RAG RADIO: Katya Sabaroff Taylor, Editor of ‘Prison Wisdom: Writing with Inmates’

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Thorne Dreyer’s guest on Rag Radio is Katya Sabaroff Taylor, editor of Prison Wisdom: Writing with Inmates, an impressive collection of writing by prisoners she taught, with some writing of her own mixed in.

Thorne Dreyer and Nina Sabaroff, then a radical journalist, were colleagues at Liberation News Service (LNS) in New York City in 1968. Then, as Jonah Raskin — who also was an LNS contributor — writes at The Rag Blog:

Fast forward several decades to a less rambunctious time when she changed her name to Katya… “Nina was the raving radical,” she explained to me…. “Katya was the healer.” Indeed, as Katya, she became a massage therapist, a yoga instructor, and then a longtime writing teacher who gave workshops in prisons and helped inmates express themselves in words and in images.

Several hundred poems, stories, sketches, and drawings by prisoners are now showcased in Prison Wisdom: Writing with Inmates, a jam-packed volume… that’s edited by the ex-LNSer who now calls herself Katya Sabaroff Taylor….

Here’s how Katya sums up her life’s journey:

Katya (Nina Sabaroff) grew up in San Francisco, and attended Antioch College where she majored in literature. Enrolling at Columbia University, she then earned her Masters in Education. She intended to teach English in high school, but during the “revolutionary” late sixties, was drawn instead to work as a radical journalist with Liberation News Service, in New York City. She later moved to Oregon and worked at a free women’s health clinic, and began teaching Women’s Studies at Portland Community College.

At the age of 32, she changed her name to Katya, moved to Virginia, and switched gears away from her 24/7 radical crusader life to become a healer. She studied massage and yoga, and practiced those healing arts for 30 years, while also offering healing touch, movement, and creative writing workshops and classes under the rubric: Creative Arts and Healing. At the age of 43, she married Tom Taylor and gave birth to her daughter Alana.

In 1990, at the age of 46, she moved with her family to Tallahassee, Florida. A year later, she was invited to offer writing in the local county jail. She continued volunteering in nearby prisons for 25 years, eventually drawing on the material collected in inmate anthologies, as well as pen pal correspondence with prisoners, into her book Prison Wisdom (published 2017 by EWH Press). She is also the author of Journal Adventure Guidebook, My Haiku Life, and The Wheel of Belonging (an anthology of sermons delivered at her local Unitarian Church.)

Besides continuing to offer occasional writing workshops (both in and out of prison), she enjoys writing Haiku poetry, essays, and stories. Her literary papers are stored in an archive at the WEB DuBois Library at UMass/Amherst. Katya is an avid gardener and “beach bummess,” visiting St. George Island on the Gulf whenever she needs a getaway.

Visit her website at creativeartsandhealing.com.

Jonah Raskin writes:

Probably everyone who reads Prison Wisdom closely will recognize that it’s the work of both Nina the radical and Katya the healer, and that after all these years, the woman who joined LNS in 1968 is still a liberator at heart…

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  1. A favorite poem, written in prison by Etheridge Knight:

    Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane.

    Etheridge Knight, 1931 – 1991

    Hard Rock / was / “known not to take no shit
    From nobody,” and he had the scars to prove it:
    Split purple lips, lumbed ears, welts above
    His yellow eyes, and one long scar that cut
    Across his temple and plowed through a thick
    Canopy of kinky hair.

    The WORD / was / that Hard Rock wasn’t a mean nigger
    Anymore, that the doctors had bored a hole in his head,
    Cut out part of his brain, and shot electricity
    Through the rest. When they brought Hard Rock back,
    Handcuffed and chained, he was turned loose,
    Like a freshly gelded stallion, to try his new status.
    And we all waited and watched, like a herd of sheep,
    To see if the WORD was true.

    As we waited we wrapped ourselves in the cloak
    Of his exploits: “Man, the last time, it took eight
    Screws to put him in the Hole.” “Yeah, remember when he
    Smacked the captain with his dinner tray?” “He set
    The record for time in the Hole—67 straight days!”
    “Ol Hard Rock! man, that’s one crazy nigger.”
    And then the jewel of a myth that Hard Rock had once bit
    A screw on the thumb and poisoned him with syphilitic spit.

    The testing came, to see if Hard Rock was really tame.
    A hillbilly called him a black son of a bitch
    And didn’t lose his teeth, a screw who knew Hard Rock
    From before shook him down and barked in his face.
    And Hard Rock did nothing. Just grinned and looked silly,
    His eyes empty like knot holes in a fence.

    And even after we discovered that it took Hard Rock
    Exactly 3 minutes to tell you his first name,
    We told ourselves that he had just wised up,
    Was being cool; but we could not fool ourselves for long,
    And we turned away, our eyes on the ground. Crushed.
    He had been our Destroyer, the doer of things
    We dreamed of doing but could not bring ourselves to do,
    The fears of years, like a biting whip,
    Had cut deep bloody grooves
    Across our backs.

    I believe this is the poem that inspired One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Kesey…

    My English Professor told how he went to a convention and witnessed a reading by the author, Knight as he was dying from cancer. “Not a dry eye in the building”, he commented.

    Nor that classroom…