What Incarcerated Writers Want the Literary Community to Understand
Caits Meissner on Why "Prison Writer" Is a Limiting Label
Through the piles of white envelopes stacked on my desk, each marked with a red correctional institution stamp, an unusual cut n’ paste package called my attention. The oversized envelope—featuring a xeroxed photograph of a sky-high mohawked punk—reminded me of my younger days of snail mail, and the giddy anticipation of discovering a handmade zine or mixtape stuffed into a similarly-designed sleeve. Inside was a letter from someone named Sean Thomas Dunne, written to his newly assigned mentor in the PEN America Prison Writing Program. Listen, he warned, “I’m not really looking for some highfalutin’ jack-off on a philanthropy trip to pat himself on the back because he donated his time to an aspiring unfortunate.”
This is the way it would work, Sean wrote: “I send you the stories, ’cause I want you to see I have the goods. If you don’t think I do, okay, fair enough. I’ll continue with my own agenda [and] promote myself and my stories through punk rock publications, street performances, online venues, and open mics, and consign at stores whose proprietors meet the expectations of my ethical standards. At least that’s the plan.”
The letter went on to say that if, indeed, he did have the goods, this was the kind of exchange Sean was looking for—real feedback, connections to publications, an epistolary relationship of mutual sharing underscored with the word substantive. I turned to my colleague to share the missive aloud. And then, with Sean’s permission, we staged that entire letter at PEN America’s annual literary gathering in New York, the 2018 World Voices Festival, as an unconventional—funny, crass, effective—expression of our pedagogy: connective versus charitable.
Sean’s written voice, a mix of raw vulnerability and barking candor, feels like both an assault and a gift, and it certainly draws attention. Sean doesn’t want your pity, your charity, or your faceless feedback. And, like the rest of us who scratch words in the night, hoping someone might one day read them, he wants his work to matter. If you’re going to be in touch with Sean, one thing you’ve got to know is that he hates, I mean really hates, the label “prison writer.”
With the shameful problem of mass incarceration elevated in the national conversation, it is easy to make a case for the sort of pseudo-genre of “prison writing.” It names a body of work that challenges public perception of “prisoner,” illustrates the capacity for personal transformation, calls out the system’s gross inequity, uncovers root causes of violence, and brings the failings of the criminal justice system to light. Our PEN America Prison Writing Awards program serves an additional purpose by judging writing exclusively from those currently incarcerated. I’ve been told that simply seeing the contest name advertised had opened whole pathways of possibility for incarcerated writers. This is for me. I am not forgotten. I am welcome here.
On the flip side, nearly every serious writer in prison I’ve encountered grows a similar disdain for, or at least frustration with, the label prison writer—one that slaps on a special qualifier of romanced danger and warped intrigue, invites immediate background checks, sets up expectations of particular content, and potentially turns off an entire readership. This phenomenon is expertly expressed by writer Elizabeth Hawes—also currently incarcerated—in her short nonfiction Exposure, a piece we commissioned for a recent event of the same name. She writes:
Every time a prisoner submits their writing into the public sphere they are subjecting themselves to an audience who can easily look them up and be told a prosecutor’s version of a story (true or untrue) about their conviction. This is in juxtaposition to all a prisoner desires: To put the past behind them; To lay low and quietly merge back into society; To reconnect with those they love in fresh circumstances. . . .While all artists/writers question the value of their work and wonder who is viewing it and how it is being perceived, a prisoner who is an artist or who writes always carries the added burden of having to apologize for their past.
Our program works to balance naming and celebrating excellent writing coming from the prison environment, while also envisioning an expanded horizon—one that stretches beyond the silo of “prison writing” events and one-off prison-themed lit mags. But when working to bridge inside/outside divides, we always run into the same problem. Prison, as a concept and physical institution, is doing an exquisite job of punitively suppressing expression, creativity and connection. Significant labor is needed to support even one writer in helping their work be seen in the world beyond the walls, and thus, baked into every interaction, regardless of intent, exists the power dynamic of “helper” and “the helped.”The problems always develop because the desire/need for connection by the incarcerated exceeds the capacity of any one person, organization, or venue.
