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Prisoners of Conscience
by Jon Wesick
I handed the receipt to the clerk at the Copy Mart who returned moments later
with my order. The cardboard box he set on the counter was large enough to hold all two
hundred schedules for the Tippecanoe Poetry Festival. I removed the cover and examined
one of the four-tone sheets. Photos of the four featured poets lined its left margin. I
looked at their faces paying particular attention to the man who like Leon Trotsky wore a
long, square beard that hung to his chest. Unlike Trotsky, however, Ian Chatsworth had a
scar on his left cheek, a scar delivered by the machete of one of Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-
The festival had been going on for twelve years. In addition to featuring the most
promising children in our Poets in the Schools program, we invited well known poets
from all over the nation to read. In the past we’d hosted the likes of Jane Hirschfield,
W.S. Merwyn, Sandra Cisneros, and Billy Collins. Chatsworth came to our attention
when we saw news footage of secret police tossing his entire body of work into a giant
bonfire. We decided right then to show solidarity with our brother writer by inviting him
to our festival. He was our first poet from. The cost of flying him from his exile in
Capetown meant the other featured poets would have to be locals. Even though none of
us on the organizing committee had read any of Chatsworth’s poems, it was worth the
sacrifice to hear from a man who’d stood up to Zimbabwe’s dictator and spent three years
in prison as a result.
I paid for the schedules, dashed outside to my 1982 Volvo, and drove to the
Florence Henderson Elementary School. I called my car the water buffalo because it kept
going no matter how much I abused it (a good quality for a poor poet teacher’s vehicle). I
had one class to teach before delivering the schedules to the community college and
picking up Chatsworth at the airport. After retrieved a grocery bag of photos from the
trunk, I hurried to Trish Anderson’s third-grade class and arrived few minutes before
“All right people, put your crayons away. It’s time for poetry.” Ms. Anderson
looked at me. “What do you have for us today, Mr. Wilson?”
“I’m going to pass out some pictures.” I handed some Diane Arbus portraits of
circus performers to a boy in the front row. “Choose one, imagine you are that person,
and write about what you’re doing right now.” Children rushed to the front. “Remember
to follow Wilson’s Rules of Writing. What are they?”
“Show don’t tell and don’t use clichés,” the children chanted.
“And what does show don’t tell mean?”
A chunky Latina girl with shiny hair and eyes raised her hand.
“It means to use sights, sounds, smells, and tastes to get your message across.”
If I ever had doubts about my occupation, all I had to do was look at a student like
Lupita. English was her second language and although she struggled with it, she threw
lightning when she read her poetry. It was no surprise to me that her poem won a prize in
the Tippecanoe Poetry Festival’s contest.
I must admit I was nervous waiting outside the security gate at the airport. I’d
chauffeured famous poets before and was not above getting into a few scuffles to defend
the word but I’d always had allies. What could I say to a man who’d put his life on the
line for his art? The first passengers came off the plane led by a girl with a pierced
eyebrow and a businessman having a loud conversation with his cell phone.
How could I talk to Chatsworth? I was a hypocrite, championing free expression
when I’d never have to face jail and torture for doing so. The sight of the great man’s
bearded face and the scar that crawled like a purple millipede on his skin startled me out
of my musings. He was bigger than I’d expected, a huge man who walked like a giant
redwood with a limp, no doubt the result of a prison beating. He carried a battered
steamer trunk that was almost as big as he was. I couldn’t imagine how he took it on
board as a carry-on. In a rush to get to their insignificant lives, the other passengers
jostled past him as if he were a semi hauling an oversize load on the freeway. What did
they know about courage?
“Mr. Chatsworth!” I waved my arm like a semaphore. “It’s an honor to meet you,
sir. I’m Dell Wilson.” I extended my hand.
They must have different customs in Africa, because instead of shaking my hand
Chatsworth gave me his luggage and I nearly tipped over as if I’d been handed an engine
“Is there anything I can do to make your stay more pleasant?” I grunted.
“Maybe you could sell some of my books at tomorrow’s reading.” His words
flitted and juked like butterflies to the rhythm of his Southern African accent. “Set up
some kind of table or something.”
His suitcase wouldn’t fit in my car’s trunk. Leaving Chatsworth behind I returned
to the terminal and scrounged up some twine to tie the trunk lid closed. Chatsworth kept
quiet during the drive to his hotel. Only when I pulled to a stop in front of the lobby, did
he finally speak.
“There is maybe one other thing. I want to teach a writing class on Sunday. Do
you think the college will have some kind of room available?”
In fact Jane Bryant had brought up this possibility at the planning committee but I
had a better idea.
