Arts in Prison with Arlin Buyert
On Tuesday, February 16th at 6:00 p.m. The Writers Place and the Johnson County Library will present Poetry and Prose, a poetry reading by inmates and former inmates incarcerated at Lansing Prison. Arlin Buyert has facilitated the poetry program at Lansing Prison for the past four years. It is sponsored by Arts in Prison, Inc. which also features The East Hill Singers, theatre and yoga programs for inmates.
Arlin Buyert was born and raised on an Iowa farm near Sioux Center where he graduated from high school. Arlin was formally educated at Macalester College and The University of Minnesota and worked as an admissions officer at Macalester College before entering the Navy in 1966. Arlin was a Naval aviator, corporate executive, cattle rancher and is now retired and lives in Leawood, Kansas with his wife Kristen Kvam. Arlin has published three books of poetry and his most recent book, Oh Say Can You See was a Thorpe Menn Award finalist in 2015. He has also edited two anthologies of inmate poetry entitled Open to the Sky.
Tell us about yourself. How did you get started writing?
I had a wonderful English teacher in high school and he encouraged me to write poems, even way back then. Then I went to Macalester College in Minnesota – English major – and I had some wonderful instructors there so I did some poetry writing then. But then corporate America and the military and all that – I just got away from it. And then I went on a mission trip to the mountains of West Virginia around '88 or '89 and I was so moved by the conditions in the coal mining area in West Virginia. And riding back - it was like an 8 hour ride back - and I was sitting in the back of this van and I had a notebook and I started writing about that experience. And a friend of mine – I shared it with her and she gave it to the Presbyterian survey and they published it. And then I was married to Dorothy for 40 years and she had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and she died like 8 years ago. And my therapist - I was having difficulties – and my therapist said well you like to write – try writing to ease your pain as a therapeutic effort. And so I did, and wrote some poems about her death and [also] the ICU poem that got published by Rockhurst Review. It was one of the earlier poems that I wrote after her death. And then I got to thinking about my parents and how I have nothing in writing from either my mom or dad. Nothing. And I had a granddaughter come along and I wanted things for her to look at. 40 years from now. 50 years from now. Some memory or thoughts of her grandpa. So that really inspired me to leave hopefully a treasure for my granddaughter and maybe if she has children, maybe for her children.
Your book titles are very intriguing. Can you tell us how the titles came to fruition?
Where Shadows Take Their Places: One of the poems that I fashioned, ‘Hometown,’ came from Iris Dement. She has a song about hometown and about shadows in her hometown and I’ve always been taught that the title of the poem should be a metaphor, related of course to the poem. And I feel the same way about the [titles of the] books. And when I was looking for a photo for the cover of [Open to the sky] I saw this photograph and I thought [of] razor wire, but what dominates this photo? It’s the beautiful sky. And the razor wire can keep the poem from going that way. But it doesn’t keep it from going up.
Are you working on your next collection?
I worked in corporate America for about 20 years. I was an executive with MCI, the long distance phone company, and a really good friend of mine in North Carolina is encouraging me to write some poems about corporate America. So I’ve started some of those. So that’s my next project. But I found them difficult to work on. I don’t know if those poems would be well received.
How do you begin a poem?
Let’s see. I guess usually with a memory . . . And then it goes to an image . . . And then it goes to a phrase.
Who are some of your favorite poets? Who inspires you?
Lucille Clifton. She wrote some tough poetry. She was abused by a man. A powerful poet. We’ve used some of her poems at Lansing. Wendell Berry. Ted Kooser. I got the sweetest thing. You know Ted, several years ago, wrote this book, [Poetry Home Repair Manual] . . . [It] covers how do you pick a title? What’s a metaphor? And what’s a metaphor for? It just works beautifully well at Lansing. It’s not so obtuse . . . simple lay person language. In December at Lansing one of the guys said you know this book has just been wonderful. He said why don’t we write [Ted Kooser] a thank-you note. I said I correspond with him. Why don’t you each write a little handwritten thank-you note to Ted Kooser about what you found in the book. So I had three or four pages of handwritten notes. I send it off to Ted. I get this note back from him. He was just simply touched. So I’m going to take that note from Mr. Kooser back to Lansing when we start up in two weeks.
What’s the best writing advice that you’ve received?
What’s the worst writing advice you’ve received?
Write every day.
What is Arts in Prison? And how did you get involved?
Arts in Prison is a non-profit. We do music, poetry, theater and yoga. A friend invited me to come to Atonement Lutheran several years ago to listen to an Easthill Singers concert. So I go, and I see some of my friends from the Village choir are singing in the Easthill Singers choir. I meet the director and the director says we need more basses. Why don’t you come and sing with us? So then I started singing with the Easthill Singers. And this is an inmate choir plus volunteers, maybe about 50/50. And four times a year the inmates get to come out of prison and sing with us volunteers in churches or wherever. At rehearsal one night the executive director of Arts in Prison makes an announcement that the poetry person is moving to Chicago. [He asked] did we know anybody willing to lead the poetry group at Lansing?
What value does Arts in Prison bring to both the incarcerated and the community?
The recidivism rates in Kansas now are close to 60% within a year. Almost 60%, which is hard to believe, go back to prison in Kansas. If they participate in one of these four programs (music, poetry, yoga or theater) their recidivism drops down to like 10%.
Do you continue to support your workshop attendees when they are released?
A workshop attendee just got out; I got him a job with Laminate Works in town. A friend of mine is CFO at Laminate Works and this is the second inmate that they’ve hired. He’s willing, for whatever reason, to take a chance. A lot of companies won’t. And in Kansas [an employer has] to check if you’re a former inmate.
Do the workshop attendees continue to write and send you their poetry?
We have coffee at a McDonalds . . . We meet about once a month. Now initially I got in trouble doing this because it’s against the law, it’s against the rules of the prison. I had to have more training. So now I’m technically a mentor. When they get out of prison they get $100 and a one way bus ticket to any place in the United States they want to go. Most of them stay right here. They don’t have a car. They don’t have clothing. They don’t have a place to live . . . so it’s no surprise that 60% go back.
What’s the most rewarding aspect of participating in Arts in Prison?
When the [two anthologies of inmate poetry] got published the self-respect it gave the inmates. "I just can’t believe I’m a damn published poet! I just can’t believe it."
What has been the most challenging aspect?
Walking that line between love and tough love. I tend to want to go too far . . . Establishing the right boundary. What is the right boundary between a mentor or a former poetry instructor?
Has your idea of what poetry is changed since Arts in Prison?
Yea, I think so. I never thought poetry would become something to increase one’s level of self-confidence and self-worth. I never thought about that. But lo and behold that’s exactly what this poetry does. It helps them stay out of prison. I never dreamed that.
How do you encourage those in your workshops to write? What methods and prompts do you use? And how do you mitigate any fears the writers may have?
Sometimes we just take ten minutes of silence . . . no speaking, just writing. Write whatever you want. Then I often give them prompts like [a] train rolling. There’s a big train track right near the prison so you hear this freight train going and going and going. There’s just something haunting about the freight train so I put that down as a prompt. [Also,] the starry night, the moon, the razor wire, the gate . . . .
Do you feel like poetry is therapeutic for the inmates just like it has been for you?
Definitely. And sometimes I’ll give them poems. Like I’ll give them a poem by Etheridge Knight. He was in prison for many years [and] became a poet in prison. And I’ll give them a poem and say write your version of this. And that helps them a lot, gives them a format. They can put their own ideas and experiences into that format.