Apology, College in Prison, and Belly Song book thoughts #20BooksofSummer

Hello, lovely reader. I’ve been away for longer than what’s normal for me. So sorry I didn’t alert you! I wasn’t expecting such a disruption. I deeply value you and your blog (and talk about you like a true friend to people in real life) and will be reading all the posts I’ve missed since July 21st. Here’s what happened:

As many of you know, I will be, for the first time, teaching my college composition class in prison. That’s right. A few years ago, my college partnered with the University of Notre Dame to bring liberal arts degrees to a select few men in a prison about 40 miles west of my home. To prepare, in late July I read College in Prison by Dan Karpowitz, which became Book #10 in my #20BooksofSummer challenge (though it wasn’t on the list). Karpowitz is a gentleman writer, so my thoughts on his book have been published on Goodreads.


The first round of training to teach in the prison setting is all about communication and physical defense. I was scheduled to do my training in the prison for three days last week. The first day, I was not allowed in the gate due to a paperwork mix-up. The second day I did physical training for five hours, led by an instructor who commanded respect, but greatly intimidated me with his (necessary) demands for no-nonsense or weakness. As a fat woman, I am more determined to not quit in physical situations like self-defense training simply (or vainly?) to prove to that fat people aren’t lazy. However, other physical issues cropped up, and I started to fade in class, which led to me almost passing out. The intensity of the setting (prison, demanding instructor, a swampy building with no air, disturbing stories about what can go wrong in such a facility) plus admitting to myself that I couldn’t give 100% affected me deeply. I don’t quit. I don’t complain. When I got home, I didn’t speak to my husband. I tried Twitter, but it felt silly. I went to bed at 8:30 to get ready for the next day of training at 7:00am and an hour drive away. During this time, I read nothing.

This Saturday, I read the shortest book I picked for my #20BooksofSummer challenge, which was given to me by Susan Stinson, called Belly Songs: In Celebration of Fat Women. Truly, the book was gifted to me, which makes me immediately biased because Stinson’s kindness touched my heart. I knew the book was out of print, but Stinson noted that the book is rare; thus I can’t convince you to read the beautiful pages because you won’t find them. It’s not even on Amazon. I feel delighted that Susan Stinson trusted me with her work.

I feel bad that Stinson believes I’m perhaps not a fan of poetry based on my claim that I don’t want to review poetry at GTL. In my experience, most modern poets are writing word barf that means nothing to me. Stinson’s poems glow. Give me more poetry like this.

This 44-page collection has poetry, essays, and very short fiction and includes an introduction by Elena Dykewomon and gorgeous cover art done in charcoal (1985) by Don Stinson.

The cover of my copy of Belly Songs plus the front of the post card Stinson included, which is a copy of a photo taken by Dorothea Lange. The photo, titled “Migrant Woman” (1936), is “one of the most widely recognized images of the Great Depression.”

Stinson celebrates the folds of her fat body in a way that leads the reader to reexamine her own fat and not only accept it, but see beauty. The word “soft” appears frequently, and the more I read it, the more softened I felt toward my own body. Stinson evokes whales and their mighty, thick tongues. She explores the geography of the desert southwest in the United States and how it grows and ripples. She also recounts personal stories, such as the time a boy threw a dart at her belly. The dart stuck in, and when Stinson’s mother took her to the doctor’s for fear of tetanus, the doctor remarked this little girl in front of him was too fat to sustain damage.

Stinson’s work is what I really want to find during my 2017 goal to read more fat fiction. Her sentences don’t simply disregard fat, but celebrate it. I may applaud a book with a fat character who doesn’t make a big deal out of her fat body — simply because this is so much better than books in which women diet or date their way into self-worth — but I know writers have a long, long way to go to get to where Susan Stinson was in 1993 when she published Belly Songs. I’ll leave you with a short poem:

Fat girls   let your shirts ride up

Lie down on the      cold spring dirt

and get mud on your fat backs

I love it. ❤ If the name Susan Stinson sounds familiar, you may remember my review of her novel Fat Girl Dances with Rocks from earlier this year.

20 books 2017
These are books #10 and #11 of my #20BooksofSummerchallenge, hosted by Cathy @ 746 Books.


  1. Wow that sounds like such a beautiful couple of books, and I really liked the poem you quoted. Also, I laughed out loud when you said a lot of poetry nowadays is ‘word barf’ because I completely agree. Also-good luck on this exciting adventure of teaching in the prison, there needs to be more people like you in the world! Will you write about some of your experiences on this blog?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Confidentiality means I can’t write about my experiences in any specific way other than to maybe describe what is different between a college and prison classroom setting or what I’m teaching. That information is all available anyway because it’s the same class as the one in prison. But in terms of how the class goes or what the students are like, no.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Good luck with the prison thing. The thing is the guys will have chosen to be there and will likely be thrilled to be doing something outwith their normal routine, so hopefully you’ll find them enthusiastic. The boys at our school were always much, much nicer to visitors than to regular staff! Well done you for taking it on. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That physical training sounds horrendous. Good for you that you didn’t quit. Have you read HagSeed by Margaret Attwood – it’s about a theatre director trying to get prisoners to stage Shakespeare

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I did miss you, and yes I’m forever talking to my family about my interactions with fellow bloggers. If I say Melanie said, they know who I mean! Good luck with prison, sounds like the training will be tougher than the teaching.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I remember your review of Fat Girl Dances with Rocks. I’m so glad you liked this one, too – but too bad it’s out of print!

