I facilitated a poetry workshop in a NY State Prison for something like eight years. In the course of this ever evolving course (what’s the trick for making the syllabus that’s to last 36 semesters?), I interacted with some of the most immensely talented writers I’ve ever come to know, before or since. I’ve written about this project in a number of places and through a few different lenses. There’s more to say and write about it, but I needed to move on for a while. The prison closed. I abandoned poetry. And in the ensuing years, I’ve been at work disentangling a jumble of writing voices that scrambled to fill the void in me.
Which isn’t to say that mass incarceration and racial injustice have ever left my radar as a concern. I am also categorically opposed to the death penalty, and while I do believe in consequences for actions, I don’t know that we’ve figured out how to mete these effectively as a society. How many US war criminals are scott free? Wall Street. Red lining. So much criminal activity that is perfectly legal it’s horrifying.
I’m not sure where this is all leading except to say I got an email today from someone who has done good work seeking justice – particularly through poetry (not just the content, but its enactment) – that there’s an opportunity afoot. There is a call for proposals for some whopping funding to double down on the work I’ve been on hiatus from. It’s enticing. I’m not concerned that if I or we don’t apply that that funding will get wasted; not at all. My question to myself is, should I step forward again to do it. I’m writing, looking for signs. That’s often where I go when I have questions: to the pen or keyboard.
I’ll let you know what I come up with. Meantime, it seems particularly timely to let you know about a project that came from the poets inside when I was with them. You may recall that in 2010 Bernie Sanders gave “the speech” for eight hours from the Senate floor in attempt to call attention to tax breaks for the wealthy. In the prison class we took his language and made poems with it. The results were originally published as a limited edition chapbook by Ugly Duckling Presse with the generous and smart support of Anna Moschovakis. The hard copies are all gone, but you can see it for free online here.