Last fall, volunteer mentors who currently participate in the Poetry Center's workshop, FREE TIME: Building Community for Incarcerated Writers (part of our Art for Justice project), solicited submissions from incarcerated writers across the country to enter into our Resilience: Today & Tomorrow contest. You can learn more about the guidelines and call for submissions here. We will be sharing all winners and honorable mentions in the next few weeks, and you can find a full list of winners here.
Today, we are thrilled to present the Nonfiction Honorable Mentions.
BY Elizabeth Hawes
My room is on lower A. My view is at ground level, over-looking dying hostas brown and cracked, spindly milkweeds covered in hornets, and small thistles- green with lavender blooms. Beyond these plants is a short brick retaining wall of brown pavers and a green metal dumpster. If l look past the hornets and the trash there is a sidewalk that leads to a courtyard. My window faces west, the direction of the unknown, of going within and of dreams.
I get poor reception on my radio in the room. When I listen to the Twin's game it is frequently full of static. And yes, we've had a horrible season. We are in last place. Our pitchers give up homeruns in the 8th inning and our batters can't buy a homerun after we load up the bases. We have been injured all season and just traded away our best hitter, Nelson Cruz, to Tampa Bay and our best pitcher, Jose Berrios, to the Blue Jays. Yet baseball still comforts me. The sound of the game sounds like home. It is one of few things that normalizes my summer.
Surviving is all about finding what makes us feel whole. There are few pleasures in prison. For many the wholeness is in rebuilding shattered relationships. For some it is God, for others it's music or the gym or being on the phone as much as possible. The pandemic slammed the door on the small privileges we did have. This past year I saw many people- people I thought of as grounded and confident- cry. They had a hard time with the increased isolation. The 23 hours alone in their cell all summer; not being able to walk outside for months; no activities or religious services, and not being able to socialize with any friends broke many people.
The isolation did not break me. I did not focus on what I could not do. I was productive this past year because I made a list of things to do every day and I did them. I know that sounds simplistic but it worked.
I'm a big believer in Viktor Frankl's logo therapy. It is a philosophy of finding purpose, and that the search for meaning is the primary motivation of a person's life. I have a lot of dreams, but something that is important to me- that I can work on right now- is writing. I want to be a good writer. To make this happen I read classic and impactful books. I pay close attention to the first and last sentences of chapters, the length of sentences and the style of the writer. I journal every day. This past year I wrote on the pandemic and its effect upon the people who live in prison. I documented the constant quarantines, lack of mental health care, and the spiraling psyches. By looking at the virus through a lens of statistics the pandemic is bad. By focusing on the pandemic through stories, it is heartbreaking. Stories give a more complete picture.
This past year I often prayed for our country and the world.
I also wrote dozens of poems. I read a book called Sylvia Plath's Letters, Vol II (or something similar) that contained 700+ pages of letters she wrote during the last years of her life. She was so ambitious, frequently having 20+ poems circulating simultaneously to different publishers. I think she would have loved to live in this era, when publishing venues are more accessible.
Prison cuts us off from accessibility. We have no internet, and are not able to send the often requested "self-addressed stamped envelope" when we send out our work. (We can't buy stamps here.) The computer lab has been closed since March 2020. It has only been available for GED classes since September 2021.
From my cell I walk with protesters. I advocate for children of the incarcerated, women in segregation, and the importance of prison parenting programs in my essays. I connect with the world by watching PBS and MPR. I read Patti Smith (best NY poet/Rockstar), Lucia Berlin (best American short story writer), and Kathryn Nuernberger (best feminist ecopoet), and know no matter what happens around me, I still control what goes on in my head. I refuse to be bogged down by hornets and trash outside my window. I see Monarchs floating on the breeze.
Judge Piper Kerman, author of Orange Is the New Black says this about "Looking West": With great economy and attention to detail, the author of Looking West illuminates her internal world in the face of the double-isolation of incarceration during the pandemic. Absent the small pleasures derived from creating community in prison, she must draw upon a sense of purpose that is elusive to many both inside and outside of jailhouse walls. Looking West offers up the life of the mind, and the author’s resolve to be in the world despite exile.
BY Steven Parker
Being a father is hard. Just ask any father, they’ll back me up.
Being a father of twin girls is even harder.
Now imagine those twins becoming teenagers, getting their driver’s licenses and being sexually active.
Getting nervous? Palms sweating? Wait, there’s more!
How about being a father where one of the twins now identifies as male and the other town is dating both girls and boys? Just trying to unpack that whole situation is enough to cause premature hair loss… from pulling it out!
Throw in being a father who has been in prison since the twins were less than two years old and you can imagine how I might be struggling to present myself as an authoritative presence in their lives.
For instance, try giving fatherly advice to your twins when they’re juniors in high school… well, you might have more success convincing a Trump supporter that the election wasn’t rigged.
If things weren’t bad enough, then there is the pandemic. Fear of the coronavirus spreading through the prison caused them to shut down visitations for well over a year, so your beautifully complicated children are going through the most confusing and wonderful times of their lives and there’s no way for you to guide them or even just be there for them. Then, when they do resume visits, they are non-contact, so even when they are there, you can’t even give them a hug. It’s a level of frustration that’s almost unbearable.
Then, you have a surreal moment that seems to epitomize the whole situation… At the second visit since visitation has resumed, your twins are comparing knee scrapes. One, who works as a carhop at a local fast food restaurant, fell during work and the other, who is just clumsy, simply tripped. Well, they pull up their pants legs and show you their respective injuries. Much to your surprise, the twin who now identifies as male has more hair on their leg than you.
