Sarah White & Yvette Louisell: An Interview
SW: Yvette, you write both poetry and prose. Are there things you feel best able to say in a poem and others that feel more suitable for a prose piece like “The Glove Compartment”?
YL: For me, the things I write seem to have a life and a will of their own. Often, they float through my consciousness for days, weeks, or months before I put pen to paper. They start with a word, a memory, a dream, something I’ve read. Then, they push themselves around in my mind and heart until I am compelled to allow them out. I sit and write in a frenzy, almost always late at night and sometimes so late that I have to write by the light of the hallway. (Lights out is at 11:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri. and 12:30 a.m. Sat. and Sun., but our doors don’t lock here. As long as I’m not bothering my roommate or whatever officer is on duty, I can crack my door open, sit on the floor, and write past lights out.) I would have to characterize most of my writing as a birthing process rather than a process of conception and revision. I do revise, but most of my work comes out fairly close to its final form.
SW: Do you have favorite poets or prose writers who inspire you or influence your creative goals?
YL: Oh! I love so many poets. Everyone from e.e. cummings to Louise Erdrich, Sylvia Plath, William Carlos Williams, Sonia Sanchez, and Maya Angelou. I could go on forever. I can’t even begin to tell you how many poets I’ve read and loved. I like poems that you can feel—poems that resonate no matter who or where you are. As for prose, my favorites are the autobiographies of men and women who have risen above personal challenges. Some of my favorites are Unbought and Unbossed [by Shirley Chisholm], Bastard Out of Carolina [by Dorothy Allison], West with the Night [by Beryl Markham], Life on the Color Line [by Gregory Howard Williams] and To the Castle and Back, the memoir in which Vaclav Hamel talked about “evacuating inward.” That phrase profoundly impacted how I have served my twenty-one years of incarceration.
SW: Is it difficult for you to obtain the books you’d like to read?
YL: I am lucky in that this prison is one of the few in the nation that is located near a major city. We are allowed to request books from the Des Moines Public Library. We only have to pay the return postage at book rate. In addition, the women of Iowa have been tremendous about fulfilling our library wish list. If I want or need a book here, I can almost always get it. I do realize that other prisoners are not so fortunate.
SW: Have you had any helpful writing instruction either in our out of prison?
YL: I was tagged for “talented and gifted” in about fourth grade and was in a creative writing course from age 9. I didn’t do anything else with my writing until I came to prison and had the opportunity to participate in the two-year long “Women on the Inside” writing program funded by a University of Iowa grand and taught by Art Education Professor Rachel Williams. Through that program, I was able to meet Barbara Robinette Moss, who wrote Change Me into Zeus’ Daughter, and Paul Ingram, owner of Prairie Lights bookstore in Iowa City. Dr. Rachel was the one who encouraged me to submit to the PEN Prison Writing Contest.
SW: Do your friends and associates know about your writing and the awards you’ve received for your work? Are their responses to your writing important to you, or is your work a mostly private matter?
YL: My friends and relatives do know about my writing, but I rarely share it with them. Somehow, it’s easier to allow strangers to read my work than the people I know and love. In my writing, a fleeting emotion or event can become the focus of an entire poem or story. I am always worried that my friends and family will read something I’ve written and think that I’m in need of intensive therapy or medication—or that they will be upset that I didn’t share my conflicted feelings with them. In addition, I’m terribly sensitive to criticism from people I care about. I once shared about a dozen poems with a woman I respected, only to receive them back with scrawling red and green handwriting all over them. I was despondent since I had already submitted all of the poems to the 2008 PEN contest!