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Nobody Rich or Famous 

Storied songwriter interviews his prison mentor, internationally lauded Tucson writer and educator Richard Shelton

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I met Richard Shelton in the winter of 1989. He had started his writing workshop within the walls of the Florence prison some 30 years ago and was now at Cimarron unit, a high medium prison in the Wilmot complex, where I was serving my sentence. The workshop was like a floating crap game with his invisible rules and vision: The idea that any man genuinely interested, could read or write a poem, prose or a scene that was original.

The first drafts were typed by Richard's wife, Lois Shelton. (Lois died in 2015. For many years she ran UA's Poetry Center.) Mine were probably hieroglyphics with 5th grade punctuation. After the reading— some awful, some so full you could never hear again, like Brigadoon from a legal pad—Richard measured the feedback, patient to a point; in this group, no one, no color, no affiliation, was given more or less value.

He never forgot where he was, a dangerous place with rifle towers, concertina wire where mistakes were separated and strength was the currency. Richard did something more than make tools of writing available to groups of flawed men. I think he let us retrieve something true in ourselves that could not be eroded or beaten out of us. The sound and scratch of pen to paper that would stand alone, harbor the individual, and keep some kind of humanity alive in us.

Richard published his book Crossing the Yard in 2007, a telling account of his three decades of volunteering within the Department of Corrections. It took a year or so for some suit within the Wilmot prison complex to read it. Soon Shelton was shockingly asked not to return to his long-standing voluntary post in which his only requests were an empty room and a few chairs.

He now donates his fire and skill to a workshop in the federal penitentiary just across the road where the boundaries are much the same and the trucks with loaded rifles drag up dust and desert as they circle the last perimeters and see the sky change her face and find the shawl of sleep, dreams of whatever they're dreaming of.

Richard recently published his eleventh book—Nobody Rich or Famous: A Family Memoir—and I had the honor of conducting the following interview about that book, one like no other he has written. It's a hard and honest memoir, of a life filled with brutalities, which no doubt gave him empathy for many of those in the prisons. Nobody Rich or Famous took me inside of a life that was raw, yet empowering, in a voice he alone keeps. We learn of the mud, trying times and real heart from which this man was forged, and how much he gives away.

Billy Sedlmayr: In the foreword to Nobody Rich or Famous, you share that you were able to write a lot of it because you had diaries that belonged to women from your life. How was it to work with those diaries?

Richard Shelton: They were journals from the women of several generations of my family. And they were not the kind of journals as we think of them today. They were standard journals that farm women kept, and they called them diaries. They would tell you what the weather was, what was done that day, outside like hay, inside like mopping floors. They didn't record the way they felt about anything. It was only one time, actually, and it was in my grandmother's journal, where I found the telling to become subjective, where she included herself in all that was going on around her. Only after her husband passed she wrote of what a great loss his passing was, and she let her feelings show for the briefest moment before the subject matter returned to the mopped kitchen floors.

The journals were very helpful in putting together the pieces of my family and life in the early 1900s in farmland Kansas. It was actually from my great-grandmother's journal, who I never met, that I learned that I was not Irish as I had thought my whole life. In 1916 my father was 15. You know what was going on in 1916? World War 1, and there was much German-bashing going around. My father was almost one hundred percent German, and so he decided it would be more convenient to be Irish. He told us we were Irish and I grew up believing it. Only when I did the research for this book I discovered that I was actually German and not Irish.

Is Nobody Rich or Famous the book you envisioned?

I don't know that I wanted to write a memoir. I just started writing themes from childhood. I was fascinated by the stories. And then I got a hold of my mother's journals when she died. Then I got a hold of the other journals. I guess I realized it as I was writing it. Yes. I think I wrote the book I set out to write.

Chasing ghosts seems to be a theme in the book. Over and over you discovered that people in your life were not who you thought they were.

