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By Heart : Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives - Judith Tannenbaum

By Heart

Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives

Paperback Published: 1st April 2010
ISBN: 9780981559353
Number Of Pages: 198

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"A boy with no one to listen becomes a man in prison for life and discovers his mind can be free. A woman enters prison to teach and becomes his first listener. And so begins a twenty-five year friendship between two gifted writers and poets. The result is "By Heart"-- a book that will anger you, give you hope, and break your heart."--Gloria Steinem

For most of their adult lives, since meeting as teacher and pupil at San Quentin State Prison, Judith Tannenbaum and Spoon Jackson have conferred, corresponded, and sometimes collaborated, producing very different bodies of work resting on the same understanding: that human beings have one foot in darkness, another in light. Moving stories of their childhoods and adult creative lives reveal both tragedy and beauty.

In alternating chapters--part memoir, part essay--"By Heart" reveals painful truths about prison, education, and which children our world nurtures and which it shuns. At its core are two stories that speak for human imagination, spirit, and expression.

Judith Tannenbaum is a nationally respected poet, educator, lecturer, and the author of "Disguised as a Poem, " among other works, including poetry, anthologies, and guidebooks for teaching arts in prison. She coordinates training at WritersCorps.

Born into an impoverished family of fifteen boys, Spoon Jackson was sentenced to life without possibility of parole by age twenty. He discovered himself as a writer for the first time in prison, eventually becoming an award-winning, internationally-known poet and essayist, as well as a facilitator of creative writing classes for other prisoners.


"In their remarkable memoir, Spoon Jackson and Judith Tannenbaum show us how words change lives, how poetry invites you to free your mind, even in a maximum security prison. By Heart is their profoundly inspirational story, an engaging and enlightening examination of two people thrown together in a dark place and how both journey through darkness and into the light."

--Ken Lamberton, author of Wilderness and Razor Wire: A Naturalist's Observations from Prison and other books "Politics don't work, religion is a bit too eclectic, but ART is the parachute that could catch and hold us all!"

--Rhodessa Jones, Founder/Artistic Director of the Medea Project: Theatre for Incarcerated Women "A remarkable memoir of two powerful personalities brought together through poetry and prison. Through Judith's genuineness a poet awoke and found a way to live a fuller life in spite of confinement, and through Spoon's honesty and talent many people will be compelled to contribute to society, even if society has abandoned them."

--Joseph Lea, Library Media Specialist, York Correctional Institution, Niantic, CT "By Heart works on so many levels. We get to know both Judith and Spoon through that terrific 'eye' and 'I' revelation that memoir offers at its best."

--Rilla Askew, author of Fire in Beulah and other books "The collaboration between Judith Tannenbaum and Spoon Jackson continues the path to freedom through art. By Heart is so beautifully described, both objectively and emotionally."

--Barney Rosset, Publisher/Editor of Grove Press 1951-1985 "By Heart leads us on a poignant journey into that space in ourselves where we finally find our own voice. Bravo Judith and Spoon for a beautiful work of art."

--Piri Thomas, writer, poet, author of Down These Mean Streets "This is a book about poetry, about struggle, about freedom and incarceration, and most of all about heart. It is a wonderful read."

--devorah major, San Francisco Poet Laureate 2002-2005 "A portrait of prison and of the pursuit of art. An amazing combo, a compelling read. . . years later, acting in [Waiting for] Godot on Broadway, I see how much the San Quentin production has meant to my view of the play."

--Bill Irwin, TONY winning actor, appeared in the Broadway revival of Waiting for Godot "This is a heart rending book that depicts both writers' childhoods, their struggles and eventual transcendence through art, poetry in particular... Both writers dare look underneath the surface in order to reach deeper into the human psyche."

--Dianna Henning "The Monteserrat Review " ..".a remarkable new book about the wonderful connection between a truly talented and compassionate teacher of poetry and her equally talented star prisoner pupil. This is a book that will touch you on all of the most profound levels."

--Kenneth Hartman"The Huffington Post" (11/30/2010) "A boy with no one to listen becomes a man in prison for life and discovers his mind can be free. A woman enters prison to teach and becomes his first listener. And so begins a twenty-five year friendship between two gifted writers and poets. The result is By Heart -- a book that will anger you, give you hope, and break your heart."

--Gloria Steinem "A boy with no one to listen becomes a man in prison for life and discovers his mind can be free. A woman enters prison to teach and becomes his first listener. And so begins a twenty-five year friendship between two gifted writers and poets. The result is By Heart -- a book that will anger you, give you hope, and break your heart."

- Gloria Steinem, writer, lecturer, editor, and feminist activist ..".Judith wants us to see that humanity exists, and can thrive, in even the places where we try to bury it. And when we choose to acknowledge what we so seldom look at, we may very well find reflections of ourselves."

- Wendy Jason, change.org By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives is a joint memoir written by two poets who met through the California Penal System. Judith Tannenbaum taught poetry in state prisons as part of the California Art-in-Corrections Program. Spoon Jackson was her student, now friend, who became an internationally known poet. He is serving out a life-without-parole sentence.

