Interview: Clifford Barnes
QUESTION: What was the spark that made you begin writing in prison? When did it occur?
CLIFFORD BARNES:I didn’t begin writing in prison. I wrote as a youngster, not just for school crap, but for myself. Both my brother and I would write poetry and stories and show them to each other. My brother was quite young, eight or nine, and I was then about thirteen or fourteen. I don’t know why we did it because there was never much encouragement that I remember. Of course, we love hip hop music. My brother used to rap with a lot of the other guys at school. I never did, but somehow I think somehow hip hop music—not so much the culture itself—influenced us to write. As we got older we began to write music, but we still wrote some too. When I ventured off into my nomadic/outlaw ethos upon leaving home completely, I still wrote, but never in a disciplined way.
When I came down in 1995, I wrote then, much like in my previous manner. I took up, however, drawing in here early on. I was more disciplined at that. A close associate of mine, older than me but not old by any means—probably in his early thirties—impressed on me the notion of bringing meaning to my life and once finding it—whatever it was—to pursue it. I had from my life’s experiences with music and literature and the use of psychedelic chemicals kind of realized that I was “supposed” to be pursuing art or an artistic life, but back then, I didn’t really understand at seventeen or eighteen how to even begin going about such a lofty thing. It was from this close associate that I realized that I must write, every day, no matter what.
I did, I have . . . almost. What’s funny, is when I had this realization I quit working my prison job. In Texas, the prison system has many corollaries with the old plantation/chattel slavery system. They don’t pay us to work, and usually when you “lay it down” on them, they react harshly. I got lucky. They stuck me off in an administrative corner, and I set off writing. Of course, I’ve had to work again since then.
Q: Can you say what authors influenced you? Do you gain benefit from studying their work, or do you feel that your influences come from a different place?
BARNES: I’d be here a long time trying to talk about all the authors that influenced me. The first three authors or groups of writers that heavily influenced me early on, before I even reached prison, were: 1. Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X; 2. The New England Transcendentalists, particularly Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman; 3. The Beat Writers, particularly Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and Kerouac.
The first I read when I was about fifteen or sixteen. We loved Public Enemy, and they had kind of begun this re-examination of Malcolm in the early nineties. The strong implication in the narrative—the one I think Spike Lee missed—is how Malcolm’s life in the streets and his prison experience formed much of who he was. Later Black thinkers like George Jackson and the Panthers did not miss that implication. Nor did I. When I finally came down, it was the memory of Malcolm’s experiences and struggles on the street and in prison that told me I should be “doing something” in here. Even though I’m white, I always felt the spirit of Malcolm pushing me toward writing. Growing up mainly around Blacks, I never saw this as anomalous, though I’ve found in recent years that whites view this part of me as funny. It just always seemed natural to me. Malcolm remains to this day one of my intellectual parents.
I found Thoreau a little before Alex Haley’s book. Of course, reading him lead me in later years into Emerson and Whitman. I point the blame of my willingness to give myself over to this non-conformist, nomadic/outlaw ethos on them. The Beat writers, however, greatly influenced my criminal leanings as well. But, because of these writers, I never saw this rebellious and criminal lifestyle as antithetical to my nascent dreams of art. I figured it must be a part of it. I still think I’m right, but perhaps I was a bit naïve and over-ambitious in that regard.
But I’m constantly discovering new writers that shake my neat little artistic schemas. I can’t forget writers like Etheridge Knight, William S. Burroughs, Franz Kafka, David Foster Wallace, Ron Silliman, Sherman Alexie, Ishmael Reed. I could go on for pages probably.
With that said, I also think that hip hop music and underground strains of rock ’n’ roll have heavily influenced how I understand literature. My first novel, I think, cannot be separated from the influence of hip hop and rock ’n’ roll.
Q: What have you learned from writing, and do you feel that writing has become a permanent and necessary feature in your life?
BARNES: Before I started writing, I could have never articulated things the way I do now. I really feel like I understand myself better and that these rebellious goals I have can be achieved through ways that aren’t as dangerous as I once naïvely attempted. Writing gives me a way to not only lodge all my hatred at the small-mindedness and stupidity of society, but it has allowed me to see new options and imagine ways of doing things I don’t think anything else would have nurtured in me. Writing is really a selfish thing for me. I enjoy it immensely, and I don’t really care if you do or not.
