Poet Carol Tyx, who resides in Iowa City, has written a powerful and convicting collection of poems grounded in a remarkable incident in one of the nation’s most infamous prisons. “Remaking Achilles: Slicing into Angola’s History” takes as its jumping off point an incident in 1951 that saw some of the Louisiana prison farms’ inmates cutting their own Achilles tendons in an effort to protect themselves from brutality — or even death — in the fields. Tyx happened upon the story when she was doing research into prison literacy programs. She was working on an article about the Anamosa State Penitentiary Book Club that she founded with Mary Vermillion while both of them were instructors at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids. Tyx, who has since retired from Mount Mercy, came across a remarkable book.
“I read a memoir by Wilbert Rideau in preparation for writing that article,” she said during our phone conversation.
“Wilbert Rideau is one of the most famous prisoners from Angola. He was incarcerated a long time — 30 or 40 years. A long sentence. But he became the editor of their newspaper and he made it into an investigative newspaper. For a while, under certain wardens, they were given permission to expose conditions in the prison itself. It’s an extraordinary memoir.”
Given his circumstances, it is no surprise that Rideau was largely self-taught as a journalist. “So he’s an example of the amazing literacy awakening that can happen in prisons,” Tyx said. “The newspaper won all kinds of awards outside of the prison world.”
Rideau’s memoir didn’t offer a great deal of information about the inmates who slashed their tendons, but there was enough to capture Tyx’s attention.
“In just one sentence he talked about this incident where men had slashed their Achilles tendons. And I was like, really? You would slash, you would mutilate your own body — it piqued my interest.”
She started doing research into the prison and the conditions there. Her interest grew and grew as she read more, including thousands of daily newspaper articles about the prison.
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“I thought I might write maybe three of four poems about this. So the project started very small. And then, the more I read, the more I got intrigued by the cover-ups and the way the governor’s election became involved in this and the way newspapers played such a key role in documenting what was going on and (newspaper editor) Maggie Dixon’s role. I just got immersed in it.”
The project grew to a book-length project, taking her in a direction unique for her work.
“I’d never done anything like this for writing poetry. But it just intrigued me. What was the story behind it? ... It just seemed like a compelling narrative about the ways in which prisons, which are out of public view, can become places of real horror ... And Angola has been one of the worst of the worst.”
The poems in “Remaking Achilles” are notable for the varied and depth of the voices Tyx calls forth. Finding those voices was a key component of the project.
“I would take these extensive notes and then sort them out into piles. This is about the governor. This is about Maggie Dixon. Then I would try to find: What’s the kernel of the narrative here for this person?” Tyx explained.
When she was able and it seemed appropriate, she would use original language she discovered in her research. This allowed some of the individuals in these poems to speak, at least in part, in their own words.
The blending of fact and imagination underpins these glimpses into the lives of people associated with Angola in one way or another.
“There were a few poems that are more out of my imagination, but most of them are really grounded in some specific historical fact that gripped me. Like when I read about the one man in the hospital reading Shakespeare. That was in a newspaper article ... It didn’t say what play he was reading, but I imagined putting him in a revenge play. So it was this odd mix of letting my imagination move among the historical narratives that we’ve got and things just emerged.”
Tyx took great care with the language she put into the mouths of each individual represented in the book.
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“I tried to think deeply about what kind of language each character would have at their disposal or what would have shaped their language. So Maggie Dixon or the priest near the end would have very different vocabularies to draw on than most of the men who were incarcerated, most of whom had very limited education ... Sometimes I’m not sure how that process happens. You just start getting language that seems like it might belong to that character.”
She also read several novels by Louisiana novelist Ernest Gaines (perhaps best known for 1993’s “A Lesson Before Dying”) with an eye toward how he used dialect to convey the voices of underprivileged people.
“When the book was mostly done, I went back through and looked carefully at especially the use of dialect. And I took some more of it out. It was tricky, and I’m not totally sure I got it all right.”
Tyx is aware that the story of Angola is not her story in any immediate sense. But she felt a deep connection to it and worked hard to respect the material and the real individuals behind the poems.
“My thought is stories belong to all of us. Whatever story calls to us, we have to go in deeply enough — as deep as we can — to try to understand it and try to keep our stuff out of it as much as possible, which is never totally possible.”
In this moment, Tyx is also thinking about ways in which poetry can build community even as we must remain apart. On the day of our conversation, she was planning to take a poem she had written about giving herself a haircut and post it in a local park. She’s thinking about ways to make that simple act the start of a larger public project — perhaps by identifying a place where people could leave and read poems (while following social distancing guidelines, of course).
“People could put a poem up and other people could come and see: what are poems that are giving people sustenance at this moment?”