“Why not hold the class at my place? The living room’s quite comfortable and I’ll
even make some of my Southwestern chili.”
“Excellent!” Chatsworth clapped me on the shoulder. “And since you are my host,
I’ll charge you half price for my class. For you it will only be $200.”
I delivered Chatsworth to the festival at 9:30 AM and set up a table in the lobby
of the Clark Auditorium to sell the side-stapled pamphlets he’d entrusted to me like 22-
karat gold American Eagles. I don’t know what irked me more, missing the other poets’
readings or Chatsworth charging $25 for the things. But I suppose if I’d paid for my
words with blood, they’d be precious to me too. Because the closed auditorium doors
muffled the voices inside, there was little for me to do but read and comment on my
students’ written poems.
Every now and then I poked my head into the auditorium. I managed to hear the
elementary school award winners. After a reading by the second place winner, a boy who
imagined his pen was a radio-controlled airplane while in math class, Roscoe Gary
introduced Lupita. The audience clapped as she strode to the stage leaving her parents
and sisters seated on folding chairs. Instead of her customary sweatshirt, she wore a frilly,
white dress. It seemed a little old-fashioned but it looked good on her. After Roscoe
lowered the microphone, Lupita began to read.
“If Dogs Wrote Poetry
My beagle barks in rhymes.
The neighbors complain
‘You dog’s poems kept us up all night.’
I try to make her easier to listen to
explaining about dangling participles
but she looks at me with crossed eyes
like when she’s wrapped her leash around a tree.
My beagle keeps barking poems
about what dogs care about
smelling each other’s butts,
drinking from the toilet,
the meaning of love.”
Lupita beamed in the applause that wasn’t nearly enthusiastic enough. I gave her a
big thumbs-up and returned to selling books in the lobby. By now more attendees were
straggling in and despite the price Chatsworth’s booklet sold well. In fact, I was so busy
that I didn’t get lunch.
More and more people arrived. By the time of Chatsworth’s reading, most of the
chairs were taken. I couldn’t miss the main event, so I entered the auditorium and stood
by the door with a group of students.
Of course, you can never hear from a featured reader without sitting through a
long-winded introduction. Chatsworth’s was delivered by Jane Bryant who pulled at the
half-moon reading glasses hanging from her neck by a chain, perched them on her nose,
and read the bio on the schedule verbatim. After she thanked the sponsors, Chatsworth
hobbled onto the stage and fumbled with the telescoping microphone stand for so long
that Roscoe Gary had to help.
“Can you hear me?” Chatsworth thumped the microphone. “I never was any good
with these bloody things.”
The audience laughed.
“My first poem is about the horrors of Zimbabwe’s dictatorship and how it’s
ruining the economy. I talk about all those who end up in jail and express the hope that
the people will rise up in revolution
“In a land where the leader practices ruthless oppression
people are sad and the economy is in a serious recession.
Those who complain by practicing their freedom of speech
are put in jail and from their families kept out of reach.
All the while Robert Mugabe acts real corrupt and gets lots of money.
You may not think about it much but if you lived there it wouldn’t be funny.
Let’s hope there’ll be a revolution and the dictator will be overthrown.
Then freedom will ring out throughout the land and people will no longer groan.”
Shock paralyzed me as if I’d been hit by a curarin-tipped dart fired from the
blowgun of irony. It had to be some kind of joke.
“I read about this play called the Vagina Monologs and thought I’d compose a
response from the man’s point of view. It’s written in Shona so if you don’t understand
it, just listen to the beauty of the sounds.” Chatsworth read in a language no one
understood for two minutes before translating.
“O manly cock
who swings like the clapper of a bell between my legs when I walk
and filled my shorts with lots of jism
during the years I spent in prison…”
Except for some tepid applause the audience was silent. A student standing by me
shook his head and left. I scanned the audience. Roscoe bent in his chair so his cornrows
hung forward and hid his eyes. From the way his body was shaking I assumed he was
“So you see you can write a poem about anything.” Chatsworth looked out at the
sea of stunned faces. Oblivious to the crowd’s misery, he remained on stage like a juicy
zit on a teenager’s chin. “Did you like the line ‘swings like a clapper?’ See, swings
rhymes with rings and helps the line sink in. It’s a technique we poets use.”
I hadn’t been to such a lousy performance since Roscoe read the entire intro to
DoD Instruction 5000.2 to punish the guys at the Hill o’ Beans Coffee House from
bringing such boring crap to the open mike. This time I had to suffer through each poem
twice, once in English and again in Shona. It couldn’t get worse.
“Now it’s time for some audience participation.” Chatsworth’s lead-colored eyes
focused on me. “Those of you, who bought my book, pick out a poem you like, come up
on stage, and read it. Why don’t you start us off, Dell?”
