The first time I wrote creatively was when I was deployed with the Army to Iraq, in 2003. I had reached what felt like a breaking point from the pressure of being in a combat environment. Fortunately, a group of my fellow soldiers noticed the decline in my mental health and started inviting me to join them when they got together to play their guitars during downtime. Our time together was so inspiring and uplifting that I gave a local Iraqi contractor money to buy me a guitar on his next trip to Baghdad, so I could learn how to play. I started to write my own music, and I soon began to write lyrics. And with this experience of bringing something into the world of my own making, I felt like I had suddenly accessed a pressure release valve, a salve that led to healing.
PHOTOS COURTESY CHRISTOPHER P. WOLFE SOA’18
I wrote poems and short stories, and began working on a novel. I joined veterans’ writing groups and did all that I could to immerse myself in the creative process with the little spare time I had. I read many books; one that I fell in love with was Slapboxing with Jesus by SOA professor Victor LaValle [SOA’98]. After having spent years in leadership positions, surrounded by very few people who looked like me, Victor’s voice and stories made me feel seen and heard. I sought him out, and I found him one evening doing a reading in my Brooklyn neighborhood. I introduced myself, and we spoke for at least two hours that night. Victor helped me to see the different ways I could nurture my voice, including pursuing an M.F.A. So after a lot of discussions with my wife, I decided to pursue writing full time.
How did you become involved with the Holder Initiative? What inspired you to combine your creative work with a social justice project such as this?
If you go to the “About” page on the Holder Initiative’s website, you’ll find a quote from the former attorney general: “We do ourselves and our great nation a grave disservice ... when we trade the noisy discord of honest, tough and vigorous debate for the quiet prejudice of inaction and cold silence of consent.”
This quote speaks directly to one of my primary goals as an artist and teacher: to encourage people of diverse backgrounds and conflicting views to see and hear each other better, and to develop a deeper capacity for empathy. This ideal can sometimes be uncomfortable and contentious, but it is important that we create time and space for Columbia’s students to have these interactions. On the other side of their college experience, they will be the ones occupying spaces of power and influence to create positive change. I’m incredibly proud and humbled to be the Holder Initiative’s inaugural artist-in-residence, and grateful for the opportunity to bring more awareness to the challenges faced by many brothers and sisters affected by mass incarceration.
What’s the role of artist-in-residence? Do you have a typical day?
Honestly, since the pandemic hit, I have been looking for a typical day, but I haven’t found it. There has been a lot of volatility in my “routine,” so I try to adapt and stay flexible. I have three kids whose schools open and close depending upon the changes and risk factors related to Covid-19. I have a dog that doesn’t wear a watch. Having said that, as the artist- in-residence, I dedicate the first part of my day to creating art. I can usually find a focused, quiet time to write around 4:30 a.m., before my kids are up.
Once they are settled in, I am engaged with the class that I teach on campus and at Rikers Island, “Incarcerated Yet Inspired.” It is a cross-genre writing seminar offered through the Undergraduate Creative Writing Department, that focuses on literary works that explore the experiences and perspectives of individuals who have been ostracized, incarcerated and isolated from their communities. When I am teaching at Rikers, I spend part of my day planning and coordinating with an enthusiastic group of Columbia students who volunteer as tutors for the class. I also spend my days engaged with the rest of the Holder Initiative team, to develop events that address civil rights and social justice issues. A couple of examples are the fireside chats I’ve facilitated — one last summer with Tony Award-winning director Kenny Leon, and another in December with formerly incarcerated writer and current Teachers College student Robert Wright.
What’s the best part of your job?
I have the opportunity to create spaces for our students to show up as their full selves, spaces where they can embrace and express parts of their identity that they often suppress due to a variety of factors and societal pressures. I’ve had conversations with students about their career choices, their classes, their writing, their parents. And in each of those interactions, I try to be present and share whatever I can from my life experiences that might be relevant. A very special moment was when one of my Columbia students came up to me at the end of the semester, thanked me and told me that I was the first Black male professor that he’d had and that it really meant something special to have me teaching his class. I think it takes a certain level of vulnerability to express oneself in such a way; I genuinely find pleasure in creating spaces where that can happen.
What about your Rikers Island teaching experience has been most meaningful for you?
I was raised in Fayetteville, N.C., in the ’80s and ’90s. During my adolescent years, I wasn’t aware of the terms “mass incarceration” and “public school to prison pipeline.” However, I was aware of the horrendous machinations ushering many of the kids of color I went to school with into the criminal legal system. And I usually felt the system’s presence when these kids would suddenly disappear from my classrooms and surrounding neighborhoods and never be seen again.
I share this because when I was presented with the opportunity to teach inside Rikers Island, my first thought was: I’ve spent most of my life trying to ensure I never got caught up in the system, and now I am being asked to walk in willingly? I sought counsel from my family and mentors, mostly people of color, and what I consistently heard from them was: Our people, trapped inside those jails and prison, need to see you. Based on the feedback I have received from the men and women I’ve taught at Rikers, this sentiment is true. However, what has been most surprising to me is realizing how much I needed to see them. There are so many brilliant, beautiful minds and resilient, warm souls locked up in our country’s jails and prisons because, for generations, structural racism starved their communities of the necessary resources for them to have a chance to live up to their fullest potential at the outset. Going into Rikers has enabled me to see beyond statistics and intellectual exercises that ponder the fate of our brothers’ and sisters’ existence. I was afforded an opportunity to get down to the work of reclaiming our collective humanity and imagining and building a liberated community. I have learned with and from all of my students on the inside.
PHOTOS COURTESY CHRISTOPHER P. WOLFE SOA’18
Well, I skipped over a few things earlier when I was recounting my journey as a writer. When I came back from Iraq, I didn’t exactly go straight to business school. I still had three years of military service left and during that time, those three guys who taught me to play guitar and I formed a band. We cut an EP, gigged all over Colorado and donated the money we raised to nonprofits that support soldiers coming back with injuries from Iraq and Afghanistan, such as the Wounded Warrior Project. I guess I share this because as I look back on my life, I see clear evidence of all the good that can happen when we show up for each other in a positive way.