Chapters alternate - with each author following their own, self-contained timeline. Judith Tannenbaum's path as a poet led her to teach men who, by her own admission, society considers monsters. For Jackson, life has been restricted to various prisons since he was twenty years old - and in many ways it was prison which led him to poetry. These two people of different race, gender and background, still manage to form a friendship based on their shared love of words and poems.

I'd like to say that this book is the story of that friendship, but it's really more the story of their individual development as artists, with some overlap. By Heart could easily be split into two separate books without the reader noticing. Its chapters do not flow into eachother. Tannenbaum in the introduction mentions that she was hesitant about writing this joint memoir - having felt she'd covered much the same ground in her earlier book Disguised as a Poem: My Years Teaching Poetry at San Quentin. That hesitation shows, as well as a caution which is probably a result of years spent walking the political tightrope between prisoners and prison administration. Yet By Heart benefits from Tannenbaum's chapters, which often provides a macro-cosmic view of the story in direct contrast to Jackson's micro.

By Heart is also a fascinating glimpse into a world that is mostly forgotten by those outside of it. In 2008 there were over seven million people in prison, on probation or on parole. (Thanks U.S. Bureau of Justice & Wikipedia). That would make the U.S. Penal System, if it were a city, the second largest by population - coming in after New York and before Los Angeles. As Tannenbaum reminds us, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, a decision which comes at huge expense. The money spent on prisons is money that is not going to social service such as healthcare and education. A cycle is created and continued...

Spoon Jackson's chapters are much more raw, much less polished than Tannenbaum's. We are reading the thoughts and growth of a man who has spent more than half his life under lock & key - and it's a shock to discover how normal that life sometimes is. He discusses romantic relationships and the toll prison took on his two marriages (both of which took place while serving his sentence). He tells how he became a published poet and, later, an actor and playwright. Jackson has made and maintained friendships with people all over the world. But he is not free. One of the biggest reminders of this is the lack of stability in his life. I picked up By Heart with the half-formed assumption that prison life was structured. I learned that in 2+ decades Jackson has changed prisons over five times. His security level has fluctuated. "Freedoms" and privileges are given, taken away, and replaced by new ones which in their turn are revoked. What I found most surprising, and disturbing, is the inconsistency of treatment despite the fact that the crime committed (murder) remains the same. The insecurity of life in a place dedicated to security.

By Heart is a thought provoking book that raised more questions for me than it answered. Which leads me back to my opening sentence - memoirs are suspect. The fact that By Heart gives us two perspectives should be a strength. But because of Tannenbaum's caution we are mainly left with Spoon Jackson's version for anything more than the superficial details of their shared history. Jackson's chapters often feel too self-focused to be unbiased. That doesn't necessarily diminish By Heart, rather it stands as proof of the sincerity of its authors. In the end, the book tells incomplete story that leaves the reader wanting to learn more. Which, for both Tannenbaum and Jackson, might just be the objective.

--Tara Olmsted"Booksexy Review" (04/30/2010) "What is special about the book is its portrayal of the lifelong commitment the two authors have made to their relationship, to the power of the word to transform reality, and to the struggle for justice and equity...[By Heart is] an authentic tale about a collaboration that continues despite the bars, gates, and guards that permanently separate the participants."

--Herbert Kohl "Rethinking Schools " "Many astounding things are related in these two memoirs, Judith's and Spoon's, beautiful and terrible things, others that just click us into a cold understanding, but I'm not going to tell you what they are, because I don't want to give them away. I want people to get By Heart and read it, reflect on it."

--Richard Silberg"Poetry Flash" (04/25/2011) "I witnessed through the authors' words how writing and the arts can transform lives, the life of a maximum security prisoner, now an acclaimed poet, a man who understands how words set us free. Above all, this powerful book is about heart."

--Susan "Stir " "Despite their differences, what prevail are their commonalities: a love of poetry and a desire for decency and sincerity."

--Foster Dickson "Multicultural Review " "I suggest By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives, by Judith Tannenbaum and Spoon Jackson, to help you understand at a visceral level how racism is still destroying worthy lives, and perhaps to motivate you to be an influence for change in your writings. It's a stunning joint memoir of a long relationship between an artist teaching poetry in San Quentin and her friend and student Spoon, a black man, who became and still is a gifted poet."

--Dangerous Old Woman"She Writes" (02/09/2011) "When two poets write a memoir, it has a vividness, substantiality and eloquence that set it apart. Unlike many contemporary memoirs which focus on a capital P Problem, "By Heart" includes the authors' suffering without trying to market it or glamorize it. Much of "By Heart" is about the way that writers become writers. Although their backgrounds and life circumstances are immensely different, both Judith and Spoon are observant, solitary, attentive to nature and its lack."

--Ruth Gendler"Head Butler" (02/09/2011) "Like all good books, By Heart disrupts our assumptions, causes us to question our preconceptions, and reminds us of a commonly held humanity that is always the subject of Art, the engine of Love and should be the only authority of Justice."



