October 16, 2009
SHSU Media Contacts: Julia May
Contributed by Paul Ruffin
Recently Texas Review Press published a book compiled and edited by members of Paul Ruffin’s Fall 2008 graduate-level Editing/Publishing class: Upon this Chessboard of Nights and Days: Voices from Texas Death Row, a compilation of nonfiction prose and art from inmates presently housed on Death Row at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston.
“The class did a fantastic job of soliciting materials, arranging it, writing prefatory materials, editing the book, and designing the cover. They did it all. They have their own book,” said Ruffin.
Voices from Texas Death Row is the fourth book Ruffin’s classes have produced. By far the most successful, he says, was Mascot Mania, published three years ago. A collection of stories on Texas high school mascots, complete with hundreds of images and a cross-indexed listing of every mascot in the state, the book was picked up by the Associated Press and featured on most major television and many radio stations in the state and reviewed by most major newspapers.
“That was a good book for us,” Ruffin says. “I was able to send those students of mine, the editors of the book, royalty checks for a couple of years.”
In 2007 the class produced a book called That Rough Beast, Its Hour Come Round at Last: The History of Katrina, which has also sold quite well. “The students studied every aspect of that storm,” Ruffin says, “and they wrote its history from its beginning as a tropical wave right on to its dissolution in Eastern Canada.”
One of the major appeals of the Katrina book, he says, was the abundance of original photographs in the book. “I did several feature stories on the storm, so I had on hand hundreds of photographs that I took on the Mississippi Coast and in the New Orleans Lower Ninth Ward. One of the students, Michael Dunican, also went over and snapped hundreds of shots of the damage. These were mostly never-before-seen pictures. Again, they put together quite a book.”
When last year’s class started, the plan had been to produce a book on the churches of the Mississippi Coast. “We thought that we could focus a lot of attention on the plight of all those churches that had been damaged or totally destroyed, covering the entire Coast, from Pearlington to the west, where the right side of the eyewall slammed ashore, all the way over to Pascagoula, near the Alabama line.”
Ruffin and Texas Review Press interns had worked all summer contacting church leaders and encouraging them to send histories, personal accounts of storm experiences, full descriptions of damages done, and a chronicle of restoration, complete with whatever photographs they could provide.
“A few things trickled in, but a third of the way into the semester, we still didn’t have enough material to put together a book, so I said to the class, ‘OK, if they don’t want their story told, then so be it. We could have helped them, I think, but we can’t make them send us anything.’”
The idea for a Death Row book was already lodged in Ruffin’s mind, so he began discussing a new project with the class. “Years ago I wrote a story about Texas Death Row, in which an Austin publisher decides to publish a collection of fiction written by ‘Row’ inmates. A guard, a frustrated writer, flips out at the news and . . . but I don’t want to get into that.”
Ruffin says that after the class talked the matter over, they decided that the best thing to do would be to solicit nonfiction prose and art from Death Row inmates. “We concluded that we wanted to get a real insight into what goes on in the minds of these inmates as they dwell there day in and day out, awaiting their turn to die. Here are people who, for whatever offense they have been convicted of, have been shut away from society for the rest of their lives. But, no matter how horrendous their crimes might have been, they are still human beings, possessed of the same range of emotions as the rest of us. They hope, they dream, they fear, they regret, they love, they hate . . . . We wanted to hear what they had to say about living on Death Row, about what goes on in their minds. We wanted to give them an opportunity to express themselves to the outside world, through words and through their paintings and sketches.”
The class wanted to include work from the women on Death Row, but, in spite of two attempts to solicit material, not one of them sent anything in.
The student editors write in their introduction to the book:
“At first, we expected to receive stories primarily proclaiming innocence, but we were quickly proven presumptive when inmate submissions came pouring in. Yes, readers of this book will find tales within these pages in which an inmate expresses his claim of innocence, but Voices from Texas Death Row contains so much more. Some inmates take responsibility for the crimes that landed them on the Row and apologize to the families of victims or their own families left behind. Many discuss the role that their religious conversion in prison has taken in their lives, giving praise to God for changing their hearts. While some are passionate about perceived injustices, others are reflective about life on the Row and nostalgic about their former lives. Others offer humorous anecdotes that surprise readers who might expect darker stories from those behind bars.”
Says Ruffin, “No matter what your attitude toward the death penalty or your general assumption of the nature of these men, after experiencing this book, you will come away with a very different feeling about Texas Death Row. You will come to recognize the inmates not as doomed, faceless numbers, buried in obscurity for the rest of their lives behind bars, but as human beings with stories to tell, in words and in artwork.”
All prisoners who contributed to the book will receive a free copy of it.
Copies of Voices from Texas Death Row may be purchased in the Texas Review Press office (152 Evans) for $20 or ordered over the Internet from amazon.com, or they may be purchased through the A&M University Press Consortium, of which Texas Review Press is a member, by calling 800-826-8911.
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Houston Chronicle education writer Jeannie Kever recently turned to Regents Professor of English Paul Ruffin for his views on university presses moving toward "digital books" as opposed to traditional ink-on-paper."We're fulfilling the ancient role of the university press, and that is to produce books," said Paul Ruffin, the Texas poet laureate for 2009 and director of the Texas Review Press at Sam Houston State University. "I don't want to give up the book because it is an art."
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"The measure of a Life is its Service."