Introducing ‘Greater Constellations’: A 2021 Prison Writing NaPoWriMo Zine
Though they have been around since at least the beginning of the 20th century, zines—short for “magazines”—became most commonly associated with the do-it-yourself and punk aesthetic sensibilities of the late 1970s and 1980s. Easy and affordable to make—often held together with tape, run off a photocopier, and assembled by hand—zines have always been an accessible grassroots method for artists, musicians, and writers to share their work with peers and collaborators, without waiting for the fickle approval of gatekeepers.
Drawing on this rich history of community-oriented creative dissemination, our Greater Constellations zine springs from the inspired poetic work created by members of our PEN America Prison Writing community during National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo), an annual project in which participating poets attempt to write a poem a day for the month of April.
NaPoWriMo is a unique opportunity for established and aspiring poets alike to develop their daily writing practice. The goal is not to produce 30 perfect poems, but rather to end the month with the reward of a healthy writing routine. Perhaps the most important and exciting aspect of participating in NaPoWriMo is the community it creates. Even though one might be unable to see the other poets participating or even read their poems, every writer who signs on knows they are not alone in this challenge.
For our first programmatic engagement with NaPoWriMo, we invited the poets in our Prison Writing Mentor Program to write separately but together with the guidance of 30 poetry prompts we culled from our mentor community. During a year when the divide between writers outside and inside was only intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic, we sought to combat isolation by creating a shared poetic space in which our dispersed community—writing from prisons and living rooms across the country—could locate inspiration in the same prompts.
Dedicated to fostering connection and literary community through the walls, the goal of the zine’s creation is not to highlight and publish the month’s “best” poems, but to live as a physical tribute to our shared commitment this past April. With that said, the talent and artistry demonstrated by each of the works included in the zine is undeniable. The title takes its name from a line at the end of P.M. Dunne’s poem, “Ode to the Chinese Zodiac Placemats at King Buffet.” Dunne, a winner of multiple PEN Prison Writing Awards, is a newly announced 2021-2022 PEN America Writing for Justice Fellow.
A celebration of our talented and thriving community of writers inside-out, you’ll find that the poems in these pages—from our incarcerated mentees, our mentors, and our core PEN team—are purposefully left without demarcation about roles. Here, we are all poets. Let this zine stand as witness to this potent truth.