The Writer on Death Row: excerpts from an interview with Damien Echols
July 12, 2007
MB: You’ve been in here for fourteen years now, and the stereotype is that so many prisoners turn to education in order to become instant lawyers, but you seem to have gone in a completely different direction.
DE: I think that stereotype is pretty much only on television. Your average death row prisoner has an IQ of 80, and a person with an IQ of 80 doesn’t make a very good lawyer or student.
MB: I know you read a lot, and have read over at thousand books since you have been incarcerated. And I also read that your wife exposed you to a lot of Latin American writers. How have your reading habits and tastes changed over the years?
DE: She introduced me to Cortazar and people like that. I read things like that because I needed to. It’s good to have a larger frame of reference. (Laughs.) I don’t always enjoy them. For instance, at one point, I decided I needed to know all the Russian authors—Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol—you know, all these things I don’t really want to read, but know that I need that frame of reference. I also went through an entire year where I focused on military history: World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Revolutionary War, the Peloponnesian Wars, military strategy….anything on war. And it wasn’t because I enjoyed it, but because I thought that, one day, I might need it.
MB: And yet, in terms of your writing, you have turned toward poetry.
DE: Whenever I read poetry, my favorites are the Sufi mystics like Rumi and Hafiz, things in that vein. I was reading a contemporary journal the other day and as I read through, I realized that nearly every poem in it was just an anecdote broken down into lines. Modern poetry doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Sometimes it’s clever, sometimes it’s better than what I can write, but it just doesn’t seem to have that magic to it.
MB: You have also been working with a pretty decent creative writing teacher. How’s that going?
DE: We haven’t followed a systematic curriculum, so I think it is better than if I were in a class. We are free to go in whatever direction we want. But I have learned some important things about craft that had escaped me before.
MB: Do you have a regimen? Do you write at a particular time every day?
DE: No. I approach it more as a religion. You can’t dictate what time God is going to come to you. All you can do is wait. Now you can engage in certain behaviors that will make it more likely that the inspiration will come or that you are going to have an epiphany, but you can’t force it. It seems like if I try to get up in the morning and force myself to write, I push the inspiration further away.
MB: Yet you seem pretty prolific.
DE: Whenever it does hit, I get completely lost in it, and I might not stop writing for days at a time. I have filled entire journals in a matter of days.
MB: In deciding to publish some of your work, I was most struck by the pureness of your descriptions, which I think must come naturally. What are your weaknesses? How does your teacher deal with those?
DE: I can usually play the pity card: “Hey, I’m on Death Row! Give me a break!” But sometimes I do try to work on them.
MB: Is there any real solitude in a place like this? It seems so noisy to me.
DE: It’s noisy and solitary.
MB: You can block that out?
DE: You have to learn it. If you don’t, you’ll go insane, and I’ve had fourteen years of practice. I just don’t hear a lot of it anymore. A lot of times, I’ll be on the phone and someone will say, “My God, what was that?” And I’ll say, “What?” (Laughs.)
MB: This current generation of students that I deal with love their noise: televisions, I-pods, whatever…it’s like they can’t focus without something in the background.
DE: I’m like that. I can’t even go to sleep without my television on. My television hasn’t been turned off in years. Literally. I have not pushed the power button in years. I turn it down sometimes, so it’s a background noise, but not off.
MB: I was looking at your Amazon.com wish list. Is that for real?
DE: Oh yeah.
MB: The Martha Stewart stuff?
DE: I watch Martha Stewart every single day. What I look for are things that I can incorporate into things that I do, particularly insofar as visual art goes. I’ve had two art shows of my boxes. I went through painting and collage for a while, but what I really enjoy at the moment is making cards…greeting cards. So I watch Martha hoping she’ll show me something I can use.
MB: What are you reading these days that you really enjoy?
DE: Have you ever read this guy named Robert Greene? He wrote Art of Seduction, Concise 48 Laws of Power, and 33 Strategies of War. These books are incredible. If you just pick one up and read the back cover, they seem sinister, with categories like “Choosing Your Victim,” but when you actually read them, they are the sweetest, most magical things. In Seduction, for instance, it talks about making someone else’s world a better, more magical place…taking them out of this horrible, mundane place where they have to work their 9-5 job or put up with things they don’t like, such as grocery shopping for cat food. It’s about taking them out of all that and pulls them into a different world. And I absolutely love that book. One thing I can’t stand is slam poetry. In five years that will be some of the most irrelevant crap, not worth preserving on paper. Did you see the HBO prison series called Oz? (Laughing.) They have this guy who stands in the cafeteria of the prison, constantly doing that slam poetry, and they’re all prison related. There’s one where he walks out on the tier and sees a guy with a pack of cigarettes, and he says, “Those are my cigarettes, bitch. Were you in my cell?” So he starts choking the guy…
MB: Nobody throws food at him?
DE: No! They sit there listening raptly. So he chokes this guy unconscious, and then he realizes, “Oh wait, that’s not my brand.” (Laughing.)
MB: So the poem only amounts to a joke.
MB: I was impressed by the growth in your writing since your memoir, Almost Home, to this new material.
DE: Almost Home was written very quickly. It’s very rough; I was focused more on emotion…it was cathartic for me. Also, when I was writing that, I wasn’t thinking about a lot of people reading it. I was writing directly to Margaret Cho. It was written as a letter. I didn’t have an eye out for posterity. And I write poetry, but nothing gives me the sense of wholeness as my journals.
MB: Have you taken any correspondence courses while you have been here?
DE: Through UCA, I’ve taken several psychology and sociology courses, and some German. I tend to stay away from math as much as possible.
MB: No crime there. So if you get out, will you attend college in Arkansas?
DE: No, I think I’d have to leave. I’d love to go to England or one of the Scandinavian countries. But Maine or Vermont would be great. I’d like to go to Boston because the Red Sox are there. Ultimately, I’d like to teach.
MB: What do you think of the books and films made about you?
DE: I won’t participate in any more. I am sick of other people making money off my life story.
MB: What other projects are you working on? You mentioned having written a song with Eddie Vedder.
DE: Do you know who Jonathan Richmond is? From the Modern Lovers?
DE: I’ve been reading poems and journal entries to him and his wife over the phone, and they are setting some of them to music, and hopefully some of them will come out by groups like Australia’s Dirty Three and Cat Powers.