Reframing Justice Through Storytelling: An Interview with Joe Watson
Joe Watson is a writer and prison abolitionist working to achieve systemic criminal justice reform throughout Arizona. He is a 2018 MacDowell Fellow and recipient of several awards from the Arizona Press Club.
Lisa O'Neill: Can you tell me about the class you taught at the Poetry Center this spring?
Joe Watson: It was called Narrowing the Distance and it came out of my personal experience of not being able to participate in writing workshops when I was locked up. Before I came to Tucson, I was locked up in Yuma and Kingman, which was even more isolated. Family rarely gets the opportunity to visit their loved ones who are incarcerated, much less educators from Tucson, Phoenix, Flagstaff. There are opportunities here in Tucson that don’t exist at most facilities.
When I was in Kingman, I knew one goal—once I was sentenced, while I was in prison—was to become a better writer. I was a journalist before, which to me isn’t terribly creative writing. I was a longform journalist so I could try to incorporate elements of creative writing in my storytelling but that was part of my downfall before my incarceration was all that self-doubt that I couldn’t do it—self-loathing, imposter syndrome.
I started doing the things I think writers do. I read more. I started subscribing to literary journals. I had started saving the little bit of money I had and paid for a subscription to Poets & Writers. I started looking in the classifieds section and saw all these people offering their services as editors and writing coaches. I knew I couldn’t afford any of their services, but prison had removed any last shred of pride so I wrote to some of them and said, “Hey, would you be willing to donate a little of your time, a few lessons now and then, a little bit of feedback?” I wrote to about a dozen writing coaches and editors; most of them either didn’t respond or I didn’t get a response. Two of them said, “No, why do you deserve my help? You’ve obviously done something wrong. Do your time.” I had one poet, a guy named Wyn Cooper who wrote a poem a long time ago called “Fun” that Sheryl Crow turned into the song “All I Wanna Do Is Have Some Fun” and he wrote me and said, “Sure, I’ll do it.”
So he gave me a lesson to write a paragraph that used every sense. It was the “Show Don’t Tell” lesson. That one lesson really impacted my writing—and the compassion that it took for him to do it. He gave me a couple lessons after that. At that point, I continued to teach myself while I was locked up: writing, reading more journals and Poets and Writers. I tried to organize writing workshops on the inside. But without any feedback from people who really know how to write, you are writing in a vacuum and I became really frustrated. When I got out, I didn’t feel like I’d become much of a better writer.
I had a conversation with Aisha [Sabatini Sloan] and Wren [Awry] (former and current staff member at the Poetry Center). We all went to lunch one day shortly after I got out. I told Aisha [about my experience trying to write while inside]. She said, “We should have a workshop. We have such a vibrant community of writers in Tucson, why don’t we cultivate some people who can mentor incarcerated writers?”
In the six-week workshop, we had a dozen writers who wanted to mentor people on the inside. The first few weeks we talked about prison rules, prison policies, mailroom policies. What the typical day is for someone who is incarcerated. What their access is to books, pens, writing paper. And at the same time, we started reading works either about prison or written by people who’d done time. We read Reginald Betts. We read Edward Bunker. We read Dick Shelton. We read Wally Lamb collections of prison writing. We read essays written exclusively by women who were incarcerated. I think it was really important to establish empathy for people that we were going to be mentoring. And the writing itself was just so good that everyone in the workshop seemed to be inspired to either get back to writing or increase their productivity.
Right now, we have twenty to twenty-four people being mentored by people in workshop. The need is far greater than that. That’s at one yard at one facility at one complex that has seven yards on it. If we opened it up to every yard, we could easily have 150-200 people in just one complex. And then we have fifteen complexes around the state. You can see the need is pretty rampant.
Ultimately, what I hope the workshop becomes is a training for people to learn how to critique other people’s work, to provide feedback and nurturing guidance to people locked up and over a period of a few months to a year, establishing channels with the department of corrections where we can fan out across the state and we can be able to hold a weekend long workshop. Obviously, all that will take time and resources.
LO: You were a MacDowell Colony fellow? Could you tell me about that process and your experience in residency?