    That training sounds tough. But I have no doubt that you’re just right for the job. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  6. How wonderful of Stinson to do that. I’m sorry you had such a bad experience with the physical ed part of things. To my eyes, you WERE giving 100%, and if you were feeling faint, you were giving more than you should have. You give to your ability and own strength, not someone else’s idea of that. If it helps, I always work doubly hard in a class where people are different from me in terms of gender and age, which is a slightly foolish idea but very deep-seated. BUT e.g. in spin class I’ve never felt unwell afterwards, because I set the settings how it will test me, not a general average person. Also physically and mentally you will have things you can do that others struggle with. I run slow but I run exceeding long. I bend backwards well and I’m darn persistent. You will have stuff too, strengths, beauties, that others don’t have.

    I’ll stop ranting on now. You’re a hero for what you’re doing AND for your work on this blog, and don’t let yourself tell you otherwise.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you so much, Liz. I see you’ve been in that same self-conscious boat as me where we feel the need to prove something to others to protect… well,I felt like I was protecting me and other women who look like me so they aren’t judged either.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes! You’re correct there. Like when a bloke in reception at the gym, when I was looking at the calories in a sports gel and he said, “Oh you don’t have to worry about the calories, it’s a fuel for endurance athletes” and I said, “Yeah, I know, and it’s got too few calories for the size, I like to carry as little as possible for my marathon training and I use gels that are more compact than this”, I wasn’t saying it for me exactly but for the other middle-aged women he might make snap judgements on.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Wow! A comp class in a prison. I honestly think that’s amazing! I don’t know stats on how things like this affect recidivism rates, but I’ve heard it can do wonders.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Glad that Belly Songs speaks to you, Melanie. You quoted here one of my favorite poems to read aloud, “A Brief Guide to Successful Living.” Before I read it, I give everyone in the room permission to identify with a fat girl, then offer them that evocation of bodily pleasure. People often get blissful. It’s fun.

    Teaching in prison sounds like a challenging and important thing to do. Glad you made it through the extremely challenging physical training. To my mind, taking a break if you’ve been pushed to the point of almost passing out is an act of strength (and one that benefits everyone around you as well as yourself), but I get the context and am so glad you got through it. I’m gearing up for a semester of teaching, too, and wishing you all the best in yours.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I hope things go better for you. I imagine it could not only be a physically challenging, but also mentally. I actually have an aunt who works in a prison’s library. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed Susan Stinson’s little book. I’m sorry to hear it is no longer in print. I’m sure teaching this new composition class will be a really interesting experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Wow, teaching in the prison sounds tough ! That training sounds totally intimidating. Best of luck to you, and I’m sending good thoughts your way!
    I’m glad that you’ve found another fat-positive book – sounds like this author is definitely worth reading! I remember your review of Fat Girl Dances with Rocks!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. You blow me away. Not only teaching in prison but experiencing such a challenging moment in working towards this goal and then publically sharing that moment. I’m not that brave. Do you feel like you are making progress? When does your teaching start? Self-defense is super important in these situations. My partner coaches meditation at local prisons, so I know what you’re going through. He did all that too. It’s pretty intense. He struggled, but he has never forgotten it. I think that’s the point.

    !! You got sweet book mail from Stinson!! That is so sweet. The book must be out of print, then? I wish I could find it. I’ve really enjoyed the little bit of Fat Girl Dances with Rocks I’ve had a chance to read. I understand what you mean about needing to celebrate bodies. The challenging thing with fiction is that most authors assume readers want to hear the story about how the fat girl overcame the fear and anxiety she had about her body. While those stories can be redeeming in some cases, that’s not the only time I want to hear about fatness. Can’t a character just love themselves unabashedly from the beginning? Or is that too unrealistic?

    I totally want to read these poems.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wrote about the training experience because I think of Grab the Lapels less as a place where I am marketing my work and more as a community where I work to make my friends comfortable and happy. If I disappear, they could/would worry, and I wanted to address a bit of that. I guess I’m not always sure what constitutes brave or a wise choice, and for that I stumble into trouble once in a while. But I can only be the me that I know. I’ve tried to be a different me. It’s really hard to come back from that (years of work to do so).

      As for Stinson’s book Belly Songs, I don’t see copies anywhere except maybe on the random site that wants $50 for it. However, her other books are all available.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m so proud of you also for recognizing that you can “only be the [you] and [you] know”. Most people go their entire lives without realizing that, or being able to manage it. It isn’t always easy. But trying is what matters. I’m just so impressed you’d not only be willing to put yourself out there and go through your Prison training, but also that you’re willing to share the details like that publicly. I’m totally rooting for you. Do you have to complete the training again or are you done?

        Liked by 1 person

        • According to my mom, who is the assistant to the warden of a prison facility in a different state, she has to do the training every year in January. So, we’ll see. At least this time I’ll have more experience. Everyone in the room with me this time was new except the woman who had been a correctional office 12 years ago, went to nursing school, and is now back to be a nurse in the facility.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Hm. David only had to do his training once, so I wonder if there are different levels of training based on how/when you interact with the prisoners? Either way, I hope that it gets easier if you have to keep this up! I look forward to hearing how college in prison goes.

            Liked by 1 person

      • He had a good social worker who helped him get the last 1/2 credit and transfer it back to his high school. He had to go “in” 3 weeks before graduation. He got to take Intro to hvac and a personal finance like Dave Ramsey. That’s all. I work for a college. I passed your post to my Dean.


        • Are you hoping your college can work in a prison facility? I know it’s a lot of work and funded by grants, not taxes. We’re connected with the University of Notre Dame, which has excellent financial flex.


  12. Your composition in course in prison sounds like such a worthwhile project. Good luck with it. As for Belly Songs, it sounds wonderful. Rare books like that break my heart. I wonder if Stinson would consider re-publishing it.

    Liked by 1 person

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