Help Them Free Their Words: Tom Kerr discusses his work with Steve Champion and his death row memoir
an interview by Jason Tucker
An associate professor of writing at Ithaca College, Tom Kerr began working with Steve Champion while teaching an undergraduate writing course. The idea was to get college students to engage with people and worlds beyond their own. Naturally, this happened to Tom as well, forging an unlikely friendship and giving personal depth to otherwise abstract political philosophy. After much work and much negotiating of the complex ethics of such a project, the two have shaped Champion’s story into the memoir Dead to Deliverance.
I recently talked with Tom about the many challenges of this kind of work, and of the role of writers and editors in larger social and political conversations.
Jason Tucker: You first encountered Steve Champion during a project for one of your writing classes. At what point did you see his story and his writing as a viable project for you to pursue? Why his story and not another?
Tom Kerr: When my senior seminar focused on the rhetoric of social movements, we put out a call for prisoners around the country who might like to correspond with us about the nature of the prison industrial complex, and to share their views of it. We received a few dozen letters from men and women incarcerated all over the U.S. We had included in our call a list of questions, so the initial letters were quite involved, and all were compelling. Steve was one of two or three people who included previously published essays and, in his case, a couple of unpublished essays that he thought we might be interested in. In follow-up correspondence, I expressed my appreciation for his writing, and he asked if I might be able to help him publish one or more of his essays. In this way, he identified himself as a writer seeking some editorial and logistical assistance, and I liked the voice I heard in his letters to my class and in his essays.
JT: All death row inmates have a story. As Steve describes in Dead to Deliverance, relatively few of them are capable of telling it well. What was it about Steve’s correspondence that set him apart from other would-be storytellers on death row?
TK: Steve was less interested in “telling his story,” as we typically think about this, than exposing “the contradictions,” as he might put it, in the criminal justice system and in the way Americans, in general, think about crime and punishment. In other words, Steve clearly understands “his story” as part of a much larger social and political story, and I share this tendency to regard individuals and their stories as parts of much larger narratives.
JT: Obviously, Steve has a vested interest in his subject matter. Death row memoirs don’t surprise us when they argue for the abolition of the death penalty. To what extent is Dead to Deliverance a polemical manifesto; to what extent is it a memoir that also has relevance to public politics? As an editor, what is your role in negotiating Steve’s balance of the personal and the political?
TK: I think Steve would agree with me that his book is equal part political manifesto and memoir. In no way is it narrowly focused on abolition of the death penalty, though the kind of personal and societal transformation Steve envisions would certainly sweep away capital punishment, which he and I both view as an offense against universal human rights. Early readers of the manuscript wanted to know more about how Steve felt about his experiences in his family and on the street, when he was young, and in juvenile hall, camps, and prison as he embarked on his life-long cycle of incarceration. This desire presented a challenge for us and, I think, for readers, as in some important respects Steve’s memoir is precisely about the hardening of feelings in social, cultural, and political contexts that are in many ways inimical to the expression of a full range of emotion. Still, we responded to this expressed desire by adding more narrative pieces to the collection of essays, which now begins and ends with essays that are more personal than analytical or political. Many people in prison have told their personal stories; not so many have argued the political significance of their personal story in just the way Steve does.
JT: Unlike many writers and political theorists, Steve is trapped within the system that he attempts to critique. He often discusses and demonstrates the emotional and intellectual damage done by America’s prison system, and because he writes from within it, he has both insight unavailable to the reader, as well as limitations to which most readers are not subjected. What is the role of the editor in helping someone like Steve develop his arguments, collect and analyze evidence on which to build them, and make his claims and experiences relevant to the broader discussion?
TK: Steve is both a writer and a student of writing, and I am a writing professor before I am an editor. So, I have engaged Steve’s writing as I do all students’ writing—as a generous but critical reader with lots of observations and questions, as well as some corrections and instruction. One agent early on told me that if I would rewrite Steve’s prose to read more like journalist and death row prisoner and writer Mumia Abu Jamal’s, he might consider representing us. But Steve and I very early on agreed that the whole point of his writing was his writing, and he has had the final say on all substantive revisions, taking many of my suggestions, but leaving many, as well. Prior to our first face-to-face meeting at San Quentin, I memorized a couple of his sentences. Once in the visitors’ cage with him, I wrote down his sentences—on a brown piece of paper towel torn off the roll in the toilet by a guard and with the stub of a pencil provided us—and then showed him how I might revise them in order to preserve the meaning and his voice, while strengthening the prose. In this way, we established our working relationship by building understanding and trust, and our process remains quintessentially dialogic.