This summer we engaged in a lofty experiment. In partnership with The Poetry Project, our Prison and Justice Writing Program team at PEN America asked all the local reading series we could dig up in New York City to host the work of a currently incarcerated writer during the month of September—a nod to the Attica uprising anniversary, the inspiration for our program’s founding more than 4 decades ago. In these venues, writers in and out of prison will be featured side by side for an audience that gathers in the honest pursuit of inspiration, community and good writing. Incredibly, over two dozen reading series signed on (with a handful across the country) to receive and stage a uniquely curated set from the most active writers in our network.
Writers. Who happen to be in prison.
Paradoxically, in order to move the needle, we first must call on the writers as spokespeople, taking ownership of the incarcerated label in service of sparking conversation on a larger scale. What’s the call to action, we wondered, in staging this event series and in sharing this information? To raise awareness always feels like a cop out, but taking action feels largely philosophical, not to mention, difficult to resource. For the first step, I think, we begin by listening.
We invited a handful of writers featured in the BREAK OUT movement to answer three questions about the experience of being a writer in prison. Here are their answers:
What do you want us to know about the experience of being a writer in prison? Or being a writer outside of prison (the label, the stigma, the space)? Or both!
ZEKE CALIGIURI: The story of incarceration is not a singular one. Just as the story of marginalization or the dynamics of power do not follow a singular linear moral pathway throughout our history. That is why it is important to broaden the spectrum of voices being held in the great captivity business. Whether free or encaged, we all live with some kind of stigma—that’s the nature of making decisions you can’t take back. We have to temper our own regret with our belief that our work matters at some deeply philosophical or social level, that cannot be represented by anybody else. So, as writers, we are conscientious that a sense of self-value can only be created personally. If we are looking to be redeemed at some greater social level with our work, I’d say that is an undue expectation for our art. We only get short windows of time on this earth to be and create, wasting it because we want other people to love or like, or forgive us is a lot of pressure to put on our art.
I would also say that writing is hard, and it can be so much harder when it comes from a place where it isn’t supported by anybody. There isn’t always typing opportunities, and so much of the editing and revision processes are excruciating. And honestly, people who run these places don’t care if you are a writer or the greatest living artist on earth—they want the facility to run as simply as it can be. Individualism is stifled. Then there is the censorship. Anything can be deemed threatening.
So, we become so protective of our art, and so much of our energy goes into protecting our ability to create. It’s a whole second level of survival that we are constantly aware of; one, our own, two, our work.
JEVON JACKSON: One of the most important things to know about the imprisoned writer experience is the difficult balance we have to strike in separating our grievances and our gripes from our Art. If it is pure grievance disguised as Art, then, I believe, it is unlikely to be truly absorbed or appreciated by the reader. And our everyday lives are overwhelmed with grievance—not just the superficial grievances that are a consequence of imprisonment itself, but the earnest human rights grievances that are the catalyst for reform and revolution.I really believe that writers—like any other human beings—need community more than they do a sense of personal legend.
Just within the past week, I’ve personally experienced a week-long lock-down which was initiated with a unit shakedown (rooms tossed asunder) by 70+ rookie guards, as over 260 inmates stood idle, crammed onto a small, muddy rec. field for four hours. How do I make such an experience relatable to a middle class father of three from the financial district of New York or to a 60-year-old retiree from a low-crime cul-de-sac of Connecticut? That is the balance. To go beyond the individual agonies to tap into the collective humanity that we all can identify with.
