Justin Monson was awarded an Honorable Mention in Poetry in the 2017 Prison Writing Contest

Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people 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. 

Poetics: Mid-summer 2016 (fragments from a freestyle)

Troy asked me today: “So have you put any thought into what you want to do when you
get out of here?”


I want to be
A zero
No longer


Here in this life
We take showers
Touch ourselves
Eat fruit
& commit to letters.

We dream of liquid swapping
We get off to echoes


My bones have become esoteric
Inside this royal structure
That builds pieces of our hunger

We open our mouths
Waiting for this sticky
Month to pass

We send fragments of desire
A holdover until we kiss
The pieces floating back
To our electric core


I only play
Sports in which
I feel like I might take off
And fly

In recent years
I’ve conjured an airport
A lift-off point
Where I make no ripple
Into the thick ground

While we perform
Tiny murders
Of mathematical inefficiencies


We spoke on the phone today for the first time—we’ve been in love for six months, give or take a year—do you want me to call again? Should I?—I did—not ten minutes after we said I love you and bye—I wanted to tell you something I ended up sending in an email—but I still need to say…—maybe I just need that comfort sometimes—to know your voice is coming from a distance to speak with me—you comfort me in a city where comfort comes with hidden costs—and now I am the one who fears your next email—wondering if it will be the kiss of death—because when I called you back to tell you about infinity (the future, past, everything in between) or whatever I would have spilled or blabbed about—you did not answer—so I wonder if you didn’t want to hear me again, yet—or maybe you did? And you saw the missed call and felt anxious?—Are we both anxious now?—Is this what love & bondage does to young poets?—I’m still navigating this—how to respect your boundaries while showing you that the greater portion of mine have crumbled—for you, I mean—how far am I going when I say I’m yours—I’m just being true…—and now, are you thinking of us like I am?—Goodbye, I must go shower—beg the water to drip down my back


Wondering if we think about similar things before we go to sleep—right now in different parts of this vast country on the brink of madness.


When another breathes on your stomach
I am not present & I am reminded
Of my past which screams oblivion

My hands buried in pregnant thoughts of you


All of my poems
Have folded away

Into the swollen humidity
Of July—all clouds

Renegade verbs?
Unsung forms?

Let them sing
Let us join them


Steve stood there

His religious gold fronts
His balloon eyes

What’s a decade
A natural


While men I know well pray
To father God I look around
To the word & the sky
All of the colliding beauty
& find a woman
Whispering heat into tomato
Plants in the garden dripping
Light across the strands of man—
Made metals & I delight
In Gods this way as women

Not of lack but of light
& creation even inside capitalism


To live within fences
Is a muffled life
We stitch correctional patterns
As our younger sisters speak
Computer love


When life gave

            Me lemons

            I puckered


Sought out the tree

            Found it bright

            & full

A peach


Slowly, softly I float away from birth
We inhabit occasionally wet fields, each other
On D-block 234 I stretch, I collapse
Need to dig a way from here

It’s OK to stand in front of each other naked
It’s OK to open palms, parallel them, stare


When I die let it be
With the imprint of
Our shared mornings of brilliance
We found in seeds of your dance
& our hands fluttering
Like birds
Over the summer’s late lights



after Maged Zaher’s The Consequences of My Body