For more than forty years, PEN America’s Prison Writing Program has, in its own words, “amplified the writing of thousands of imprisoned writers by providing free resources, skilled mentors, and audiences for their writing.” This year, in September, in collaboration with The Poetry Project, PEN is launching, BREAK OUT: a movement to (re)integrate incarcerated writers into literary community. Basically, PEN and The Poetry Project have recruited more than twenty-four reading series in New York and throughout the country to highlight the work of incarcerated writers. (If you’d like to see a schedule of the readings, click here.) The mission/vision is incorporated into the name of the initiative itself, and I am proud to announce that First Tuesdays will join BREAKOUT on September 3rd by featuring the work of Edward Ji in a brief, ten-minute reading before we begin our open mic.
One reason I decided First Tuesdays should join BREAKOUT, which I wrote about in the announcement I sent to the mailing list last week, is that our open mic was for a period of five or six years the literary home of two formerly incarcerated writers. Neither of these men attends First Tuesdays anymore—their lives have taken them elsewhere—but each of them shared work with us that not only declared how important writing was to them, both in prison and out, but that also spoke eloquently about the strength they drew from knowing that they had in us a receptive, interested, and invested audience.
Incarceration is, by definition and design, a silencing, and bearing witness as those two men refused to be silent remains one of the most important and moving experiences of my years as First Tuesdays’ host and curator. I felt something similar when I read the five poems by Edward Ji that we’ll be sharing on September 3rd. Here are the first four stanzas of “Alive:”
What are we—if not alive?
Locked in boredom akin to grief,
I wander lost in dreamless sleep.
Year by year, in vanishing sands,
I row against the stream.
My mind rots, cabbage-soft,
Accumulating a mental stink,
Picking staples with my teeth,
Still here, in year thirteen,
I pound the wall, feeling nothing.
My heart beats, but does not sing.
Numb, number still, it cries
A loveless chamber, yearning
To be stung.
Why am I alive?
Because half-human, I refuse to die,
Howling in my skin. One more day.
One more life! If only every man
Could live but twice!
Ji, like all the other BREAKOUT writers, came to language and to writing just like you and I did, as a way to make sense of themselves and of the world in which they live; and so there is no reason for us not to receive their work the way we would receive any other writer’s work. What most of us don’t know, however, what I certainly didn’t know until I went to the meeting of BREAKOUT curators earlier this month, is just how difficult the prison system makes it…no, I should not allow this to become impersonal: how difficult, painful, and risky those who run and work within the prison system make it for writers like Edward Ji not just to bring their work to a reading public, but also to be part of a literary community. By way of example, I urge you to watch this video of Jon Sands reading “The Railroad,” by Arthur Longworth and consider what it would be like to face the kinds of obstacles in your own work that Longworth describes:
I do not know the crime for which Longworth was sentenced to prison, but I assume he is not the kind of dissident we usually think of when we think of prison writing: people whose political views are deemed so dangerous that their government feels the need to silence them, sometimes permanently. Nonetheless, the treatment Longworth describes seems of a piece with that described by, for example, Nawal El Saadawi, who was sent to Egypt’s Qanatir Women’s Prison, largely because of her advocacy on behalf of women’s rights, where she wrote Memoirs from the Women’s Prison on a roll of toilet paper, using a smuggled eyebrow pencil.
Not, obviously, that it would be okay to treat Longworth the way he has been treated even if he were a political dissident, but the fact that he is treated that way raises the question of why, by whom, and to what his work, or the work of someone like Edward Ji, for example, is considered so dangerous. Answering that question, of course, is far beyond the scope of this blog post, but it points to another, less personal, though no less important, reason for wanting First Tuesdays to be part of BREAKOUT: If the work of Edward Ji or Arthur Longworth, or any of the other writers included in the BREAKOUT initiative, discomfits in substantive and productive ways those who manage and/or profit from our patently unjust system of mass incarceration, then it seems to me it is writing we should, as writers and readers, be paying attention to.