SEAN THOMAS DUNNE: I want you to know that I absolutely fucking hate being a “prison writer.” It makes my allergies flare up just thinking about it. It’s like every editor’s desk at every literary journal, publishing house, annual writing contest, and school newspaper is just inundated with submissions from “prison writers,” or something. And these cheezedick motherfuckers are really driving down the value on my shit. I try to decorate my envelopes in a spunky way so as to distract my recipients from the bullshit parental advisory label that the cockknocker who reads the outgoing mail stamps on there. But nothing’s doing. It’s come to the point where I’m certain that “STATE PRISON GENERATED MAIL” is interpreted as “THIRD RATE TRIPE FROM A PILE OF HUMAN GARBAGE.” Oh, man. You gotta know how much I hate it.
Does it ever occur to me that the summary rejection with which my work is customarily received could be based upon its lack of merit rather than a discriminatory act of classist passive aggression? No. It doesn’t.
Now, as pertains to the second part of your question about being a writer outside of prison, I will admit to this much: I’ve spent 1/4th of my life in prison, it’s true. But what the fuck was I doing the rest of the time? If I was so worried about the horrid connotation of being a prison writer then I shouldnt’ve spent the other 3/4th’s shooting up and masturbating in a bush.
JUSTIN ROVILLOS MONSON: Seeking out thoughtful, honest feedback on my work has often felt impossible, let alone submitting anything for publication. This lack of accessibility to a viable literary community has made me feel perpetually alone, like it’s all pointless. On the other hand, if you put in the work, you can have some successes. The danger comes, I think, when you feed into the idea of being a “prison writer.” I’ve heard quite a few times of the romanticized notion of the poet, working with fire and fury, alone at their desk. Though probably unconscious, I think this notion is often attributed to the poet in prison, by both the poet and the outside literary community. This image isn’t necessarily a bad thing—it can be what drives a poet to write and what generates a hunger for their work—but I think it can also lead to false ideas of what it means to grow and thrive as an artist.
Of course there are exceptions, but I really believe that writers—like any other human beings—need community more than they do a sense of personal legend. The writer in prison faces a paradoxical dilemma, one of working against both carceral isolation, and romantic arrogance; of both attempting to transcend the “prison writer” label, and taking advantage of the literary community’s hunger for marginalized voices.
B. BATCHELOR: I am lucky enough to be part of an amazing writing community with the Stillwater Writers Collective (a large group of inmate writers who support each other through writing) and the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. I think that I am much more fortunate than many incarcerated writers around the country who are not afforded this opportunity. From the very beginning I have been nurtured and supported and given the creative space to spill myself on the page.
It is tough dealing with the internal issues of the prison environment (the noise, the constant hassle, the inherent negativity, etc.), and in the past we have not been given much of a chance in the publishing community, whether with literary journals or independent/major publishers. The landscape for us has completely changed. I feel that the “inside” and “outside” writing communities have blurred the stigmatized lines and there is growing support to have our voices heard.
CHARLES NORMAN: Prison officials in Tallahassee (headquarters) frequently republish my work on their websites and even Facebook. Many guards tell me they enjoy my writings, and learn from them. Others, who have the chain-gang mentality that all prisoners are scum, subhumans who don’t know their places, who need to be taught lessons, are the ones I avoid, since there is no room for positive dialogues with such closed, hateful (mostly ignorant) minds.
I have experienced retaliation from prison staff for my writing, and been locked up in solitary confinement for my work. A corrupt mailroom supervisor had me locked up over a poem I wrote (a PEN prizewinner), and when she brought my legal mail to my cell, she told the escorting officer, “He’s a fucking poet.” I won a federal retaliation lawsuit against her, and she lost her job for lying, filing false disciplinary reports, and stealing postage stamps, but that didn’t give me back the time I spent in solitary.
RAHSAAN THOMAS: Being in prison allows me the time and space to focus on a writing career. I don’t have to worry about lousy pay for beginning writers or crushing bills that may have forced me to pursue a career other than this one I love so much. However, without email access (which we don’t have at San Quentin State Prison in California) or a full time secretary on the outside, it’s difficult to submit work to most organizations because they only accept stories sent through Submittable, which requires going online. The days of handwriting or typing up stories and mailing to a magazine editor are nearly at an end. Unless the prison system makes some changes, writers who are incarcerated may soon be heard from very seldom.