JT: To what extend did your own views on the social, cultural, and political issues at stake in this project influence your work as an editor?
TK: My abhorrence of the death penalty as offense against human rights, generally, and my view that the monumental and sprawling Prison Industrial Complex in the U.S. is both a symptom and perpetuator of social injustice (and, as Angela Davis argues, a modern form of slavery in its in proportionate capture and holding of black and brown people), frees me to work with Steve as an ally.
JT: What are the risks of involving yourself in the telling of someone else’s story when its dominant themes are so hotly contested?
TK: When I have published in national venues about my work with Steve, I have on a few occasions become the target of mean spirited, hateful, and short-lived email campaigns. But this work has also brought me into dialogue with other, more civil readers who nonetheless support capital punishment. In these cases, I have been able to articulate my opposition to the death penalty in very direct, even intimate terms, where I think movement is possible. If Steve’s book should find its way into the national spotlight, I do fear becoming a target for the likes of Sean Hannity and other rightwing zealots, as such characters clearly do not conduct conversations in good faith, as some of the pro-capital punishment people who have contacted directly certainly do. Nonetheless, I am prepared to fight for human rights on this front, going forward, whatever the risks.
JT: Writers struggle to reproduce some authentic voice of their subjects. Often, Steve uses language like “circumnavigate,” “zenith,” and “with gusto,” all of which seem at odds with the more natural voice of his harsh young life in Los Angeles. Where do you draw the line in helping Steve to shape his own voice and taking too great a role in trying to make him sound “authentically” himself?
TK: As a postmodernist, I take the notion of “authentic voice” with a grain of salt. Steve has acquired the terms you mention in the course of heroic self-education in the hell of death row via reading and discussion with others in his position. Consequently, I would argue that such hard-earned diction is as authentic as it gets, and I have for the most part embraced it, only occasionally insisting on changes, when an expression strikes me as patently trite or clichéd (and knowing that Steve has not had the benefit of those myriad social and academic discussions in which norms and standards of style and usage are rehearsed.) He and I went back and forth, for example, on the question of describing the S.Q. guard tower as a “penis,” his choice, or a “phallus,” my revision, finally agreeing on the former for its fleshy, more obscene connotations. Phallus struck Steve as too clinical, too academic, and not true to his felt sense. Likewise, Steve has defended other word choices on the grounds that he likes the word or words in question, and his “freedom to choose” has seemed much more important to me than the pause a free reader might experience over an unusual choice, which after all “marks” the text as authentic in the way I discuss above.
JT: Most readers of Dead to Deliverance will be reading from a position of luxury compared to the life Steve has lived. To what extent did you consider this audience when helping Steve to shape his material?
TK: I would say that relatively privileged readers who will pick up and read a death row memoir are prepared already to contemplate experience radically different from their own. This was my operative assumption.
JT: You acknowledge in your foreword that your life is vastly different from Steve’s. Did this ever make you question your own authority to challenge Steve’s writing, to help him strengthen his claims, to push him for deeper insight?
TK: No. If I had worried about identity politics, I might not have been able to act. Before I met Steve but after I had taken an abiding critical interest in the U.S. prison system, I had a couple of purely academic encounters in which my right as white male professor to speak about or for people of color in prison was challenged, both directly and indirectly. What quickly became clear to me, as soon as I began corresponding via classes with both male and female prisoners, including Black, Latino/a, Native American people, and White, as well as poor and middle class people, was that my efforts to both listen to and respectfully represent people in prison—to foster critical dialogue between people in and outside of prison—trumped the finely calibrated academic ethics of identity politics, at least for the people I have worked with. In any case, Steve—through our collaboration—has taught me as much about the world as I have taught him about the world (of writing); I respect his authority, and he respects mine, and we “talk” things through, mostly in letters.
JT: What were the challenges of working on a project like this with a man to whom you have very limited access? How did his incarceration affect the regular working relationship of editor and writer? Steve describes time moving differently for inmates, after all. Were deadlines ever a concern?
TK: Aside from the frustration we both share over the interference of the prison system, which has often been substantial (for example, Steve’s interminable confinement in administrative segregation, where he does not have phone privileges), the struggle has always been for me to keep up with Steve, and my work as a tenured professor has often delayed my responses to Steve’s work and letters. This has been understandably frustrating, even maddening, for him, but we have made it work (and worked it out), as the publication of the book and many articles proves!
