By Heart

Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives

CLICK HERE TO ORDER in paperback, hardcover, and e-book (also exam or desk copies for instructors) through our distributor NYU Press.

"A boy with no one to listen becomes a man in prison for life and discovers his mind can be free. A woman enters prison to teach and becomes his first listener. And so begins a twenty-five year friendship between two gifted writers and poets. The result is By Heart — a book that will anger you, give you hope, and break your heart."
- Gloria Steinem

Judith Tannenbaum and Spoon Jackson met at San Quentin State Prison in 1985. For over two decades they have conferred, corresponded and sometimes collaborated, producing very different bodies of work resting on the same understanding: that human beings have one foot in darkness, the other in light.

In this beautifully crafted exploration – part memoir, part essay – Tannenbaum and Jackson consider art, education, prison, possibility, and which children our world nurtures and which it shuns. At the book's core are two stories that speak for human imagination, spirit, and expression.

Judith Tannenbaum is a nationally respected educator, speaker, and author. Among her books are the memoir, Disguised as a Poem: My Years Teaching Poetry at San Quentin; two books for teachers – Teeth, Wiggly as Earthquakes: Writing Poetry in the Primary Grades and (with Valerie Chow Bush) Jump Write In! Creative Writing Exercises for Diverse Communities, Grades 6-12; and six poetry collections. She currently serves as training coordinator with WritersCorps in San Francisco.

Born into a family of fifteen boys in Barstow, California, Spoon Jackson was sentenced to Life Without Possibility of Parole when he was twenty years old. Spoon discovered himself as a writer at San Quentin; played Pozzo in the prison's 1988 production of Waiting for Godot; and has written, published, and received awards for plays, poetry, novels, fairy tales, short stories, essays, and memoir during the more than thirty years he has been behind bars. His poems are collected in Longer Ago.

Judith Tannenbaum currently serves as training coordinator for WritersCorps in San Francisco. Tannenbaum has taught poetry in a wide variety of settings from primary school classrooms to maximum security prisons.

Spoon Jackson was born in Barstow, California, the heart of the high desert. He began serving a life without possibility of parole sentence at age twenty.


Title By Heart
Subtitle Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives
Publisher New Village Press
Audience 01 General / trade
Credit Judith Tannbaum and Spoon Jackson
Title First Published 15 March 2010
Subject Scheme Identifier Code      93 Thema subject category: DNB
Includes Appendices


Chapter One: This Near-Stranger's Words
Chapter Two: In Silence
Chapter Three: Mirrors
Chapter Four: Nowhere but Barstow and Prison
Chapter Five: By Heart
Chapter Six: Diving
Chapter Seven: Artistic Imperialism
Chapter Eight: The Poet
Chapter Nine: Way Out in the Bay
Chapter Ten: Godot
Chapter Eleven: Cure for Cancer
Chapter Twelve: Banished
Chapter Thirteen: Write Reckless
Chapter Fourteen: Annotation
Chapter Fifteen: Power or Prison
Chapter Sixteen: The Circle
About the Authors

Additional Materials


The Examiner
May 11, 2011
"Like all good books, By Heart disrupts our assumptions, causes us to question our preconceptions, and reminds us of a commonly held humanity that is always the subject of Art, the engine of Love and should be the only authority of Justice."

- LJ Moore, The Examiner

Head Butler
Feb 9, 2011
"When two poets write a memoir, it has a vividness, substantiality and eloquence that set it apart. Unlike many contemporary memoirs which focus on a capital P Problem, "By Heart" includes the authors' suffering without trying to market it or glamorize it. Much of "By Heart" is about the way that writers become writers. Although their backgrounds and life circumstances are immensely different, both Judith and Spoon are observant, solitary, attentive to nature and its lack."
- Ruth Gendler, Head Butler

She Writes
Feb 9, 2011
"I suggest By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives, by Judith Tannenbaum and Spoon Jackson, to help you understand at a visceral level how racism is still destroying worthy lives, and perhaps to motivate you to be an influence for change in your writings. It's a stunning joint memoir of a long relationship between an artist teaching poetry in San Quentin and her friend and student Spoon, a black man, who became and still is a gifted poet."
- Dangerous Old Woman, She Writes

"Despite their differences, what prevail are their commonalities: a love of poetry and a desire for decency and sincerity."
- Foster Dickson, Multicultural Review

"I witnessed through the authors' words how writing and the arts can transform lives, the life of a maximum security prisoner, now an acclaimed poet, a man who understands how words set us free. Above all, this powerful book is about heart."
- Susan, Stir

Poetry Flash
Apr 25, 2011
"Many astounding things are related in these two memoirs, Judith's and Spoon's, beautiful and terrible things, others that just click us into a cold understanding, but I'm not going to tell you what they are, because I don't want to give them away. I want people to get By Heart and read it, reflect on it."
- Richard Silberg, Poetry Flash

Rethinking Schools
"What is special about the book is its portrayal of the lifelong commitment the two authors have made to their relationship, to the power of the word to transform reality, and to the struggle for justice and equity...[By Heart is] an authentic tale about a collaboration that continues despite the bars, gates, and guards that permanently separate the participants."
- Herbert Kohl, Rethinking Schools

The Book Nook
Jun 3, 2010
"By Heart is a moving encounter between freedom and prison, art, beauty and desolation, silence and voice...It is passionate and tender, raw and realistic...It is a love story but not love between people; it is about love for ourselves and our humanity. This is a book that I would wish for every educator to read."
- The Book Nook

Booksexy Review
Apr 30, 2010
By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives is a joint memoir written by two poets who met through the California Penal System. Judith Tannenbaum taught poetry in state prisons as part of the California Art-in-Corrections Program. Spoon Jackson was her student, now friend, who became an internationally known poet. He is serving out a life-without-parole sentence.

