What do you do with a convicted killer who has a poetic bent? If you’re Richard Shelton, you help him.
Sometime around 1964, a sociopath named Charles Schmid murdered three young girls, for which he received a sentence of 50-years-to-life at the Arizona State Prison Complex. In 1970, Schmid wrote a note to Shelton, a poet and assistant English professor at the University of Arizona, requesting his thoughts on the prisoner’s poetry. Fast-forward 30 years, by which point the author had spent hours upon hours teaching, and cajoling and inspiring scores of prisoners throughout the state to use words as their weapons. His engrossing memoir introduces us to National Book Award–winner Jimmy Santiago Baca, who initially annoyed Shelton with his incessant kvetching about prison life; bipolar savant Billy Aberg; fellow teacher Will Clipman, who once accidently brought a couple of joints to a prison; and a large handful of other inmates and their mentors, all of whom more than merit inclusion in this literary redemption song. An oft-published poet, Shelton (The Last Person to Hear Your Voice, 2007, etc.) here sublimates any lyrical proclivities and delivers his story in a simple, straight-ahead and occasionally gritty prose. Some may regret the fact that only a handful of the prisoners’ poems are included, but it was a wise decision: Too much poetry would have brought the narrative to multiple halts. With its memorable cast of characters and its heart-in-the-right-place attitude, this stirring text has a chance to reach—and affect—a large audience.
Touching, inspiring and at times frightening: a tangible demonstration of the healing powers of art.