Nigel Poor on Producing a Podcast From San Quentin Prison
In Conversation With Will Schwalbe On But That's Another Story
WS: Hi. I’m Will Schwalbe, and this is But That’s Another Story. I’m not a very nosy person. I’m not, by nature, an eavesdropper. If you’re talking about something and you aren’t talking to me, I don’t need to know what it is. I’ve got plenty on my mind without adding what you have on yours. But there’s one big exception—I’m very nosy when it comes to books. If I see you reading a book, I have to know what it is. Of course, this is no problem if you’re family or a friend. I’ll just ask. But it gets a little stranger with strangers. When I’m on the subway, and I see someone reading a book, I don’t always feel right sidling up to that person, interrupting, and asking for the title and author. It’s a bit creepy to start up with strangers—especially on a packed, sweaty train where most of us are desperate for whatever inches of space we can carve out from the crowd. So instead, I tend to crane, peer, and twist myself into knots trying to get a glimpse at the cover. I don’t know why I need to know what books my fellow passengers are reading—I just do. Of course, I find myself increasingly frustrated by all the new technology. If you’re reading an e-book, it’s much more difficult for me to snoop. And as for audio books, well—I may just have to start eavesdropping after all. And recently, I got to talking about the secrets we can learn from strangers when we listen closely with today’s guest.
NP: I’m Nigel Poor. I’m a visual artist and I’m the co-host and co-producer of the podcast Ear Hustle.
WS: If you haven’t heard Ear Hustle yet, you’re missing out. Ear Hustle is the first podcast to be completely produced from within a prison. In 2016, it was the winner of Radiotopia’s Podquest contest, chosen from more than 1,500 entries. When Nigel set out to make it, she says she had no idea how to make a podcast. (I can relate.) But it’s clear that from the very beginning, Nigel had one of the most important features down pat: she’s a very good listener. Maybe too good.
NP: I grew up on the east coast, outside of Boston. I grew up in a pretty suburban area with two parents and siblings. And I had a pony in elementary school that I rode to school every day, so I guess it was a little bit country as well.
One day, somebody came to our house with a horse trailer and this woman walked out this little pony that was black and had grey on its neck. And he came with the name Teapot because when he whinnied, he sounded like a teapot. And so it was a real dream come true and we lived close enough to school that I was able to ride him to school. My friend lived across the street so I could tether him out there during the day. And it kind of allowed me to kind of just roam freely around the town that we lived in on this little horse.
As a kid I didn’t have a lot of friends. That wasn’t a huge part of my life. I think I was always a little bit awkward and shy as a kid. So horses and imaginary friends, and. . . I mean, I don’t think I was an outcast, but I don’t have vivid memories of a lot of friends, to tell you the truth. I was a pretty quiet kid. I had a super vivid imagination and I read a lot and invented lots of worlds to inhabit.
WS: And Nigel’s favorite books where the ones that took her into those new worlds.
NP: There’s nothing like reading. There’s nothing to me that makes the brain function in such a creative way. When I pick up a book and read it’s like your brain is working out or something, and all of the characters in the story become so three dimensional in your mind, but they also become so tangible and I think you feel like they’re right with you.
I loved The Borrowers. It was like little people that lived in a house and they would come out at night and take things from the larger inhabitants that lived in the house that they took over. I loved Stuart Little. And I loved things that were small. So Stuart Little just seemed so cool—that there would be this little creature that would live in a regular sized house. And I had this collection of little mice. I’ve always been a collector and so as a kid, that was the first collection I had. And I think by the time I stopped collecting I had like 30 or 40 little mice that I always thought would come alive and hang out with me, but they never did.
WS: Mice were not the only collection that Nigel kept.
NP: I had all these shoeboxes that were organized by topic. So, I had a shoebox for rocks, for leaves, for found popsicle sticks, for notes that I found on the ground. And then I also had a notebook for overheard conversations. So, I just always was curious in other people, and maybe I did like The Borrowers because they were able to exist in a place where nobody saw them and they could collect whatever was interesting to them. And obviously, I was a regular sized person so I couldn’t really hide, but I think being quiet, I could go unnoticed a lot. And that allowed me to just sit in on adult conversations and collect what they were saying and talking about.
