Several years ago I discovered a lost Oregon book at a coastal thrift store. It contains a poem that reads:
You can lock me in this prison
You can make me do the time
But one thing you can't lock away
Is the freedom of my mind.
Smoky Epley wrote this poem and it appeared in Men in Exile: An Anthology of Creative Writing by Inmates of the Oregon State Penitentiary, published by Oregon State University Press in 1973. If there exists a better book written by Oregonians and produced in Oregon that showcases great writing and suggests how the awesome and unrivaled power of personal writing can help people reflect in crisis, I haven't read it.
The book's co-editors were Faith Norris, an English professor at OSU, and Sharon Springer, a graduate student who served as Norris's assistant. According to Norris's introduction, her interest in working with prisoners began when she drove by the state penitentiary, visible from I-5 in Salem, and her daughter asked about the possible "death in life" of men locked up for many years or forever.
Later Norris began teaching creative writing classes at the pen, which was pretty brave, considering the inmates rioted there in 1968, held hostages, and burned down the library, among other buildings. In the fall and winter of 1970-71, she experienced what she described as her "best" class and a random classroom remark eventually led to the publication of Men in Exile.
What a book! Two hundred forty-seven pages of essays, history, poems, memoirs, letter and journal excerpts, vignettes, drawings, cartoons, and fiction, and virtually all the book's contributions originate from the context of each writer's unique circumstances of incarceration and relationship to the penitentiary. None of the writing offers victimization, exploitation, "tough guy" stuff, affected cleverness, or streams of profanity. What the reader gets is candor, honesty, longing, loss, original thinking, and a little rhyming in poetry.
My hands-down favorite contribution is "Love, Peace and Slot Machine Coffee" by Larry D. B. Smith. This vignette recounts the visit by a cloistered 5' 1" monk from the Mount Angel Abbey (who previously hadn't left the abbey in 20 years!) to an imprisoned Smith and the awful taste of coffee they purchase from a machine. I use it all the time when I teach writing and it might be my favorite short piece of non fiction in Oregon literature. In fact, the book has become one of my favorites in Oregon literature and a model of how to teach a class in creative writing and produce a literary review from that experience.
Of course, we'll never know if the act of contributing to this anthology and appearing in print actually helped the contributors turn their lives around and avoid returning to prison once they were released. I'd like to think so.
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A version of the above appeared in the Oregonian newspaper in the spring of 2008. Several weeks later, I received the following email from Smoky Epley.
A phone call from a friend in the pen prompted me to dig Easter Sunday's Oregonian out of the trash to read your piece about a book published thirty-some years ago. For those of us who have learned to think in terms of decades and of generations, that wasn't so long ago. But a lot has happened since then.
I was paroled from the Oregon State Penitentiary January 3, 1972, and attended the University of Oregon into my senior year. I did not graduate, nor did I pursue a writing career. Instead, I chose to graduate to bank robbery and was arrested by the FBI on October 13, 1979, I was released to a Halfway House on July 17, 2007. Yes, that's twenty-seven years. (Twenty-seven years, nine months and four days, to be exact; but, who's counting.)
In your article you said you'd never know but would like to think the contributors had turned their lives around and avoided returning to prison. Now you know that I did not. Not then. The concept of rehabilitation may look good on paper and sound good coming from the mouths of men, but the criminal justice system is a liar. Corrections is one of the fastest growing industries in America and the only one in which success at its stated goals is detrimental to its very existence. And the convicts?
Here's a poem that never made it to the book:
I lie on my back on this fuckin' steel rack
And curse the screw with the keys.
But when he comes near all he can hear
Is "yessir," and "thank you," and "please."
Make no mistake, I'm a goddam fake.
My heart is a hovel of hate.
But I hide my sneer with a smile ear-to-ear,
'Cause I got my eye on the gate.
—Smoky Epley 1971
(Please excuse the profanity. The piece doesn't work without it.)
Things are different now. I'm not reformed, but I am retired. By that I mean I'm through with prison. Prison just isn't any fun anymore. There are very few real criminals in our prisons now (at least in the federal system, about which I've gained a modicum of expertise). Instead, our prisons are filled with individuals caught up in the drug world and with illegal aliens. Most of my friends and associates from the past are either dead or in prison for the rest of their lives or I've lost contact with them. I don't know where a single one of the other contributors to "Men in Exile" are today.
I live in a middle class neighborhood in McMinnville with a lady who has always had faith in me. We're both retired; each from our disparate backgrounds. I work part time in Portland soliciting donations by phone for non-profit organizations, primarily for the Oregon State Police Officers Association. Considering my background, how can I collect money for the troopers, you ask? Effectively. I hold no animosity towards the police. I did my job; they did theirs. Anyway, it's a legal job. I'm still looking for an honest job but it's hard with a record like mine.
Meanwhile, I sit on the back porch and bark. I ran with the big dogs, now I bark: I'd like to bark more ferociously.
I have no "ax to grind." I am not bitter or angry. But I care. And I have something to offer: years of experience and the ability to communicate.
You said you'd like to hear from contributors to the book. You have. I did.
And I remain,
A month later I sat down with Smoky in a McMinnville café and, during a three-hour conversation where he often quoted long passages of poems he'd memorized in prison, Smoky told me the inside story of Men In Exile. If there is a more fascinating story about the making of an Oregon book, I'd like to know it. Now, I realize Smoky is an ex-con, but I believed him when he said the book was supposed to be a collection of only his writing but prison authorities scotched the idea and an anthology was the compromise. I believed him because he had utterly dominated the book with 20 pieces of poetry, fiction, and memoir and was clearly the best writer present.
As our conversation came to an end, I asked Smoky if he was still writing. He said 'no' but that a few ideas were brewing. I asked if he'd be interested in joining me in a literary event where I'd share the story of Men in Exile and have him read some of his work from the book. He agreed and last summer we staged a reading at the Blackbird Wine Shop in NE Portland.
I'll never forget the anticipation of wondering if Smoky would even show up. But he did, wearing a cool white cap and drinking a 40-ouncer out of a paper sack. I know I speak not only for myself, but for everyone present that evening, when I say that Smoky's 25-minute performance was the most riveting, unprecedented, and flat-out raw literary experience any of us had ever witnessed. He took the audience to an unknown place and none of us knew when the trip would end. I felt sure Smoky's triumph would spark his creative mind and inspire him to write.
As of this writing, it did not. I do hear from Smoky every now and then, and the last time he told me he got pulled over for riding a bicycle while intoxicated. I implored him to write and I'd help him publish his new work.
We'll see what happens. In the meantime, get your hands on Men in Exile and read his writing. It, along with several other pieces, will blow you away.