by Phil Christman

Last year someone on the PCAP staff—can’t remember if it was Vanessa or Nora, but they were right!—had the idea of doing a brief summer “tour” of prisons that are so far away that we can’t send volunteers to them weekly during the school year. We would hit a few places over the course of a week, doing arts workshops of whatever sort and letting people know about the literary magazine and art show that we put on. And most importantly, looking people in prison in the face and talking to them like they’re just people, which is the one valuable service that PCAP can provide even if you’re feeling nihilistic about the arts, about your own ability to instruct people in the arts, the work that you’re doing and the work that you’re publishing, the political/revolutionary/metanoia-inducing powers of arts programming, etc. You treated a bunch of people in prison like they’re people for a few hours: you at least got that right.

This year we were only able to line up one prison; we’re going to try to mount something more extensive next spring. So yesterday was kind of a test. Nora, the person who runs PCAP now (my wife having stepped back, thank God, in 2019), and I drove to Handlon Correctional in Ionia, Michigan.

I had two classes which each lasted an hour. For something like that, with an audience that may include people at widely varying skill levels and educational levels. So you need some concept that can be talked about at whatever level of specificity and sophistication the students’ curiosity (which is way more determinative here than background knowledge anyway) dictates. I chose to talk about the idea of defamiliarization. It’s infinitely useful; it’s fun; you can get into the weeds and talk about the Russian Formalists and say “Check out Theory of Prose if you want more,” but you don’t have to if people are bored. And it connects directly to the sort of informal grand unified theory of creative writing that I have had to work out for myself, as a position from which to teach. 

As I told the students in the workshop — after a quick icebreaker — I think every person probably perceives and experiences the world, in a pre-linguistic way, so weirdly that it can barely be communicated. In everyday social life we use language to create a kind of smoothed-out shared social picture with shared names for stuff, because if we don’t do that there won’t be anything for lunch. Language is one of the main tools we use to do that, to kind of point outside ourselves. My experience of the color blue is probably a little bit different than yours, but I say “that thing is blue” to you and you agree, and it’s close enough for government work. When we write vividly, what we’re doing is turning language against this purpose: we’re trying to figure out how to use it to make us feel like we’re not so totally sure what blue is, like we’re seeing blue for the first time. It’s not familiar anymore. And then I wrote “defamiliarization” on the dry-erase and asked if anybody wanted to guess what it meant. 

This guy raises his hand, and struggles for a second, and says, “Is it to, like … un-know something?” I love that, “un-know”! And I told him so. I said, “Yeah, that’s just a way more elegant way to say it.” We all kicked that around for a moment. What is it like to “un-know” something? How could you describe something so as to un-know it? And then another guy raised his hand and said, “I have two examples. The first one is, if you think about it, you know, the story of Jesus is really weird. There’s all sorts of stuff in there nobody thinks about. And then my other example is, I don’t know why I’m thinking about it, but laundry. Like if you didn’t know what doing laundry is, you’d think it was really wild.” I asked the guy if he was a Richard Wilbur fan. He didn’t recognize the name, and unfortunately I don’t have the poem memorized so I couldn’t just reel it off for him, but I informed him that a well-loved and much-anthologized twentieth-century poem had pursued the same intuition he’d just had— and it’s also something of a religious poem, so it combined both aspects of his answer to my question. The line I was able to remember was “Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry.” 

Then we did a writing exercise, where I had them pick a boring thing and describe it as though they were seeing it for the first time. Folks seemed happy to be there. After a couple exchanges like that, I know I was.

Phil Christman is the author most recently of How to Be Normal: Essays (Belt, 2022) and Midwest Futures (Belt, 2020), which won the 2021 Midwest Book Award for Nonfiction/History/General. He has served as the Editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing, a product of the LSA Prison Creative Arts Project at University of Michigan, since 2014. His essays and criticism have appeared in The Baffler, The Nation, Harpers, Hedgehog Review, Plough Quarterly, Commonweal, Christian Century and other places. 

To hear more of Phil’s writing, check out his newsletter philipchristman.substack.com.

Release Date: 09/25/2023
Tags: Prison Creative Arts Project