Wild tongues

Think about the ethical considerations raised by both Reynolds and Anzaldua.  What does it mean to tame wild tongues that are confined? Is writing/language empowering or disabling for the writers you work with? What are the risks? Do you encourage or temper wild tongues in your workshop? Please support your thinking with at least one example from your workshop and the readings.

12 thoughts on “Wild tongues

  1. The quote on the first page of the Anzaldua article by Ray Gwyn Smith, “Who is to say that robbing a people of its language is less violent than war?” has really resonated with me. I recently attended the Diversity Symposium Education Day, and the keynote speaker was the new head of the Education Department. She is Native American and her whole speech revolved around this idea of how language is integral to a community.

    This has gotten me to thinking that if a language/voice has been taken/silenced for incarcerated peoples, then what will replace it? The article goes on to say that, “Wild tongues can’t be tamed, they can only be cut out”. I think incarceration is a means of silencing a language, but language cannot be eradicated completely, something will fill the void. I believe that Speak Out! is a means by which to combat the cutting out of wild tongues. I believe Speak Out! is a way for participants to explore and invoke their voice even in the moments of forced silence.

    The women in the LCJ group seem to value the workshops as a way to process their thinking and their lives. This is so important in keeping individual authenticity and voice even in a place where individuality nor authenticity is valued. Each participant remains true to her own voice. This also aligns with the premise of the IOWP program, “. . .workshop participants are not deficient but people who have dealt remarkably competently with destructive social-structural forces. . .people who have responded to often brutal life circumstances with remarkable strength and courage”. Keeping their own language, their own voice helps participants keep that courage to strive for their own meaning.

    At times the rawness of the writer’s voices seems to overwhelm the workshop, but I try to keep the channels of voice open and the space we share safe and empowering. Language is vital to identity, community, and how those two work in forming their symbiotic relationship.

    I am very proud to be a part of Speak Out!. I feel the reciprocity of this work in many ways. As Reynolds says in her article, “. . .women from the outside. It can help them see the interconnectedness of their lives with people inside. . .”. We are all connected. No system is isolated, no person is without humanity. Language is alive and needs to be guarded as if it were vulnerable to war.

    1. “I believe Speak Out! is a way for participants to explore and invoke their voice even in the moments of forced silence.”

      Marking this here to always remember. Good thing for future interns to hear!

  2. Though SpeakOut is an invaluable emotional outlet for the incarcerated, I believe that the program’s defining feature is its function as a tool silent dissent. My writers seize the opportunity to upset the status quo whenever (and however) they can, grateful for a sanctuary to say what they can’t say anywhere else. Their “wild tongues” are given free rein for the first time in a long time.

    I pride myself on my open-mindedness and willingness to accept a wide variety of voices. Freedom of expression is near and dear to my heart— I try my best to create an atmosphere of acceptance in my workshop and prevent further limitation of those who are already so limited. In recent weeks, however, one wild tongue has run a little too wild.

    One of the writers in my group had a tendency to share explicit work. His writing, albeit clever and heartfelt, often centered around drugs, violence, and sex. It put me and my two volunteers in a difficult position. The three of us were conflicted— this man was a passionate and talented writer, but the thematic elements of his work had begun to steer the workshop somewhere we didn’t want it to go. What could we do? Should we say anything? How could we address the problem without losing his trust and dampening his enthusiasm? Would addressing it dampen the enthusiasm of others, too?

    I was torn. This man was certainly toeing the line, but how could I silence someone who has been silenced all his life? How could he benefit from SpeakOut if he felt he had to shut up? The situation forced me to negotiate between my values and the health of the program. Unfortunately, when this man wrote a piece about me, I was forced to discuss the situation with the higher-ups of both SpeakOut and LCJ. He was transferred to another workshop group and told that his work wasn’t suitable to be shared.

    Though I understand the decision made on my behalf, I don’t fully agree with it. His work was quite explicit and difficult to listen to at times. I won’t deny it. For him, though, it was cathartic and reflective of his experiences. We write what we know, and he was merely coming to terms with his challenges on the page. This writer returned to my group last week and it was clear that some of the wind had been taken out of his sails. When the writers were asked to share their work from the previous exercise, he would grab his notebook, rock forward in his seat, and after brief hesitation say “well, I want to read this, but I guess I’m not supposed to anymore.”

    I didn’t respond to his comments as I didn’t want to call further attention to them. I wanted to engage him, to explain that whatever was said was out of my hands, that things wouldn’t have turned out this way if it was up to me. Instead, I said nothing.

