Poetry is like water: a conversation between H.R. Webster and Demetrius “Meech” Buckley


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What follows are messages between poet and abolitionist H.R. Webster and Demetrius “Meech” Buckley, a poet currently incarcerated by the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) with work in Apogee, RHINO, and the Michigan Quarterly Review. His chapbook, “Here is Home” was the winner of the 2021 Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize. This correspondence took place between February and September of 2021 and concern the publication of a special issue of Poetry Magazine focused on abolition, although they are part of an ongoing correspondence. Since that time Buckley’s messages with Webster and other editors have been censored by the Department of Corrections. 

Content Warning: Discussion of child sexual abuse and incarceration 


I'm going to start this letter off in a silly way, saying how we know each other like I'm somehow introducing our relationship to you for the first time, or trying to say what we mean to each other, though I often get it wrong. Best friend. First/dearest reader. We have been writing letters for three years now. Speaking on the phone for one. None of these things capture the electricity of these exchanges the confidences the extravagances of some of the words we have exchanged. We often tell each other "carrying flowers" after the poem "Picking Flowers" by Nate Marshall and that is it for me, we are carrying flowers. We are intimates (in my word) homies, (in yours). Am I getting any of this wrong?

When, in February, Poetry Magazine published an issue on incarcerated writers that included the work of Kirk Nesset, convicted of child pornography charges, and who has been accused of perpetrating sexual violence against his students, you were the first person I wanted to talk to. We had both submitted to it (as had my partner, whose two brothers are incarnated) and struck out and for me at least my first reaction was "Demetrius's poems are better than this man's." Jpay after jpay followed between us. I am a white woman, a survivor of sexual violence, an abolitionist who understands in a pretty bodily way the tug of carceral feminism. You are a Black man, with a young daughter you had just re-sparked conversation with in the brief bursts of phone time allowed on the frozen yard phone, serving a long sentence for a violent crime. And although I have never heard the word abolitionist cross your lips (even now, I'm a bit nervous this message will be flagged, as many of our messages were in the summer of 2020. The messages where you were most explicit about the through line between what you stole when you were free and the growing recognition that the looting taking place in Minneapolis was a political act. Where I was most inarticulate in my hopeful rage) I know you are radical in your hatred of prison, in your belief in liberation.

I wonder what it would have meant to you to be published in that edition of Poetry? What writing poetry means to you, more broadly? (You write often of a sense of responsibility to write). What did you first feel when you read that poem and read about that man?

You on point. We have built an intricate bond woven in the poetics, philosophy, and the mischievous pariahs (code word for revolutionaries) over the past years. So I call you a homie, best friend, first reader, an unseemly, unlikely combo that I respect. Nate Marshall, in his poem “Picking Flowers,” is familiar with the struggle so it is appropriate to adopt our cryptic lingo: “carrying flowers.” He gave us three reasons for one to be carrying flowers in a hood: “in love, mourning, a flower salesperson.” Ours is one of mourning because to be in mourning is to first have love, care, and honest vulnerability (We came into meeting backwards, I think so as soon as we became friends we mourned). So much to mourn: I am incarcerated as well as your partner’s brother; the world is burning; Black folks are being murdered by those who are supposed to protect and serve -- carrying flowers. And during police brutality, cities engulfed in flames, we were trying to understand a submission acceptance in Poetry's incarcerated issue. Why was HE chosen out of all the wonderful writers? I would've have ever known who or what his crimes were if he'd never published in Poetry and finding out afterwards felt as though something was slipped into my cognition without my permission. It unwillingly invites me into his world. 

It's the nature of the crime: child pornography. I have children; my friends have children; the world depends on our children...we were children. Second chances come to mind. I am serving a 20-year sentence for 2nd degree murder, killing someone who looks like me, someone who was loved, who thought as I did that the streets were our only option. Rehabilitation for me is accountability, a rigorous transformation to be adequately suitable to be of use when released into society. These behaviors begin with me, in a cell, my mind and surroundings. Child abuse and sexual violence is a sickness. Most of the people I’ve encountered who have these impulses were also harmed. I ain’t a doctor, but I think that having been hurt and being hurt need to be put in conversation with each other.  

For any writer from prison there is also a kind of registry when submitting work, the envelopes painted “correctional,” journals making special issues for the incarcerated. It's a forever stamp that wherever you go whether online or in person, your incarceration will be looked at as a pigeonhole mechanism. 