My father misled us all the time and sometimes it was for a purpose I don't know. I think he enjoyed telling stories and pulling people's legs. When I think about his two brothers, my uncles, I had known them only as old and very pot-bellied, so it was hard for me to understand how they had been horse thieves like Red [Shelton's father] had told us, and I believed him. They were not horse thieves. Red had countless stories to tell. He would go to great lengths to get a new story to tell, unfathomable sometimes, painful even. ...

When I was small, I had a little black dog named Inky, and Red had always threatened to cut her tail off. I would become hysterical and cry and made him promise he wouldn't do it. When I was away at camp or at my grandmother's for several days and came back, here was Inky with her tail bobbed. I couldn't believe it. I flew into a rage and screamed with hysterics until they opened the closet door and out comes Inky, tail and all. They had actually found another dog that looked just like Inky with a bobbed tail and substituted her to just get my goat. It was a practical joke but it was very cruel.

In such hard times somehow your parents made ends meet, how did they do it?

My father had been a bootlegger during prohibition and two periods, during the war and after, were especially hard. So we travelled to California and Washington State for work. It seemed tenuous, always up and down. If you weren't in trouble with the law you were in trouble with the loan sharks.

School wasn't easy for you but you also seemed to enjoy it. Did you like school or was it just a way to get out of the chaos at home?

I actually liked school. The first grade was horrible. I had a terrible teacher and I got kicked out of school because I called her a goddamned sombitch. I didn't know what that meant but I heard people use that expression. My mother got me back in. But after that, in the second and third grade, I liked it. I could read. I learned to read very, very young. My mother taught me. So the teachers would give me a book and I would read to the class while they would disappear for coffee. I did that a lot.

In the third and fourth grade, after we had moved back to Boise, I don't think I got much schooling. I skipped the 4th grade because they just didn't put me in school. My father's attitude was, "he's smart, why does he have to go to school?"

Who called you Dickerino?

My grandmother.

When you were 8 or 9, your family was friends with this young, fearless couple who were horse riders in the Idaho state fair. The woman in that couple, Cassie, took a real liking to you. How did it affect you when you watched her die in a horrible accident?

Yeah, the state fair had a big rodeo. Everybody went to the rodeo. There was no television. And Cassie and her boyfriend were almost like celebrities to us. She took a real liking to me and my brother, both. She was a wonderful woman and beautiful. She had this beautiful blond hair. It was all peroxided but I didn't know that. She would give us tickets all the time and we rode on every contraption and went to every show, freak shows, girlie shows—we went to all of them. Then one year, they did the Roman stand, where you have one foot on each horse, with him riding a pair of matched black horses and her on a pair of matched white horses. It's terribly dangerous. They came galloping in to the rodeo grounds and some piece of paper or maybe a popcorn sack flew across the field and scared one of the horses. She fell between the horses and was killed. We were right down in front watching. She always reserved the box for us. 

It must have been hard at your age.

It was hard. It was hard for all of us. It was shortly thereafter that both my mother and I had typhoid really bad and almost died. We assumed we got it from the water at the fair. One of the faucets we drank out of. So it was right after that, first the calamity of losing Cassie and then my mother nearly died. It was a hard time.

Lois, your wife, she was always incredible to me. How many papers from our prison workshops must she have typed for us? Last memory of Lois was when I came back out here from Phoenix to be at the UA Poetry Center's dedication to you and I was in a wheelchair. Lois called to you and said, "Look, Dick, here's Billy Sedlmayr," and she got you away from a crowd of probably important people to talk to me and it meant a lot to me.

Lois had a wonderful laugh and a wonderful sense of humor. She was very comfortable with herself, very successful; she had all that stage training, she was a natural-born actress and so she was fun to be with. A good mother, not at all a strict mother. She didn't complicate my life terribly. That is, she didn't have a whole bunch of problems that I had to worry about so she made it possible for me to concentrate on work, which is some gift. When I started the prison work, she was encouraging. It was terribly dangerous. Florence [prison] was run by the gangs, and students of mine were right in the middle of it. Three of them were murdered in that first year. I had to cross that yard going and coming, knowing that any of these hundreds of men could have had a zip gun or a shank. Once, the man I was walking with did get attacked, but I threw my satchel.

