Lyric Forms for Carceral Justice: On Attica Prison and Celes Tisdale’s “When the Smoke Cleared”

By David ShermanApril 30, 2023

Lyric Forms for Carceral Justice: On Attica Prison and Celes Tisdale’s “When the Smoke Cleared”

When the Smoke Cleared: Attica Prison Poems and Journal by Celes Tisdale

ALMOST EVERYONE in Attica expected the violence. Before the uprising began on September 9, 1971, inmates and correctional officers reported a pervasive sense of tension and anger in response to terrible conditions, overcrowding, and widespread abuse. A year earlier, in July 1970, a strike by workers in the prison’s dangerous metal shop had led to increased wages (up to one dollar a day, in some cases) but ended in retaliation against its leaders. In July 1971, two months before the eruption, a group calling itself the Attica Liberation Faction issued a manifesto about prisoners’ rights and core services—it was, in fact, a plea for recognition of their basic human dignity. The small group sent the manifesto to Russell Oswald, the commissioner of the Department of Correctional Services for New York, who did little in response; meanwhile, Attica’s warden increasingly implemented control measures driven by his paranoia about rising political consciousness among the incarcerated.

As an experiment in telling the history of US prison literature, imagine, for a moment, this July 1971 manifesto as a collective prison poem, ever so slightly altered by my line breaks to evoke what we might call the lyric dimension of political mobilization:

We, the inmates
of Attica Prison,
have grown to recognize
beyond the shadow of doubt
that, because of our posture
as prisoners
and branded characters
of alleged criminals,
the administration and prison employees
no longer consider or respect us
as human beings,
but rather as
domesticated animals
selected to do their bidding
in slave labor.

By September 9, 1971, everyone in Attica expected the violence. But few expected the four-day autonomous zone in D Yard or the poetry that would be gathered in the aftermath of its brutal suppression.

Eight months after these events had been broadcast on TV to an appalled nation, Celes Tisdale, an English professor at the State University College at Buffalo, began a poetry workshop with Attica inmates, leading to an anthology first published in 1974 (as Betcha Ain’t: Poems from Attica) and recently republished with additional material by Duke University Press. The telling of this history is not yet finished. When the Smoke Cleared: Attica Prison Poems and Journal, an anthology of work by 24 incarcerated writers as well as Tisdale, is a riveting contribution to contemporary literary history and recent social histories of the uprising. This volume poses far-reaching questions about prisons as sites of cultural production and the mobilization of Black political subjectivity at the beginning of what we now call the age of mass incarceration.

Tisdale writes in his new preface that he was likely the first non-inmate African American poetry instructor in a US prison. Over three years, despite unreliable logistical support from Attica authorities and shifting funding sources, he gathered an urgent group for writing poetry, practicing criticism, and exploring literary history. From his teaching journals, we learn that Tisdale drove in all seasons from Buffalo to Attica (35 miles), showing up “almost every Wednesday” evening to hold open a fragile space of creativity and literary analysis.

What exactly do we mean by the term “prison poem”? When the Smoke Cleared explains it as, in part, the linguistic sign of a social relationship that resists the social death of incarceration. The poems explore diverse stances of resistance to systemic anti-Blackness in the criminal justice system as embodied by Attica: commemoration of the 43 inmates and employees killed in the military assault ordered by Governor Rockefeller and encouraged by President Nixon; utopian glimpses of the inmates’ democratic self-organization and momentary freedom in the D Yard during the prolonged standoff; and calls for solidarity toward other futures. Reading the anthology is like overhearing a high-stakes, speculative conversation among incarcerated people deciding what is to be done; each voice offers a different valence of resilience, rage, hope, love, and grief.

John Lee Norris begins “A Stretch-Sketch” by testing the strength of the poetic line itself, which breaks apart from the opening judicial ruling:

And I said I am a man!
/and the judge said 50 years.
Eaten up by time
Sitting here in this tomb
Watching brainless flies
Across steel bars and concrete floors.
I am weary but strong
So strong

As the poem goes on, Norris slowly works through this fatal pairing of “time” with “tomb” and repairs the broken verse into an idiom for validating his desire for human regard. These poems tell us, again and again, that the claim to this regard was at the heart of the 1971 uprising.

The intense charge of this volume is the way it joins a political struggle over the meaning of those extraordinary days, which have been by turns contested and ignored as a legitimate demand for change. These poems are at once traces and interpretations of these events, ambiguously; as both a part of this history and a belated representation of it, this writing layers time and refracts its violence. Isaiah Hawkins’s “13th of Genocide” begins with a measured telling of the assault, as if from an uncertain distance:

The clouds were low
when the sun rose that day.
For the white folks were coming
to lay some black brothers away.
From eight surrounding counties,
the white folks came
with 12 hundred locks
and some brand new chains.

These images generate a set of spatial tensions, a disarranged horizon above a predatory and racialized geography. The small town of Attica, economically dependent on the prison for generations, was almost entirely white in 1971, while the majority of the prison’s inmates were Black and Brown people, mostly from urban areas. There were no Black correctional officers working at Attica in September 1971. Unpacking the overheated nexus of geography, capital flows, race, and incarceration has long been at the heart of Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s academic research and activism (as in her 2022 compilation Abolition Geography: Essays Towards Liberation), a body of work we should see as an interlocutor for many of these poems.

