Monday, December 26, 2005

Tam Lin Neville: Changing Lives Through Literature.

Tam Lin Neville is a Somerville, Mass.poet, who like many Somerville poets, lives a stone’s throw away from me. Born in NYC, she got her B.A. from Temple University and an MFA in Poetry from Vermont College. She spent 1985 in Beijing, China where she taught Conversation, studied Chinese, and wrote poetry. Her poems have been published in “Mademoiselle,” “APR,” “Ironwood,” “The Massachusetts Review,”, and other publications of note. She has two poetry collections: “Dreaming in Chinese,” and “Journey Cake,” and has taught creative writing at Butler University, Emerson College in Boston, as well as other institutions. Neville currently works for a project that helps clients on parole: “Changing Lives Through Literature.” I talked with her on my Somerville Community Access TV show “Poet to Poet/Writer to Writer.”

Doug Holder: Your work for a program titled: “Changing Lives through Literature.” Can you tell us a bit about the program and the unique population you deal with?

Tam Lin Neville: It was started in 1991 by a judge and a college professor. They were friends, and the judge was lamenting ‘turnstile’ justice, where you see the same people coming through the court system over and over again. They thought there must be a way to reduce the recidivism rate. They thought if they threw literature at these repeaters it just might change them. It might give them a chance to see other peoples’ lives and in doing that they could reflect on their own life. The people who are in the program are on probation. Some have been in jail and some have not.

I teach a women’s’ class in Dorchester. These programs are run through the courts. You need to get a judge who is sympathetic. Not all judges are sympathetic; some people call the program “Books for Crooks.” They feel these people shouldn’t have any perks like this. With my classes, I wouldn’t have known that my students have done anything wrong. They didn’t strike me as particularly dangerous or tough.

It’s a voluntary class. They are asked by their probation officers if they want to participate. By taking the course and completing it they get six months off their probationary period. When they first come in they say they are there to knock six months from their probation, but at the end of the class they wind up saying what a wonderful experience it was. I like teaching because you don’t have to grade. We do a lot of reading, writing, and we talk.

DH: You have taught on the college level. How does this differ?

TLN: I prefer this. There are fewer strictures, and you don’t have to give grades. It is very surprising. You get very bright students and you don’t know what they are going to say. You don’t know how they are going to respond to the literature. In the college classroom they are mostly middle class white kids. I guess I am intrigued by people who come from walks of life different from my own. They are not trained in literature, or school. Often it is a purer or more pristine response.
DH: In a brochure you gave me about the program it says you have “carefully selected” works of literature that you use as teaching fodder. Can you explain how you select appropriate material?

TLN: It’s up to the instructor to pick what they want to teach. I try to teach good literature. For instance I teach “The House on Mango Street,” and other works by folks like Zora Neale Hurston. I am always looking for good things to teach.

DH: Norman Mailer sponsored the prison writer Jack Henry Abbot with disastrous consequences. Do you find working with this population exciting? Do you find prison literature challenging?

TLN: I haven’t read that much prison literature. People who are in prison who have that frame of mind are a captive audience. They have libraries available to them and time on their hands. Someone like Etheridge Knight was a great influence on me. A lot of these prison writers come out with good stuff. They have time to focus.

DH: Perhaps we should lock up all writers?

TLN: (Laughs.) Good idea.

DH: You penned a couple of poetry collections about your time in China. Somerville poet Afaa Michael Weaver told me that he is attracted to Chinese poetry because of its humble sensibility. How about you?

TLN: That’s fair to say. It’s hard to articulate the quality. I found it in Japan as well.

DH: In a poem you wrote “Appetites,” you write of an imagined experience in Haiti where you see kids eating pies made of mud, and other unsavory ingredients, for lack of anything else. Later in the poem, back in the states, you express disgust with yourself and to a degree with our society. Explain.

TLN: I am sure you have heard a lot about the impoverished people who are forced to eat dirt, if they are really hungry. I heard this on the radio about people eating mud pies. The gap between my life and there is so huge. We really live in a decadent society in comparison.

Doug Holder

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