The Speaking Archive: Words from the House of the Dead
Archives are living and breathing representatives of forgotten voices, stories and spaces. When the archive speaks, collections come alive and legacies are preserved. Kevin Caplicki, Molly Fair, Dara Greenwald, and Josh MacPhee — founders of the volunteer-run Interference Archive — understand this. Since its founding in 2011, the archive has positioned itself as an open-access collection of materials dedicated to preserving and showcasing the work of people and groups who have dedicated their lives to social change. Their most recent exhibition, Defund/Defend, focused on the history of resistance against police violence and the carceral system.
On a recent visit, I wandered through time and space—sorting through pamphlets, prints, and zines. Attempting to take in as much information as possible, I eagerly found myself browsing through the titles in the student center library. Browsing through titles, I reached for Mumia Abu-Jamal’s memoir, Live From Death Row, only to find myself captured by a bright orange book cover.
Words From The House Of The Dead: Prison Writings From Soledad is a facsimile version of a book authored and handmade by incarcerated writers. Originally titled 6:15 Unlock A Kite From Soledad, the book was smuggled out of prison and edited and published in 1971 by poet and publisher Joseph Brucha in collaboration with the late poet and playwright William Witherup. The short stories, diary entries, illustrations, and a glossary of prison terms—all authored anonymously— are testaments of an incredibly politicized time in prison history.
As the 1970s made certain the post-civil rights era, Black radical thought and political action confronted systemic inequalities and injustice, most recognizably seen through the work of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and other grassroots organizations. The framing of abolition became more and more apparent as several key activists and organizers were arrested across the nation for a variety of alleged crimes. Though George Jackson was arrested for a robbery in the 1960s, his prison experience inspired him to be more politically conscious about the criminal justice system. In 1971—the same year that saw the release of House of the Dead—Jackson was killed by prison guards when he and six others known as the San Quentin Six, attempted to escape from San Quentin State Prison armed. In the days following George Jackson’s death, a group of 700 incarcerated men in Attica Prison, a maximum security facility in New York State, put on black armbands and staged a silent hunger strike in honor of his life. Three weeks later — on September 9, 1971— one of the world’s most well-known and extensively documented prison uprisings would ensue at that very facility.
George Jackson’s death was firmly planted in the hearts and minds of Black revolutionary organizers, and played a significant role in prison uprisings across the United States, most directly in the Attica Prison Riot. A month before the event, a group of prisoners known as the Attica Liberation Faction submitted a petition to the state’s correction commissioner, Russell Oswald, citing a list of twenty-seven complaints, ultimately demanding an end to a series of dehumanizing conditions, such as being given one roll of toilet paper per month and being allowed to shower once a week. The list also detailed the routine use of solitary confinement that forced men to sleep naked on the concrete floor in a small strip cell for twenty-four hours a day. Most noteworthy, the petition exposed the racial disparities between prison staff and the men housed in the facility. At the time of the Attica Prison Riot, sixty-three percent of the men held in the facility were young Black and Latino men, whereas the prison staff was entirely white.
While the links that connect the House of the Dead to Jackson’s death and the events at Attica can be attributed merely to coincidence, its publication is inextricable from the incredibly politicized time in prison history in which it was produced. The preface, dated October 1970, insists that the writing “should not be regarded as an attempt at artistic art, but rather as a social art.” This theme is echoed throughout, and the collective effort in assembling the book is even indicative of what it means to create socially engaged art. Though it is unknown why the works are anonymous, attributing the selections to no one in particular means that the volume serves as an artifact of the collectively lived experience of incarceration. More importantly, the authors thought it necessary to get these works on the outside urgently, making urgency an underlying tone of the writings.
As a book that was somehow snuck out of prison, themes of urgency and time are peppered throughout. In the poem “The Necessary Tyrant and The Revealing Minutes,” the concept of time details the weight of isolation. The author writes: “Time is the most holy and greatest benefactor of MANKIND; and TIME also commits the most holy and greatest crime: and TIME and CRIME are both ideas born of MANKIND.” This emphasis of time and crime as ideas born from mankind, functions as some sort of cognitive dissonance, where time and crime are two opposing ideas born from the same source. The writers in this volume use their craft as a tool to catapult their voices out of a carceral institution that thrives on their alienation. For instance, the prose piece “The Problems of Writing in Prison,” describes writing as an act of resistance. Infused by a series of rhetorical questions, the author speaks to the political relationship between imprisonment and writing:
The problems of writing in prison you ask? Did you ever lie on a steel prison bunk and listen to the insanity that rages on the concrete tiers? The gasp of a dying man, stabbed brutally to death? Ever watch a man go insane? The embers of intelligence frozen with madness. Have you lived like a hermit in the nine by five cell furnished by the taxpayers? Ever been in one of the prison holes?
Like the title of the collection, this piece notions toward death in such a way that indicates carceral institutions as places where people go to die. As a dead house where incarcerated people are stripped of so many rights and privileges, prison makes it possible for a man to kill another just to prove how alive he is. The writer works against death, and actively refutes the idea that they will be forgotten or assumed dead. Instead, they choose to write and to be heard outside the walls as a way to both signal their aliveness and confront the structures that perpetuate a criminal justice system that often fails individuals, families, and communities.
In the fifty-one years since the initial publication of The House Of The Dead, dozens of other anthologies that showcase the work of incarcerated writers have been published. For example, Celes Tisdale’s edited volume, Betcha Ain’t: Poems from Attica (Broadside Press, 1974), was reprinted by Duke University Press in 2022 as When The Smoke Cleared: Attica Prison Poems And Journal. In an interview with PEN America’s Works of Justice, Tisdale speaks about what it was like to teach poetry in Attica following the uprising. For the past five years, winning entries from the PEN Prison Writing Awards have been compiled into annual anthologies. Writing in prison is a means of release and escape that reaffirms the agency of incarcerated writers. House of the Dead is an example of this. As the number of incarcerated people in the United States has unfortunately continued to increase, so too have writing workshops, classes, and tools that offer guidance for incarcerated writers. One example of this is PEN America’s The Sentences That Create Us: Crafting A Writer’s Life in Prison (Haymarket Books, 2022), which serves as a writing guide for incarcerated writers at whatever point they are in their journey. While Words from the House of the Dead: Prison Writings from Soledad had a limited print run, community-based organizations like Interference Archive are important because they preserve the narratives, voices, histories, and work of writers and thinkers the justice system in the United States is bent on erasing.
Valentina Flores is an editorial fellow with PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program. A graduate of Bard College, they are currently applying to graduate programs with the intent of studying the impact of incarceration on political membership and its spillover effects across families and communities.