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Poetry from Attica


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 !

Other Reflections on Attica

Defending Attica

How radical lawyers played a key role standing up for survivors of the Attica uprising.

Luca Falciola

Read More

‘We Are Men’

On the 50th anniversary of a flashpoint of the American penal system, the cries of Attica still resonate today.

Read More

Formula for Attica Repeats
by Mshaka (Willie Monroe)

. . . . . and when
the smoke cleared
they came aluminum paid
from Rock/The/Terrible,
of S.O.S. Collect Calls,

They came tearless
apologetic grin factories
that breathed Kool
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.

Image: Jr Korpa/Unsplash