Monday, May 7, 2018

Charlie's Poem Performed at PEN World Voices Festival 2018

 May 4, 2018
We don't always get "good news" at prison mail call, but tonight I got an uplifting letter from Caits Meissner, PEN America Prison and Justice Writing Program Manager in New York City. She told me that my poem, "How Should I Look?" was performed at the PEN America World Voices Festival 2018 last month, along with other literary works by prison writers. She included a letter from Demian Vitanza, a Norwegian-Italian playwright and author, who read my poem at the festival, and who had some inspiring insights into my work.

This is how I got to this point: on my bunk in a crowded human warehouse in August, 2012, in one of those lightning bolts of inspiration that come from I don't know where, I quickly scribbled out "How Should I Look." In the meantime, I had a kangaroo court parole hearing and suffered through a punitive transfer to a harsh, distant prison closer to Mobile, Alabama, than to my family and friends.

The new "mailroom lady" didn't think I should be allowed to write and publish my thoughts — they never heard of the Constitution, the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights, or freedom of speech in Okaloosa County Florida — and she began the first of several attempts to silence me. "Inmates can not [sic] write short stories," she said.

Wrong. I'd been teaching creative classes for thirty years. When "How Should I Look" was published, however, she wrote a fabricated disciplinary report that cost me thirty days in solitary confinement. Guess what I did during those thirty days in the box? I wrote poems, essays, and blogs!

That did not endear me to her. I did not care. You can't let evil have a "chilling effect" on your writing. I fought back.

Meanwhile, PEN America honored "How Should I Look?" with their first prize in poetry for 2012, and I filed a federal retaliation lawsuit against the angry woman. The prison inspectors investigated, and she was eventually fired for lying, but not before I endured another period in solitary. It took years, but I was finally vindicated.

If you've never been locked away in solitary confinement for something you wrote, I don't recommend it. I was deprived of visits with my longsuffering wife, no phone calls, no exercise, no daylight, meager rations. I survived. It wasn't the first time they threw me in the hole, but hopefully it will be the last; however, I'm getting negative rumblings from another mail person at this new prison. She recently stated, "It's against the rules for you to send in publications or write books."

Au contraire. So the travails continue.

If you'd like to see the Youtube video of the PEN World Voices readings, click here.  

If you haven't read the poem, it follows.

I am grateful for over 33 years of support and encouragement from a succession of PEN mentors and members who have helped make this life sentence more bearable. And I am truly honored to have been included in this year’s World Voices Festival Breakout Event.

As always, we welcome your comments and opinions.


How Should I Look? 
By Charles Patrick Norman

How should I look, or act?

          I asked him, in answer when he said,
You don’t look, or act like you’ve spent
          that much time in prison.
(Three decades, plus some change, meter running).

Should my eyes be crazed, glazed, unblinking, uncaring?
Should my face be lumped and creased,
          teeth rotted, gapped, and broken?
Perhaps the nightmares I’ve lived have twisted me,
          the brawls and beatdowns broken my back?
Ought my arthritic hands shake, palsy from the deeds I’ve done,
          Defend myself, offend thee, have blooded and bled
                    The Dead who fell, unrisen to the bell?
Do you wonder at my outward normalcy and doubt?

Did you expect to gaze upon faded blue teardrops
          dripping from the corner of my sad eye,
Or crude tattoos of zodiacs, hearts, forgotten names
          of lovers cavorting, my neck encircled with blue dashes,
                    subscripted, "cut on dotted line?"
Or rather you would frown at “LOVE’ and “HATE” paired
          on the battered knuckles of each hand, endnotes
          to jumbled creeds and symbols snaking down my arms?

How should I act?
          Would you prefer I meet your expectations,
          Grasp your neck with yellow-clawed fingers,
          tobacco-stained tips squeezing off your airway,
          Sour breath tinged with yeasty fumes of prison wine
                    burning your eyes
          while I rip the watch from your wrist with my free hand?

Does that suit your notion of what a man becomes
          when he’s been caged for decades with wild beasts?

Can you only imagine the outward destruction of a man,
          and not the inner?

Can you not see beneath the surface to the scars
          of broken hopes and dreams inside my heart,
          the life unlived in freedom, x-ed out?
          The loss of love and family snatched away
          like a rooftop in the storm, exposing
          the trashed memories, meager belongings soaked
          in the shattered house below?

Of course you can’t.
          You only see the outward man, cleanshaven,
          smiles, upright posture yet unbroken, unblemished
          as the wanted poster says: no scars, marks, or tattoos.
Except for those you cannot see, trauma obscured
beneath the sedimentary layers of life in prison.
          My life.
          In prison.
          Sorry to disappoint you.