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Judith Tannenbaum
Still from the book trailer for "The Book of Judith" (New Village Press)

Judith Tannenbaum spent her life as an educator, poet, writer and speaker. She shared and taught poetry in schools and community centers, as well as prisons and juvenile detention facilities. For many decades, she taught poetry in San Quentin State Prison, outside San Francisco.

The Book of Judith: Opening Hearts Through Poetry,” a compilation of essays, illustrations, poetry and prose from 33 contributors, is a tribute to Tannenbaum, who died in 2019. Published in 2022, the collection shows the human capacity for love and compassion in even the most restrictive of environments.

In her essay “Human Beings Together,” concerning her work in prison, Tannenbaum wrote:

Change isn’t the point. … I was a person sharing with other people. To intend to change someone requires an assumption that you know more than he does. I knew more about poetry than most of my students, and they knew more about living with regret. We all know something about keeping one’s spirit alive in the midst of darkness. We each had strengths and weaknesses, we each had done good things and bad things. We were human beings, and for a few hours each week, we were human beings together.

“The Book of Judith” showcases Tannenbaum’s impact on people of all stripes throughout her life working with incarcerated and marginalized students. Jim Carlson, who worked closely with Tannenbaum and contributed several illustrations to the book, described Tannenbaum as providing “an influx of humanity at every level of an institution designed to dehumanize all its members — staff and inmates alike.”

The book is full of messages about the profound impact one can have sharing experiences through the arts. Tannenbaum reminded people to remember the humanity in everyone, no matter their status or condition. That sentiment animates this collection. J. Ruth Gendler, an author and longtime art and writing teacher, wrote, “May the light she brought to us continue to live within us and shine out from us.”

Three editors helped bring the book together: Sara Press, Tannenbaum’s daughter; the incarcerated poet Spoon Jackson, Tannenbaum’s friend of 20 years after meeting at San Quentin during her poetry class; and Mark Foss, a filmmaker who worked with and befriended Jackson during the filming of a documentary about Jackson.

The book is divided into four sections and includes illustrations drawn in pencil by Carlson, a longtime collaborator with Tannenbaum.

The first section, “Unfinished Conversations,” collects thoughts and reflections that contributors wished to share with Tannenbaum before she passed away.

In an essay by the poet Jackson, “A Place Called Human,” he tells of the day he met Tannenbaum. Jackson writes that he lived by the mantra to only “speak when I can improve on silence.” He spent a full year in Tannenbaum’s poetry class without speaking a word. But after a meeting with Tannenbaum, they formed a “a natural connection that could never end, even after her death.” Jackson recounted rushing to class and seeing Tannebaum share cookies she had made herself — with both staff and incarcerated people.

“[We] never got the chance to share a stage in the free world,” Jackson wrote. “We wanted to travel, do poetry and speak to people in real time. We tried everything we could to make that happen by my being released from prison physically. In the end, the walls were much higher and steeper to navigate than we had hoped.”

The second section is called “After December.” Collected here are prayers for Tannenbaum in the form of poetry dedicated to her memory, including two creative homages inspired by “December,” a beloved poem written by Tannenbaum. In “Thank you, Judith,” poet Marna Wolak, an adjunct professor in the teacher education department at the University of San Francisco, opens by listing Tannenbaum’s titles and then lists memories of her time with Tannebaum:

being welcomed into her home in Albany for weeks at a
time while I was in college

invitations to family gatherings in Carmel

witnessing her unconditional love for Sara through
postcards and phone calls

the compassion and love one felt as she simply (and / profoundly) listened

The third section, “Looking and Listening,” uses storytelling techniques taught and used by Tannanbaum to orient teaching artists working in prison for the first time.

“There are profound things that jump out at her every time she looks in on the painters and the R&B band and even the jugglers, every day making their depleted world anew,” wrote Bill Cleveland, director of the Center for the Study of Art and Community.

“Legacy” is the title of the book’s last section. It’s about how Tannenbaum’s memory will guide future teaching artists and students.

“Teaching is a unique career,” Tannenbaum once wrote, “one where it is easy to give all you have for those in your care. Teaching allows for the community and connection you crave. It will bring you joy. It will bring you peace. It will let you love and be loved.”

Read a poem inspired by this book here.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

George Coles-El is a poet, writer, graffiti artist and tutor. He writes under the pen name Mesro Dhu Rafa’a, which means “stand with the sun, master of the ascendants.” During the COVID-19 pandemic, he completed an anthology of writings called "Unsung Hero." He is incarcerated in California.