You make a joke about it to cover up your [ink blot] child replies, quite seriously, “I’ll die before I shave again.”
Sometimes, there are situations that demand action, other inaction, but in this situation, all you can do is wave the white flag and surrender.
Your darling twins aren’t the adorable kids who you could bounce on your knee anymore. Instead, they are young adults who have developed into sophisticated human beings with a definite view of the world and their place in it. Their guidelines are provided by social media and reality TV stars.
So what’s a father to do?
You go with it.
You support and love them unconditionally. You learn about TikTok, Youtube and try to keep up with the Kardashians. You listen and discover that while you’ve been in prison, the world has been going at light speed. Your children have cell phones that are more powerful than the fastest computer that you have ever seen or used. Your kids are better informed on world events than you are and have opinions about everything… and aren’t shy about sharing them. You learn new terminology like what it means to be “woke” or “pansexual” and why veganism isn’t the insidious trend you thought it would be. You listen and you learn.
Being a father is the hardest thing you will ever do, but rewarding in ways you could never have imagined. The key is to remember that even though you are in prison, you are still capable of being a part of their lives. You just have to become what they need you to be: a Millennial Dad.
Judge Piper Kerman, author of Orange Is the New Black says this about "Millennial Dad": Millennial Dad is a moving account of parenting from prison that draws the reader in with a lively conversational style. It squarely confronts generational differences around gender and sexuality while effortlessly conveying the deep unconditional love associated with good parenting. The author subtly shows how prison works to harm families, and how he steadfastly maintains the ties that bind parents and children, despite incarceration, the pandemic, and the unfamiliar territory parenthood presents.
You Can Laugh at Almost Anything
BY Sonia Weidenfelder
Less than two weeks after I hit the yard, I experienced my first prison talent show. There were most of the usual acts: Some singers, a few dancers, and a couple of poets. Most acts were mediocre; a couple were quite good. Then there was an act that surprised me: Standup comedy. “This is really going to suck,” I thought. “What do people in prisons have to laugh about?” I had just received a life sentence, and nothing was particularly funny. As it turns out, you can laugh at almost anything.
The jokes were not sophisticated; most were derisive. “Captain Gomez look like my big toe,” and “I asked Estelle if she brushed her teeth, and she said yeah. I said, ‘Estelle, quit lyin’! You know you ain’t got no teeth!’” were among my favorites. I actually laughed. Almost everyone laughed, including poor Captain “Big Toe” Gomez. It wasn’t until later that I realized I witnessed something remarkable.
I am in Oklahoma, which has been in the news in recent years for incarcerating more women per capita than anywhere else on the planet. This is also the highest security facility Oklahoma has to offer for women, so it’s where the lifers and other long-timers are left to rot. Not only does Oklahoma throw away its people in general and its women specifically, it also grossly over-sentences those it convicts. My friend Jonelle, for example, received 130 years because the state claimed she was starving her twin infants. The babies wouldn’t gain weight, so she sought medical care, at which point she was arrested. Years later, through more exhaustive medical treatment and investigation by the foster parents, it was determined that the condition was caused by their prematurity, a genetic disorder, and their inability to digest dairy formula. On top of this sentence, the babies’ father, both of Jonelle’s parents, and Jonelle’s mother-in-law, none of whom had previous criminal records, are all incarcerated on this case. With Oklahoma’s accessory laws, this is not uncommon. I could tell stories like this all day.
In a place like this, where the state has determined that you will never again set foot on free ground, how does a person find the resilience to keep going? In Viktor Farnkl’s monumental book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he states that humans can survive almost any how as long as they have a why. In other words, we can survive almost anything as long as we believe we have a reason to persevere.
What is that reason? What gives a person purpose? Outside of prison, family often provides purpose enough to keep going. For those with long sentences, too frequently there is no family left. When that happens, what makes life worthwhile? For many, myself included, faith is enough to keep us holding on. The belief that God is working everything for my good, His glory, and the betterment of other people gives me strength and purpose. However, I also have a more devious reason to hold on.
You see, from Frankl’s masterpiece I also learned something else: Someone can tell me what I have to do, but they cannot dictate to me how I do it. Oklahoma can tell me how long it intends to incarcerate me, and it can determine the conditions of my incarceration, but it cannot decide how I will respond to that incarceration. Only I can do that. I can behave any way I like. I can wreak havoc and spend my entire incarceration in lock if I so chose. I can follow the rules, but be a sourpuss and make everyone around me miserable (which they already are because this is prison). I can even shock everyone and be the jolliest, funniest lifer anyone has ever seen. I can live my life with joy and purpose, no matter what the state says.
There is a saying: the best revenge is a life well lived. If that is true then the joke is on you, Oklahoma. By paying for my incarceration, you are funding my revenge, my own private rebellion, my best-lived life in captivity. You are also providing me with a lifetime supply of “this one time in prison…” stories which are comedic gold. You don’t know it yet, but you are helping set me up for a comeback, because I will use everything I am learning here to make life better for as many people as I can when I go home. And I am going home.
Judge Piper Kerman, author of Orange Is the New Black says this about "You Can Laugh at Almost Anything": Stand-up comedy in prison? The author of You Can Laugh At Almost Anything uses a surprising early experience in a life sentence to make the case for how to do time. Incisive and informative, this piece lays out the sobering reality of incarceration in Oklahoma, the state with the highest incarceration rate for women in the world. It also allows the reader to learn about the author’s personality, and her philosophy and strategy for navigating harsh punishment.