I wrote a quarter of an opera called American Gothic, in which four composers set scenes of Americans at the margins. It was a thrill to work with the astonishing power and loveliness that is bass-baritone(-tenor .. ! ) Davone Tines.
I found my text, "Letter to my Grandnephew," through the PEN Foundation Prison Writing Contest. Here's a little thing I wrote about it:
A man in prison has written 721 pages of letters to his grandnephew. A few of those pages reach us — via a PEN Foundation prison writing contest — and we encounter what at first seems not so much a letter as a list.
The list includes events from his immediate life: “My spoon broke. My roommate moved out… I ate a big hot dog today.” What’s on TV: “The Olympics are starting… the Indians are in third place." Likes and dislikes (no to blue and the size of prison paper, yes to “Cake Boss”). Possessions scrupulously kept and counted: “three ballpoint pens… an Arabic language CD but no CD player… 26 artificial sweetener packets...” Facts about the world, just as scrupulously kept: “The greatest clarinet player of all time was Henry Cuesta… you can chew a piece of celery forever because cellulose does not break down… lightning starts on the earth and strikes upward to the sky.”
Some details start to give a picture of the man. He is creative and ambitious: he studies math, he writes poems and computer programs (with no computer: “I’m writing it in my head"). We glimpse curiosity and openness — he teaches yoga on Mondays and folds paper cranes. He would wear a kilt if he had one. We see moments of vulnerability and reflection: “I get very nervous sometimes… I look in the mirror more than I used to… I wish my sister Alyssa didn’t have cancer…” And he wrestles with big questions. “I don’t believe that our eternal destiny is determined by what we do in this lifetime."
I’m sorting this list because he hasn’t. The list is unordered. I imagine him writing one sentence at a time without reading the one that comes before. The style is forthright, with none of the oily operations of ‘writerliness’ — no conjunctions, no transitions, no framing, no couching, no passive constructions, no subordinate clauses, no parallelisms, no rhetoric. Deep feelings rub directly against the banal, and we get heat.
But it's not a list. It’s a letter to his grandnephew, Jack. What do we learn about their relationship, the granduncle in prison and the grandnephew? Very little. There is no “How is school going?” No “Go easy on your mother.” No suggestion that the author has ever received a letter back. Why not? Jack, we learn, is not yet six years old. This is a letter, but it is not a correspondence.
What propels a man to write 721 pages of letters to a boy who likely cannot read or understand them?
Once I ate a meal in perfect darkness at a ‘experience restaurant’ staffed by the blind. My friends and I laughed as we explored our mystery dishes with our hands, we overfilled wine glasses, we lost the butter. But after a while we fell silent. The buzz of the restaurant felt far away. I started to feel like I was not a body but a vague cloud, a glow underwater, a ghost. Longer and longer grew the distance from myself to the surface. I ceased to be a presence at the table.
Across the restaurant, a table began to sing Happy Birthday for someone. I joined in. Singing felt good. My ghost got a little flesh and blood. I was sad when it was over. But the idea was out, and the freedom of our invisibility dawned on us, like a lucid dream. We faked a birthday of our own and sang again. More people around the restaurant joined in, with unusual zest. More flesh on the ghost. Another table began the song again — maybe they felt like ghosts too. No fewer than eight birthdays were celebrated that night in full-throated, un-self-conscious song. Eight birthdays — what a coincidence! It was absurd, joyful, and a big relief.
We’re like bats. Echolocation is the sense of the self. We sound, and what we hear back confirms our position, our qualities of existence. We want toreverberate. We want to sing and hear our song in other voices. We need an echo.
The letter ends: “The world is astonishingly beautiful. Happiness is easy. I love you.” The mind reels.
For a singer, nothing is more terrifying than to sing and not hear yourself doing it (the band is too loud, the speakers are too far away…). A singer develops their skill not so much by singing but by hearing themselves sing. Focused on that feedback, they learn to move dozens of nearly involuntary muscles — the basic mechanics of which we cannot picture — nearly imperceptible distances, nearly unconsciously. Amazing! The praise of a parent and a teacher, the applause of an audience; these too are reflections, reverberations of oneself that, coming back, help us grow.
What kind of growth doesn’t work this way? I can’t think of anything.
In this sense I imagine prison as a ‘dead spot’ — like a loose spot on a drumhead that just doesn’t ring. A song there finds few sympathetic vibrations. There are fewer surfaces to reflect back a man’s curiosity, creativity, ambition, so how can these capacities grow?
Our author looks in the mirror more than he used to, and he writes this endless letter.
How to escape from prison #721: write yourself down onto a piece of paper, mail yourself out.