Curtis Dawkins often talks about how reading and writing saved his life. Given how that life will be spent behind bars in Michigan, I can believe it. Curt is by no means an innocent man. But you can see a searching life inside his writing, and a reason to live despite it all.
I visited Curt the week before I moved from the Midwest. The one thing I remember most about his prison is the sheer force that permeates everything. No door ever shuts; it slams. Even the vending machines in the visiting room seemed loaded and ready to snap back on my hand. We sat on plastic chairs and drank Cokes and ate pork rinds and talked.
This interview began during that meeting, and ended by talking to Curt on the phone, fighting through an awful connection fraught with echo and delay and ultimately a limited amount of time he could spare before returning to his life at the Michigan Reformatory.
JH: Usually location isn’t too terribly important to an interview, but in this case, and in regards to your work, it’s everything. Can you let us know a bit about where you are and how you got there?
CD: Of course, yeah. Prison colors everything, for everyone involved. But I want to say this first, as a sort of caveat: Whenever I speak about what happened to get me sent to prison, I’m always afraid that the ten years since that night will come across as sounding uncaring, unsympathetic about the man I killed, his family, my partner Kim and my three kids, my family—everyone traumatized by that night. It’s still painful, but I’ve had many years to talk about it, almost clinically, as facts. It was a horrible ordeal and I still struggle with guilt and sorrow. There’s often so much sadness and grief in my heart it feels like it might explode. But you learn within 24 hours of hearing that door slam shut, either you will die regretting the past, or you’ll learn to live in the present.
So presently I’m at the Michigan Reformatory (MR), which is one of three or four prisons in the Ionia, Michigan area. I’m in a little, stuffy two-phone room on the 4th floor in the Level 2 side of I-Block, which doesn’t mean a thing to those who don’t have a loved one in prison, but level 2 is supposed to be a step up from level 4—and it is to a certain degree, depending on where you’re locked up. I’ve been at MR for 3 ½ years, before that I was at Brooks Correctional in Muskegon. I am about 10 years into a life without the possibility of parole sentence for a felony murder jury conviction. That’s how I got to where I am, but how I got to do this interview is a much longer story that begins with a poem.
JH: What poem?
CD: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”—T.S. Eliot. I read it when I was a student, and it stuck with me after two years of community college, when I was just sort of floating around. After the family meat packing company burned down, I decided that I might like to try writing because of that feeling of kinship I felt with Prufrock; I identified with how he felt weird in social situations. And the one line: “till human voices wake us and we drown.” I mean, that’s amazing. That sounds as fresh today as it did nearly 100 years ago. I wanted to do that. I wanted to try and make people feel like I felt in that class, experiencing that poem.
So I started writing stories and poems, and I won an Illinois Arts Council Award with a story I wrote as an undergraduate. That story eventually got me into the MFA programs at Iowa, Emerson, and Western Michigan. I went to Western because I admired the faculty.
JH: Do you remember the story?
CD: Oh, yeah. It was called “Mother,” about a son and his single mother eating dinner near the pool at a Holiday Inn. On the trip home they come across an overturned car with a wedding dress covering the back window.
It was a pared down version of a 30-page mess I brought to workshop, and I wrote it after class that afternoon once I learned there was ten times too much stuff going on. So I guess that was the beginning of trouble for me—I thought all of the stories were going to come that easy. It got published in a small journal and it was the best thing and the worst thing, y’know? David Foster Wallace said that the worst thing that can happen to a writer is publication before the age of 40. He would know. I didn’t have success nearly as close to his, and that damn near killed me.
JH: How did it almost kill you?
CD: Well the stories definitely never came that easy ever again. Neither did publication. Years passed before I ever had anything published. I guess it was depressing, but it’s weird—the bad times never led me into any type of trouble. I was sober when I went to college the second time, up until I got some success under my belt and started drinking again—a recurring theme in my life from a pretty early age.
JH: What about success got you drinking again?
CD: It’s a pretty standard truth in addiction that success is more dangerous to sobriety than failure. I think that’s because the addict thinks, “Wow, things are going good. I can drink and use drugs now.” That, and anytime I felt good I always thought, “I can feel even better if I drink this whiskey.” And there’s an element of wanting to celebrate good fortune. We’re wired that way. Cavemen probably ate themselves sick in celebration after they killed a big goat or woolly mammoth or whatever.
JH: And from an early age?
CD: The first time I had unlimited access to alcohol, something just clicked. That idea of something “clicking” is pretty common among addicts. I suddenly felt like I belonged. The unlimited access was a keg of beer for all of the employees of our family’s grocery store/meatpacking company after we won Best Summer Sausage in the nation at the American Association of Meat Processors’ convention. I set up camp around the keg and snuck drinks all night, then was sick as hell the next day.
JH: I notice we keep coming back to meatpacking.
CD: It was a big part of my life for a long time, being the family business. Meatpacking is actually a very complex and rich subject—the smells of spices, hickory smoke and freshly ground meat—the art and science of making those products is pretty remarkable. But all these companies that make products from animals: Farmland, Smithfield, Tyson, etc., they all use meat casings, which I eventually started selling to mid-sized companies in Chicago and the East Coast. This was after I got an MFA and pretty much “retired” from writing. I was tired of reading and writing and rejection slips. So I got into sales—not exactly the antidote for rejection. I started reading and writing again only after I ended up in prison. I was really fortunate to have that love to fall back on. Reading and writing almost certainly saved my life. I had to get out of my head, otherwise I was going to kill myself.
