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Feature Thu Jun 23 2011

How Criminal: A Conversation with Keith and Kent Zimmerman

This is a guest post from John Wawrzaszek, a contributor to Newcity, publisher of the zine the Muse, the News, and the Noose, and Fiction Writing student at Columbia College. This feature is based on his interviews with the Zimmerman Brothers, guest editors of the next issue of tri-city (but with a strong Chicago association) journal Criminal Class Review.

Collaborations are one of those things that can end with mixed results. When they work out well, the effort appears seamless and the final product is something to be applauded. This is the working model Kevin Whiteley, aka Wayne White, founder of the punk-inspired Criminal Class Press, has followed with his journal, the Criminal Class Review. The publication searches for gritty, hard luck tales from all walks of life. For their second issue of 2011, Whiteley's idea was simple: get some guest editors, throw in work by local artists and writers, showcase it all at a local reading series, and call it a day.

What ups the ante for this issue is the fact that guest editors the Zimmerman Brothers, identical twins Kent and Keith Zimmerman who reside in Oakland, California, definitely aren't without merit in their own right. Keith describes their career as "living exclusively off the blank page." Since the 1980s the two have worked writing for music-based magazines, penning books and articles alongside such noted music icons as John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) singer of the Sex Pistols, rock legend Alice Cooper, and country musician Trace Atkins. They've released 17 books, with topics ranging from the Hell's Angels to the Black Panthers. "We're associated with edgy topics and characters because that's where the great stories and the game-changer personalities spring from. Our latest book, Operation Family Secrets, takes place in modern day Chicago." says Keith. "We must proclaim that we love Chicago VERY MUCH," continues Keith. "We love its people, food, media writers and journalists, literary and cultural scene, hipsters, characters, and most of all the inspiring and incredible human dramas that emanate out of Chicago." Kent chimes in, "Right now we're working on another project set in Chicago. For some reason, we can't escape Chicago."

Their work with Criminal Class focuses on a different side of their background. The brothers also work with inmates at California's San Quentin state prison, where their job as editors allowed them to include material from prisoners -- Criminal Class Review's "Prison Issue" features real criminals. The two describe it better, jumping over one another to finish the others' thoughts.

The Zimmerman Brothers

Keith: We volunteer/teach our San Quentin class in a castoff area
called H-Unit, population 1000 inmates, who live in bunks and dorms instead of cells like the lifers. It's called Finding Your Voice on the Page. We've been doing it steadily since 2003.

Kent: It all started eight years ago with a cold call to the woman in
charge of education. We brought along a copy of Hell's Angel, figuring it would either help us or sink us. The warden at the time assigned us to H-Unit where there were virtually no education programs.

Keith: These guys may be only a couple years or months from being
back on the streets, technically no more than ten years max.

Kent: These were the guys with release dates ready to move into your
and my neighborhoods! We've chosen to stay in H-Unit ever since because we prefer the transient nature of the inmates. That way we have long time "repeat offenders" who keep taking the class along with a constant churn of new faces who come and go and sometimes come back.

Keith: We talk about writing and the publishing world as a vocation. In addition, we assign a topic and the men write strictly inside the classroom in 45-minute spurts. The next week we hand out typed up documents of their writing and read it back to them as they follow along. The writing is so over-the-top funny, sad, poignant, crazy and true that the guys can't believe them and their classmates have actually written this stuff. We edit very little. We teach students to write like they talk and show and don't tell. We dramatically read their prose back with extra mustard for the full effect. The writing
that appears in Criminal Class Press is based on writings assigned over the past eight months, and we are very thankful to the San Quentin powers-that-be for giving us permission to share the writings with the outside world. The guys at Q are jumping up and down for the opportunity to appear in Criminal Class Press.

We started with four inmate students and now we have broken past 40 each Friday night. The energy level is as sky-high as any poetry slam you've ever been to. Every week. These guys are on full blast. We need the class as writers to inspire and ignite us after a week's work, so we're not doing this as hug-a-thug bleeding hearts out to save the world. It's a give and take thing. We help them do their time from Friday to Friday, and they inspire a couple of guys like us who sit in a room all day and push words out the door.

Kent: What amazes me is how our class transcends the race issue on
the yard. Outside our classroom door, the races rarely intermingle. Inside our classroom, they support each other, applaud each other and even relate to each other's differences.

Keith: The unexpected occurred in 2010 when we challenged six
published writers to compete against six of our writers in a Literary Throwdown, and the San Quentin guys beat them. We also beat a talented team of MFA writing grads in 2011 from the California College of the Arts from San Francisco. We intend to take on two top Bay Area universities next.

Kent: As far as dramatic moments, we see and hear alarms go off, armed CO's [correctional officers] sprinting across the yard, ambulances pulling up outside our door loading in stabbing victims. There have been riots, lock downs and violence, but we never feel particularly endangered. It's sort of like being inside one of those cable TV prison shows, but with 40 bodyguards dressed in blue denim.

The Criminal Class Review's "Prison issue" will have its' official release at the Windy City Storm Slam, a reading series hosted by ex-boxer turned writer Bill Hillmann. The series will feature readings from the issue, only not by the inmates. As if all that isn't enough, the cover art for the issue was designed by artist Toni Fitzpatrick, whose work has appeared in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Criminal Class Press and the Windy City Storm Slam will hold the Crime and Punishment show on Sunday June 26th, at 7:30pm. The cost is $5, and the event will take place at MultiKulti, located at 1000 N. Milwaukee ave.

-John Wawrzaszek

Criminal Class Review: vol. 4, no. 2

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Behnam Riahi / June 24, 2011 12:30 PM

I got to read an advanced copy of this issue. The work is fucking tremendous, without doubt.

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