by Robert Ellis Gordon and inmates of the Washington Corrections System
(WSU Press) $14

"GOING INTO PRISONS is like falling in love," says Robert Ellis Gordon, and he shuts his eyes on the last word, opening them again slowly. They are the color of sky-blue delphiniums, luminous with pain. Gordon's cane leans against one wall.

Gordon and I are drinking coffee out of big white cups at Cafe Septieme. Two of his books and various papers litter the table. Gordon's first book, a novel entitled When Bobby Kennedy Was a Moving Man (1993, Black Heron Press), won a King County Arts Commission Publication Award. On the back of that novel is a photo of Gordon taken seven years ago. He has a big smile, a head of dark, wavy hair. It's startling to compare that photo to the tired man who sits across from me. Gordon has aged 30 years in less than a decade.

The other book on the table is Gordon's latest, The Funhouse Mirror: Reflections on Prison (Washington State University Press), based on Gordon's experience as a writing teacher for the Washington state prison system. From 1989 until 1997, Gordon taught creative-writing classes at Monroe, Shelton, Clallam Bay, even at the Echo Glen Juvenile Detention Center. The Funhouse Mirror is a timely, beautifully crafted, persistent book in its efforts to uncover the Third World of America's ever-expanding prison system.

Now, Gordon is writing and battling with chemotherapy for an autoimmune disease. His fight for physical stamina imbues The Funhouse Mirror with authority and urgency, bolstered by essays and letters written by former students. Gordon is just the right intercessor to introduce readers to prison's complex culture. He tells us clearly how we need to alter our attitudes toward the big house: "When we give voice to the voiceless; when we give souls to formerly anonymous convicts; when we can no longer deny their humanity, we have no choice but to lay claim to them. And if and when we do that--if and when we peer into the funhouse mirror and conclude that our criminals belong to us and that they're made of the same stuff as us--well then we will, in one respect at least, begin, as a society, to grow up."

In spite of Gordon's agenda to give voice to the voiceless, he doesn't paint a sentimental picture. He chooses ironic and twisted narratives that show the exaggeration and perversion of power in prisons, like the brief story of Charity, the prison guard who moonlights as a stripper. He describes life on the outside as black and white, and being in prison as living in color. "I was devoted to my charges," he says. "Teaching there gave me a sense of being useful and admired. I felt comfortable in a world of violent felons." He describes how once the doors closed, a calm would come over him. "I used to try to keep a picture in my head of a forest, but I'd lose the picture within five minutes of walking in that gate. The energy of prison is strong and oppressive, but it gave me a new set of friends. I have kept some friends after my job finished and after [my friends] got out."

One of these friends is Tana Granack, who has a couple of pieces in The Funhouse Mirror, including my favorite chapter, "Welcome to the Steel Hotel, A Survival Tip for Beginners." It is an oddly comic, conversational introduction.

I talk to Granack on the phone for an hour before I meet him, Gordon, and Michael Collins (another ex-prisoner who contributed to Gordon's book) in a Seattle bar. Granack has the lanky grace of a long-distance runner. He's funny and articulate. There's a palpable tension between him and Michael Collins, which gets smoothed over with beers. They seem to fall back into prison posturing codes. They steer around tense subjects. They have different versions of prison to tell from Gordon and from each other.

Granack was initially resistant when Gordon aked him to write "Survival Tips." It was 1994; Granack had just been paroled.

"I didn't want to think about that stuff then," Granack explains. "The whole time I was down I rarely even wrote about prisons." He was writing and reading all the time, though. He subscribed to The New Yorker, The New York Times, and the Village Voice. He sent out work that was published.

"Now I think about prison all the time," Granack says. "I don't know if Robert's book is pushing me. I have a lot to say." Granack is a natural storyteller. He has a sense of grace and humor that allows him to delve into intense subjects, pull back to breathe, then dive into a deeper layer. You're compelled to follow him.

"Violence is a big commodity in there," he says about prison life. "There's something honest and immediate about violence in prison. You can smell it in the air."

He explains how he never really got in fights before prison, and never won a fight inside. But he clarifies that whether someone wins or loses, the fight isn't as important as displaying an "'I don't care anymore attitude,' like you're capable of pure uncontrollable anger. You have to be ready to fight at all times. You have to stand up for your things or people consider you a wimp and steal your stuff."

Granack tells a story of a T-shirt that disappeared from his cell once. He thought it had been lost. One day another inmate pointed out that a big black guy playing basketball was wearing the T-shirt. Granack had no choice, according to prison ethics, but to go fight the guy, who outweighed and outsized him. He fought for the principle, not the shirt.

Despite the harsher aspects of prison that Granack describes, it's clear he also misses the place. He talks about the intensive structuring of time. He used to exercise more, read more, even write more on the inside. His easy personality allowed him to get along with people from various ethnic groups and clubs.

Granack, like Gordon, has compassion for the people he met inside: "I saw a lot of private moments of humanity in people," explains Granack. "There was a guy who was in for life, for executing gas station attendants. His name was Tony Wheat. Good emanates from that man. He's the kind of guy who says to others, 'Go out and sin no more.'"

Granack notes how many prisoners would re-offend, get paroled, go on a crime spree. Prison has its strong pull on the psyche.

Granack feels a pull to write about prison now. He wants to tell his own views on prison culture, from deep inside, a witness living in one world, always aware of people he left behind in the other. Gordon's artfully crafted The Funhouse Mirror opens a door between these two worlds, and Gordon himself holds the key.

Robert Gordon reads from The Funhouse Mirror Fri Sept 29 at Elliott Bay Books, 101 S Main St, 624-6600, 7:30 pm, free advance tickets.

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