Q&A with Judith Tannenbaum
Co-author of
By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives


How did you meet Spoon?
I first came to San Quentin in 1985 to give a poetry reading to a small group of men. I was then asked to come back to teach and Spoon was part of our class from almost the beginning. He was my most intriguing student. Each week he constructed a circle of chairs he sat within, and for the first year, said nearly nothing. But he kept showing up.

Why did you write this book?
Spoon suggested that we write a two-person memoir. I've shared poetry with public school children and maximum security prisoners for over thirty-five years, and I welcomed the opportunity to describe both this work and the values it rests on. Also, I looked forward to memoir's invitation to re-enter childhood, young motherhood, becoming a poet.

Why a two-person memoir?
Point-of-view is one of my deepest interests. Encouraging my capacity to see the world first from one perspective, and then from another, strengthens not only my vision, but also my heart. I loved that Spoon proposed a book in which we would tell our individual and shared stories in alternate chapters. By Heart seems to me stronger because it allows readers to move back and forth between Spoon’s experience and mine.

Why should anyone read a book by a convicted murderer?
One reason is practical. An enormous percentage of most state budgets goes to pay for prison; the public is asked to make many decisions about who is sent behind bars and for how long. We need every report we can get about this world we’re paying for. Practical, too, is that the best chance we have to prevent future violence is to hear from those who have known violence. Besides, people in prison are people. I believe our humanity is deepened when we open to the humanity of others.

Do you have a main point you’d like a reader to take away after reading By Heart?
Spoon writes about the many doors and windows through which a reader might enter our book. After so many years working in public schools and prisons, one main point for me is noticing which children our world nurtures and which it shuns. I hope readers of By Heart take away the recognition that all children are our children; I hope readers are encouraged to support, listen to, educate, and care for each child as they would their own child.