The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘prison’

Tennis with Mr. Nice

April 13, 2016 | by

My week with the late Howard Marks, drug smuggler and author.

Photo courtesy of the author.

In June 1995, on a magazine assignment that never came to fruition, I flew to Palma, Majorca, to spend a week with Howard Marks. He was just out of prison then, having served seven of a twenty-five year sentence on Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations charges at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. Howard’s backstory was well known in the UK, but less so in the U.S., despite a Frontline documentary on his worldwide marijuana smuggling. As a young working-class Welsh philosophy student at Oxford, Howard had started out as a small-time dealer and, in his smart, amiable way, worked his way up the ladder to become a bona-fide drug kingpin, a Robin Hood to stoners across the British Isles. “Mr. Nice,” as one of his aliases had it, dealt only in soft drugs; today he might be an upstanding citizen of Washington or Colorado. To the everlasting chagrin of the British police, he beat the rap once at the Old Bailey—he’d been caught moving fifteen tons of dope from a fishing trawler off the Irish coast onto dry land—by offering the unimpeachable defense that he’d been working for MI6 at the time. He was not a drug smuggler, he said, but a narc. Read More »

Merle Haggard, 1937–2016

April 8, 2016 | by

The cover of Serving 190 Proof, 1979.

Ever since I started editing The Paris Review, I’ve wished we could interview Merle Haggard. No songwriter means as much to me. Unfortunately, the Review doesn’t have a series on the Art of Songwriting (and for good reasons), so for the past six years I just wished. Then last Friday, at a friend’s wedding, I met a country deejay named Rebecca Birmingham. We happened to start talking about Merle and how much his songs moved us both, how true they were to experience, how original they sound even now. We both knew he was in poor health, he’d been in poor health for years, but she had a friend who’d know how to get in touch … Four days later we got the news that he was dead. Read More »

Branded Man

March 23, 2016 | by

The long tradition of outlaw poets.

From the cover of Merle Haggard’s Branded Man, 1967.

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on Austin Reed’s The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict, here.

Early in the first volume of Panegyric—the bad-tempered, ironically self-deprecating eulogy he wrote for himself in the late eighties­—Guy Debord sang the praises of a kind of writer he knew he could never become. “There have always been artists and poets capable of living in violence,” he wrote. “The impatient Marlowe died, knife in hand, arguing over a tavern bill.” Five hundred years earlier, in the picture Debord goes on to imagine, the medieval poet François Villon presided over a cluster of writers who lived raggedly and riskily at the banks of the Seine. These were outlaw poets, “devotees of the dangerous life”­—starved, browbeaten figures for whom pariahdom, persecution, imprisonment and homelessness were both facts of life and the materials out of which they made their art.

Outlaw poets are what certain prison writers become when their term is up—when they’ve been let loose into a world that spurns them and whose values they reject. In some cases, the poetry they write from this position turns out bitter, sour, and defiantly indigestible, full of lines that dare their civilized, comfortable readers to tolerate rude language, unhinged imagery, and wild variations in refinement and shape. In others, it comes off as a seductive, pining lament, a plea for pardon or a performance of rueful self-blame. Some of the great outlaw poets shuffle unpredictably between these two tones. “I’d like to hold my head up and be proud of who I am,” Merle Haggard sang in 1967, less than a decade after the end of his two-year term in San Quentin: “but they won’t let my secret go untold; / I paid the debt I owed ’em, / but they’re still not satisfied; / Now I’m a branded man / out in the cold.” He could write an equally convincing song that placed the fault on precisely the opposite side: “Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied; / that leaves only me to blame ’cause Mama tried.” Read More »

A Quiet, Meditative Place

March 7, 2016 | by

Joe Gibbons on his drawings from Rikers Island.