Anyway, Lois never said I couldn't do it. Lois was always good about that. She always treated my ex-con friends very well. It didn't make any difference to her between them and somebody else.

What drew you to work with prisoners?

It started with a letter I received from an inmate on death row. I was curious and I started visiting him and going over his work for all the wrong reasons. But I started the workshop at the request of an inmate. For me, it presented a chance to work with very talented people. This group in the federal prison I am working with now, there is so much talent. I think I have the most talent per capita in this group out of any class I have ever taught anywhere. I really enjoy teaching. I've got some people that have come such a long way I can't believe it. They are writing whole books.

Many people may not know what a big deal your prison classes and workshops were to so many of us. You were pretty good keeping it gang-free, which is near impossible to do inside a maximum-security prison. You changed lives, even saved lives. You had to fight so hard to bring this workshop to this population, the bureaucracy, the danger ... Why?

I don't think I know. I didn't have any grand design. I had a certain amount of knowledge and skill having to do with language that I was aware of. Teaching at the university, I taught composition for seven or eight years. So I really had that skill and then the opportunity arose. Certain things happened at certain times.

And it seemed like to me that it was a two-way street. It wasn't just about helping people. I have this skill and I can impart it. It was exciting. It was dangerous. This was something that the average teacher at a university would never experience. I was much more aware of the relationship; that is to say the student's place in the world. Compared to the lives I was working with, my students at the university were interesting, but they were not nearly as interesting as the ones in prison. They had a lot of life experience and a lot to write about, if I could get them to write about it. You had to show them how to write about it.

You managed to hold a space where free-thinking was permitted in a place that was opposite all of that and managed to let people see that they have talent, something to say and worth sharing. You have brought so much more than the writing class to people.

I never had any particular prejudice because I never had any experience with anyone in prison except maybe getting my father out of jail. I realized only very recently that there are people who have this horrible prejudice about anything having to do with prison. It's not like racial prejudice, it's viral; it's horrible. I never had that.

It's interesting to me to look back and see that. I had the students at the university and then I had the students in prison. And when they got out, they stayed my students to me. There was no difference. They became part of a group I ran around with on the outside. I think basically the thing that makes it so successful is that I have something to teach. That is, I can cut through a manuscript, which I am doing right now, and put it all back together and show them how you do this. And show them ways they can be successful with their lives. In other words, I don't think of myself as a do-gooder; I think of myself as a teacher. I would not have any right to be in there if I didn't have anything to teach.


Excerpt from Richard Shelton's just released Nobody Rich or Famous: A Family Memoir

Richard Shelton is Regents' Professor (emeritus) at the University of Arizona, and for years he was the director of the creative writing program and UA Poetry Center. His essays and poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, The Antioch Review and dozens of others. He is the author of 11 books and his work has been translated in many languages, and he has earned countless prestigious writing awards and grants. He is one of America's most respected poets.

July 1938

We are living in the drafty, old two-story house we've rented on 17th Street, with two big cherry trees and the garage out back where Red has his sign-painting equipment. In less than two months I will enter the first grade. I'm excited about it. I've been waiting to go to school for a long time, and I can already read better than Jack, who is twelve. I guess that isn't saying much. Jack can't read worth a damn, and our mother reads his schoolwork to him.

Although I don't understand it entirely, I realize we are having terrible problems about money. Red has become involved with loan sharks who are trying to take away our furniture. Our mother has told us that if we are home alone and someone knocks on the door, we should peek out the window and see who it is. If it's men we don't recognize, we should not open the door but run upstairs and hide in the closet.

Red spends several nights a week in the bars. We have supper without him. He comes home after one o'clock, very drunk. One night when the bars close, Red is so drunk and confused that he decides to bring his barfly girlfriend home to meet his family. I have never understood exactly why he did this, but I don't think he was trying to humiliate Hazel. I think he was so drunk that part of his mind had shut down and he wanted to show off his poor but beautiful family to his girlfriend.