- Tara Olmsted, Booksexy Review
 "...Judith wants us to see that humanity exists, and can thrive, in even the places where we try to bury it. And when we choose to acknowledge what we so seldom look at, we may very well find reflections of ourselves."

- Wendy Jason,

"A boy with no one to listen becomes a man in prison for life and discovers his mind can be free. A woman enters prison to teach and becomes his first listener. And so begins a twenty-five year friendship between two gifted writers and poets. The result is By Heart — a book that will anger you, give you hope, and break your heart."

- Gloria Steinem, writer, lecturer, editor, and feminist activist

"A boy with no one to listen becomes a man in prison for life and discovers his mind can be free. A woman enters prison to teach and becomes his first listener. And so begins a twenty-five year friendship between two gifted writers and poets. The result is By Heart — a book that will anger you, give you hope, and break your heart."
- Gloria Steinem
Jan 23, 2012
The film At Night I Fly, which features Spoon Jackson, won Sweden's Guldbagge Award for Best Documentary, the Swedish equivalent of an Oscar! Directed by Michel Wenzer, At Night I Fly provides us with images from New Folsom, where men at one of California's most maximum security prisons let us see their world. This world is less about dangerous drama and more, as one of them describes, "about isolation. About closure of both the mind and the heart. And the spirit." This intimate documentary shows prisoners, most serving a life sentence, who refuse such closure and instead work to uncover and express themselves. Their primary tool is making art and the film takes us to New Folsom's Arts in Corrections' room, to prison poetry readings, gospel choirs, blues guitar on the yard, and to many more scenes of creation. At Night I Fly shows the artistic and human journey these men take, as well as the need that fuels it, and the beauty and pain encountered along the way.

The Huffington Post
Nov 30, 2010
"...a remarkable new book about the wonderful connection between a truly talented and compassionate teacher of poetry and her equally talented star prisoner pupil. This is a book that will touch you on all of the most profound levels."
- Kenneth Hartman, The Huffington Post

The Monteserrat Review
 "This is a heart rending book that depicts both writers' childhoods, their struggles and eventual transcendence through art, poetry in particular... Both writers dare look underneath the surface in order to reach deeper into the human psyche."
- Dianna Henning, The Monteserrat Review

Wellesley Centers for Women
"There's a crooked symmetry in this remarkable book: poetry and teaching rescued Tannenbaum, and prison provided her with the lifeline of a writing community; poetry also awakened Jackson, but for him it was a counterforce to prison's destructive power." - Bell Gale Chevigny, emerita professor of literature at the College of Purchase, State University of New York, former chair of the PEN Prison Writing Program 
- Wellesley Centers for Women

"A portrait of prison and of the pursuit of art. An amazing combo, a compelling read. . . years later, acting in [Waiting for] Godot on Broadway, I see how much the San Quentin production has meant to my view of the play."
- Bill Irwin, TONY winning actor, appeared in the Broadway revival of Waiting for Godot

"This is a book about poetry, about struggle, about freedom and incarceration, and most of all about heart. It is a wonderful read."
- devorah major, San Francisco Poet Laureate 2002-2005

"By Heart leads us on a poignant journey into that space in ourselves where we finally find our own voice. Bravo Judith and Spoon for a beautiful work of art."
- Piri Thomas, writer, poet, author of Down These Mean Streets

"The collaboration between Judith Tannenbaum and Spoon Jackson continues the path to freedom through art. By Heart is so beautifully described, both objectively and emotionally."
- Barney Rosset, Publisher/Editor of Grove Press 1951-1985

"By Heart works on so many levels. We get to know both Judith and Spoon through that terrific 'eye' and 'I' revelation that memoir offers at its best."
- Rilla Askew, author of Fire in Beulah and other books

"A remarkable memoir of two powerful personalities brought together through poetry and prison. Through Judith's genuineness a poet awoke and found a way to live a fuller life in spite of confinement, and through Spoon's honesty and talent many people will be compelled to contribute to society, even if society has abandoned them."
- Joseph Lea, Library Media Specialist, York Correctional Institution, Niantic, CT

"Politics don't work, religion is a bit too eclectic, but ART is the parachute that could catch and hold us all!"
- Rhodessa Jones, Founder/Artistic Director of the Medea Project: Theatre for Incarcerated Women

"In their remarkable memoir, Spoon Jackson and Judith Tannenbaum show us how words change lives, how poetry invites you to free your mind, even in a maximum security prison. By Heart is their profoundly inspirational story, an engaging and enlightening examination of two people thrown together in a dark place and how both journey through darkness and into the light."
- Ken Lamberton, author of Wilderness and Razor Wire: A Naturalist's Observations from Prison and other books

We Also Suggest

Dialogue in Artistic Practice
Case Studies from Animating Democracy
Barbara Schaffer Bacon, Pam Korza