I was invited to
As this is not a telling of the conference itself, I’ll skip that part, only to say the highlights for me were the readings of Steve Almond and two people who just happened to be my roommates, Janine Joseph and Erik Leavitt. Erik especially, as he read on a panel with three female grad students whose work was either confessional, typically beginner academic, or both. As he began his portion of the session it was like watching the Wizard of Oz when it switches from black and white to color. Erik’s experience with performance poetry played a role, but as his work included references to ancient Greek poetry, had such amazing twists and visceral imagery, it was certainly more than a good show. To me it was the highlight of the whole affair. Here is one example:
Revised Fragments from Catullus
by Erik Leavitt
previously published in
Catullus Revised: Fragment 139
Okay, so maybe I lied,
and swindled a few dollars here and there, and on occasion
slandered the gorging flatworms you call friends;
and still I can’t muster an original statement
on the matter of you, my whorish Lesbia.
And even though you spread your legs to the world
like a mall’s grand opening
and every priapic beast
west of the
please come back.
Come back and I will forget
the internet photos and frothing packs of men,
pretend these were not barber shop tragedies
the codgers will echo for years to come.
And when they ask
what this poem means,
I’ll tell them it’s loneliness as an endangered species,
or a prowler slipping in the back door,
the hinges oiled just for the occasion.
Going to what became our favorite after-conference haunt,
the BelMar after the final Saturday night festivities, Erik and I were walking
with three other grad students, with me carrying nearly empty bottle of wine,
when two Binghamtonians, a young man and his girlfriend were unhappy with what
they were witnessing. The woman shouted: Hey,
you can’t walk around like that with a bottle of wine! This ain’t
I was never asked for a statement, just handcuffed to a rail
near the intake section of the jail. I was able to make a couple of phone calls
on my cellphone. I called my brother Andrew the cop in
I spent my time focusing on my breath, doing kum nye and yoga and devising an interesting way to continue my daily rune divination. As the floor was made up of square tiles, I just picked out 25, took the egg mcmuffin wrapper, which I had rolled into a ball and threw it against the wall. A series of 25 squares, 5 wide and 5 deep, was assigned numbers going from right to left as the Runes do, and it landed on number two:
Gebo: Drawing this Rune is an indication that Partnership in some form is at hand…the path of partnership can lead you to the realization of a still greater union, union with the Higher Self, with the Divine…it signifies the gift of freedom from which flow all other gifts.
Of course I was not given a pen, nor paper, nor books in my cell, so I stayed hydrated and memorized my daily American Sentences, these 17 syllable poems I write every day, the first of which on this situation was:
of my face in toilet water of
After one or two calls on my cellphone, that was taken away, so I resorted to the occasional collect call, meaning I had to know the number by heart AND it could not be a cellphone number which won’t take collect calls. This limited who I could talk to, when I was allowed out of my cell once or twice on Sunday, to try and get HELP and provided me with my second sentence:
Inmate, after the tone, state your name: Please Hold… Please Hold… Please Hold… Please Hold…
Monday came and the keg stealer was REALLY hoping for a cigarette, Tractor (as the man who slapped down his mouthy daughter was to be called later) said at least four times that he wasn’t going to end up like the Melendez family and made a sound that went Eh-Eh, sort of like two very short game show buzzers indicating the negative.
As our court time came we all got the word that we’d be going to the county jail. I barely got a word in edgewise. When I tried to ask to be released on my own recognizance, the judge shut me down and away to the Broome County Jail we went, handcuffed. My brother Andrew had warned me of this possibility. It was my first recognition of the actual county I was in. He also said they’d put me in one of those orange suits and he was right.
The check-in at the
The policy at the jail was for the first five days you get 23 hours in a cell by yourself and an hour to be out of the cell in your pod. We got into the juvenile pod, which was cool, as the kids were not really hardened criminals yet. But we did not have much contact with them. Oh, we might have a word or two when being issued a breakfast of cornflakes, milk, two jelly containers, two containers of a yellow, chemical, butterlike, whipped substance, a packet of instant, caffeine-free coffee, and lots of bread, like four slices. The protein deficiency would get to me. Or maybe we’d have a break in our routine when laundry would come and we would get clean socks, underwear, or maybe a washcloth. When an inmate asked for an item, he had to present the soiled item, prompting the laundry guy (an inmate) to yell out each item and its size: One extra large underwear, one pair of socks, one asshole wiper…
Tuesday, Thank You O bringer of clean asshole wiper!
During our 60 minutes of non-solitary confinement, were allowed to shower, read the paper, or talk to other inmates. I managed to stay away from one really boorish guy, but I had a feeling I could talk to one guy there, a tall, fifty-ish black man of Panamanian heritage, Carlos Ramsey, who was caught unable to pay traffic fines, pulled over and found to have a little crack cocaine.