What are your hopes for how your work is received by literary community on the outside?
SEAN J. WHITE: Bright lights, big city. I aspire to fame inasmuch as most people do. Who in their life has not entertained a daydream of being a high-profile artist? I want to someday do an interview on Fresh Air, and be featured on a segment of the PBS Newshour. Such things, however, do not occur without people. That is, if no one hears or sees my work, the work will remain confined to the limits of my existence. Of course, I had better put together damn good work if I want recognition.
I want notoriety and acclaim within the literary community because I have this dream that if my work becomes significant enough it will help me get out of prison—be it commutation, or parole, or whatever. Is that realistic, or does it fall within the theme of David Hammons’ “Higher Goals” sculpture? At the same time, anything I achieve affects the collective. With a spotlight, prison and the issues of mass incarceration appear in the background. Any level of fame I gain also gives me a platform to highlight prison issues.
JEVON JACKSON: My hopes for how my work is received by the literary community outside is that it connects simply to the point where it is not passively embraced as work from an “imprisoned writer,” but from a writer who writes about his pain, his imprisonment, his joy, his relationships, his life. My hope is also that the literary community out there can see themselves in some aspect of my shared experience.
CHARLES NORMAN: I really have no expectations. My hopes are that I can continue to “bear witness” and express the truth about my experiences, communicating those truths to those “out there,” who would not otherwise conceive of the realities we live through. When a prison guard read one of my poems, she said, shivering, “It gave me goosebumps, it made me cry,” that may have been the highest praise I’d received. Months later she was brutally murdered by another prisoner, which haunts me to this day, recalling conversations we had about my writings, and the loss.
B. BATCHELOR: I hope my work is received the same way that they would receive their peers in the literary community. Not as something less than or something marginalized, but as something equal, or something striving to be equal. We are all artists; the only difference is our space and circumstances, but that is external. All writers share a similar internal landscape that we visit, maybe fall asleep under a weeping willow, muse in a clover field, breath vitality from the breeze that loves us enough to caress our face with cool hand. All I ask from the outside literary community is to read and listen to my/our work with complete mindfulness and openness. You never know when we will meet each other on that same internal landscape.
JUSTIN ROVILLOS MONSON: I hope that readers can digest my work with intent and appreciate my writing without falling victim to the tendency to tokenize or romanticize the “real prison experience.” If there’s any beauty in the language I put into my work, I hope that the focus can be placed on that beauty, rather than some stereotypical benchmark of “rawness” or “realness.” The people in my work, including myself, are real human beings who endure real consequences for their actions; I hope readers will focus on that.
LOUISE K WAAKAA’IGAN (AKA KAROL HOUSE): It is my hope that the literary community will see me as a woman, a writer, a voice, not as a prisoner holding a past.
SPOON JACKSON: Hope can be a strange word at times for hope, especially for lifer prisoners in California, is often hopeless. My hope is that the literary community know they have fellow writers incarcerated who would welcome their exchange with letters and critique—I mean there is so much, so many depths an incarcerated writer can take the outside literary community to enhance their writing, and it can be a two-way street. There are such intense and to-the-bone experiences that can be shared with outside writing communities, and art and writing suffers without fellowship.
In what ways can you envision a lasting connection with literary community outside the walls? From your perspective, what can we do to be more inclusive, or to help shift the narrative?