As I heard news of a poet/child harmer getting into a top mag, the world was also in turmoil. Black and brown bodies were gunned down by police officers. What took place in some cities weren't looting, or for my understanding I can't call it that. Pillage, spoils, plunder are all words of war used by usurpers, the winning side, and those I saw called “looters” on TV were not usurpers (I am a descendant of a looter: my grandmother's mother's father was a looter who took her body, the rape of a slave). But we hear “looters” on the news and it subliminally feeds the viewers’ idea that those individuals smashing, grabbing, burning, have declared war on America. But they/we/us, are fragments, footsteps of thieves, an ongoing war that was begun over 400 years ago. People said to the protestors, people who have never had a way out: don’t burn your home, your city, the part of it planned specifically to contain you. No one asks what it is like to have that burning inside you. Lit by the first plunderers, who looted our bodies. I think about those children who were victimized, had their innocence looted by this poet, I believe they, too, who will birth into this world the fragments of the fire burning inside them. Lit by trauma but with the possibility of remaking the world. That we will smolder together in solidarity.

For me to have been published in Poetry mag would've been straight, a Jordan poster with sweat on his bald head but me instead of Jordan...and hair. I suppose the writing world is full of surprises. Writing poetry means to give life, insight -- an unconscious giving that is divine in a sense. When I begin to give myself... then go without giving...it paralyzes me as if I may collapse into stillness-- if I don't churn the creation, almost like what lies beyond a thought, that inertia where everything is...everything. If I ain't expressing that place beyond thought while carrying flowers then I'm only a salesman.

We have talked a lot over the years about the radical act of holding both the knowledge that someone has done harm and the knowledge that no one deserves prison. And I don't mean knowledge on a light-on-the-surface-of-the-water way that dazzling way that feels like a clear path forward to a horizon--I mean a deep knowledge, a body knowledge that comes from having harmed and having been harmed (being human). Knowledge that takes the form of messy pathlessness of submersion. How do you hold all these things? How tired are you from carrying these parts? I guess another way to ask what I am asking is: how do we hold solidarity with what we consider to be the worst people? How do we work to trouble our abolitionism and hold fast to it?

I hold them sparingly, almost gracefully without actually touching them. My holding is more orbital, a gravitational response to prison populace and the act of another's wrongdoing. Harm is doubled, both the receiver and the received will be subjugated to trauma; both the mind and heart will conceive a reaction; both life and living altered. And we know this dismantling through experience. You don't send cancer patients to prisons. Or an Autistic child off to war, a troubled man into Congress. Carrying these parts is having to deal with it one way or another: in family, through friends, in passing. I don't tire -- frustration, yes, but to tire is to almost turn a shoulder. How does a war vet get treatment? Most of the young brothers I encounter have been in wars, traumatized to the point that they become desensitized to body, to soul, that we are only flesh and bones. Then thrown into a prison to scab a wound that never heals. Hans, I think we understand the meaning of accountability. And you can't fake remorsefulness; you can't just BE when you truly know what you've done has deeply affected others ... you kind of give yourself completely, but a day at a time to something meaningful. As Fred Hampton said: '' If I can't find anything worth dying for then I'm not fit living '' Of course this language is more radicalized for those who believe that a second chance is undeserving to prisoners.

One of my favorite of your pieces of prose is what you wrote about being in solitary--and the act of some other people in the hole (some people you felt solidarity with) to harass nurses with an act you considered non-consensual (flashing), and balancing your feminism with your anger at the nurses who act as guards and provide inadequate care with dehumanizing cruelty. You also wrote, in The Marshall Project, about conversations with your daughter where you worked to only communicate with her when she consented, even though it hurt you. I've always considered my abolitionism as primarily a question of consent: all arrests kidnapping, all searches sexual assault.

I dislike the action of others doing that toward women...we call it ''shooting'' or “gunning down,” to masturbate and leer at a passing CO or Nurse -- the shit to me ain't cool, and I confront those I frequent with on the yard and I express what I mean to them. What if it was your sister, mother, or child? How would that meet in your heart when you find out that the women in your family was stripped of consent? With me, I hold a standard, something I had to learn when it came to women. Some days my daughter don't want to talk over the phone and I don't force her to. I want her to know that she also has power, that it is never overlooked or dismissed because she's a child. In time this knowledge of her own control will grow and with it the thought that no wrongdoing should never go in silence. I want her to be empowered, to know that we are all equal in strength, honor, and power. And it goes for the women working in the prison institutions; no matter the occupation, cop, CO, nurse. Even though the nurses refuse us medical help and act as COs first, even though the female COs violate our consent by aiding in our incarceration daily, we still need to see them as humans, first. The inflicted primal act of these men is returned by nurse's corruptive response, refusing to give medical care. It takes a strong brother to be the example while at the same time the MDOC’s non-consensual acts are a  weapon used against us prisoners.

I am open with my daughter and allow her to express herself freely. This is how a man should be to a young lady, to listen and respect her as so. She became upset about visitations thru Video. She wanted it in person. My physical presence. To her, it was urgent that we meet this way. I understood... am I even real to her; am I a person or a voice; am I a horrible prison photo, a tiger mural behind me, or am I that tiger? Who am I? This is a common conception of ''father'' in the hood, the fathers who are incarcerated. Man, she was upset. She didn't want to talk me for a couple days or video visit me. These are her choices and I'm there whether she decides to video visit or not. Eventually, she agreed to the video visit.