WS: Nigel left her horse and her collections behind when she moved to attend college in Bennington, Vermont. But she still found herself listening in on conversations, which had an interesting influence as she began to make art.
NP: When I went to Bennington, I studied photography and literature, and so I always had a camera with me. And I’d always been interested in the arts, but like a lot of photographers would tell you, they turned to photography because they didn’t feel like they could draw or paint—and that was definitely the case for me. And the other thing about photography that I loved was it was another tool for eavesdropping. Being a shy person, it was hard for me to talk to people, but if you had a camera, you always had an excuse to go up to someone and ask if you could take their picture or get into a conversation with them.
WS: And as she became more and more interested in photography, Nigel also came across the work of an author she had never encountered before: Raymond Carver.
NP: I remember I took a class on American fiction and that was one of the authors that we read. When I first read Raymond Carver, I think I was really shocked by the simplicity of his writing and how contemporary it felt, and how it felt like characters that I would know and see every day. So it was the first time that I remember a writer that seemed very connected to my daily experience, and that was confusing and also kind of elating in some ways because it wasn’t like another person’s experience. I could relate to it more as an experience I would have.
I actually felt like Raymond Carver’s short stories were a little bit like eavesdropping on everyday life and that he probably used his pen and paper as a way to talk to people—I imagined he was a shy person too , I have no idea if that was true or not. But that’s how I imagined he was, out there fishing for stories with a pen, and I was out there fishing for stories with a camera.“Being a shy person, it was hard for me to talk to people, but if you had a camera, you always had an excuse to go up to someone and ask if you could take their picture or get into a conversation with them.”
WS: And Raymond Carver began to have an influence on the stories Nigel told.
NP: After I read Raymond Carver, I really wanted to start doing portraits of people. Up until that time, I just photographed landscapes and inanimate objects. But after reading his story, I was like, I have to start looking at people more. And so I set a project up for myself that I would bring my camera and put it on a tripod and stand on a street corner in downtown Bennington and I would just wait for people to come up to me, and if they came up and started talking to me, then I would ask them to take their picture. But I never approached anybody on my own.
WS: When we come back from the break, Nigel finds herself revisiting the work of Raymond Carver—and learns how to approach.
WS: Nigel Poor had come across the short stories of Raymond Carver as a student at Bennington College. And when she finished school, she stayed in Vermont and kept reading—and rereading—Raymond Carver as she started a new job.
NP: I had a friend, Nancy Hertzberg, and both Nancy and I worked at this school—it was called The Bennington School. At the time, it was described as a school for juvenile delinquents—I don’t think that’s how it’d be described now. But it was a place where teenagers went who were. . .
I had to stay up all night and every night I had to go check the kids sleeping in the various rooms. And it was in a big mansion in a very isolated area, so it was kind of a creepy job and a scary job. And in order to kind of keep my mind together and stay awake, I read a lot. And I know I read Raymond Carver while I was there, and I thought a lot about his stories while I was watching these kids sleep and making sure they didn’t disappear during the night.
I was pretty young, I was in my twenties, and I don’t think at the time I realized what a really intense and difficult job it was. I think I probably looked at it as another interesting way to understand people and the different experiences that people have.
WS: The particular Raymond Carver book Nigel kept returning to was Cathedral.
NP: It was a paperback. It had a picture of what looked like a small Victorian house on it, which was the kind of house that I lived in when I was in Bennington, and it had a peacock on the cover, and it was very well read because I read it over and over again.
The stories that really stand out in my mind are about the everyday conversations that people have. I think it’s this whole thing about people trying to connect and also being awkward and paying attention to kind of quiet moments that happen that you think have significance, and maybe later the significance isn’t exactly what you thought. I think that happens a lot in his stories.
I was still at Bennington when Raymond Carver died. I believe I read it in a newspaper and I was so upset because he was relatively young. I remember thinking so distinctly that I had read everything by him and there wasn’t going to be anything left for me to read. And it was a horrible feeling because obviously, I had read lots of authors that had died, so there was a limited amount to read, but he had written so much, and there’d be so much more for me to get to know about him. When I realized that that was going to be it, I was really sad. I felt like I had lost someone I was really close to, which obviously I didn’t know him, but I didn’t understand how there couldn’t be anymore there. And it made me think about that with everything in life—at some point, that’s going to be it—that’s all there’s going to be and you have to come to terms with that. Whether that’s a writer, whether that’s in a relationship, or whether it’s with your own potential, at some point, everything kind of ends. And so you need to enjoy it and plum it for all its worth while you can do that.
