By Heart: Poetry, Prison, And Two Lives by Judith Tannenbaum & Spoon Jackson
pub date: April, 2010
A collaborative memoir, By Heart: Poetry, Prison, And Two Lives explores the journey of Judith Tannenbaum and Spoon Jackson into poetry and understanding. Tannenbaum is an artist and educator who has taught poetry in many different settings including the Arts-in-Corrections program in California. Spoon is an inmate serving a life sentence. The two met at San Quentin Prison in the 1980’s.
By Heart is a moving encounter between freedom and prison, art, beauty and desolation, silence and voice. The story is told through alternating chapters in which each tells the story of their lives and the insights they gained through learning, creating, and sharing poetry. Storytelling was an inherent trait of Tannenbaum’s extended Jewish family. The teachers she encountered during her school days promoted her imagination and helped her to harness her energy into creating stories that gave her new life and freedom. She volunteered in her daughter’s kindergarten classroom and began her journey into teaching poetry.
Spoon grew up in a small town on the edge of the Mojave Desert. As one of fifteen boys, Spoon ran a little wild. He spent his early years exploring nature, spending many hours hanging out in the dry riverbed behind their shack. His school years were largely negative. It appears that early on he was a target for corporeal punishment at school and beatings at home; he received little to no affirmations during these formative years.
Spoon is “real” with his life in prison and what put him there in the first place. He takes full responsibility for his actions while examining what went wrong in his early life that led him down this path. Spoon enrolled in high school and college classes offered to prisoners, spent hours reading and thinking during lockdowns and long weekends. Silence became a powerful friend that allowed him time for self reflection and growth. He had grown as a man during the eight years before he met Tannenbaum in the poetry class.
Tannenbaum does not save Spoon through poetry. The two poets grow through their encounters by sharing their work, exploring voice, and influencing each other’s work. They examine other poets both famous and well known as well as the poems of children and other prisoners. This is about growth and the exploration of humanity. It is easy for society to shut the prison door and forget that there are human lives closed within. By Heart shows us how humanity survives and flourishes within enclosed walls and communication.
There are many issues that can be explored as book clubs share this book. It is passionate and tender, raw and realistic. It is a love story but not love between people; it is about love for ourselves and our humanity. As an educator I was deeply moved by the story of Spoon and Tannenbaum. This is a book that I would wish for every educator to read. It is inspirational and thought- provoking. I recommend this book for book clubs, educators, and all who need to be reminded about humanity and generosity of spirit.