cover of "I am climbing the stairs that I create with these words all the way to the top" which features navy text on a light blue gradient backgroundEven the most passionate poets have days when they can’t bring themselves to sit down and put words to paper—for most, setting out to write a poem every day sounds at best intimidating, at worst impossible. But this is exactly the mission of National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo). It springs from the original concept of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), where the goal is to write a novel (or 50,000 words) during the month of November, a challenge incarcerated writers in our program also took on last year. Comparatively, this challenge to write thirty poems in one month seems less daunting: there’s no looming month-long word count to reach, but instead a simple daily goal of writing one poem. Still, it is no less difficult: poetry is soul-work, and throughout the month these poets dug deep into their life experiences to create art full of beauty and feeling.

PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing invited past and current participants of our Prison Writing Program initiatives, both in and out of prisons, to participate in the challenge of writing a daily poem. All were given the same thirty prompts, including many created by mentors from the PEN America Prison Writing Mentor Program. A number of the prompts encouraged the artists to search for truths inside of themselves and in the world around them. One asked participants to, “Write about a disaster in your life (human, natural) and what it took, what it brought.” Another said, “Think about a moment when you felt unable to communicate using words. It could be a moment when language failed you, when you felt lost in translation, when you blanked out while speaking publicly, or when you couldn’t find the words to explain.” Other prompts were more joy-filled, providing a space to reflect on things that brought the poets light, such as the simple call to “Write a poem about an aquarium.” Those interested in using the prompts themselves will also notice a theme of seasonal transformation and reflection throughout the month: questions about change and rebirth, flowers, and other kinds of blooming infuse this springtime project.

At the end of the month, the artists sent in their favorite poems, which we assembled to produce a zine, I am climbing the stairs that I create with these words all the way to the top. Housing the work of eighteen poets, this zine celebrates not only the words of our participants, but the work behind them: the shared cultivation of a literary community through the walls. As mentor Michelle Glass wrote when reflecting on this year’s NaPoWriMo, “Feeling a connection to a community of writers outside of the fences lifts our creative spirits above the walls that confine us.” We’re also grateful that this zine was printed with Secret Riso Club, a graphic design and risograph studio that, like our PEN America Prison Writing Program community, works to create a collaborative space for developing ideas and new art. With their help, this zine stands as a testament to not just the beauty of poetry, but to the beauty of the space that poetry in community creates.

Many of the writers who sent in their poems also encouraged their readers to try NaPoWriMo themselves next year, or affirmed the impact participating in the challenge had in their lives as artists: “Writing is my only way out of here… while I cannot get out of here,” said poet Aaron Morrisette. If you are able to print out the zine, we’ve also provided spaces between the pieces to write, draw, or engage with the art however you feel called to. You can access the zine using the link below.


Sophia Ramirez is a postgraduate fellow with PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing. She previously volunteered with the University of Michigan’s Prison Creative Arts Project, reviewing incarcerated writers’ submitted poetry, fiction, and essays. A recent graduate of Wilton High School in Connecticut, Sophia will attend Yale University in fall 2022.