Experts in autocracies have pointed out that it is, unfortunately, easy to slip into normalizing the tyrant, hence it is important to hang on to outrage. These incidents which seem to call for the efforts of the Greek Furies (Erinyes) to come and deal with them will, I hope, help with that. As a reminder, though no one really knows how many there were supposed to be, the three names we have are Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone. These roughly translate as “unceasing,” “grudging,” and “vengeful destruction.”
This week’s article is a bit diferent, and has really nothing to do with the Furies (who are probably so busy with Brett Kavanazi and the anonymous op-ed writer [you can run, but you can’t hide – from the Furies] that it may be a mirracle if they have any hair left at this point). I’ve been getting emails from PEN America (not the same as The PEN, although I get theirs too), and I admit to not reading every one, but the one I received this week – TC may know they have been doing this, but I didn’t, so I’ll assume most of the rest of us don’t either.
Every year, hundreds of imprisoned writers from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population. Manuscripts come to the Prison Writing Program in a variety of forms: Some are handwritten, some are typed, some are written in the margins of legal documents. Prizes of $250, $150, $100, $50, and $25 are awarded for first, second, third place, the Dawson Prize, and honorable mentions, respectively, in each of the following categories. Read our winning manuscripts by clicking on each title below!
I knew that PEN America was into freedom of the press, both in the United States and throughout the world, but the Prison Writing Project is way over and above that.
Founded in 1971, the PEN Prison Writing Program believes in the restorative, rehabilitative and transformative possibilities of writing. We provide hundreds of imprisoned writers across the country with free writing resources, skilled mentors, and audiences for their work. Our program supports free expression, and encourages the use of the written word as a legitimate form of power. We strive towards an increasingly integrative approach, aiming to amplify the voices and writing of imprisoned people to expand beyond the silo of prison, and identity of prisoner…. On September 13, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading at the Brooklyn Book Festival, Break Out: Voices from the Inside.
I can’t possibly share all the award winners just because of length, but I’ll share a few in full or in part, not necessarily First Place, but some I found moving. You can find links to all the winners and honorable mentions at the link in my second paragraph.
Poetry, Second Place, Sean J. White, “discovery after twenty years in prison”
Sometimes I fear
I might be
I have such
The dream of it
The only thing
Herds of ruminants
A woman wrote
Her autistic son
My jaw ached
Fighting back tears
Fiction, First place, William Myrl Smitherman, “Richard”
It was Richard’s job to gather eggs in the morning. He wasn’t big enough to bring water in from the pump or do much else besides tangle in his mother’s night dress as she busied herself with breakfast. The coop was dark like the caves higher in the mountain where he wasn’t meant to be playing, dark like the secret places in himself and the echoing unknowns of behind-door adult choices. The coop was the mouth of a monster, stinking with a different stink in the dry and in the wet, clean with the filth of feathers and excess rubbish from the gentle raptors that resided there. He crouched to enter, though he was small enough to stand erect beneath the little door. He would try and surprise the birds, but he couldn’t. They clucked and bawked at him like they had seen it before and he was no one anyhow so why bother….
In the predawn unlight, he navigated by touch as rough wood gave way to yielding pulsing layers and admonitory clucks before his hand closed around the firm ovoid and grey black prizes. The sun had yet to pierce the slats of the coop and transform them into brown or speckled shells. He piled them in a basket. The birds knew him, and he had named them all—Fatbutt and No Bones and Charlie—and they responded to his coos and calls as he made his round in the warm throat of the beast.
Essay, First Place, Sant James Harris Wood, “The Swallow War”
These American Cliff Swallows have been coming to San Luis Obispo for a thousand years, flying up from Goya, Argentina (if we are to believe them), and once here they frantically, industriously search out little globs of mud and build nests that resemble tiny brown desert igloos. The prison is smack dab in the middle of the little birds’ centuries old customary nesting grounds. Figuring that we’ve placed the prison here for their convenience, the swallows build their nests in the infrastructure of the steel girders—imagine a bridge built in a square with all the little caches, tiny lairs, and small dens that three stories of steel beams offer. This singular edifice sits in the center of the prison; it’s open air and we call it the plaza. There are a couple of trees, some sickly grass, and a 100 yard circular sidewalk in the plaza connecting our four yards. All the cops, free staff, and convicts (around 3,000 people) march through it to work, to school, to the library, and everywhere else we are compelled to go during the day, from four in the morning until around ten at night. Right above the sidewalk is the metal structure with its niches, nooks, and crannies—about every four to five inches—where the swallows build their nests, and there are a couple thousand of these spaces in the plaza. It is a wonderfully odd and happenstance open air aviary—except of course for the barbed wire and incarceration. The swallows are free and the humans are trapped. As we walk back and forth beneath their nests to school and work, the swallows, who apparently aren’t afraid of humans, stare grumpily at us, trespassing in their prison.
Drama, First Place, Jesus Alvarez, Viorel Capraru, Jason Christner, Sterling Cunio, Key Davis, Benjamin Pervish, Troy Ramsey, Phil Stockton, “The Bucket”
(Cheesy music plays while NARRATOR and the INTERPRETER walk us through the orientation. INTERPRETER wears a cardboard sign around his neck saying: INMATE INTERPRETER)
NARRATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, we’d like to welcome you to our theatrical presentation, our show, “The Bucket.”
INTERPRETER: What up do? My name is Bloodbath and I’ll be your inmate interpreter, breakin’ it down to you in layman’s terms. Prison talk, feel me
NARRATOR: What you see before you is a two dimensional representation, a flattened image of a typical Solitary Confinement cell.
INTERPRETER: Yes, what you see before you is the concrete coffin, the SMH, IMU, DSU, the CNN, the BFF. This is the hole, the box, the Bucket. Pretty much nothing changes about the place but the name.
NARRATOR: Marked on the floor are the typical dimensions of a nine feet by six foot cell, in masking tape.
INTERPRETER: Nine by six cell and small as hell. Not big. I can barely do the James Brown in here, I can bang my head against four walls in four seconds. I’d show you if it had walls, there are no walls. Otherwise how would you see into the cell, know what I’m sayin’? It’s theatre. Hey, ask the fuckin’ director. I just work here.
At the link in the second quote, if you scroll down a little, you can find further links to the guidelines for entering and to the Winner Archive. Don’t go to the latter if you don’t have the time to be mesmerized. I hope it’s clear from the excerpts, but, just to spell it out – this stuff is amazing.
The Furies and I will be back.
Cross posted to Care2 HERE.