Kaj Tanaka is a PhD candidate in literature and creative writing at the University of Houston. He leads a regular poetry workshop at the Harris County Jail.
Houston Flood Museum: Tell me a little bit about this program and poetry workshop. Why did you start it? How is it funded and supported?
Kaj Tanaka: I’ve run a number of versions of this workshop at several different correctional facilities across the country over the last six years, but this current iteration of the class runs an hour per week for six weeks. I’m currently teaching two different groups of about 25 guys who range in age from 18 or 19 to over 60. I approached the jail about teaching this class two years ago. Typically, jails appreciate it when someone volunteers to teach a class, so getting the class going wasn’t an issue. Once I had the class up and running, I asked Inprint, one of Houston’s literary arts nonprofit organizations, to underwrite what I was doing. They’ve been really supportive of this project. We’re hoping to bring in a few other teachers who can keep the workshop running once I finish at UH.
As for why I do it—like a lot of things people do, I fell into it somewhat by chance a few years ago when I was living in Northern Illinois. But I’ve kept teaching in correctional facilities because it’s a project I believe in. I think it’s a relatively small commitment that has a big impact, and it’s something I can do as a writer that serves a real social function. I’ve observed in teaching these classes just how starved incarcerated people can be for intellectual stimulus and tools for self-expression. It’s a pretty monotonous life, being locked up. Lots of my students are looking for ways to process their life experiences. They are looking for ways to understand themselves and make meaning. I think poetry, for many of my students, is an important skill to that end.
HFM: What does a typical workshop look like?
KT: In a typical class, we read and discuss 2-4 published poems and then I ask them to write 1-2 poems in response to the published work. I read what they write and give them suggestions to improve their work, which helps them to figure out how poems are constructed and developed. At the end of class, I give them a chance to read their work aloud to the group.
HFM: What does your relationship with the men look like?
KT: It’s pretty similar to my relationship with any of my students. I start by taking a sincere interest in their writing, and everything we accomplish in the class is built on that. It’s a privilege to be able to teach them, and I try to remind them of that as often as I can. In my experience, when you respect people, they respect you back.
HFM: What are some consistent challenges that these men who are incarcerated face? Is there something that comes up again and again in their writing that people may not be aware of?
KT: I usually try to discourage them from writing about being incarcerated because they spend enough time thinking about their situation without my help. Their days are long and, understandably, they tend to ruminate on their legal trouble obsessively and unproductively. Much of being locked up is various forms of waiting for things to happen, and that’s hard. I want to give them an opportunity to think about something else for a short time. That said, the subject of their incarceration comes up a lot both in their poetry and in our discussions. It’s unavoidable.
Jail is a pretty miserable place. In some ways, it’s worse than prison. Jails are designed to hold people for short periods of time—no more than two years, typically—but two years is a long time, and many of my students end up spending a long time in jail—often more than they’d planned. Trial dates get moved, legal negotiations are capricious, and the system doesn’t always move very smoothly, especially if you don’t have a lot of money. Sometimes my students think they are getting out soon, but they don’t—sometimes they think they are staying, but then they are suddenly out. The unpredictability is frustrating for them—at least in prison you know how long your sentence will last.
HFM: What are some issues surrounding Harvey that came to light through this specific exercise?
KT: A number of my students were locked up during Harvey, and, for me, hearing what the conditions were like in jail during that first week or so was pretty disturbing. Harvey disrupted the normal functioning of the jail’s essential services like meals and the HVAC system—they told me stories about sleeping on the concrete floor because it was the only way to cool down when the floor covered in condensation because of the heat—Harris County Jail is one of the largest jails in the country, and during the hurricane it was running on a very small staff. I’m not sure if any of this was reported publicly and I only have my students’ anecdotes, but it sounded like a real horror show, both for the people locked up and for the people who kept the jail running during that time. A number of their poems describe the conditions in jail during Harvey. It shocked me.
HFM: Why do you think it’s important to have this workshop and to keep speaking out on issues of Harvey through art?
KT: I think it’s important to bring the work of incarcerated people to the public because incarcerated people ARE the public. 6% of the US population will spend time in prison in their lifetime. That number doubles if you are a man, and it increases exponentially if you are black or Hispanic. Like it or not, the carceral system has become one of the great institutions of American life. It does not serve our communities well to ignore this fact.
It’s easy to see people who have spent time in the correctional system as people outside the American experience. That’s partially by design. Walls alienate people from one another in both directions, and it’s easy to forget the people we lock away. Asking my students to write about Harvey was a good reminder of just how connected we are. Harvey impacted everyone in Houston in one way or another. We experienced it together, which I think led to an instructive moment of compassion and empathy in our community—we came together and it was a beautiful thing. Allowing incarcerated people to share in that moment is the proper thing to do because, even though they might have been locked up, or homeless, or deep in substance use, or trying to get back from work, or simply at home waiting out the storm out, they were there with us. People who go through the correctional system need these reminders of our collective humanity just like the rest of us do. Projects like this connect us, and that’s important work.