“I… I couldn’t.”
“Come on, lad. Don’t be shy.”
All the attendees twisted in their chairs to face me. I wanted to metamorphisize
into a cockroach and scuttle away but Franz Kafka is never there when you need him. If
only I’d said his book didn’t contain any poems that I liked, it would have prevented a lot
of brutality. But my timidity won out.
“No one can read your poems like you, Ian.”
Chatsworth went on reading. Of course, he overran his time limit by half an hour.
If I’d had an ice pick, I would have ruptured my eardrums. Instead all I could do was
endure. The festival wasn’t a total loss. At lease, Lupita had done well. Afterwards I
approached her family to congratulate them but Chatsworth got there first.
“That was a very good poem you read, young lady.” He eyed her as if she were a
hunk of veal. “Of course, there are some problems with it. Nothing we can’t fix in
tomorrow’s workshop, though.”
Shaking my head too slightly for Chatsworth to notice, I tried to catch Mrs.
Ramirez’s eye but she didn’t see me. Lupita’s 5’2” father’s lips began to curl into a no
but stopped when he saw his wife give him that look. The look said they’d eat grass to
give their kids an opportunity they didn’t have.
“Okay.” Mr. Ramirez gave his best chlorophyll-stained smile.
“Excellent!” Chatsworth clapped Mr. Ramirez on the shoulder. “Come on, Dell.
Let’s get some supper.”
“Just a minute.” I fought my way through the crowd to the front row.
Unknown to him I had declared war. Bilking the festival out of $10,000 and
boring the audience into a stupor was one thing. Messing up my kids was another. Before
I was through with him, Ian Chatsworth was going to wish he was back in Mugabe’s
“Roscoe!” I dragged the local poet away an eighteen-year-old, blonde admirer.
“We need to get the boys together. Tonight!”
“The usual place. In about an hour.”
I took Chatsworth to a biker bar, the Iron Horse, for dinner. If the food didn’t kill
him, I hoped one of the patrons would. I wasn’t so lucky, so after plying him with drinks
I drove him back toward campus. When I got to the River Road intersection, I turned
away from town. Chatsworth was too absorbed singing his poem to notice.
“Manly cock swings like a clapper when I walk.” The alcohol made him sound
like Popeye breathing helium. “Hey Dell, what do you think works better swings like a
clapper or sways like a clapper?”
I shrugged. We drove past car lots and the old Delco plant. Soon there were no
street lights only trees, darkness, and malice.
“Tubular meat, wonderful to eat. Monstrous dick. Give it a lick. Dell, this isn’t the
way to the hotel.”
“It’s a shortcut.” My voice was blunt as head-on collision.
We passed the wrecked Camaro that the Johnson boy had overturned months ago
after a night of drinking.
“Where are you taking me? I demand you stop the car this instant!” Chatsworth
reached for the door handle.
I triggered the switch that shot a titanium deadbolt into place locking him in. At
the same time a screen of steel mesh slid into place to separate me from any punches or
chokes my passenger might attempt.
“Look, if it’s about the workshop.” Chatsworth pleaded with his eyes. “I’ll let you
I drove on keeping a grim silence no matter how Chatsworth whimpered and
cried. There’s a time for mercy and a time for justice. We’d been more than fair and he’d
taken advantage. At the crooked speed-limit sign I turned onto a dirt road and bounced
over ruts until we arrived at a clearing lit by a huge bonfire. A police car and pickup truck
were already there. Sheriff Jackson came to my window as soon as I stopped.
“This the culprit?” He shined a flashlight in Chatsworth’s eyes. “You’ve
committed a crime against the English language, son. In this county we take that very
seriously.” Sheriff Jackson was the only man I knew who could call someone, thirty years
his senior son, with authority. “Out of the car!”
I released the lock and Sheriff Jackson hauled Chatsworth out with more force
than necessary. Then again, ever since the sheriff read “Howl” on PBS as part of Robert
Pinsky’s favorite poem project, he’d been a little overprotective. Once Sheriff Jackson
had Chatsworth handcuffed, he sat him by the bonfire.
“While we’re waiting for the others to arrive, please examine these and prepare
your comments.” I passed around some of Chatsworth’s booklets.
“My books!” Chatsworth tried to stand.
I held up my index finger. “At a read and critique it’s important for the author to
remain silent until he’s heard all the comments.”
Sheriff Jackson kicked Chatsworth’s feet out from under him and gagged the man
with a handkerchief and some sturdy, nylon rope. I could feel the others approach before
I could hear them. Bass notes from the car’s massive stereo shook the earth like the
footsteps of some vengeful, giant that had escaped from hell. Soon the sound was loud
enough that the bonfire’s flames vibrated with to the hip-hop beat.
