The idea behind Channeling Mark Twain fascinates me – the story of a young woman, fresh out of graduate school in the 1970s, trying to help the female inmates of Riker’s Island off Manhattan. She starts by bringing money collected for bail, then works in the After-Care (trying to help released prisoners get jobs), and she starts to teach a Poetry class. This is a somewhat autobiographical novel about life in the 70s, pimps, prisoners, and corrections officers.
Little did I know that Channeling Mark Twain would challenge me on so many levels. On the most basic level, it’s a novel that would be best described as “Literary Fiction”, and yet I was completely enraptured by the storyline. I’ve had trouble with this genre before, but I couldn’t get the story of Holly and the prisoners in her poetry group out of my head. Holly’s innocence when she begins her poetry class changes as she spends time with the prisoners, the literary community, and the protest community. As a good liberal, I have felt (as Holly did, and as Muske-Dukes did) that the protesters are right and the institution is wrong. Holly takes us with her through the world of protesters, inmates, and wardens, and shows us how the lines can blur.
On another level, after taking multiple poetry appreciation classes in high school and college, I thought I hated poetry. Nope, it turns out that I hate analyzing poetry! The poetry itself is pretty darn cool! I’ve reviewed some children’s books of poetry, and been amazed at how much I enjoyed it. I felt the same way about the poetry in Channeling Mark Twain – it touches me, and guides my emotions. Some poems make me laugh, some shock me, and some sadden me. The poetry channels the voices of prisoners – those who rarely have a voice, and then the ensuing poem challenges the reader’s perspective.
The title Channeling Mark Twain, refers to a woman named Polly Lyle Clement in the detention center who is psychic, and believes she is the illegitimate great-grandchild of Mark Twain. Her insights and stories make a huge impact of Holly’s life at a time when Holly is really growing into herself, and Polly is needing to be heard.
Just like a good book can transport you, I now understand that good poetry can as well. I was thrilled to see the poetry that is up at the beginning of each chapter (usually from one of the prisoners). There are also poems mixed in with the prose as Holly writes poems through the chapters or when sh reads a poem. The view of poetry as being a part of life is intertwined with the other themes of the novel. I highly recommend picking up Channeling Mark Twain, and letting it transport you through prose and poetry.