Photo: Andrew Lampert

Over a forty-year career, Joe Gibbons has become a legend in the world of experimental film. His work so thoroughly wrinkles the cloth woven by art and life that the question of which imitates which becomes moot. In his 1985 film Living in the World, he stars as a working stiff named Joe Gibbons, just trying to make it through the eight-hour day with his dignity intact. Existentially bereft, he laments, “I read the paper and there’s so much going on that I have nothing to do with.” He quits his job and turns to crime to make ends meet.

When the real Gibbons made headlines last year in an unlikely heist story, that same voice was quoted in the papers as evidence of his moral degeneracy and criminal intent. FORMER MIT PROFESSOR “ROBS” BANK, FILMS “HEIST, the New York Post said. And, later, in the New York Times: FILMMAKER JOE GIBBONS GETS A YEAR IN PRISON FOR A ROBBERY HE CALLED PERFORMANCE ARTRead More »

Haunted Convict

February 25, 2016 | by

The rediscovered prison memoir of a nineteenth-century black man.

The inside cover and first page of Reed's manuscript. Photo: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, here.

On the back cover of the manuscript of his prison memoir, which he completed in New York’s Auburn state jail sometime after 1858, Austin Reed pasted a clipping of the third chapter of Lamentations: “I am the man that hath seen affliction by the rod of his wrath … / He hath builded against me, and compassed me with gall and travail. / He hath set me in dark places, as they that be dead of old.” Around the thirtieth verse, the tone shifts to one of reassurance—“For the Lord will not cast off forever”—and then, by the fifty-fifth, to one of retributive anger. The last verses Reed excerpted are a plea “out of the low dungeon” for God to avenge the poem’s narrator against his enemies: “Persecute and destroy them in anger from under the heavens of the Lord.”

These lines suggest the tone and shape of a literary genre: a lament in which sorrow coexists with requests for divine vengeance. By placing them at the end of The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict—acquired by Yale’s rare-book library in 2009 and published last month with helpful editorial comments by the scholar Caleb Smith—Reed was making a strong suggestion about the kind of book he’d written. The text itself, however, is an amalgam of genres that wouldn’t seem to combine: a picaresque memoir in which sermons jostle up against pulpy adventure anecdotes; dutiful recollections of fact move with little notice into fantasies and dreams; radical gestures of black empowerment share the page with the coarsest kinds of racial caricatures; and assertive denunciations of the prison system coexist with passages of meek and guilty self-recrimination. It’s puzzling to make sense of these apparent contradictions—to decide what Reed meant his book to do. Read More »

Kicked Toward Saintliness

January 21, 2016 | by

On the dark erotics of Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers.

From a German edition of Our Lady of the Flowers.

On September 11, 1895, the deputy chaplain of Wandsworth prison wrote a worried report about one of his new charges, Oscar Wilde, who had been transferred from Pentonville two months before. “He is now quite crushed and broken,” the chaplain recorded:

This is unfortunate, as a prisoner who breaks down in one direction generally breaks down in several, and I fear from what I hear and see that perverse sexual practices are again getting the better of him. This is a common occurrence among prisoners of his class and is of course favoured by constant cellular isolation. The odour of his cell is now so bad that the officer in charge of him has to use carbolic acid in it every day.

The possibility that a famous author had been driven to masturbating during his internment in Wandsworth would not have reflected well on the prison’s authorities, who immediately denied the charge and changed the indiscreet chaplain’s assignment. One wonders how they would have reacted to Jean Genet’s short film Un chant d’amour (1950), which the French author, playwright, and criminal directed in collaboration with Jean Cocteau soon after writing the last of the five novels that earned him international fame. Midway through the film, a poker-faced prison guard peers one at a time into a row of cells, each of which turns out to contain an autoerotic peepshow more wild, graphic, and uninhibited than the one before. A convict rubs his exposed member against the wall of his cell; a smiling bather lathers himself lasciviously in soap; a young black man, one of the many dark-skinned figures in Genet who appear to their white observers as sexual threats, dances with a tight grip on his open-flied crotch. Read More »