    I’m hoping that the past few weeks haven’t tamed his tongue. I hope the tongues of other’s haven’t been tamed indirectly. Even if the dynamic of my workshop changes in these final weeks, I hope that the writers felt their voices were heard.

    1. “Though SpeakOut is an invaluable emotional outlet for the incarcerated, I believe that the program’s defining feature is its function as a tool [for] silent dissent.”


  3. I agree with Derra on the two quotes she picked out as well as the post in its entirety. The section covering wild tongues only being tamed through an all-out cut-out definitely hits home on a personal level with my own writing and on the community level with SpeakOut! With the specific demographic of kids who I work with, there are topics that come up frequently: self-harm, suicide, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, family trauma, etc. and I’m thankful for every Monday night because I get to hear their stories – especially the ones that end hopefully and up lifting, saying that they want to do better in their lives. I think to myself: these are the voices we need to listen to; these are the topics that we need to address and discuss. No one knows the stories of traumatic experiences better than the ones who wrote them, even if – especially when – they are children, so we should listen up.

    A few weeks into the workshops, when I started to realize the strength of these kids dealing with certain topics, I wrote something responding to a prompt that was quite personal. I took the chance and offered up my vulnerability to the group as I read the piece. When I finished, one of my kids, Amanda, asked, “Was that true?” to which I responded, “Yes. I would never lie to you.” At the following week’s workshop, Amanda and Allan both shared a poem each of them wrote during the week that was heartfelt and tear-jerking. I think back to my days in middle school when a kid would read something like this, they would be given counseling service information and asked to refrain from talking about topics they were “too young to understand.” But as I mentioned before, these are the people who know it best; I wanted to bring Amanda and Allan to the tree stump in front of the LSC and give them a megaphone to proclaim their story and project their existence.

    I really do like that quote: “Wild tongues can’t be tamed; they can only be cut out.” So, until that day, I hope the public is ready for the stories we have to say. And even if it happens, that we lose our tongue, our voice, we ourselves realize that we will always have the pen.

    1. Yeah. “I wanted to bring Amanda and Allan to the tree stump in front of the LSC and give them a megaphone to proclaim their story and project their existence.”

  4. Last Wednesday’s workshop was deeply passionate and reflective. So many people shared and connected. One writer hesitantly shared his writing. Afterwards, he shared a bit of context surrounding the story. Then he told us how much he despised writing and sharing this story because it involved addiction, dealing, and violence. To share these things made him feel stereotyped. He said he didn’t want to be another guy in jail writing about glocks on the block. Nonetheless, this was his story and he felt like he could share in this moment. He said he knew the reason for some of his actions, but he still didn’t know how to feel about them. Immediately, I vocalized my empathy; I too, have despised sharing stories of my time as a soldier because I fear stereotyping.

    After getting the proof journal, I went home and proudly read through it. Each pen name from my group made me smile. I then came upon the writer mentioned above. The piece took on deep meaning as I remembered the life circumstances he shared. Right there on the page and in between the lines: his family, the pipe, the gun, hope, and crushed dreams. Then humility grabbed my throat.

    While another volunteer had originally typed this poem, I had made two or three quick edits for the writer, but I never stopped to read it through. Of course, I’ve been pressed for time and only needed to quickly scan it for revisions. But the real reason: I saw the glock on the block, and passed a bias… I had stereotyped him and quickly dismissed the poem… Done exactly what we were both afraid of.

    Like most of us, I understand and pride myself in negotiating around stereotypes and encouraging a variety of speech. Like Reynolds, I’ve thought about how the food banks and soup kitchens of my youth only band-aided a bigger problem. Studying Anzaldua in another class has forced me to evaluate how the stereotype works in language. Reading her again, made me think of how I’ve tamed my own voice out of fear that it was not astute enough for an English major. I’m familiar and devote to the humanities. I have even been exposed to glocks on my childhood block. When the writer from Haven’s group got moved and tamed, I cringed. When another writer in my group told me he was hesitate to share his writing because he didn’t do well with words again, I empathized by remembering my first day in the fifth grade classroom as a kid who never went to the first through fourth grade.

    All this say, maybe I should of known better, but more importantly I think this highlights how intricate and subtle the act of taming might occur. While I have found writing very empowering (I think many of the writers in workshop do as well), it’s socialized nature has also disabled and tempered my life. As an English major, you probably suspect that I find language fascinating, and you’d be correct. Yet, I also find it very sloppy and confining. As I move into next semester’s workshops, I will take this lesson with me by constantly reevaluating my perspective and potentially sneaky forms of taming.

