Zeke Caligiuri on the Incarcerated Writers Who Edited An Anthology on Class
In Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
Writer and editor Zeke Caligiuri joins co-hosts Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan to discuss American Precariat: Parables of Exclusion, a new collection of essays on class he co-edited along with eleven other incarcerated writers. The volume’s contributors include Eula Biss, Kao Kalia Yang, Lacy M. Johnson, Valeria Luisielli, Kiese Laymon, and many others. Caligiuri, who worked on the book while in Minnesota correctional facilities and is now free, discusses the challenges of creativity and the literary life in prison settings, as well as how the book came to be. He also reflects on the idea that “the history of class hasn’t always been written by the powerful, but they have always been its editors,” as he writes in a foreword, which he reads from during the episode.
Check out video versions of our interviews on the Fiction/Non/Fiction Instagram account, the Fiction/Non/Fiction YouTube Channel, and our show website. This episode of the podcast was produced by Anne Kniggendorf.
From the episode:
Whitney Terrell: I want to rewind a little bit so our listeners can hear about the long road to this book. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got your start as a writer via the Stillwater Writers Collective and later with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop?
Zeke Caligiuri: I really just got my start as an incarcerated reader. A big thing is that my relationship to books and language has always made me want to be able to write the books that impacted my life in the same way. I sort of began writing my own stories and trying to put together my own life, and I ended up running into a cohort of people when I was incarcerated in Stillwater that were also writers or artists. And a big draw that I always tell folks is that when you’re in those sorts of places, the artists tend to find each other. There can be 1000 people, but the artists tend to find each other. And that was really what the case was. Anytime I was anywhere, I always ended up finding other people who were working on things—creatives. As a result, we also realized that there wasn’t going to be support coming from outside of the facilities. We had sort of all gotten together under the idea that we needed each other as a community for whatever that meant, so that it could grow.
One really good friend of mine, C. Fausto Cabrera, and I always had a real kind of complicated artist relationship. He was phenomenal with all sorts of different mediums like paint and pastels, and he was also a phenomenal writer. I had this project that I wanted to write—I was writing my memoir at the time—and I was really afraid that they would do something to stop it, they would do something to prevent it from getting out there. So we had these sorts of ideas, like, how are we going to build sort of some collective power? There’s really only so much you can do in there, but it was about trying to create a collective of artists and creatives that would be able to somehow help each other.
Regardless of what it was, we just knew that we didn’t have outside support, and so we built what we call the Stillwater Writers Collective, which was just the collective of us. We ran it. We did everything it took to take care of each other. Fortunately, what ended up inevitably happening was Jen Bowen coming into the facility. Jen had decided she wanted to teach some writing classes, and she did at one of the other facilities.
When Jen started teaching at Stillwater, bringing other folks, it was sort of a natural relationship that just took over. Essentially, they came to us and said, “What do you guys as a writing community want and need?” And these are all people that had been doing other things in that same realm for many years, just not within carceral institutions. It became kind of this idea of, well, we would love some writing classes, we would love a mentorship program, and we would love to be able to post readings and do things like that. We’ve been able to do those things and they brought all of the right people. That was essentially what a lot of the core was—Jen going out and finding wonderful people who were also wonderful writers and very talented and understood.
I guess the landscape of it and what it kind of became was these two communities—one outside of the prison and then the prison communities itself, growing up alongside each other on these two different tracks. And that’s really what brings us to how the project becomes and how… How we have a community in which to be able to create something like this.
WT: You wrote a foreword to this collection, and you talked about the lack of infrastructure for writing or creating art inside these prisons. And you talked about computer labs that have been proposed and set up by members of your community. It made me think, just in a practical sense, what did your writing day look like when you were incarcerated? Where did you work? What did you work on? What hours? Did you have to work? What was your physical environment like?
ZC: That’s a good question. Well, I was locked up for 22 years, so I had a lot of changes. It was really about adaptation. I worked as a higher ed clerk, I worked as an editor of one of the newspapers at one of the facilities, I worked on the yard crew for a long time. Most of my practice would start very early. So I would get up prior to breakfast, prior to counts, prior to any of those early things that you have to get out and switch up. And I spent time with the word. Sometimes that’s really just reading, sometimes it’s writing. So most of my days, and even as a free person—or mostly free person—my practice starts in the morning. If I can start with some blocks of language, I can get something in my mind without any outside interference. You’re not hearing the voices or things that are barking out of a screen.
If I was fortunate enough, I would get some computer time. I think the last job I worked was in the health service unit at Faribault. That meant you dealt with a lot of people with either long-term health care issues that were not going to leave, or were just recovering from different surgery. So I would spend my day usually reading and writing and then when I could get a chunk of time—an hour to three hours—on a computer, I would go and transcribe as much as I could. In the early days, I took jobs intentionally so that I could go type in a computer lab. You also had to build relationships. Early on, it was really difficult because they didn’t support the prison writing workshop. They didn’t really care that you were in these classes. You had to be in higher ed to be able to use the computer lab.
WT: You’re writing by hand then and taking it to a computer lab and typing it?
ZC: Or on an actual typewriter. We actually would keep a typewriter, it’s just much more difficult and harder to keep a file.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: For an incarcerated writer to be transferred from one facility to another, what ability to keep files is there? How does a writer keep track of their own work under these circumstances? Is that possible?
ZC: Now it is a little more possible. But you do not get nearly as much computer time as you would like, so that’s the thing. Sometimes you might get a couple hours a week, sometimes you might get more. Each facility has different access. So when I left initially—I had left Stillwater in 2013—I had written my book and had most of this manuscript done. I was working through the process of editing it, and we didn’t have any sort of network file system. They have since changed it. Now if you do leave, your stuff is still saved on your file. So if you go to another facility, it’ll still be there. When I left it, it was not that way yet.
We went through a really grueling process. I would make edits and send it to a woman who was a close personal friend—shout out to Myrna—and she would transcribe from an actual hard copy, send the digital copy to my editor at U of M Press. They would print that out, do a whole bunch of markups—just like the olden days—and send it to me. And we went through that process. I would circle things, maybe mark small things on the page, but then also maybe have a secondary page. So we had to go through that process several times, just because we couldn’t save the manuscript digitally on my end. So we had to do it through other folks and different channels.
Transcribed by Otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Mikayla Vo.
American Precariat: Parables of Exclusion (ed.) • This is Where I Am • Prison Noir (ed. Joyce Carol Oates) • The Sentences That Create Us: Crafting a Writer’s Life in Prison (ed. Caits Meissner) • How a Collective of Incarcerated Writers Published an Anthology From Prison – Electric Literature • “Before I Was Anything” (poem) Literary Hub
Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop • What Incarcerated Writers Want the Literary Community to Understand: Caits Meissner on Why “Prison Writer” Is a Limiting Label (featuring Zeke Caligiuri, Literary Hub, Sept. 11, 2019) • C. Fausto Cabrera • Kiese Laymon • Valeria Luiselli • Steve Almond • Jen Bowen • Kristin Collier • Sarith Peou • Toni Morrison • Eula Biss