Knowing Carlos would probably have a jones for an upper, I offered him my coffee packets, but he found the lukewarm cell water a poor substitute for a decent cup of hot coffee. He did take the sugar packets and said he reverted to doing what he did as a kid, just open packets and pour them into his mouth. I told him that all these substances affect the same part of the brain in basically the same way, be it crack, cocaine, heroin, marijuana, nicotine and even sugar. Carlos had an aha! moment. He went back to his youth and his feelings of abandonment and how that must be at the root of his substance abuse. I reminded him that leaving his 11 year old daughter with his landlord, he was doing the same thing that had been done to him. As foosball was a poor option, with one of the goalies cut in half, and basketball useless without a rim, we talked about how he can find serenity. He used to do yoga and meditation, so he knows I was not bullshitting him when I said he could experience a similar high through sobriety and a meditation practice. We walked in the courtyard and I showed him a walking meditation in which you count with each step, adding one number to the total. You start by counting to one with each step, then two, three, and so on, until you lose count, then have to start over. He realized it was something he could do, but he said he had no self-esteem and showed me his cuticles, or lack of them, which was the worst case I had ever seen. It looked as if some flesh-eating disease was eating away at the skin within an inch of his fingernails. I told him his lack of self-esteem was the crack talking and that when he got depressed, he could pray. He said he hadn’t done that for so long he’d forgotten how, so I told him to close his eyes and I said a prayer out loud, asking for mercy for us both, for an end to his dependence and for the welfare of both our daughters. Carlos gave me his address, and good thing too, as he was moved to a different pod before we could talk again. I made a fist against the four-inch wide cell window and he pressed his against his side and told me to keep in touch.
It wasn’t like I was Mr. Cool the whole time. My worst day was Tuesday. This was my first full day in the can and I had the expectation that I would meet my lawyer, the one to be appointed by the court. The soft lighting that starts at each night and goes until had ended and I got up and almost immediately did my Kum Nye. There were two sessions of this practice while I was locked up in which I was able to do all eight positions without stopping, a minor breakthrough. I did my prayers, including a plea to Yeshe Walmo for Balance, Good Fortune and Material Increase, as well as the first eleven letters of the Kapi alphabet (all chants) and The Invocation for the Removal of Obstacles, my favorite prayer ever. A breakfast of corn flakes, two half-pints of whole milk, four pieces of bread with the requisite high-fructose corn syrup jelly and yellow butter-like chemical spread and some real orange juice was downed fairly quickly, as I only had one piece of the bread. Soon I heard the buzz that my cell was unlocked. It’s a small hum that one learns to recognize quickly. I leapt, opened the door a crack, stuck out my head and verified that I was being petitioned. Sure enough, I was being called and my first take was disappointment. If this was my lawyer, I was in trouble. No, it was a woman making sure I had plans for my life upon my release. I told her a very quick version of my story and said I would not be there too long, that I ran a small non-profit and was in the media for 26 years and I did not think it wise for the District Attorney to take on such a case. Yes, there was some arrogance here. But she realized her work was more likely with other inmates, so she quickly wrapped up. I mentioned something. Upon parting I told her I thanked her for doing the work she did. I said it was indicative of a deep consciousness and compassion and that I wanted to recognize that because I’m sure she does not hear that often. She thanked me and I went back to reading.
There was not a lot to choose from. At first, seeing the
book cart, I grabbed the only thing that seemed remotely interesting, the
Qur’an. I read a few chapters, but on one of my times outside the box I found
Bill Bradley’s Time Present, Time Past,
as well as The Odyssey in a version
suitable for remedial readers. Bradley’s book was pretty interesting. First of
all, he was a basketball player for the New York Knicks. Also, he had a pretty
good grasp of issues, which was demonstrated by his anecdotes about trying to
Soon there was another buzz and I thought for sure this time
I was going to meet my lawyer and was ushered out of the Pod and down the hall
escorted by a corrections officer. No, I met Jessica, an attractive, but
business-like younger woman who was only the Public Defender Investigator, so I
saved my twenty point plan of evidence to help the cause of getting me out. No,
Jessica asked about my income, which I told her was $20,000 annually (although
officially it was less than that) as well as my $3K of funds in my checking
account, which was from a student loan refund and necessary for my graduate
work. I told her the Binghamton Police fouled up by not getting a statement
from me and felt my brother, the cop back in