  5. Though different from the specific context – the intersections of languages, cultures and identities – from which Anzaldua writes about wild tongues, there is something that can be made more general about the concept of wild tongues, as it applies specifically to the folks with whom we write; like Anzaldua, they are operating within a culture that largely does not value their voices and, particularly in the context of incarceration, may even seek to disempower them from using their voices in any way that does not explicitly uphold the systems of punishment and rehabilitation that Reynolds discusses. And in that way, SpeakOut can be a place to cultivate these “wild tongues” as they grapple with, talk about, celebrate, and analyze a variety of topics that push back on the narrative of what an “inmate” or “convict” or “criminal” is supposed to be.

    I like Reynolds as a reading to supplement the idea of wild tongues, because the piece explicitly highlights the narratives that jail and prison systems want reproduced – in the ways that facilitators interact with writers, and likely also in the ways they expect writers to narrate their stories. I’m thinking in particular of the supposed need for rehabilitation and the narrow path by which incarcerated people are expected to become “rehabilitated”. But the writers do not come in and write about the ways in which the jail religious programs have transformed them, or the ways in which nearly-unpaid jail work helped them sort out their priorities and learn work ethic. They write about a much richer and more complex world in which growth and change happens in the context of relationships with loved ones like spouses and children; in which change sometimes stagnates and a “rehabilitated” self feels out of reach; in which the DOC’s version of rehabilitation is actually just isolating or boring or unhelpful.

    Reynolds does bring up an important point, though, about our complicity in the system that silences wild tongues. So while we create a space that gives these tongues a little more wiggle room, that room is still bounded by certain regulations about what writers can produce and publish. Arguably the wildest of tongues are the most likely to be silenced, as they are the ones writing the narratives most contradictory to what the jail, for example, wants to allow in the journal. Even if we would uplift those voices and stories most, given the chance, we still work within the restrictive system that made many of our writers feel powerless in the first place.

    While I do think that we as facilitators have the power to let writers express themselves more freely and to even encourage wild tongues, I have seen it best in my own workshop when the other group members call attention to the skill and vulnerability in writing. I am often inclined to start my comments with the writing itself – a device or phrase they used that I thought was effective – but I have writers who start by remarking that the piece was really real, or truthful, of straight from the heart. Another time, a writer hesitated to share at first but chose to anyway, and a different writer, as soon as he finished, said “that’s publishable. You should publish that.” The writer who had just read his piece seemed astonished – but he did end up submitting the piece for publication. It was clear that he believed his piece, which he had crafted during a short prompt, was not valuable – and the other writers showed him it was not. So perhaps our role as facilitators is that we create this space, through showing up and modeling feedback, where the writers themselves get to nourish each other, literarily and emotionally.

    1. I love this aspect of our work, so well captured here:

      “So perhaps our role as facilitators is that we create this space, through showing up and modeling feedback, where the writers themselves get to nourish each other, literarily and emotionally.”

  6. People like to think that they encourage wild tongues. I am a skeptic. I like to think it too, but I am so, so white. I’m so white and I don’t know the experience of other people. I have a difficult time believing that I am helping to encourage wild tongues because I worry that my very presence might discourage them. I am different, and even though I want to accept people for who they are and allow them to speak and write freely, sometimes I feel that this desire (though it helps, I think) isn’t quite enough. I know from personal experience that I feel most comfortable around people who are like me, and even then, I know there are subjects I don’t cross.

    Similarly, I noticed that when Kathy was teaching our workshop (I use the verb teaching because that’s really what she was doing), I saw a side of our writers that I hadn’t seen before. Kathy is a recovering addict who has been incarcerated, and she is Christian, three things which I am not, and three things which many of the writers are. This alone allows wild tongues more freedom.

    However, no one is ever going to be a facilitator that allows complete freedom for all tongues. So, then, what is the conversation about, really? I don’t know. It’s an ethical question that I think is important, though. I believe that the person partaking in work like this is just as important as the work getting done at all. The last thing I would want to do is silence someone further.

    There are some things that I can relate to the writers on, and some things that I can listen to and attempt to understand. I’m sure they have similar experiences with each other’s pieces of work too– some they can relate to and some they can just listen to. When it comes down to it, if I know I can’t relate to someone’s experience or writing, I want to respect it at the very least. Is that all I can do, or can I do more? I’d like to know.

  7. “When it comes down to it, if I know I can’t relate to someone’s experience or writing, I want to respect it at the very least. Is that all I can do, or can I do more? I’d like to know.”

    You can stay your path with open mind and heart.

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