Benefit Preview: A PEN America Program Teaches Writing to Prisoners
“I hope only to stretch myself to some how reach the light.” —David J. Lista
“I chuff my way into another day/as ice glints on the razor wire.” —Jorge Antonio Renaud
“Today I ate BBQ chicken with a plastic spoon. Sound impossible? Well, eighteen hundred inmates did it. Usually we eat with a spork.” —John Yarbrough
At WNYC’s Greene Space this coming Monday night, the PEN America Center has organized a showcase of work written by participants in the PEN Prison Writing Program. The event, titled “Breakout: Voices from the Inside,” is a benefit with ticket prices starting at $50, to support a low-profile PEN project that certainly deserves a much higher profile.
For 28 years, working with bare-bone budgets, the PEN Prison Writing Program has guided thousands of people behind bars in the art of writing. This takes place through the distribution, to between 3,000 and 4,000 prisoners annually, of the “PEN Handbook for Writers in Prison,” with chapters on fiction, nonfiction, poetry, screenwriting, drama, and rewriting. The program also runs a writing contest, and the most promising applicants — about a hundred a year — are paired with professional writers for mentoring through snail mail correspondence. About 70% of the mentorships last through three letter exchanges, and some last much longer.
At various times, the program has narrowly escaped the chopping block. There have also been times when it has been able to do even more: A grant once made possible post-release programming, offering writing classes to people who had just gotten out of prison. “It’s a very troubled period of time, when they’re reintegrating back, so having a skill they’re practicing is a very important thing,” says the program’s director, Jackson Taylor, adding that education dramatically reduces recidivism.
The program’s key achievement isn’t helping prisoners get published or mentored, but rather, quite humbly, to help them make writing a regular part of their lives, which brings its own benefits. “Writing is a skill that generates other skills,” said Mr. Taylor. The theory behind the program is, of course, that all prisoners can learn to write. “We believe very strongly that writing is a skill that can be practiced, and writing well is useful in almost every avenue of employment. Part of what our job is to teach them what to practice and how to practice.”
We asked Mr. Taylor, who also runs the New School’s Graduate Writing Program, “Has a genre of prison fiction emerged from the program?” He answered that the fiction produced by prisoners covers a range of themes. Some express contrition; others proclaim their innocence; others “percolate with ideas about home life, family, and that’s when you sense that these ‘prisoners’ or ‘inmates’ are human beings who for some terrible reason have had something go wrong in their lives,” Mr. Taylor said.
At the event, excerpts from stories will be read (and streamed live on the wnyc.org Web site) by, among others, Lemon Andersen, fresh off the success of “County of Kings” at the Public Theater; John Turturro (most recently heard in the latest Transformers film), writer Mary Gaitskill, writer/actor Eric Bogosian, and Jamal Joseph, who wrote poetry and earned two college degrees while incarcerated for his participation in the Black Panther Party, and has since become a spoken-word artist on Def Jam Poetry, chairman of Columbia University’s Graduate film department, and artistic director of the New Heritage Theater in Harlem.
Mr. Taylor notes just how important it is to have the stories of prisoners out in the open. “The system doesn’t want you to see. I tried to see a prisoner last year, Charles Patrick Norman, down in Florida. He’s entered our contest, I just love the guy. And even with PEN’s backing and going through all the proper channels, I wasn’t allowed to see him. I think that’s wrong, people need to have access. They’re already isolated enough,” Mr. Taylor said. The PEN Prison Writing Program is one way prisoners can gain access — and we can gain access to prisoners. “I’ve read pages and pages of human despair…all I can do is connect in this small tiny way,” Mr. Taylor said.
Here is the excerpt that will be read, written by prisoner Charles Patrick Norman:
Dear Diary, I grow flowers. I’ve been doing this all my life, off and on. Some of my earliest memories are of holding onto my grandmother’s skirt as she tended her flower and vegetable garden in the country near Redwater, Texas. At Railford, in late 1980, I finally got permission to order flower seeds, germinate them under lights and grow them around our housing area. Everyone loved the colorful blooms, with a few exceptions, and I got approval to extend the flower program. Over the years, transfers came to many different prisons across Florida, and I continued growing flowers. Years after I left Railford, an old man arrived on the transfer to Polk, where I’d been a couple of years. He told the admitting guards, “Charlie Norman must be here.” They told him yes, he was right. How did he know? He gestured to the flower beds in the visiting park, the lines of flowers along the sidewalks, and told them the instant he saw all those flowers, he knew I was here. No one else in the prison system did that.
And so for one night, an audience in the studio and on the web will be invited into the world behind bars.
“Breakout: Voices from the Inside” takes place on November 9, 7 p.m., WNYC’s Greene Space, at the intersection of Varick and Charleton, tickets start at $50. On the web: http://bit.ly/cLeFD. Phone: 212.334.1660 ext 120.