Writing is all I have. I mean, I used to get up in the morning and be on automatic. I’d get blowed, hang out, hit a lick if I needed the scrutch, maybe I’d read, write, or work on some music, but I didn’t really know why except from all this music and reading there was this vague sense that I was “supposed” to be doing it. When I started writing, it was like I could start to put all the pieces of my life into some semblance of meaning. The more I write now, the more I see that I have control to a certain degree, that not only can I make sense of the world, but I can make my sense of the world. All these other writers I read growing up and since I’ve been down here had their sense of the world, and it helped me in that I saw my sense had some kinship with their sense. They saw that society was a bloated, self-righteous bastard, that most people seemed uncaring about that, that we are all trapped and alone inside ourselves with no exit or furlough. They let me know that what I sensed wasn’t wrong, that I might be the only one who felt that way, but they had felt that way once upon a time. As I get older, read more, experience more, and write more, I see that they push me to not mimic their sense, but to find my own sense of the world, yet give it voice.
I suppose the sound and fury of life upon release could initially distract me, but I can’t see how I could live for very long without writing. My biggest fear is that one day I’ll wake up and I won’t have anything to say, that nothing all those writers and musicians told me means anything to me anymore. That seems like death to me. It’s the only way I can describe what feature writing has taken in my life.
Q: Describe your process of writing in prison. What philosophies and thoughts help sustain your drive to write? Are you able to share your work with anyone? What are the most challenging aspects of creating in prison?
BARNES: Writing in Texas prison is a criminal act. Criminal in that the way the rules are written here, they could throw us in solitary if they take offense to something we publish. Criminal in that they sell us defective pens, over-priced paper, typewriters with no ribbons. To even have the bare minimum to write means you have to be able to navigate the jungles of prison’s underground economy to get these “contraband” goods like pens that write past one page and something you can use to correct your typos.
I always am reading something. Usually it affects what I am working on in some way. When I discovered existentialism years ago it figured in much of what I write, but so have the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, post-structuralists, neo-pragmatists, post-colonial thought, feminism . . . I grab ideas from everywhere to sustain my drive to write.
Etheridge Knight made the observation that
It is hard
To make a poem in prison.
The air lends itself not
to the singer.
Soft words are rare and drunk drunk
Against the clang of keys.
It would seem like the opposite would be true because most people assume we have oodles of free time. I suppose we do have more leisure time than average, but it is hard to write in here. If the supplies are a preliminary indication, the structure of prison makes writing hard. One needs solitude, or at least peace to compose your thoughts. You must, if you write in here, learn to work in the eye of a hurricane. The very culture of prison itself makes the delicate things one might discover about him- or herself dangerous. We all cry in here, but you have to hide under the sheet when you do it. Writing invites those things that might make you cry when there is no sheet to hide under.
Q: Do you have access to a library? What books are there?
BARNES: Books are the hardest part sometimes. The library is no more than a glorified book barn. What we get after the administrators censor everything are those things most nobody on the outside cares to read, which sometimes can be good; often it is not.
What I’d give to get my hands on literary journals and good contemporary literature. What we have is mainly mass market fiction.
Q: Are you able to read and study in prison, or are there major obstacles preventing this?
BARNES: Yes, I do read and study quite a bit. Texas does have an amazing post-secondary education program in-house. The unit I’m on currently has an associate’s degree program up to the master’s degree. I should have an M.A. in Literature from The University of Houston-Clear Lake in a couple of months.
Q: Do you believe there is a certain type of responsibility for writers who have some connection with incarceration? Do you have themes that you return to?
BARNES: There was a big push in the twentieth century to educate all types of people, particularly those from less advantageous backgrounds. Now the English language is teeming with wonderful and interesting voices that one hundred years ago didn’t exist. The one section left out of this push was the prisoner. Sure, many quite famous writers throughout history have been down, but the voice, the perspective of this segment of the population got left behind. For what reason I won’t say, but part of my impetus for writing has always been to present the voice of the brother or sister on the block or in the cell block. I do not know if I am at all voicing the concerns of every prisoner, but being a prisoner, I am voicing my perspective. Writers like Knight are rare. Sure the literary outlaws like Burroughs and Mailer exist, but Knight’s work seems special to me in that his cry as a thug and a convict always figure into his voice. Ol’ Etheridge remains one of my biggest reminders of my responsibility to not forget where I come from or to forget this city beneath the sea.