JW: I had never even heard of it before I applied for it. Reginald Dwayne Betts came here for his reading. I had a chance to have dinner with him, and he told me that he had some knowledge that the MacDowell colony was looking to increase the presence of marginalized artists. And he had read the story I wrote for Edible Baja about cooking [inside prison]. We had a conversation and he said, “You need to apply for it.” And Aisha [from the Poetry Center] was there, too [and encouraged me to apply]. I had never applied for any art fellowship or grant. I didn’t do it cause I thought I had any actual shot of getting it. I also had stories I’d been wanting to write and get down on paper for a while. So one night, my wife and I were talking, before she was my wife, and I was telling her a story about my childhood and at the end of the story, she said, that’s what you need to write. So I went and sat down at the laptop and wrote it all down in a voice that was super comfortable, one that just flowed. I wrote this ten to twelve page story in a night and I didn’t do that much editing. A week later, I sent it off along with the essay I wrote for Edible and figured, that was that. I applied. I did it.
Two months later, I got an email from MacDowell and I saw it was from MacDowell and I thought: there’s my rejection. And then I looked at the preview and I see the word “Congratulations” and it didn’t really register. So I opened it and it told me I had been awarded a fellowship for Winter/Spring 2018.
I went to MacDowell with a pretty clear itinerary and agenda of what I was going to do every day. I’m working on a collection of personal essays that link my life before incarceration to my life during incarceration. I told myself: ten pages a day, every day. Get a rough draft of a dozen stories—just a rough draft to get structure of each one of these stories.
And I started—I sat down at my big beautiful desk in front of my big beautiful window and I was ready to write. Except I couldn’t write. We’re told these are the ideal conditions to be able to create art and all of a sudden, the words aren’t coming out. So you start thinking: If I can’t do this in the ideal conditions, I must not be able to do this. I really struggled for three or four days that were so unproductive. I walked outside in the snow. Mostly, I laid in my bed watching TV on my phone. But I was terrified to sit at my desk at the computer.
LO: And then that shifted at some point?
JW: Yes, I eventually would write little paragraphs. I wrote half a page for one story. And then got tired of that and moved on to something else. And then got tired of that and moved on to something else. A week into my three week stay, I had a conversation with a [another fellow] writer Eric Puchner, who is a novelist and teaches fiction And I was telling him how difficult it was for me and what my goals were. This is a guy working on his third novel. He said, “You’re going to do what? Let’s just be realistic.” This was his third or fourth time of his at MacDowell. He said, “I will be lucky if I get a single chapter written while I’m here.” He said, “Just take it easy on yourself—don’t expect all of this greatness to come out just because of where you are.”
Nobody knew about my past. I just told them I was working on some personal essays and how difficult it was. Nobody really understood that I had come from where I had come and suddenly, ten months later, found myself at the MacDowell colony. Once Eric and writer Misha Rai reassured me that it was okay to not produce a single word while I was there, that really took the pressure off. It made it okay for me to struggle. And once it was okay for me to struggle, I struggled less.
I wrote three essays while I was there that I think are pretty good.
Everyone at MacDowell is encouraged to share their work and invite fellow artists into their studio. So I didn’t have an essay finished when I did this, but I put my name on a calendar and said, I’ll have a reading. I ended up finishing what I wanted to finish. It was autobiographical about a prison experience. So I introduced it before reading it and told people my background and it felt good that nobody left. I was afraid some of them might complain to MacDowell staff that they had been exposed to this person who had been incarcerated and not been told about it.
That was not the case. Every single person who came was so gracious and nurturing and compassionate. They all came up to me afterwards, shook my hand, told me what a pleasure it was to have me share. Misha Rai, whose work I’ve been reading so much now, quoted a line I’d just read and said, “I really love that.” That experience was so transformational.
LO: Can you tell me about your work with American Friends?
JW: I am a research and media consultant for Arizona Friends Service Committee Arizona. And AFSC in general focuses on several pillars of social justice. This office focuses entirely on issues surrounding mass incarceration.
