Judith Tannenbaum stands poised at the intersection of art and activism, ready to fuse these two seemingly disparate junctures. She tells of this quest in her latest book, “Disguised as a Poem.”
Tannenbaum became poet-in-residence at California”s San Quentin Prison in May 1985, and her odyssey spans four years. Recounting the power of this transformational experience in her book, she de-bunks every myth that surrounds a maximum-security prison. “My students weren”t myths they weren”t heroes or beasts. They were human,” she writes.
Tannenbaum is able to summon up the artistic best in each of her students. Previously silent, each man finds his own voice with the tutelage of Judith Tannenbaum. The walls of San Quentin, while indestructible, are nonetheless transcended through the art of writing.
Tannenbaum”s descriptions light up the pages of her book and warm the bleakness of prison life. For example, she speaks of Elmo, tall, black and well muscled, (who) loved the poems of Pablo Neruda and was himself a master of metaphor.
An intensely private woman, Tannenbaum is most willing to discuss the impulses for her current work. In one of her last visits to San Quentin, Elmo exhorted her to write a story from her point of view, an idea that she dwelled on for some time.
She assembled her thoughts and began to work on the assignment that Elmo had given to her. Tannenbaum says, “I realized that to do that I had to put my life in some kind of context so a reader would know the values, interests, experiences, etc. of the speaker. So the reader could “judge” my evaluations and insights because they would know where they came from I wanted to lead readers through an experience they probably hadn”t had, so I had to make my voice in the book trustworthy and the only way I know to do that is to be honest.”
Judith Tannenbaum is a native of the West. Her personal history is one of social activism, as she was a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) during the height of student protest in the 1970s. Seeking to remove the elitism in society while pursuing her love of words, she was strongly influenced by other practitioners of arts in other places. Liz Lerman (currently in residence here at the University), Laurie Meadoff and Judy Baca are some of names listed as her early role models.
“Disguised as a Poem” is a remarkable book by a remarkable author, at once profound and simple. Tannenbaum, in the western tradition, found gold among the tarnished prisoners at San Quentin.