The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Spoken word artist tells story of incarceration, community action

By Emma WestRasmus

Facing deportation after two decades behind bars, activist poet Eddy Zheng visited Macalester last Friday. His trip was a long time coming for Zheng’s friend, Political Science professor Paul Dosh. The decade-long friendship between the two is what brought Zheng to Mac for “Breathin’: An Evening of Spoken Word, Music, and Inspiration.” The event was a collaborative effort by Zheng, Professor Dosh, and Dosh’s brother Martin Dosh, a noted experimental and electronic musician.

A large, energetic audience of Macalester students and community members in Olin-Rice’s Smail Gallery attended the evening performance. The trio told Zheng’s story through various artistic mediums.

Zheng and his family came to the United States in 1982 when he was 12 years old. At age 16 Zheng was tried as an adult for robbery. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to seven years to life in prison. During his two decades of incarceration, Eddy taught himself English, completed his GED and earned a college degree through a San Quentin Prison college program.

Zheng now works for the San Francisco Community Youth Center as a Project Manager and travels around the country sharing his story. He has become an advocate for prison activism and a voice on Asian American and Pacific Islander issues. He serves as a national advisory board member of the “Asian American Law Journal” and is also the editor of “Other: An Asian and Pacific Islander Prisoners’ Anthology.”

“In prison I transformed myself,” Zheng said. “I was ignorant, had no self-esteem, and had no respect for anyone, including myself. I learned about taking responsibility-it’s not all about me, myself and I. Education saved my life.”

It was during his incarceration at San Quentin that Zheng met Dosh, who was teaching at the prison during the late 90s while in graduate school at the University of California Berkeley. Zheng was an active poet, and told Dosh that he should try crafting a poem of his own. Now a published poet who has performed at poetry slams, protests, and many other venues, Dosh remembers the beginning of his poetic career well.

“I told Eddy that I didn’t do poetry,” Dosh recounted.

“You do now,” Zheng replied firmly.

Their friendship continued in the form of “pen pal correspondence” when Zheng was transferred to Solano Prison and Dosh could legally correspond with Zheng. The two exchanged “hundreds of pages of letters,” Dosh said.

These letters provided the inspiration for ‘Scribes,’ one of the poems performed on Friday evening.

“‘Scribes’ was all original material,” said Dosh, who arranged the piece. “I went through dozens of our letters, and distilled a poem from hours of pages.”

Renata Nelson ’13 who attended the event on Friday said she found ‘Scribes’ an “especially powerful way to illustrate” the relationship between the two.

“Hearing their emotional reactions to events in each other’s lives made me as an audience member feel almost a part of their relationship,” said Nelson, adding that the background music provided by Martin Dosh added to the emotional tenor of what Dosh and Zheng were saying to each other.

Zheng recounted his experience of being in prison, shared several of his original poems and answered questions from audience members. Audience questions ranged several topics, from divisions within the Asian-American community in the Bay Area to the challenges Zheng faced in leaving decades of prison life.

The crowd was enthralled with Zheng’s poignant description of the first time he told his father he loved him and kissed him on the cheek during family visitation hours in prison. Zheng was 30 years old.

“My mom said she hadn’t heard it, so I had to do it again,” Zheng said, chuckling.

Dosh had been working to bring Zheng to Macalester since 2004, when he began teaching here. Zheng was ultimately released from prison in February 2007, but Dosh said he waited until this February to bring introduce Macalester to Zheng because he “wanted to do it right,” and felt like this was the time to do so.

“The primary beneficiary of this visit was the Macalester community,” Dosh said. “Normally I’ve been out raising money or attention for Eddy, but coming here to share his story was really something Eddy was doing for us.”

Zheng visited Dosh’s Comparative Social Movements course that had been studying the movement around Eddy’s release from prison, and according to Dosh was “the best informed audience” Zheng had ever had.

Zheng also visited an Asian Studies class, and shared several meals with groups of students as well.

“One of the things I learned from the students is that students here are pretty progressive and involved in a lot of social issues,” Zheng noted. “These students were so knowledgeable, and we had a great conversation about social movements, what it takes to start one, and who the players involved are.”

Dosh is hopeful that Zheng’s visit will make students “excited to get involved in activism surrounding prisons,” which Dosh cites as his primary service activity while in graduate school.

“I felt extremely privileged to hear from Eddy Zheng about his experiences, particularly in the context of the American Studies conference that was also held that day,” said Nicole Kligerman ’10 who attended the Friday evening event, and echoed many of Dosh’s sentiments about addressing the role of prisons in American society.

“Both events highlighted the importance of interrogating the schools-to-prisons pipeline and made me question more deeply Macalester’s role within the structural racism of both the prison and education systems in this country,” Kligerman said.

Zheng expressed hope that his visit to Macalester would be “educational and inspiring,” and would help sow the seeds for a community that embraces prison activism and tolerance for those who have experienced different journeys.

“It’s all about community-every community should be more inclusive of those who have maybe gone on the wrong path,” Zheng said. “We should not exclude them but rather embrace them, and hopefully provide support they need which will create safer, more compassionate communities.

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    Jane ParsonsSep 5, 2019 at 6:54 pm

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