JUSTIN ROVILLOS MONSON: The most exciting part of receiving the Writing for Justice Fellowship from PEN America was being the possibility of being a part of—and less apart from—the literary community. I sincerely hope, as time goes on, I can further feel not only that I belong, but that I am making meaningful contributions of work to that community and tradition, beyond being recognized and appreciated mostly—or solely—for my contributions as a “prison writer.” I think, if you want to change the narrative surrounding writers in prison, programs and organizational mechanisms and practices need to continue to push us to write beyond prison. By that I don’t mean the content shouldn’t be centered in the institutions that have shaped our lives so tangibly, but that the bar should be set high enough to demand quality work over the possible tokenized inclusion of marginalized voices, and the resources made available to us should reflect that demand.I have experienced retaliation from prison staff for my writing, and been locked up in solitary confinement for my work.
The literary community as a whole should continue to ask tough questions about its role in responsibly cultivating and giving audience to the voices of incarcerated writers. Some of these questions might be: How can we make it easier to find and submit to our platforms? What can we do to match up the work of incarcerated writers to publications that will appreciate the individual works? And what steps can we take to push incarcerated writers beyond the “prison writer” label and into the mainstream literary fray, while still honoring the stories and content that come from the prison experience?
B. BATCHELOR: Personally, I would love to be able to have access to more writers/poets on a one-on-one level, creating possible relationships with my contemporaries as if I were an MFA candidate making meaningful connections along the way. One of my favorite things to do when I receive a new poetry book is to find the acknowledgments page and read all the names the poet thanks for their friendship and partnership in creating the poems in the book.
RAHSAAN THOMAS: If possible, create a Submittable assistance program where incarcerated writers who sign up are notified of publishing opportunities and are assisted with editing and sending in their work.
LOUISE K WAAKAA’IGAN (AKA KAROL HOUSE): There needs to be more conversation with prison staff and administration for them to see the value and importance of writing opportunities, classes, computer time, support groups. I am fortunate to have a strong supportive network within the facility here, yet I know not every writer on the inside has this.
ZEKE CALIGIURI: The simplest way to be more inclusive of our community is to read our work. Don’t necessarily segregate us from the rest of the literary landscape as a specific body with specific politics and culture. The incarcerated are just as nuanced and different from each other as artists and personalities as the spectrum that exists in free literary circles.
CHARLES NORMAN: Encouraging those in the literary community to write letters or emails to prisoners, if nothing else, to say they enjoyed that person’s work, or offer encouragement, could be meaningful to someone locked in a cell with no other human contacts. By making the prisoners’ addresses available, and encouraging citizens to write them could change someone’s life. I’ve had an email address for over 18 years, a website and blog for over 11 years [that my wife runs], and that has been life changing for me.
I’ve received comments from readers in 100 countries over the years. A 25-year-old single mother in South Africa wrote that she’d been reading my blogs for three years, that life was hard in her country, but if I could survive and live a positive life under my circumstances, she could, too. That makes a lot of suffering worthwhile. Give the prison writers some positive publicity, send them copies they may use for their freedom efforts.
SEAN J. WHITE: The incarcerated are famished for connection. Outside of prison people go to where the literary community congregates—readings, bookstores, workshops, et cetera. We have little of that here, and that which we do is typically brought from the outside. I feel it necessary to say that although some in prison have less than ideal intent, most have a genuine desire to have a reciprocal relationship (I use that word in the broadest sense) with those who communicate and connect with them.
Additionally, gatekeeping (in the literal and metaphorical sense) creates issues. Prison staff deny access at times to those wishing to say, run a workshop, and impose numerous restrictions on those they do let in. From the literary community, gatekeeping occurs because of the sheer volume of requests—insufficient money, insufficient time. For anything to succeed requires grassroots development. That is, if a non-incarcerated writer “adopts” one incarcerated writer into his or her circle, or a bookstore “adopts” 25 to 50 incarcerated writers, eventually the majority receive the connection they need and desire as enough people and venues participate. The problems always develop because the desire/need for connection by the incarcerated exceeds the capacity of any one person, organization, or venue.
