdale wrote. “Simply as the boys, I’m nonetheless studying/formulating.” Over the following yr, all of them continued to develop. One participant was transferred to Albion Correctional Facility, the place he hoped to take courses at Buffalo State Faculty in the course of the day. The Black Arts Motion poet and writer Dudley Randall collected their poems in a stand-alone quantity revealed by Broadside Press titled Betcha Ain’t. And even after Tisdale taught his final workshop, in 1974, a few of his college students continued life on the within modified by the category and by the jail. As Tisdale wrote in March 1974, “Leonard Mackey tells me that he’s come out of Attica realizing some implausible folks. . . . Attica, he says, modifications everybody, their commitments, their future.”


The workshop might not have ended the individuals’ sentences or undone the harms of the previous, however as a minimum, it led to the publication of a variety of their poems, first in 1974 in Betcha Ain’t, and once more now in When the Smoke Cleared. The poems span topics from kinship to the Muslim religion and the Vietnam Conflict. All through, the riot and the federal government’s assault loom giant. Isaiah Hawkins’s “thirteenth of Genocide,” for example, represents the state response as motivated by racism and valorizes the boys’s deaths. “I’m a person, white people,” one Black man says on the poem’s finish, “and like a person I’ll die.” On this and most of the different poets’ representations of the riot, the incarcerated males who took management of the jail usually are not felony a lot as righteous.

Lots of the poems additionally meditate on life after the federal government’s violent response. In “Attica Reflections,” Hersey Boyer describes awakening within the jail “To listen to MEN weeping.” “They’ve witnessed the slaughter,” he continues, “And heard your songs of merriment.” The place Boyer chronicles the sorrow of survival, John Lee Norris’s “Simply One other Web page” turns numb: 

And your sympathy and tears at all times come too late
And the one factor they do proper is improper
And it’s simply one other web page.

What hurts isn’t merely the atrocity and even the state’s justification of its personal violence however, somewhat, that the state assault is enterprise as typical. For Norris, Boyer, and lots of others on this assortment, the state response isn’t an finish however a starting, and life afterward continues in its desolate shadow.

Of their representations of the state’s slaughter, the Attica poets usually flip to the messianic, prophesying that the occasion may radicalize sufficient folks to provide actual change. That is the case in Christopher Sutherland’s “Sept. 13”: 

If our actions
Trigger brothers and sisters to unite
As we die,
Of their combating spirits we stay.

One other poet, Mshaka, broaches the supernatural. In “Formulation for Attica Repeats,” he describes the federal government’s assault and the politicians’ speeches that adopted, then envisions “the 43 useless males / who listened . . ./ threatening to rise / once more. . . .” 

One is likely to be inclined to learn these poets’ insistence on inspiring mass political motion as naïve. In any case, they had been writing as jail populations had been beginning to enhance, on their approach to what’s now referred to as mass incarceration. But what shines by way of in these poems is the writers’ religion in the potential of radical change within the face of deep repression, even once they lack any proof that issues is likely to be completely different. This certainty is finally a testomony to the depth of their political radicalism. They know that life and radicalism go on, even after assault. In chronicling their persistence, they not solely foretell the anti-carceral actions of current a long time; additionally they present themselves a imaginative and prescient of the longer term that sustains their defiance of the carceral regime that dictates their potential to jot down, to work, and to stay.

Given the poets’ consideration to celebrating life even within the face of hardship, it’s unsurprising that they characterize love—romantic and familial—as each pleasurable and troublesome. Harold E. Packwood’s “Out of Black Love,” for example, describes his dad and mom conceiving him in “the ecstasy / Of a stolen second of freedom.” He writes:

So I’ve cherished,
With each fiber of my being,
Crying in agony
For my wounds to heal.

Packwood sees romance and ache as two sides of the identical coin, and the experiences of agony that lead him to understand love additionally push him to valorize his mom’s care labor. In “Black Dolphin,” Packwood pens a prolonged remembrance of the previous that’s tinged with nostalgia, and he dedicates the final and longest part of the poem to the reminiscence of his mom cooking him breakfast: 

However love
and pancakes
eased the ache
of actuality.

Love, to Packwood, isn’t merely a sense. Moderately, it lives within the labor of caring. That caring so occupies Packwood—and so many different poets on this quantity—reveals one thing in regards to the antagonistic nature of an establishment that purports to rehabilitate.

