Emerge x Art for Justice: Erasures Against Mass Incarceration


Emerge x Art for Justice: Erasures Against Mass Incarceration

For the past year, visitors to the Poetry Center's Reading & Lecture Series and website may have noticed our work with the Art for Justice Fund. The University of Arizona Poetry Center’s Art for Justice grant funds a three-year project that has been commissioning new work from leading writers in conversation with the crisis of mass incarceration in the United States, with the goal of creating new awareness and empathy through presentation and publication.  In particular, through the work of leading poets, the project seeks to confront racial inequities within the criminal justice system to promote social justice and change. (Read more about the project here.)

As part of that project, we've teamed up with the Academy of American Poets and the Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University to create a tool called Emerge. Emerge allows a user to pick a source text and erase words or phrases to create a poem, called an erasure. 

What is erasure? Erasure is a form of poetry that uses an existing text, selectively erasing parts of it in order to create a new text. Using a source text, the writer can delete, white out, black out, or draw over words to alter the visual effect and meaning. Some of the most successful erasures use a source text’s language in a new way to reveal a truth that may otherwise be hidden. An excellent example is U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s "Declaration." Smith’s source text is the Declaration of Independence, which she erases to unveil the ways oppression has been written into the fabric of our society.

As part of the Art for Justice project, we invite you to create your own erasure using Emerge and view the community poems others have created in response. Our ten source texts are representative examples of legislation and policies that have directly affected incarceration rates in the United States. Many disproportionately affect people of color.

These texts were chosen in consultation with The Sentencing Project and The Marshall Project and are meant to be representative; there are hundreds of examples at the local, state and federal levels that could have been used for this project. Over the next few weeks, we'll be highlighting these texts here on our blog to talk about why they were chosen and how your erasures can imagine new futures. 

We encourage you to use this tool to think about the legacy of incarceration in the United States. Much of the language collected in our examples has imagined whole groups of people in particular, defined ways. Can you use this tool to imagine them differently?

Below are examples of two of the texts used for this project, both from our home state of Arizona. Written into the constitution of our state (as is the case with most others in the U.S.) is felony disenfranchisement, which takes away the right to vote from a person who has committed a felony. This policy prevents millions of people from voting in each election, and the numbers continue to increase. Maine and Vermont are the only states that do not place restrictions on voting after being convicted of a felony.  Arizona's Truth-in-Sentencing Laws were part of a movement in the 80s and 90s  across many states that created barriers to parole and early release based on the public's "right to know" how long an individual will be in prison. Combined with other rules, such as mandatory sentencing guidelines and "three strikes laws," this effectively keeps incarcerated individuals in prison longer. 

Arizona State Constitution (1912)

The Arizona state constitution prohibits those convicted of felonies from voting. In 2010, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld Arizona laws barring former felons from voting until the completion of probation and the payment of outstanding fines.

Arizona’s Truth-in-Sentencing Laws (1993)

Increased sentence lengths by abolishing parole and limiting earned release credits to fifteen percent reduction for good behavior.