Lunch came and was a Ham and Cheese sandwich, with extra (would you believe) bread, along with two half-pints of milk, some strawberry-flavored powder to put in 8 ounces of water and probably something else. After lunch, the younguns were put back in their cells and we got out time out of the cell. The hoped-for prison hoops experience was not to be as the rim was down and foosball was less than fun with the half-goalie on one side, so I ended up reading the sports page and how the Tigers were losing to the Cardinals and how Mickey Lolich pitched three complete games in the 1968 series and also had to patrol the streets of Detroit that year as part of his commitment to the National Guard during the riots. Back in the cell and the potential of no lawyer and the hope legal representation would have given me was gone. I was deep in my woulda-coulda-shoulda mode thinking about the events of Saturday night over and over. I tried focusing on my breathing as I had done many times since being locked up, but I was really worked up into a near-panic state when the buzzer sounded again, this time with the arrival of Chaplain Mark. A man with a full salt and pepper beard, we sat down in the foosball room and had to ask one of the juvenile inmates to leave. Chaplain Mark was a Methodist my age (45) and I quickly told him my story, that I was attacked and was just defending myself and that I could not stop replaying the event over and over. He told me not to go there. What’s done is done and, though he did not say it word-for-word, the sentiment was that worry is a misuse of the imagination. I’ve told many people this, but now it was hard to live it. I told him I wanted to know God’s higher purpose for this event and he told me quickly that he could not determine that for me. He did say the truth will come out eventually, that it always does and that gave me a huge amount of solace. I was certain that, in the Chaplain’s terms, Jesus had forgiven me for defending myself with such force and that gave me some serenity. He suggested we pray and his prayer was concise and powerful, asking for strength for my daughter and family, for a smooth operation of my business and for calmness of mind for me. I thanked him and told him I was quite impressed and before he left I suggested we pray for the young man who attacked me and I led this time and he suggested I get transferred to the less-dangerous pod, perhaps the J-Pod, I don’t remember, but when he asked me if I had a history of substance abuse, I told him no and that would diminish my chances of getting in there. Besides, I told him, I don’t plan on being here after Thursday and he said that was good thinking. He gave me a Free on the Inside bible and I asked him what verse he thought appropriate and he said Psalms 103: He has removed our lawless acts from us as far as the east is from the west. He told me we should talk after I meet with my lawyer, but that was not to be.
Nothing happens quickly in prison. Requests made for medical
help, or for a meeting with the Chaplain, were sometimes forgotten, sometimes
ignored and at best took several hours to fulfill. I was getting a pretty
serious migraine and got some advil from a male nurse, which helped, but what I
really needed was protein. I did not go to thoughts of unagi or shredded-beef
burritos, though we did have for dinner what one JV inmate called Gas Station Burritos. I asked him if he
were a poet and he smiled and said no. Man I remember gas station burritos in
I WAS able to slow down my attack of the Bradley book with
moments of Psalms. How God commanded people to hate certain things struck me as
medieval and I did not care for the Psalms that went there. I do remember
cracking a smile when Chaplain Mark had mentioned Psalms, as they were always
my favorite passages of the bible. In fact, the 23rd Psalm was read
But it was a notion of WHY I allowed myself to become dragged into the drama of these two troubled young attackers. What was the field of energy that drew me into them, or them into me? It hit me that I wanted him to suffer and I had too much pride to let a punk tell me what to do. My Dad is suffering from two strokes (my take of which is in the poem series Nine Sonnets for Pop,) and the Louise Hay book Heal Your Body says, among other things that strokes are an indication that the patient would rather die than change. That sounded like Pop and I had mentioned this lead to Chaplain Mark who said there IS something about the Sins of the Father. Christopher would call it genetics, which are transmitted to the generations as thought-patterns. Pop was in full-mode despite the strokes and I realized that there was something about my heart that was not opening fully and it was in going through the glossary at the back of the book when I saw a description for circumcision that had a note about a verse from Romans that mentioned the Circumcision of the Heart. In Romans 2, verses 28 and 29 it says: For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God. So it is a matter of hubris, or Pride, the worst of the seven deadly sins. Of course Dante's definition of Pride was "love of self perverted to hatred and contempt for one's neighbor" and the Catherine Wheel was a torture device designed for prideful people. I certainly got off easy.
So my prison survival effort was basically a microcosm of my spirituality. My day began with Kum Nye and I often did a second session later in the day. Without a decent pen and paper, I could not journal, so wanted to capture the essence of things which I did via American Sentences. I read bible passages, did yoga two or three times a day and my Bon prayers, including the Yeshe Walmo mantra, for Balance, Good Fortune and Material Increase: Om a Bhi Ya Nag Po Bad Sod So Ha; as well as The Invocation for the Removal of Obstacles.
As I was reading the bible on Thursday morning, alternating with Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, I left Psalms and went to the beginning and read a few of the early verses of Genesis and counted the days I was in jail. Noting this was Day Five and that on the 5th day God is said to have created Birds, I felt this was a good omen.