--LJ Moore"The Examiner" (05/11/2011) Praise for By Heart "Like all good books, By Heart disrupts our assumptions, causes us to question our preconceptions, and reminds us of a commonly held humanity that is always the subject of Art, the engine of Love and should be the only authority of Justice." - LJ Moore, The Examiner

"When two poets write a memoir, it has a vividness, substantiality and eloquence that set it apart. Unlike many contemporary memoirs which focus on a capital P Problem, "By Heart" includes the authors' suffering without trying to market it or glamorize it. Much of "By Heart" is about the way that writers become writers. Although their backgrounds and life circumstances are immensely different, both Judith and Spoon are observant, solitary, attentive to nature and its lack." - Ruth Gendler, Head Butler

"By Heart is a moving encounter between freedom and prison, art, beauty and desolation, silence and voice ... It is passionate and tender, raw and realistic ... It is a love story but not love between people; it is about love for ourselves and our humanity. This is a book that I would wish for every educator to read." - The Book Nook

"There's a crooked symmetry in this remarkable book: poetry and teaching rescued Tannenbaum, and prison provided her with the lifeline of a writing community; poetry also awakened Jackson, but for him it was a counterforce to prison's destructive power." - Bell Gale Chevigny, emerita professor of literature at the College of Purchase, State University of New York, former chair of the PEN Prison Writing Program

"A boy with no one to listen becomes a man in prison for life and discovers his mind can be free. A woman enters prison to teach and becomes his first listener. And so begins a twenty-five year friendship between two gifted writers and poets. The result is By Heart -- a book that will anger you, give you hope, and break your heart." - Gloria Steinem

"A remarkable memoir of two powerful personalities brought together through poetry and prison. Through Judith's genuineness a poet awoke and found a way to live a fuller life in spite of confinement, and through Spoon's honesty and talent many people will be compelled to contribute to society, even if society has abandoned them." - Joseph Lea, Library Media Specialist, York Correctional Institution, Niantic, CT

"In their remarkable memoir, Spoon Jackson and Judith Tannenbaum show us how words change lives, how poetry invites you to free your mind, even in a maximum security prison. By Heart is their profoundly inspirational story, an engaging and enlightening examination of two people thrown together in a dark place and how both journey through darkness and into the light." - Ken Lamberton, author of Wilderness and Razor Wire: A Naturalist's Observations from Prison and other books

"By Heart is... a fascinating glimpse into a world that is mostly forgotten by those outside of it." - Booksexy Review Praise for By Heart "Like all good books, By Heart disrupts our assumptions, causes us to question our preconceptions, and reminds us of a commonly held humanity that is always the subject of Art, the engine of Love and should be the only authority of Justice." - LJ Moore, The Examiner

"When two poets write a memoir, it has a vividness, substantiality and eloquence that set it apart. Unlike many contemporary memoirs which focus on a capital P Problem, "By Heart" includes the authors' suffering without trying to market it or glamorize it. Much of "By Heart" is about the way that writers become writers. Although their backgrounds and life circumstances are immensely different, both Judith and Spoon are observant, solitary, attentive to nature and its lack." - Ruth Gendler, Head Butler

"By Heart is a moving encounter between freedom and prison, art, beauty and desolation, silence and voice ... It is passionate and tender, raw and realistic ... It is a love story but not love between people; it is about love for ourselves and our humanity. This is a book that I would wish for every educator to read." - The Book Nook

"There's a crooked symmetry in this remarkable book: poetry and teaching rescued Tannenbaum, and prison provided her with the lifeline of a writing community; poetry also awakened Jackson, but for him it was a counterforce to prison's destructive power." - Bell Gale Chevigny, emerita professor of literature at the College of Purchase, State University of New York, former chair of the PEN Prison Writing Program

"A boy with no one to listen becomes a man in prison for life and discovers his mind can be free. A woman enters prison to teach and becomes his first listener. And so begins a twenty-five year friendship between two gifted writers and poets. The result is By Heart -- a book that will anger you, give you hope, and break your heart." - Gloria Steinem

"A remarkable memoir of two powerful personalities brought together through poetry and prison. Through Judith's genuineness a poet awoke and found a way to live a fuller life in spite of confinement, and through Spoon's honesty and talent many people will be compelled to contribute to society, even if society has abandoned them." - Joseph Lea, Library Media Specialist, York Correctional Institution, Niantic, CT

"In their remarkable memoir, Spoon Jackson and Judith Tannenbaum show us how words change lives, how poetry invites you to free your mind, even in a maximum security prison. By Heart is their profoundly inspirational story, an engaging and enlightening examination of two people thrown together in a dark place and how both journey through darkness and into the light." - Ken Lamberton, author of Wilderness and Razor Wire: A Naturalist's Observations from Prison and other books

"By Heart is... a fascinating glimpse into a world that is mostly forgotten by those outside of it." - Booksexy Review

ISBN: 9780981559353
ISBN-10: 0981559352
Audience: Professional
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 198
Published: 1st April 2010
Publisher: New Village Press
Country of Publication: US
Dimensions (cm): 22.86 x 15.24  x 2.54
Weight (kg): 0.34