JH: I would imagine that moment, when the door slams like you said, and you’re there facing a future that seems unbearable—it must change how you think about life, what you can make of it, or how you can even endure it, that sheer amount of time.
CD: Prison is basically nothing but time. I mean, that’s why they call it “doing time.” This probably goes without saying, but when a person unaccustomed to being locked up gets locked up, survival, in the beginning, is all you can do. And this has nothing to do with the danger around you—it’s your mind. I thank God I almost instinctively began thinking of a story to write. Within a few hours of going to quarantine—that’s where you’re sent after conviction and sentencing—I began thinking of the first line to a story: “Sicilian Joe was a saucier until a Cadillac hit him doing sixty and knocked the recipes out of his head.” I had to write it down so it would go away. But after I wrote that down, other parts came up, and for that time, yeah, I wasn’t thinking about my new life.
JH: Is that when the book started?
CD: Pretty much. Every story in the collection has some part that originated from something I heard or saw in jail or prison. Sicilian Joe was a man I knew in the Kalamazoo County Jail. I didn’t write at all in jail though—that was the worst, even worse than it is here—but I remember a lot of it, and I surprisingly found a lot to work with.
But it happens all the time. I mean, even right now the following drama is taking place in the cells around mine: A kid went home today after six or seven years of incarceration. He promised his TV to a friend, but someone somewhere else promised the TV to a guy who put up some money. Now he wants his TV. Someone is greedy and is trying to pull the old “okey-doke.” Somebody could end up hurt. Who knows what’s going to happen? People get stabbed over much less than a used TV.
So I’ll file that mini-drama away and it might come up someday when I’m writing something. It’s real. It’s the lives of the people in here, and I don’t know—I guess I’ve always related more to people who have known this kind of trouble, who’ve up and done some stupid things, much more so than any famous athlete or movie star—someone held up as some paragon of success.
JH: Why is that, do you think?
CD: It’s like leering at disaster. It’s like watching Kennedy get shot even after seeing it probably a thousand times. The appeal of that is a mystery, but it’s completely human nature. I was just always interested in people like prisoners, people who could live through an experience like this. I would much rather read about why Andy, down the hall in cell 32, who just told me this, married his wife 6 times—once in a Wal-Mart—for the fun of it. Why would a guy do that? It’s absurd, but fascinating to me.
JH: I know instances like that figure heavily into your work, and it’s often made me wonder about your process. Normally I could care less about a writer’s method, but in your case I’m genuinely interested—obviously you don’t have computers in there.
CD: Nope, no computers. We have email but not real-world email; it’s a kiosk thing we get access to every so often. But I was lucky that when I first came to prison we could buy typewriters with memory—about 80 pages worth—which helps a lot for revision. But those typewriters can no longer be ordered for some ridiculous reason, which sure as hell makes it harder for the men doing legal work in here.
JH: What about physically—when and where do you get a moments peace? Are people over your shoulder, asking what you’re doing? Do you take notes throughout the day?
CD: I get my moments of peace at night, mostly. After about 10 p.m. prisons are usually very quiet. My schedule now is much like it was in graduate school. I have a little book light that I use every night, generally going to sleep at about three in the morning.
During the day, when I’m typing whatever, guys often ask what I’m always writing, and I have learned to say, “Letters.” It saves tons of time to just say that, and in a way, it’s true.
JH: What about outside of writing, just your everyday life? I imagine the close proximity amplifies everything in there—principles, values, or the lack thereof. Everyone and everything condensed, every facet of life, that is.
CD: I’ve said this before: prison is an Ivy League of human interaction. It’s an education you cannot get anywhere else on earth. If you can get along with these men, you can get along with anyone.
Most of the time they just don’t know how to trust. They expect to be screwed and ripped-off and beat up. That’s all they know, so with that as a background, niceness and respect are seen as shortcomings. In that sense, prison is a rough, mean place.
JH: How much have you learned in there? You must have a unique perspective on the nature of men. I know you see the worst of it, but does anything good ever come? Any virtue in there?
CD: It’s easy to generalize and say the men here are representative of the uneducated, no-good, downright evil male. But of course it isn’t that simple. Some of these guys are funny and very kind. Listen to any of them talk on the phone to their loved ones: they love their kids and family deeply, are capable of all manner of good and bad things. They are intelligent in ways that wouldn’t show up on the SAT, and most grew up in conditions of poverty and abuse that are hard to fathom. Most of them are in here for too long, and when they get out all they’ve learned is how to live in a cage. But we’re all the same, people, I mean. It’s good to realize that. Inmates are people, not villians. If there’s one thing I hope my work will do, it’s make it known that what is seen of inmates in the media, and what’s portrayed in movies and TV, it’s only the surface—if not outright bullshit.
Hopefully they’ll come across as real people, not just the same clichéd approximations of prisoners. That’s my goal, at least—to tell the stories first of all, and second, open eyes to the fact that the 2+ million people behind bars are people, not monsters.
When someone realizes how easy it is to get here—and it is, really, a good percentage of inmates went out for a night of fun, things happened, and here they are—they can have a little more compassion for the ones who are here, because if it can happen to you, or someone you love, you can see the point of showing mercy. Otherwise you can’t.
But first come the stories. That’s always first, though it took me a long time and many years to really realize that.
JH: “First come the stories”—what do you mean by that?
CD: I just don’t think it makes for good art to start out with a lesson in mind. You can learn things from fiction, sure, but that’s a by-product. Any discerning reader can spot those stories with a “purpose,” like a fake Rolex. Just tell what happened, a teacher used to say to me. That’s hard enough. It’s all I can do, anyway.