How has incarceration informed your ideas about consent? What role does consent play in your poetics? How do you negotiate your radical politics of consent in the relationship between yourself and your readers?

Consent isn't in The MDOC lexicon. Shakedowns commonly blend with harassment, but it drowns with the rest of the things done to our bodies. Kidnapping, yeah. I swear that's what it feels like.

We have talked, at length, of your desire to be understood as a poet, rather than an "incarcerated poet" and how that classification, even when it comes from well-meaning or progressive ideals, prevents your work from being read as you would like. How do you negotiate that desire in relationship to projects like the special issue of Poetry. Are there moments when being read as an incarcerated poet feels right, other parts of your identity that you wish were more legible precursors to people coming across your work? Do you think that special issues or projects focused on creative work by incarcerated individuals are bound in some way to be failures?

My first negotiation is with myself: I could be widely read here. I could be seen as a creative writer, separate from other creative writers, but still a creative writer. I guess the negotiation begins with being able to compare my worth with other writers of the world, the ones that are in the moveable world. Will I be satisfied with what has been set aside for a person like me, the incarcerated Black man? Or am I supposed to be satisfied with the consistent marginalization of my writing craft? Does it not hold up with the other writers? Issues dedicated to the incarcerated pinpoint incarceration. They do open up an opportunity for the imprisoned, but being heard and being actively read are two different things. What about after a special issue dedicated to mass incarceration or the idea of prison, am I worth readers time besides the institutional rhetoric. Will my other poems of urban plight, love, and life hold value in a regular, month to month issue? Can I be a regular in an issue of climate change, or speak against police brutality alongside other writers? How does being in prison make my work more linear instead of a rounded poet like any other writer? Am I a flat character? Much of what magazines do for the ''prison writer,'' their issues dedicated to that awareness, is to make those aware that there is creativity in the penal institutions. The failure comes in when other topics or issues don't publish writers in prison outside of their special magazine issue.

When I express how prison desecrates a person's mentality I feel like I am the right person to invoke those images and I also try to lament the ''prison writer '' term by going outside the prison medium with the writing. We as writers must write who we are, where we are, and why we are for the time to come, but where and who we are is up to what we want to write about. Hans, when I read your work, I can experience your journey through every facet you give to the reader. Your experience in life isn't made up of one event. I truly know you believe this as much as we'd exchanged poems together. I and others here are more than one magazine issue.

I also wonder what you would have advised, if you had been an editor at Poetry or in the room, about what they should consider when putting together that issue? Do you think it is possible for a rich institution like Poetry to produce a truly abolitionist issue?

Poetry definitely could put together a true abolitionist issue. If I had a seat at the table, the issue wouldn't just focus on prison and it wouldn't be one issue. I love sequences so the first half of the issue would be for the youth, or a remembrance of them, living in trying situations: poverty, gang run neighborhoods, bad policing, schools, early pregnancies, drugs, all the things that make up the pipeline, what led to what. The middle and going off into the second issue would be more academic, writings that speak more of the casteing of society. Then writers who are in prison. What makes this unique blueprint to hold against other special magazine issues is that the bridge of professional writers is connected to professional writers in prison. A prisoner can write from any point of view, like all the writers in the world.

Finally--the big one my friend: What role do you believe poetry has to play in the destruction of Prisons? Poetry in general, and your work in particular?

Poetry is like water: whatever object it fills it takes shape. If there's a large amount of water flowing in the land it'll carve a way to the open sea or flood a city. People who write poetry can summon that strength by bringing their craft together. Poetry marks a person's journey as a river does when travelling through land, and if there are enough writers being heard from prison, and other writers in the field, poetry can really be effective to the destruction to the system, but when poetry from writers in prison is sparse to an issue every few years then the destruction of this institution has become a circus to society, entertainment where a report of feelings, seeing, and being is conquered by time. We writers fill these prison containers, carve our lives against these walls as we are poured in and out of our cells, out of facilities to journey down to open sea which is a release date. Occasionally, yearly, you may hear me if I speak loud enough. Is that enough?

Demetrius Buckley’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Michigan Quarterly Review, where he won the 2020 Page Davidson Clayton Prize for Emerging Poets, Apogee, PEN America, and RHINO. He is the winner of the 2021 Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize.

H.R. Webster's work has appeared in the Massachusetts Review, Poetry, Black Warrior Review, Ninth Letter, 32Poems, Muzzle, and Ecotone. Her collection, What Follows, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in Spring 2022. Poems etc. at hrwebster.com