Editors’ note: Celes Tisdale was teaching English at the State University College of Buffalo when the Attica Uprising took place in September 1971. Eight months later, he began teaching creative writing workshops at Attica Correctional Facility. For three years (1972–75), he met weekly with his Attica class. Many of his students there had been present for the uprising and continued to struggle with the physical and psychological injuries they had received during it. In 1974 Tisdale was able to publish a collection of their poetry, Betcha Ain’t: Poems from Attica. In November, Duke University Press reissued the book as When the Smoke Cleared: Attica Prison Poems and Journal. The new edition includes poems that hadn’t made it into Betcha Ain’t, as well as excerpts from Tisdale’s journals and a new introduction by Mark Nowak. The four poems below are excerpted from this reimagined collection.
Sept. 13 by Christopher Sutherland Let the drums roll Give the first command That puts us in the ground R-E-A-D-Y ! We stiffen our shoulders Hold our heads up high Let the world take note That proud, black men Are here about to die A-A-A-I-M ! If our actions Cause brothers and sisters to unite As we die, In their fighting spirits we live. So let the drums roll And damn that final order that puts us in The ground . . . F-I-R-E !
Formula for Attica Repeats by Mshaka (Willie Monroe) . . . . . and when the smoke cleared they came aluminum paid lovers from Rock/The/Terrible, refuser of S.O.S. Collect Calls, Executioner. They came tearless tremblers, apologetic grin factories that breathed Kool smoke-rings and state-prepared speeches. They came like so many unfeeling fingers groping without touching the 43 dead men who listened . . . threatening to rise again. . . .
Just Another Page (September 13, 1972) by John Lee Norris A year later And it’s just another page And the only thing they do right is wrong And Attica is a maggot-minded black blood sucker And the only thing they do right is wrong And another page of history is written in black blood And old black mamas pay taxes to buy guns that killed their sons And the consequence of being free . . . is death And your sympathy and tears always come too late And the only thing they do right is wrong And it’s just another page.
“The Death of Bang-Bang Charlie” by Harold E. Packwood Bang-Bang Charlie— Was a mean son-of-a-bitch; Notched his gun on weekends, Killed—Monday to Friday, Eight hours a day. A sky-blue gunfighter Straight from Dodge City Or some upstate cornfield, Riding his Ford Mustang. Badge gleaming from his hat Like a mod Wyatt Earp, Totin’ his Colt .45 Hickory Stick And chewin’ Beech-Nut Bubblegum. Rode into town on Festival Day Shootin’ meanies at the crowd, His pink mouth lost in a snarl-dripping water, ’Cause he wanted some fried chicken too. Reached for his gun When six strangers came to town, Black faces and power signs, Lookin’ like they been frownin’ since birth. Opened their cases and pulled out their killing machines Shining in the sunlight, And the crowd roared To hear the bullets fly. The Black sounds echoed and laughed, Cried—screamed—killing us all To be born again; Then Archie Shepp drew his Soprano Sax, And Bang-Bang Charlie had a heart attack.
Poems excerpted from When the Smoke Cleared: Attica Prison Poems and Journal, edited by Celes Tisdale. Copyright Duke University Press, 2022.
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