JT: What were the challenges of negotiating the prison system itself? What impressions, if any, did you get from guards and wardens and others who are part of the prison system Steve criticizes?
TK: The question of whether Steve’s interminable confinement in administrative segregation, where his phone and other privileges are restricted, has anything to do with his writing remains open. Otherwise, I cannot say that we have had trouble corresponding: the U.S. mail is a beautiful thing. I’ve had only a couple of letters returned over many years, for reasons unclear, and I believe I received everything he has sent me. When we have talked on the phone, before he was interred in administrative segregation in 2005 and when he was out of San Quentin in the summer of 2007, in L.A. for court, we have been mindful of being recorded, but this has not much inhibited our conversation, and the phone connection was never severed.
JT: Did you ever find yourself in a conflict with Steve during this project? Personally or ideologically?
TK: The only personal issue has been my not responding, during busy semesters, in a timely fashion to his letters. He has expressed his frustration to me a couple of times, and I have acknowledged it and apologized for delays that were longer than they needed to be, and we have moved on. As far as ideology is concerned, I offer my reading of this or that claim in this or that text, he responds, and I edit accordingly, in a way that best expresses his intention, not mine.
JT: Jim Stafford at Split Oak Press tells me that, after publishing Dead to Deliverance, several other death row inmates have written in hopes of publishing their stories as well. Would you ever consider another project like this? Why? What would have to be different? How many death row memoirs can readers bear? How different or similar do these stories tend to be?
TK: I believe this is a unique relationship. I will continue to work with Steve indefinitely, as editor and friend, and I will continue to correspond with other prisoners, as I have done all along, but one memoir for one death row prisoner is my limit.
JT: Particularly interesting to me are the small power struggles Steve describes among prisoners and guards. He goes to great lengths to illustrate the power of the prison system—from juvenile detention centers to death row and everything in between—to produce more criminals and prisoners, rather than fewer, saying that once you’re in the system, the system changes you in ways that keep you there. Yet, he also wonders if prison, despite his criticisms, actually did what we tell ourselves it’s supposed to do: provide a horrible environment that may convince a few violent offenders to alter their behavior and mentality. How would you describe Steve’s most current understanding of prison and his relationship to it? How would you describe yours?
TK: Prison is rotten, Steve and I—and millions of others both in prison and outside of prison—would agree. It is part and parcel of a criminal justice system premised on retribution rather than restoration. It is a horrible environment, as you rightly put it, that is perfectly continuous with the horrible social, economic, and/or cultural conditions that most, though not all, criminal offenders hail from and that our society sponsors by funding schools with property taxes, for instance, or denying universal health care to citizens. As I have written elsewhere, it’s hard to imagine a “restorative” criminal justice system taking root in a society deeply divided by class and race, but transformation and redemption, as educators surely know, are more likely under good than under horrible conditions. We can certainly stop violent and other offenders in their tracks without subjecting them to hellish conditions, but we would have to learn to see “them” as “us”—one major aim of my work with Steve—for us to envision and institute restorative criminal justice in this society. I personally feel responsible for our senseless and cruel retributive system—the one that includes capital punishment in its logic—and so I am working, as a teacher, to change it.
JT: How did you change or grow over the course of this project?
TK: In working with Steve for eight years (as of this interview), I have not been able to put the 2.3 million people we hold in our prisons, or their humanity, out of my mind. The project has rattled my complacency.
JT: Obviously, books like this can and do raise awareness of urgent social issues. But so often we read of such deep and complicated ills, lament them, and move on to the next book or essay without actually doing anything, or knowing there’s anything we can do. Is there anything a writer or editor can do to move an audience beyond a fleeting sympathy?
TK: No. But many writers and many editors, persisting over time, can and do change society. Steve’s work and my work are a small part of a much larger social movement that will, I believe, transform this society’s prisons over time.
JT: Do you have any advice or warnings for anyone else considering such a project?
TK: There are many, many people in prison who have shed their criminal skins and welcome connections to people on the outside. As you noted, Jim Stafford has had several inquiries from prison writers about the possibility of Split Oak editing and publishing their work. My advice: connect with writers in prison and help them free their words.
[Dead to Deliverance is published by Split Oak Press. Visit http://splitoakpress.com.]
Jason Tucker teaches writing at Ithaca College and SUNY Cortland. He received an MFA in nonfiction from Ohio State University. His essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Sweet and River Teeth.