My job is to update and maintain social media platforms, edit and write blog entries and press releases, maintain media contacts, produce our podcast ReFramingJustice and then also do research on different areas of interest, especially issues coming up in next legislative session. [Program Coordinator] Grace Gámez and I work on storytelling. We try to share the human narrative of people who are directly impacted by the system.
I have a really cool job. I get to work on something that is obviously personal to me and also purposeful. And there is a lot of creative freedom here. I write my own blogs, I’m producing the podcast. And I am playing catch-up on everything. I spent more than ten years locked up. I was locked up when the iPhone came out. I had no experience with Facebook, Instagram or Twitter before I got out. I’d never heard of podcasts before. I had no idea how journalism had been transformed in those ten years to what we see today. So I’m learning everything. So it can be really stressful to have to spend the time to learn everything. But it’s so rewarding when you get over that hump. Not only are you able to do job better, but it frees up time to spend with family and be creative—do my own writing.
LO: How did the ReFramingJustice podcast come to be and what does it try to address?
JW: ReFramingJustice is a byproduct of our multimedia storytelling project here at AFSC-AZ, conceptualized by Dr. Grace Gámez, to amplify the voices of those formerly incarcerated, convicted or directly impacted by the system (Everyone producing the podcast and featured on it has been incarcerated). All of us believe in the power of sharing these stories to humanize those of us who have been through the system and to change the dominant narrative that's perpetuated by system actors, such as prosecutors, police, and politicians.
LO: What is most inspiring to you right now?
JW: I always talk about my wife Juliana. I feel like she will be like, just stop talking, you’re only doing it to look like a good husband but honestly, I mean, it’s why I married her. She really is an artist, an activist, an incredible mother. She has that gift of articulation. She has that ability to turn what some might consider mundane into some beautiful, poetic, edifying piece of art. And she does it all while being this badass matriarch, this voice of authority in her community, speaking out for people who are marginalized.
LO: Could you talk about your role with the Poetry Center for the Art for Justice Fund?
JW: I'm working as the community engagement specialist for the Art for Justice Fund. I'm responsible for finding local artists in Tucson who have been directly impacted by the criminal justice system and whose work we can showcase to the community. I'm also connecting hundreds of incarcerated writers across Arizona and the US to the Poetry Center's work on the Art for Justice Fund, periodically sending them postcards through the Flikshop app. Those postcards will highlight the work of the Poetry Center's visiting poets with images and text and, hopefully, compel those on the inside to respond. And finally, I'll be leading a monthly workshop for community members who want to learn about conditions on the inside for incarcerated writers, mentor them via correspondence, and read and share the works of formerly incarcerated artists.
LO: What is the responsibility of writers as part of their community?
JW: I think if you say that you’re a writer then your responsibility is to illuminate the community in ways they haven’t considered before, painting pictures that they haven’t seen before, providing perspectives that they’ve never considered. Your responsibility is to articulate—in a way that only writers can—the world around us.
Lisa M. O'Neill is a writer, educator, singer/songwriter, and creative usher committed to social justice and moving through the world with authenticity and compassion. Originally from New Orleans, she has lived in Tucson for a decade where she writes into issues of social justice, sustainability, politics, and pop culture through essays, journalistic articles, think pieces, and hybrid forms. Lisa received her MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Arizona, where she taught writing in the English Department for a decade and was honored with the Lecturer of the Year award. She designs and teaches intimate online and in-person workshops on such themes as witness, place, and mindful writing, and she works with writers individually to help them discover their stories and clarify their voices. Lisa designs and teaches writing workshops with highschoolers who will be first-generation college students and with incarcerated students at juvenile detention, adult detention, and the Arizona State Prison. Lisa hosts, co-curates, and performs at the quarterly musical event The Old Pueblo Opry, which celebrates American folk, country, and roots music. She is a regular contributor to Edible Baja Arizona and received first place in Community Food and Beverage Reporting from the Arizona Press Club for 2015. Her July 2017 piece for Bitch Media was featured in the The New York Times "What We're Reading" list and her writing has also been published in Bustle, defunct, Diagram, drunken boat, Everyday Feminism, GOOD, Good Housekeeping, Salon, and The Feminist Wire. She is the founder of literary blog The Dictionary Project and is currently writing a book on sound and silence.