These poetic geographies are also in conversation with Brett Story’s stunning 2016 documentary The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, which captures the daily texture of the geographical-racial formations informing our prison economy. Fifty years ago, the poet-prisoners in Attica witnessed the social dynamics that we’re still trying to understand. Hawkins ends his poem, as the helicopter bearing CS gas hovers overhead, with a final, bracing sounding of carceral space: “Then from a distance / came a black brother’s cry. / ‘I’m a man, white folks, / and like a man I’ll die.’”

The anthology’s republication arrives alongside other crucial recent work on the uprising, particularly Heather Ann Thompson’s magisterial 2016 history Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, Stanley Nelson Jr. and Traci A. Curry’s essential 2021 documentary Attica, and Mark Nowak’s literary history of several radical writing workshops, including Tisdale’s, in Social Poetics (2020). These all gather as a sort of latent, interdisciplinary curriculum on the Attica prison uprising for a generation of young people who have never heard of it but may perceive how it has everything to do with current struggles to bend our criminal justice system toward transformative and reparative practices.

In Nowak’s excellent introduction to When the Smoke Cleared, he describes the poets as “people’s historians” of these events, unique for the fact that “no writers other than the poets included [in the anthology] have collectively documented their personal experiences during the Attica uprising through poetry.” Consider the complex documentary function of Christopher Sutherland’s “Twelve Past the Hour of Forty-Three: Attica—Sept. 13, 1971,” an attempt to remember in the midst of interminable mourning and suspicion toward commemoration. After the opening, he arrives at a dark meditation on memorial art’s failure as a response to these events:

At the appropriate hours of tears
The sky baptizes the bloody stains of writing
Written on blades of grass
Strangled to death
By a poisonous egg
Laid by a mechanical bird.
The harsh thunder of barred doors closing
Assaults the air echoing a dirge
That makes mockery
Of all the reverent, euphonic eulogies.
What song of sorrow can be sung?

We are not led to expect the grace of this question, an eloquent lament for the failure of eloquence; it names an ethical contradiction between symbolic gestures of regret for the slaughter and the fact of Attica’s continued operation with little change. By definition, no song that would be permitted there could fulfill the need it articulated. In the poem’s final, implacable reflection, Sutherland amplifies this interrogative energy:

What sermon delivered or proper monument raised
In honor of men whose spirits lie in a cold
Sepulcher hermetically sealed against the
Nourishments of human kindness where men were reborn
Men in the minds of men,
But only after death?

Silence follows: because the world lacks the practices of justice that would make a genuine answer coherent, it as yet can provide none. That is the capacity Sutherland is teaching us to imagine. He asks about men “reborn men in the minds of men,” as if only through this insistent tautology we might reach, in such a degraded system, what is fundamental to justice. These lines that sound so much like Yeats’s intractable poem-ending questions, strained by political crises at similar points of violence, offer the inflection of grief with hope that we need to keep animating this historical record.

Since the 1970s, there have been many anthologies published in the United States of writing by people incarcerated at specific prisons, although the majority are out of print. Prison writing has long been distributed in even more ephemeral ways: prison newspapers and newsletters, self-published anthologies from individual writing programs, websites run by nonprofit organizations. Hundreds of these print periodicals are now accessible, digitized through the astonishing new archive American Prison Newspaper, 1880–2020: Voices from the Inside, which will enable more research into prisons as sites of cultural production, political mobilization, and disciplined self-fashioning. Since 2018, PEN America has published the most consistent and exciting anthology series of US prison writing as a part of its robust Prison and Justice Writing programming, which offers incarcerated writers significant recognition and mentorship.

I mention this large, fluid literary-scape because there is a dynamic force around a single book that recently emerged as the exemplar of US prison writing: Reginald Dwayne Betts’s Felon. Published in 2019 to great acclaim, Felon is an exquisitely crafted and psychologically rich examination of reentry and repair, and Betts himself has since played a galvanizing public role in promoting carceral justice (including with the nonprofit Freedom Reads, which provides libraries to prisons), but his literary celebrity becomes complicated in the context of these countless others. The productive tension between Felon, as an emphatically literary project, and When the Smoke Cleared, as an aesthetic record of collective empowerment, needs further study.

People in detention write, their survival at stake, in uneven institutional connections with colleges, universities, and other organizations that imagine themselves insulated from the carceral system. Scholars have barely scratched the surface of what this writing does and means, the sort of index it is for a nation dreaming, at times, of democracy. When the Smoke Cleared tells a troubled version of this dream. Beautiful and bleeding, patient for their future readers, these poems show us that the recent past holds crucial allies for our ongoing efforts to imagine justice.


David Sherman is faculty in the English department at Brandeis University and co-director of the Brandeis Educational Justice Initiative, a higher-ed in prison program. 

LARB Contributor

David Sherman is faculty in the English department at Brandeis University and co-director of the Brandeis Educational Justice Initiative, a higher-ed in prison program. He is currently writing a book on literary responses to secularization, The Machine Stops: Modernism, Human Fungibility, and the Critique of Secular Hope. And he is co-founder, with Karen Elizabeth Bishop, of a public poetry initiative, the Elegy Project, that puts poems in public places for strangers to encounter (@TheElegyProject).


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