“Ah, that would be the rest of our party.”
A hearse with tinted windows stopped next to the pickup truck. The driver, a
muscular black man with a shaved head, got out along with the others. Even at night I’d
never seen Isaiah Washington without his wraparound sunglasses.
“Jane, Roscoe, Isaiah.” I nodded to my colleagues after they got out of the hearse.
“Guess we’re ready to begin.” I pointed to a man dangling his legs over the gate of the
pickup truck. “Why don’t you start, Murtry?”
“I may be just a shit kicker but I think these poems are damn awful.” Murtry
circled the fire, took off his cowboy hat, and squatted so he was eye to eye with
Chatsworth. “Look at this here.” He pointed at the booklet. “’The sky is blue. The sea is
too.’ Why are you wasting our time telling us something we already know?”
“There’s no humor, no passion, no conflict.” Roscoe waved his hands as he
spoke. “No insight. Nothing original.”
“No imagery,” I added. “It’s a kind of pathology I like to call the rhyming essay.”
“Hell,” Murtry said. “Back in Texas we call it doggerel.”
“There was a bit of the forbidden in his cock poem.” Sheriff Jackson stroked his
chin. “Properly handled it might generate some interest.”
“But for what purpose?” Jane asked. “He never uses it to go deeper and explore
emotions. I’ve read more sensitive stuff on a bathroom wall.”
After we grilled Chatsworth for an hour, the sheriff removed the gag.
“You have your opinions and I have mine.” Chatsworth squared his shoulders in
defiance. “What makes you qualified to judge my poems, anyway?”
Clearly we weren’t getting through to him. More drastic measures were called
“Isaiah,” I nodded to the hearse’s driver. “The tape!”
“It’s the only way, Roscoe.”
At the sight of Isaiah removing the cassette from his lapel pocket all of us, except
for Chatsworth, donned noise-cancelling earphones. These were not the ordinary hearing
protection, available to the public, but advanced prototypes developed by DARPA to
protect the ears of soldiers who happen to be next to a detonating nuclear device.
Isaiah inserted the tape into the hearse’s stereo and cranked up the volume. The
5000 Watt, liquid-cooled amplifier fed the recording of William Shatner reading the
works of the infamous Cheese Poet, James McIntyre, into two speakers, each the size of
a casket. Not only did our earphones filter out the recording but they also blocked the
sound of Chatsworth’s screams. Chipmunks, squirrels, and rabbits threw themselves into
the fire rather than listening to that dreadful verse. I looked at my watch. Chatsworth had
made a hundred spectators miserable for over an hour. Strict retribution would require
him to listen for almost a week but I didn’t have that long. I let him suffer only for the
amount of time it takes rennet to curdle milk into a quivering mass of fresh Mozzarella
before signaling Isaiah to turn the stereo off.
“You owe somebody an apology.” I dialed Lupita’s phone number and handed
my cell phone to Chatsworth. “Her name is Lupita and she’s a hundred times the poet
you’ll ever be.”
After Chatsworth told my student there was really nothing wrong with her poem,
Sheriff Jackson removed the handcuffs.
“You want me to dust him?” Isaiah removed a 9-mm Glock from the holster at his
“No, he’s suffered enough.”
“Hey, asshole.” Sheriff Jackson grabbed Chatsworth’s hair and jerked his head
back. “He may think you’ve suffered enough but I don’t. If I ever catch you in this
county again, tonight’s gonna seem like kindergarten.”
We left Chatsworth and his books by the fire. I heard he gave up poetry and took
a job writing instruction manuals for a Japanese consumer electronics firm. If you ever
come to my town, go to the festival or stop by the Hill o’ Beans open mike. But if you’re
going to read poetry, do some editing first. Make an effort. We’ve got a nice literary
community here and we plan to keep it that way.
Jon Wesick is a regional editor of the San Diego Poetry Annual. He’s published hundreds of poems and stories in journals such as the Atlanta Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Metal Scratches, Pearl, Slipstream, Space and Time, Tales of the Talisman, and Zahir. The editors of Knot Magazine nominated his story “The Visitor” for a Pushcart Prize. His poem “Meditation Instruction” won the Editor’s Choice Award in the 2016 Spirit First Contest. Another poem “Bread and Circuses” won second place in the 2007 African American Writers and Artists Contest. “Richard Feynman’s Commute” shared third place in the 2017 Rhysling Award’s short poem category. Jon is the author of the poetry collection Words of Power, Dances of Freedom as well as several novels and most recently the short-story collection The Alchemist’s Grandson Changes His Name.http://jonwesick.com