Jack and I are sleeping in a tent in the backyard because it's so hot in the house and we like to "camp out." Red brings the woman out, and she crawls into the tent with us. She's very drunk. Jack and I are sleeping in our underwear. We get out of the tent as quick as we can and put our pants on. Red makes us go into the kitchen. When we get there, I can see the woman has chopped-off hair dyed henna-red and she is not good looking. She begins to paw us and make over us, saying how cute we are. Jack pulls away and won't let her touch him. I try to pull away, but she gets hold of my arm. Her fingers are like claws and her fingernails are sharp and all broken off.

While she's holding on to me and I'm trying to get away, I look up and see my beautiful mother in her nightgown standing against the kitchen wall. Her face is as white as the wall. She just stands there as if she is frozen. Eventually Red takes the woman away, and we never see her again.

October 1951

Hazel, who has been sick in bed for several days and is very pale and shaky, gets up and makes a pot of strong coffee. She hasn't had a drink in years, and she knows her system simply can't tolerate it, but she's tempted. There isn't any whiskey or beer in the house, and besides, she needs to keep her wits about her. Fortified with two cups of coffee, she takes a very hot bath, brushes her teeth, puts her hair up in pin curls, and plans her wardrobe. She needs a permanent, so she'd better wear a hat. Then she begins to work on her makeup. Her eyebrows have to be plucked. Just enough powder and rouge to hide the sallowness of her olive skin. A little eye makeup and lots of lipstick, the way he likes it. Very little cologne.

Smoking one cigarette after the other, in her petticoat and with her hair still up in pin curls, she goes to the closet in the little alcove off the kitchen. She has to get up on a chair to reach the shelf at the top, but she finds Red's Colt .45 where she knows it will be, unloaded as she knows it will be. The bullets are in a little box next to the gun. She has never loaded this gun, but she has watched him do it several times, and she is surprised at how easy it is. She puts the loaded gun in her fawn suede purse, which matches the fawn suede shoes and gloves she has not yet put on. The patterned silk dress, she thinks. It's the best thing she's got, and just right for this time of year. And the little black straw hat with a few tiny flowers and the veil. Red said it looked like a cow pie, but it doesn't matter. It's stylish, and she will need the veil, although it only comes down to just below her beautifully turned-up nose.

When her hair is done and her ensemble is complete except for the hat, she lights another cigarette and calls a taxi. She knows she will have time before it gets there to put on her hat, check her makeup, and make sure she has on enough eye shadow and rouge. Her hair looks OK. Her seams are straight. She's ready. When the taxi arrives, she is already halfway down the front walk. He doesn't have to honk. She is a lady from the tip of her little hat, the veil of which is now up on top with the tiny flowers, to the toes of her fawn suede sling-back pumps, and including her fawn suede purse with a kind of heft and weight to it that might be a little unusual but isn't really noticeable.

It's just past 8 p.m. She directs the taxi driver to the Wonderbar on South 10th just off Main, and he thinks it's strange that this lady, all dolled up, would be going to a dive like that, but it's none of his business and he's learned to mind his own. When they pull up at the curb, she pays him before she gets out, and then she says, "I'll only be inside for a minute. Would you please wait for me?"

He says yes he will, goes around and opens the door for her, and she gets out. She stops just before entering the bar's padded leather double doors and lowers the flimsy little veil on her hat. Then, almost as soon as she goes into the bar, the taxi driver hears what sounds like the Third World War, and he hauls ass out of there as fast as he can go.

Later, the bartender, obviously shaken up, tells the police officers that a lady, dressed to the nines, stepped into the bar, looked around, pulled a gun out of her handbag, and shot hell out of the place. Either she couldn't see very well or she didn't have any particular target in mind, although she shot the barstool out from under one customer. There were only three customers in the bar at that early hour, and nobody got a very good look at her because they were all diving for cover. When the gun was empty, she put it back in her purse and walked out the front door. He had checked on his customers first, to see if anyone was shot, and by the time he ran out to the street, she was gone. Nobody in the bar had ever seen her before.