It additionally reveals one thing in regards to the poets. The state has separated them from the care that helped them persevere by way of the difficulties of life on the skin, however their verse is a reminder that they’ve discovered a approach to preserve themselves alive by way of the super problem of life in Attica. Of their poetry, the boys’s standing as folks victimized by the jail is, unsurprisingly, subordinate to the phrases and imaginations of the boys themselves. This facet of their work was significantly instructive to Tisdale. “I got here to carry,” Tisdale writes in his poem “The Males,” “to inform, to learn the world in poems, / and paused in surprise / on the males who actually know.” This reversal—from Tisdale as instructor and speaker to Tisdale as pupil and listener—is one which the poems of When the Smoke Cleared imposes upon its readers as effectively, offering them with classes in residing by way of trauma.


The educator who turns into the scholar is a well-established trope within the writing on jail education schemes. Tisdale helped to make it so when he wrote, in his 1974 preface to Betcha Ain’t, that his incarcerated college students “taught me new meanings of freedom and dignity,” and since then, it has appeared in Drew Leder’s The Soul Is aware of No Bars, in Ann Snitow’s 2011 Dissent essay “Harmful Worlds: Instructing Movie in Jail,” and extra. However as Megan Sweeney demonstrates in Studying Is My Window, a research of incarcerated ladies’s studying practices, these packages are in decline:

Jail libraries turned a really low precedence in the course of the prison-building marketing campaign of the Nineteen Eighties, and lots of had been severely depleted or closed as a result of diminished funding and area. . . . In 1994, Congress eradicated Pell Grants for prisoners, successfully defunding all faculty packages in U.S. prisons and sparking broader cuts in all ranges of instructional programming.

In 2006, the Supreme Courtroom dominated in Beard v. Banks that it was constitutional for prisons to disclaim some incarcerated folks entry to studying supplies. States have additionally more and more defunded jail libraries. And correctional officers have advocated for unaffordable e-readers, which have solely additional restricted incarcerated folks’s entry to books and to formal training. This alone is a tragedy. However as a result of folks incarcerated in the US are disproportionately Black and dealing class, these cuts and restrictions particularly have an effect on poor folks of colour. In different phrases, folks on the within, who due to their race and sophistication seemingly attended colleges with worse instructional outcomes, discover themselves as soon as extra unable to entry equitable training. 

Within the wake of such defunding, many non-public establishments and organizations have sought to help incarcerated folks in buying a proper training. Bard Faculty’s Jail Initiative, by way of which individuals earn faculty levels, 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 folks, and teams like New Jersey’s Books Behind Bars mail texts to folks on the within. With no hope of a beneficent state—it’s, finally, the identical one which cages—incarcerated folks, their family members, and people who ally with them have turned to 1 one other, creating new coalitions to work in opposition to the state’s degradation of its folks. 

As When the Smoke Clears reminds us, these coalitions should discover methods to make their work sustainable within the face of the intransigence and opposition of the jail. Tisdale’s personal workshop was funded partly by a nonprofit, which ultimately withdrew its funding. Even so, Tisdale saved operating the course till the work turned too taxing, which occurred partly due to Attica’s hostility to his efforts to help the boys. In considered one of his final journal entries in When the Smoke Clears, he notes that he known as Attica to verify that he would come to the jail for the workshop and realized that his college students had not been instructed that they had been assembly. “I stayed house. Perhaps the workshop has run its course. I gained’t push an excessive amount of anymore, as a result of I believe I’ve one thing to supply as a instructor—I don’t want this sense of being prostituted.” Had Tisdale labored below higher circumstances and with extra assist, one imagines that he might have continued to show the category. However as When the Smoke Cleared demonstrates, the jail wouldn’t assist anybody enterprise a venture like Tisdale’s long-term. Nonetheless, supporting efforts like Tisdale’s are vital, not as a result of they reform the establishment, however as a result of they will assist incarcerated folks in constructing inside-outside relations and solidaristic organizing throughout services.

Put in another way, the extra sustainable training system that Tisdale lacked and that organizations at present work towards finally lays the muse for a world completely different from the one state coverage has produced: one during which folks do the labor of caring for one another, arrange towards extra equitable alternatives, and browse and be taught alongside each other. These organizations start the troublesome work, in different phrases, of fulfilling the duty set out way back by those that rebelled at Dannemora and Auburn, whose political efforts had been co-opted to construct Attica. They take steps towards empowering these on the within and on the skin to create a world that may not tolerate not the actual facility of Attica however incarceration itself.

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

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Tha Bosslady

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