WS: And soon, Nigel found herself leaving Bennington. She moved to Japan, went on to be a visual artist, and eventually moved to California. And it was there that she began thinking about issues of incarceration again, as she began work as a volunteer professor at San Quentin State Prison.
NP: I was teaching a history of photography class, and it was through that that I met a bunch of different men at the prison and got interested in finding a way to do stories. And I didn’t want to do something that was photographic because, one, it’s hard to bring cameras into the prison, but it’s also something I know really well and if I did a photographic project, it would be hard to make it collaborative. And so we came up with the idea of doing audio.
WS: Nigel and her collaborator, Earlonne Woods, currently incarcerated at San Quentin, began putting together a podcast.
NP: We started talking about the possibility that we could do longer form storytelling, that we could use more music, that we could swear if we wanted to, we could do whatever kind of stories we wanted. So we started working on it. And then we heard about a podcast contest from Radiotopia, and we entered that. And out of over 1,500 applications, we ended up winning. So that’s how Ear Hustle started. And to everyone’s surprise, including mine, it’s become a highly listened to podcast. I think we have over 13 million downloads now.
The stories we do are all about everyday life inside the prison, told from the perspective of those who are living it. I think what changes my mind and what I hope changes other people’s minds are stories about real experience. Unfortunately, many people, including myself, are really educated about prison through bad Hollywood movies, terrible journalism, scary stories on the radio, and so those were the things I had in the back of my mind. I’m embarrassed to say this—when I went in there, I went in as a professor and I was surprised how educated people were and about their varied experience. I had students in my class that had masters degrees. I had one guy who had a PhD. And they were super curious—they wanted to learn just like other students. In fact, I hate to say this, a lot of my students at San Quentin were better than my students at my university because they really wanted to learn.
What I’ve discovered at least in San Quentin is that yes, it can be violent, it can be scary, but people inside prison are just like people on the outside in that they experience all the emotions. There’s joy, there’s laughter, there’s depression, there’s anger, there’s frustration, there’s curiosity—anything we experience outside happens in prison. And the other thing that I started thinking about which really surprised me is that for better or worse, when you’re in prison, that’s your home for the time that you’re there. And everybody wants their home to be a place that you want to be.
WS: And Nigel also sees a connection between her original interest in eavesdropping and the podcast—right down to its name.
NP: My friend Nancy who gave me the second copy of Cathedral quite a few years ago worked in a jail, running an AA group, and I remember talking to her on the phone about it, and she told me about the expression “ear hustling”—that when guys were on the phone, they would ear hustle and listen to other people’s conversations. And so for maybe 15-18 years, I always had the idea of ear hustling in my head. When we decided to do the podcast, I said to Earlonne right away, Ear Hustle to me is the perfect name for it, and he agreed. So, we never had any debate or conversation about it. It was absolutely the appropriate title for the podcast.
I was very curious about life inside prison, and so in some ways, the podcast is about. . . eavesdropping sounds a little bit harsh. I think it’s about being curious and wanting to ask questions. But most importantly, it’s about wanting to listen to what other people have to say.
WS: So, do you think if Raymond Carver wrote about prison it would sound something like Ear Hustle?
NP: That’s a, I think that’s a really great question. So if Raymond Carver wrote about prison, would it sound like Ear Hustle? I think it would. I think it would. Yeah, I think he had that ability to get to the core of stuff and listen to the quiet things that people say. Yeah, I think he could definitely do that.
But That’s Another Story is produced by Katie Ferguson, with editing help from Alyssa Martino, Alex Abnos, and Becky Celestina. Thanks to Nigel Poor, Andrew Stelzer, and Meggan Ellingboe. If you’d like to learn more about the books we mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. You can also find a transcript of this episode and past ones on LitHub. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes—it really helps others discover the program. And subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at AnotherStory@macmillan.com. We’ll be back with our next episode in two weeks.