IN DEBORAH TOBOLA’S Hummingbird in Underworld: Teaching in a Men’s Prison, a Memoir, a scene of impromptu performance captures the tense situation of art sanctioned in captivity. As part of a program called “Poetry on the Road,” Tobola and a crew of inmate poets recite verse in prison classrooms. As the poets pass by a guard shack, the officers say they want to hear some poetry as well. Warily, the inmates take turns reciting — Che Guevara, Dylan Thomas.

When another poet exhorts the guards not to “go gentle into that good night,” silence hangs on to night and for a split second, the business of prison — inmates shouting, a barked order, wheels and welding torches and prison intercom — fades to this silence held by guards and poets, who have never talked, never listened this way.

The magic is broken with a sense of relief, and one of the officers offers a cookie and a carton of milk to each of the inmates. It is a beautiful and yet infantilizing moment, an “uneasy communion in the chapel of the metal detector,” as Tobola puts it. Poetry seems to have the power to forge a community where there should be none, but that power is short lived.

Hummingbird in Underworld is an account of Tobola’s nine-year spell as an artist-facilitator in the Arts in Corrections program in the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo. A “programming prison” with a variety of educational and mental health offerings, the CMC houses sex offenders, former gang members, and white-collar criminals in a campus-like facility. Tobola’s work includes teaching poetry, managing a crew of inmate employees, hiring outside artists for classes, and producing plays and other events in collaboration with inmates. Written in clear, occasionally lyrical prose and seasoned with Tobola’s poems and her students’ writing, the book is a compelling portrayal of education in prison.

Woven through her chronicle of prison teaching are stories of Tobola’s family and childhood. Raised in a boisterous working-class family of Czech heritage, Tobola comes to prisons as an educator, an employee, and to some extent a representative of the carceral institution. Still, her family background complicates her situation. Her father works briefly as a guard at the California Men’s Colony, but confesses “that he liked the inmates better than the guards.” Several family members spend time behind bars, and her great-grandfather dies in a hospital for the insane after refusing release.

In her position as prison educator, Tobola presents herself as a “lightning rod” between the inmates and the system. She believes fiercely in her work but rarely romanticizes it. Prison offers, curiously, a time to make art, with men on life sentences sometimes being the most serious about developing their craft. Boredom also assures the motivation of Tobola’s poets: “Unlike my college students, who were required to take composition, my inmate students came to class because they wanted to learn.” But the book also raises questions about creative work, its potential and its limits. A prison classroom or theater is a crucible, a lab for working out what art can do when separated from economies of grants, sales, and prestige.

Art is a form of resistance. It is an attempt to maintain one’s humanity and individuality even while wearing a uniform and tagged with a number. Art builds community. As any reader of prison or internment camp memoirs knows, the creation of art in captivity does not require an official program. In moments of crisis, people instinctively draw on their own creative resources. Tobola describes the inventiveness of prison artists who, knowing they are not allowed to keep art they make out of state materials, use what they can buy at the prison canteen, “candy wrappers to create jewelry and handkerchiefs as miniature canvases.” Cooking is another form of sustenance, at once physical and spiritual. Tobola documents the ingenious “spreads” inmates prepare from food bought at the canteen. Using garbage bags as pans, inmates make pizza crust out of soft-cooked ramen, layering it with pepperoni, cheese, and chips. Sharing these makeshift feasts with other inmates is a high point, a comforting bit of civilized life wrestled from the institution.

At the same time, Hummingbird in Underworld poses a problem. What are the stakes of prison art when it is created under institutional control? Can it still offer resistance to power? Tobola cautiously suggests it can, despite her awareness that she is constantly held in check by the prison’s order of command. On the opening night of a play in which the main character commits suicide, Tobola receives a call from the chief deputy warden and is told to cut that plot point. The fact that he already signed off on the script is irrelevant. With rising suicide rates in overcrowded California prisons, the topic is too controversial for the stage, and Tobola’s crew is forced to improvise a new ending.

Tobola, too, is at pains to maintain control over her program. Challenges come from inmate employees more familiar with the system’s soft spots than she is. And while poetry offers the men a chance for individual expressiveness, theatrical productions require collaboration and, sometimes, obedience. In one strained scene, the inmates object to performing “Jailhouse Rock” in a musical, apparently considering it demeaning. Tobola overrides them, and feels justified when the audience responds enthusiastically. (Whether the performers find this argument convincing is left unsaid.) When faced with a perfectionist musician who shot a backup singer due to artistic differences, Tobola is unyielding: “Your artistic vision will not prevail […] [m]ine will.”

Ultimately, Tobola is clear-eyed about the extent to which both she and the inmates are controlled by the institution. Tobola shows how the prison-industrial complex is a self-replicating organism, with mandatory minimum sentences, the three-strikes law, and the lobbying power of the prison guards’ union ensuring a steady supply of inmates into California’s correctional facilities. Rehabilitation is not a priority, and men often return for small infractions of their parole: “Paroling inmates are often told, ‘Bring a friend when you come back.’” Tobola understands that as someone funded by this system, she cannot imagine herself as a revolutionary force within it. She, too, is institutionalized, shaped by the vigilant culture of the prison. Staff members like her gain weight from stress eating, hide their bodies in deliberately shapeless clothes, and “learn to never sit with our backs to the door.”

Prison art offers a twist on the question of what is to be done when great artists have troubling pasts. In a sense, all of the artists Tobola works with have already been judged guilty. Tobola is honest about the difficulty of loving the art while being of two minds about the artist. She clearly believes in redemption, enough to dedicate decades of her life to creating with inmates and, later, former convicts. Their work together affirms their common humanity, makes them “fellow artists on a grand adventure.” Some of her collaborators rebuild their lives, finding voice and purpose through their art. At the same time, Tobola struggles with the knowledge that an inmate who pens a beautiful poem in class might have been a child molester. Even reading the files of the men she works with only gives her so much assurance. She learns, over time, that their arrest records sometimes only cover a fraction of their crimes, that she can never know the full story: “I just have to live with the not knowing.”

At the end of the book, Arts in Corrections is hit by budget cuts, and Tobola decides to leave. Art cannot always change the world. Indeed, it often cannot even change an institution. What it can do is provide time apart, a space to breathe. Artistic practice offers perspective, new knowledge of the world and of one’s self. In Creativity 101, Tobola asks her students to answer the question, “What do I ask of art?” Razor, an inmate who lets on he is in for double murder but in fact sexually abused his daughters, writes, “I ask to be shown something new, to be taught something remarkable, extraordinary, something imposing, maybe even majestic, primarily about myself.” Tobola’s chronicle of her years teaching poetry and directing plays in prison reveals that art also asks something of us. It demands that we make friends with ambiguity, with vulnerability. It calls on us to attend to the vital creative capacity of others. Art asks that we leave the door open for beauty, whatever its travels have been.

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Irina Dumitrescu is Professor of English Medieval Studies at the University of Bonn. She is the author of The Experience of Education in Anglo-Saxon Literature (Cambridge, 2018).