The police believe him. Like most good lies, his story contains a mixture of truth and fiction. Actually, there are four customers in the bar when Hazel makes her appearance. Red and his girlfriend are sitting at the bar with their backs to the front door. The other two customers, Jimmy and Fred, both Red's good drinking buddies, are playing a game of pool off to the left of the front door. Jimmy, a small, quiet man, has worked as a painter with Red, off and on, for years.

He's a friend of the family and very fond of Hazel. He has always felt sorry for her because of the way Red neglects her in favor of the sluts he picks up in bars. As soon as Hazel empties the gun, she faints and falls on the floor—her beautiful dress, her cow-pie hat, her matched accessories, and the Colt .45 all in a heap on the dirty floor of the bar. Red, Jimmy, and the bartender all get to her at the same time. The bartender is also a friend of Red's, but he has never seen Hazel. Nobody is hurt, although Red's girlfriend, whose barstool took a hit not three inches from her butt, is almost in shock.

What to do? Quick! Quick! The sounds of gunfire must have been heard on the street. The cops are probably on the way now.

"My car's in the alley," Jimmy says. "Let me take her out of here.

"You guys can figure out what to tell the cops."

Hazel is beginning to regain consciousness. They hear a siren outside. There is no time for Red to argue.

"Can you take her to her mother's place?" Red asks. "Charlotte Beech. Down the valley past Star, about twenty miles. She's coming around. She'll be able to tell you which farm it is."

Red and Jimmy are carrying Hazel out the back door to Jimmy's car. The bartender gathers up her purse and hat and the gun, and puts everything in the car with her except the gun. "I'll keep this," he says to Red, "and you can get it later when you pay for the damages."

"I'll pay for everything," Red says. "Just get her out of here before the cops hit that door."

Jimmy drives Hazel down State Street, past the corner where thirty-one years earlier she met a handsome redhead on a motorcycle, and down the Boise Valley where her mother, now Charlotte Beech, will nurse her back to health after what Hazel will later refer to as her "nervous breakdown." Charlotte keeps her own counsel. Nobody knows what she thinks about Hazel's histrionics, but her husband, Sherman, who had been a highly decorated marksman in World War I, says very quietly, "It's a pity Hazel isn't a better shot."

When I return from my freshman year at college in the late spring, Red and Hazel are living together as if nothing had happened. As far as I could tell, that was Red's last extramarital fling. I don't believe he ever had another girlfriend, and while he drank heavily at home, he ceased spending his nights in bars.

I have always wondered about Hazel's intended target. Many times I had heard her sing "Frankie and Johnny" in a nasal voice with a slight hillbilly twang, probably in imitation of some singer she had admired as a girl. In the song Frankie goes to the barroom and shoots right through that hardwood door, and while the implication is that she shoots the unfaithful Johnny—he was her man, but he was doing her wrong—it is never stated. She might have shot his girlfriend, Nellie Bly. Added to all this was the fact that Hazel was almost blind in one eye and her veil was further impairing her vision, the bar was dimly lit, and she probably hadn't fired a gun in more than twenty years.

Did she seriously intend to kill Red or his girlfriend or both of them? Or did she intend to do exactly what she did—put the fear of the Lord into him. I will never know the answer to that question, but I have an opinion. I have never known a woman who loved a man more than Hazel loved Red. No sacrifice was too great for her to make, no humiliation would drive her away. Even after his death, she remained faithful to his memory for twenty years, until her own death. I don't believe she could have intended to kill him, but she certainly made him believe it, and that belief changed his behavior for the rest of his life.

Nobody Rich or Famous (University of Arizona Press; 288 pp; $19.95) is available at Antigone Books in Tucson and other fine bookstores. Go to uapress.arizona.edu for more information.


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