Cornwall poet reflects on ‘time inside’ a prison

CORNWALL — When’s the last time you wrote a poem? For some of us, it was a long time ago… like, before Facebook, OMG — back when journals served as outlets for inward, emotional tweens. For others, like Gary Margolis, poetry is a daily practice.
Every morning when this poet wakes up in his Cornwall home, he gets up and heads out for an hour’s walk down Sperry and Bordeau roads.
“It’s a way for me to get into my body easily,” Margolis said. “It’s meditative. I go out with no expectations of writing.”
He opens himself up to what he sees, hears and feels. “It’s about being open to whatever it is that might be there,” he added. “Images come up and thoughts emerge… By the time I get back to the house I’m ready to sit down… And then my only instruction to myself is to ‘let it go’ — meaning just start writing.”
Once the poem begins, Margolis tries to follow it organically.
“I’d call it associative poetry. Yet the poems are simultaneously informed by tradition, experience, history and form,” said Margolis, who most recently published his seventh (or is it eighth?) book of poems. It is titled, “Time Inside,” which was inspired in part by poetry/writing workshops he led in a maximum security prison.
No, these poems are not middle school ramblings; they are thoughtfully crafted with depth and awareness. Of course they are. We’d expect no less from Margolis, who served as executive director of College Mental Health Services and associate professor of English and American Literatures (part-time) at Middlebury College for 38 years; who was a Robert Frost and Arthur Vining Davis Fellow; and who taught at the University of Tennessee, Vermont and Bread Loaf, and Green Mountain writers’ conferences. Oh and his third book, “Fire in the Orchard” was nominated for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.
Yeah, this Ph.D. knows what he’s doing, but he didn’t start out a master. Nope. On the contrary, when Margolis was a student at Middlebury College he was a four-sport athlete — a jock. He was on the football, basketball, lacrosse and track teams; and his poetry (which he did write) was closeted.
That is until a girlfriend kept talking about this guy who wrote poetry.
“I was curious and a little jealous,” Margolis remembered. “So I went to his office one day and he gave me three poems by Wallace Stevens, W. B. Yeats and Robert Frost and told me to come back and we’d talk about them… At that second meeting he asked me if I wrote poetry. I said I did, and he told me to bring him three poems of mine the next time… Now he’s almost 90 years old and we’ve become life-long friends.”
This relationship with Bob Pack — a “teacher-poet-mentor-friend” — solidified Margolis’ pursuit of poetry. Margolis graduated from Middlebury College in 1967 and went on to earn his graduate degree in counseling from The State University of New York at Buffalo, and wrote his dissertation on the uses of poetry in counseling.
A skill that came in handy when he was volunteering in the correctional facility.
So what prompted Boston-born Margolis to want to go into a maximum security prison to facilitate workshops on writing and poetry? Good question.
Well several things, really. First the facility was a place Margolis had seen over the years and he had curiosity and stereotypes about it.
“I wanted to see what it was really like, not just to imagine it,” he said.
Second, Margolis knew of Ellen Bass, who founded poetry workshops at Salinas Valley State Prison and the Santa Cruz jails in California. He had also recently watched the PBS TV program “The Great American Read,” which featured Free Minds, a book club program within a Washington, D.C., jail.
And third, Margolis has personal experience with a family member who was incarcerated.
Once his proposal to facilitate these workshops was vetted and accepted, Margolis held two back-to-back five-week sessions.
“The first section of ‘Time Inside’ is about going into that place, and being with those men and reading and writing poetry,” Margolis said. “Being there your senses are very alive. What you see, smell, hear are all unique to being in a facility.”
The workshops were not large groups.
“The men were very receptive, respectful and motivated to engage and learn to write. They very much wanted to learn from me as the facilitator and from each other,” Margolis said. “I was very moved by this.
“When you’re incarcerated, you have the therapeutic and creative need of writing poetry,” he said. “It is self- and other-enhancing when you’re being creative beyond survival.”
Though Margolis facilitated these classes like he was back in his Middlebury College classroom — complete with lessons on sonnets, villanelles, sastinas, couplets and blank verse — he was most definitely not, and a correctional officer reminded him.
“One day, the CO said to me, ‘Remember where you are.’”
Margolis was reminded by Mary Oliver’s famous question in “The Summer Day:” “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”
“I didn’t have to be there, and they knew that. They knew I cared enough to want to be there, and cared about their work and them,” Margolis reflected. “Feeling cared for, encouraged, even with the act that landed them in prison, opened their creativity and healing… We all need healing.”
But like poems, these workshops had a beginning, middle and end.
Soon, Margolis was back to his routine Cornwall walks; reflecting on his time at the maximum security facility and his “time inside” his own mind.
His book of poems continues in six sections exploring in what Weybridge author Julia Alvarez called “the myriad meaningful moments in our lives” — including a section of elegies for his sister Shelly, who died last year.
“Poetry can be therapeutic self-expression,” said Margolis, who has had his own private practice as a psychologist in Middlebury since completing his work at the college in 2010. “But it’s important for me to also ask, ‘Can it be received and heard — maybe not completely understood — but is there an empathetic connection that goes beyond me as the speaker of the poem?’”
Yes, a resounding yes. “Time Inside” holds a deepening awareness of at once the beauty and trauma of life — for you, your tweenage self, and me.
Hear Gary Margolis read his poem “Fourth.” Editor’s Note: The Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury has copies of “Time Inside.”

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