Something Gone Wrong


The poetry reading I was supposed to introduce a few nights ago got canceled. Its principal poet was not available. He had been arrested the day before the scheduled reading for allegedly stabbing somebody to death.

There are many who say I shouldn't have been surprised, much less shocked. The poet had done time, a long time, in prison. In fact, I knew him primarily as one of the co-authors of a book written in prison by members of the then-newly incorporated "in house" Writers' Club. What had started as a few inmates' idea of a male response to Ntozake Shange's famous verse play, "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf," became my small publishing company's all-time best-selling book, now sold out. The scheduled poet had been one of its principal authors and guiding forces.

I had known for some time that all was not well with the poet. The broad, muscular, dignified body that, in prison, had landed him the role of Dr. Martin Luther King in a prison-performed skit (of which he was also a main author), had shrunk to half its ex-heavyweight-fighter's weight on the Street. I had thought he was starving, and was glad to donate copies of the play's -- his play's -- second printing to him so he could feed himself, briefly, off the proceeds. In fact, he was starving. I guess back then I was too naive about the tapeworm of hard drugs to suspect why.

I realized all was very far from well when I was called into the prison one day last month to explain to a deeply disgruntled Writers' Club why the poet was reportedly selling photocopies of the club's more recent book on midtown Baltimore streets -- "Hear My Cry," a publication whose production was slightly aided by my press but which was very much the club's own thing. I tried to make the men understand that my press in no way sanctioned such a pirating, though I did understand why the poet -- who had helped bring "Hear My Cry" into existence during the years before his release -- felt that the now handsomely published book was partially his. They angrily demanded to know why I had allowed the poet to sell even the first prison book on the Street.

"You do business with an addict?" they jeered. "You're a disabler."

Enabler was the word they meant, of course, in the dialect of Self-Help. But their version of the word seemed all too correct.

I had a premonition that things had gone very wrong when the poet failed to phone my office at the appointed hour and day to make final arrangements for his performance. My husband and I had made up some fliers for him to hand out in advance, and I needed to know how to get them into the poet's hands. This poet had always been exceptionally exact -- especially exceptional among poets -- in doing what he said he would. He had promised to phone me at 10 a.m. Monday morning, and he didn't. I had a bad feeling. Something had happened to him.

I'll probably never know exactly what that something was, for the stabbing took place several days later. I'm sure the Writers' Club members think they know -- "strung out again" -- and maybe they're right.

I wish I did know. I keep having a waking nightmare about a lethal dispute over, of all things, literature. The accused poet had been accustomed to selling poems-for-pennies not far from where the dead man had been reported to hand out religious tracts. Could the stabbing have been the flesh-and-blood casualty of a paper war? A poet's words competing with somebody else's God's words. . . .

But I'll never know what happened, what made it happen. I share the Writers' Club's disdain for "citizens" who think they've got some kind of inside track on the psyche of the prison artist. Disdain for people who have never known prison, or what it takes to get a person there, and are foolish enough to imagine that all such an artist needs is his or her freedom in order to live happily ever after. I swear I never thought that for a minute -- or did I?

The morning of the scheduled poetry reading, before 7:30, one of the other authors of the prison play phoned me. He apologized for the early hour. He knew I had to leave for work. But he wanted to break some awful news to me.

With the help of my university's campus police, I attempted to verify or discredit the story. It was true. When another of the verse play's authors called around noon with the same message and the same unspoken hope that it was just another bite of disinformation, I had to tell him the story checked out.

Each of my informants lived in a different pre-relese facility far from his former prison and inaccessible to the Street. The mystery of the prison grapevine swirled in my head, the very kind of romanticism that worries me tonight. Each man quickly dispelled it. "I heard it on the 6 a.m. news," both said. "I get up early to work out before breakfast."

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