I have three suggestions to make a more lasting connection between incarcerated writers and the literary community. First, bring more workshops and reading to jails and prisons. The poet Bruce Dethlefsen visited New Lisbon Correctional Institution several times while I resided there. Unfortunately, he is one man, and there are over a hundred prisons, correctional centers, and county jails in Wisconsin alone. Second, a regular compilation of news and notes for and about incarcerated writers.
Finally, I would suggest something akin to PEN America’s mentorship program, though on a grander scale. Unfortunately, anonymity costs money. However, in a system operated by, say, a bookstore, such correspondents could pay for postage and use the address of the venue that a person might visit regularly any way. In those cases where a prisoner has access to Corrlinks (an electronic messaging service—growing more frequent in application) or something similar, a postcard could be sent with a name and email address. The likelihood of potential crimes perpetrated against a correspondent seems minimal. Writing a cross-country prisoner would diminish that further, as most blue-collar crimes involve drugs, and what drug-addled mind drives hundreds of miles to burglarize a home (Truman Capote’s book offering an outlier).
SEAN THOMAS DUNNE: I hope my work will be received with the unyielding enthusiasm of a fucking Beatlemaniac at Shea Stadium in 1965. I want so many people to be screaming in ecstasy that you can’t even hear what the fuck I’m saying. I want to be invited to spend the night at your house and I wanna drink your beers and smoke your bud and I want to be DJ and Master of Ceremonies all night long for the meaningful experience that we’re gonna have.
I want to be written letters of love and hope precipitated not by some bourgeois charity agenda but predicated instead by the value of my personality and talent. I wanna take L.S.D. with you. I wanna ride bikes with you. I wanna Facetime with you. I wanna lend myself to care about your problems, and when shit goes sour between you and your old man I wanna be the alkaline base that uncurdles your funk. I wanna talk to you about punk rock. Fuck, man. I shoulda put that first. Aw Christ, I been thinkin’ about this one a long time!
Great Heavens to Mergatroid! I wanna listen to new bands with you and cut and paste collages and write zines with you on your bedroom floor. I wanna hold your hair back when you puke, girly. Wanna buy you a corn dog, girl. You gotta check out my double kickflips and my pressure flips. Fakie pressure flips. Pressure flips for days, girl. And seahorses fuheva.
We could totally watch all the horror movies I’ve missed these last five years I’ve been upstate. Aw, man. You don’t even know. This one time I sat there and watched all the Halloween’s with this beautiful gothic girl named Crystal. I sat through ten hours of Michael Meyers, and don’t get me wrong, I was fully into it cause I love horror movies, and plus we had just narrowly escaped the iniquitous obsession of methamphetamine possession and we ate and slept finally, and her dad came by and took us to rent movies, so we were just smoking long bud and feeling the serenity of 1980s horror creep into the synaptic knobs of our overused dopamine receptors, and just doing it grande.
But inasmuch as I had a lifetime lasting episode of joy to reflect upon and look back on in the real life horror movie that would ultimately envelop the rest of my life, I also had a monumentally miserable experience ‘cause I wanted her so bad. But Crystal just didn’t feel that way about me. One by one. Halloween 1, 2, 3, 4, 5? The whole time flailing in the dichotomy of joy and abject torment as she sat there in her tiny boxer shorts on her futon, beside me. It was awful.
But maybe it won’t be like that with you. Maybe this time you’ll just look at me the way I always wished she had, and we’ll go and put bottles of dish soap in the fountain at city hall and we’ll start an acoustic punk band and we’ll hang out at Tompkins Square and Battery Park and when the cold weather comes, and when the rain comes, and when the dope runs out, and when the cops come and take us away and we wake up on the holding cell floor and we have to kick, at least we won’t be alone. That is what I hope to accomplish when I put my motherfucking pen to page.
Maybe it’s hard for you to imagine this, but I have tears in my eves cause no one has ever thought to ask me that question. So, I would like to yield the floor to the little blue eyed boy inside me, staring out the window, waitin’ for mom to come home at three am: the answer to your question is I just want to be your friend.