When in 2001 I got a call from a friend regarding teaching poetry through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Department of Justice, initially I thought it was a joke. I was out of my MFA program just over a year, and did not think the NEA was looking for a poet like me. But they were. No other poet in the state of Alabama who was asked about the fellowship wanted to go teach in a prison. What an incredible gift.
My first full class poetry teaching gig was in the Talladega Federal Prison, in Talladega, Alabama. To somehow sum up the experience as life-altering seems glib, but it is true. What I found were people who placed a very sincere power in poetry—not to be the next prize-winning poet, but poetry was the means by which to survive. I felt similarly, not compelled to delve into the academic world of poetry. I was also introduced to injustice and suffering and imbalance and complicatedness and racism and classism in ways that could not be ignored, or forgotten, like closing the cover of a book, or walking out of a gallery. I found people whose lives resonated, and I heard. I felt.
What began in 2001 with me getting a grant to teach poetry for a year has now evolved into the nationally recognized Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project at Auburn University, a program that has grown as I have, to bring creativity and education into places in Alabama that are often devoid of meaningful, challenging, intellectual and creative experiences. The Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project has taught thousands of students, created books, exhibits, offered hundreds of classes, and all of this got started through the NEA.
In deciding to align the program with Auburn University, rather than an independent nonprofit, I decided the NEA was the logical place to look for more substantial funding. I had been in Baltimore for a wedding, and decided I would just drop in at the NEA. (I don’t think people generally just drop in.) And in the literature office that Friday afternoon, when most folks were not there, was Cliff Becker. He graciously accepted me into his office, and I began a well-rehearsed monologue on the value of poetry in prison. Maybe a few minutes in, he smiled, help up his hand, and in this nano-second, I felt completely deflated. He was going to shut me down. I thought, see, no one cares about people in prison in Alabama. But Cliff said, “This is the National Endowment for the Arts. You do not have to convince us that what you want to do is important. We know it is. What you need to know how to do is to write a grant to us.”
I realized later, that Cliff was treating me the way he treated everyone, but that experience, where I knew he believed in what I was trying to do in Alabama, was significant. Sometimes you just need a handful of people who truly believe in what you are doing, and great feats can be accomplished.
Since then, the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project has received six more grants from the NEA. In most recent years, funding is specifically for visual arts programming. Were it not for the NEA, this program would not exist. It would have fizzled. But the NEA believes that art works. And I don’t mean to have that sound trite, because it does work. I have seen it in the amazing artists who teach for us, and in our students, the people who come to art exhibitions, the people who buy our anthologies. Art works because it is helping people find not only their own creative voices, but it is creating an opportunity for human beings to break down some walls, it is a place for a common language. It gives hope.
The NEA has invested in my state, in my people. They invested in me. They do this continually and enthusiastically. Art can change the course of one person’s life, so can it change a nation if we let it.