Finally, around 10 AM Thursday I left my cel, left my bedroll and books behind, and was taken to the Municipal Courthouse. The two corrections officials were treating me basically like shit, but I continued to be polite and obedient, as I was at all moments of this ordeal. Conference organizer Deborah Poe was waiting for me in the courtroom and I mouthed Thank You to her. When it was my time to go in front of the judge, I still had no lawyer there for me and made my case to the judge that I was invited to town to present at the conference and needed to be released on my own recognizance to prepare an effective trial. The D.A. said he would be shocked if I were released in such a manner and Deborah came up to my defense, saying that I was invited to town, I comported myself well at the conference and that I have no criminal record and he must be at least 40! I said I was 45. She said: He’s a Poet for God’s sake! The judge asked me if I could come up with a grand and I said my family would provide that, which they did through western union, with Deborah’s help. I got back to the jail, was given a lunch of turkey sandwiches, potato chips a graham cracker and yet more milk. The guards said I’d be taken back to my cell by , but it was more like and I did not get out of my cell until . Deborah was waiting for me outside, but I wanted to try to get the sixty dollars I had in my wallet when arrested back from the prison administration office and missed it by seven minutes.
Deborah and I got caught up and I thanked her for what she did. Andrew was on the phone and Deborah had a dinner engagement, so took me to the Regency, where (thanks to my honey Deb) all my belongings were in order, save a shirt or two and some boxers, and once I found out I could not get to Detroit that evening, I was resigned to one more night in Binghamton. I enjoyed a meal of baked haddock, while helping hip-hop mc and waiter Drew on some ideas for his dream of a local hip-hop radio station. He was so excited about the information I gave him that he bought my two glasses of spumanti for me.
I had cleared my email in box of
messages before going to dinner and talked to my honey Debra, my Mom and then
took a shower. I had over 1,000 emails and, fortunately, did not have any
problems with business. I did return a message to David Rizzi and the Marysville
Library confirming our appearance at 1P Saturday, the day after I’d get into
I could not sleep at all Thursday night, perhaps wired on my first bit of caffeine, some of my green tea stash, for the first time in 6 days, so took a bath with Keith Jarrett’s At The Deer Head Inn playing on the laptop I’d put on the toilet seat. Man, the Basin Street Blues really connected with me. I then started writing this account of the affair, which is much less than perfect.
My cop brother Andrew was stellar in all this. He knows the criminal justice system and is convinced the charges will be dropped. Barb was making jokes about hitting people with wine bottles after a couple of days, so she’s doing ok. My Dad must be sinking into dementia, because he did not respond at all as he might have three years ago, so that is a new concern. And Linda was making inquiries into getting me a mob lawyer through her connections. Everyone shows their love in the best way they know.
My Tibetan Bon community got word through my brother and Spencer Grossmith replied to my email informing him of the situation with this thought:
Pleased to hear that you slammed this mother, and that you are safe and well after your ordeal. Some of the essential Bon teachings are concerned with wrathful action - the positive and conscious removal of negative obstruction through direct action. This would possibly relate to the right of self defence against an aggressor.
Kum Nye will change your mind and body, and therefore alter your response to many situations including the one that you just described. Don't know if you actually used the bottle but that is somewhat irrelevant.
Clearly 5 days can be a long time in this scenario, and doing solitary - if that's what it was - can be psychologically demanding. I'm pleased that you've pulled through in good shape…
I made sure to bring home my
MAXIMUM SECURITY soap and toothpaste and have already shared with friends and
family the main American Sentence of the ordeal, which also works in
Binghamton Baseball, swing with a red wine bottle – one strike and you’re out.
peN – 10.28.06 –
What incredible presence of heart and mind throughout your experience; you’ve taught me a lesson in strength and wisdom through writing it down.
Remember, that you’re becoming an American warrior-poet for that is what you need to hold sacred language and truth in a country that’s forgotten what these mean.
Sending you love and warm wishes, visions of hot coffee and warm cinnamon rolls.
Call anytime – (604) 733-6290.
"'Paul Nelson'" <email@example.com>
RE: Re: Fall Gathering for Kum Nye teachings with Stephanie Wright
Yes, Paul, rest well knowing that we become humble, and humbled, by terrible things and that these events call forth forces inside us that have lain dormant.
The primal forces of self-protection and, yes, even fear can be useful especially when infused with wisdom, the kind which you’re obtaining by facing life’s challenges and turning them into poetry. The ultimate challenge of our lives, though, is to become our own poem, the poem we’re meant to be.
And to learn this lesson is difficult for one and all, but is really meant to bring meaning, purpose and love (compassionate and wrathful) to our actions.
May lightness of being and courage of conviction grow inside you. Have a good shave today, trim your beard, dress well and get yourself a hot, tasty meal for lunch. You’re still recovering from shock and need to do these things.
Be well and I’ll be in touch next time I’m down your way.
Your Bon brother,