The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week Caits Meissner, PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program manager, speaks to Elizabeth Hawes, who was awarded Third Place in Poetry and the Fielding A. Dawson Prize in Drama in the 2018 Prison Writing Contest. Hawes is currently working on a series of vignettes about women in prison called “My life is a vegetable.”

1. How does your identity shape your writing? Is there such a thing as “the writer’s identity?
My soul is activist. Not an extreme “I’m going to release all the minks from their cages at the farm even though they will instinctually rip each other to shreds upon freedom” sort of soldier, but a fighter for fairness. And for trees. I’m big on trees. The desire for awareness and change is the undercurrent within my writing. Poking around for fairness often leads me to a concealed love story. I write a lot about old people.

My style, rhythm, and pacing are shaped by theatre. To be a successful actor or writer requires the ability to listen. Theatre brings an ear for timing and tempo, and an awareness of the slight inflections in dialogue. I am continually reading things out loud. I am constantly listening for flow.

The difference between writers and other people is writers are constantly looking at the world as story and for interesting bits to add to our stories. While non-writers are enjoying dinner, we are jotting down snippets of conversation and eyeing the different combinations of people in the restaurant. Let’s face it, it’s not normal. Only a writer would spend an afternoon trying to accurately describe a casserole.

2. In an era of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” how does your writing navigate truth? And what is the relationship between truth and fiction?
I navigate truth by trusting and listening to that little voice, or inner-awareness within. I believe in the power of the subconscious, and that in calmness we receive clear direction. We know more than we think. Truth does not pass away, or fail, or disappear. Truth is timeless. Truth is the spirit of doing what is good. At the end of the day, does what I have written broaden the conversation? Do my characters sound authentic? Does the story circle my intent?

We are now living in a world of evaluative language and compartmentalized information. I think much of this is from 24-hour news cycles, and our society’s ability to cut and paste information to create segmented environments. While much of this seems detrimental, it can also break up the myth of single (stock) story. Do we believe the story-tellers? What is the power dynamic between the tellers and the listeners? Why is the story being told? The relationship between truth and fiction is fluid, in constant flux.

3. Writers are often influenced by the words of others, building up from the foundations others have laid. Where is the line between inspiration and appropriation?
By pulling little bits from others—the pacing of Lucia Berlin, the construction of Marilynne Robinson, the poetic detail of bell hooks, the imagery of Kao Kalia Yang—we become stronger writers. To arrive at a style that resonates true and shares a distinctive viewpoint is every writer’s responsibility. Being an artist of any kind is not a paint-by-number craft, reproducing and manufacturing a uniform product. If 10 tattoo artists were to create a picture of a phoenix on someone’s shoulder, they would all come up with 10 unique, artistic works. Inspiration lies in form, topic, and thought. Appropriation falls under copying word construction or repeating other’s work in a way that presents nothing new.

4. “Resistance” is a long-employed term that has come to mean anything from resisting tyranny, to resisting societal norms, to resisting negative urges and bad habits, and so much more. Is there anything you are resisting right now? Is your writing involved in that act of resistance?
I resist with writing on two fronts. I resist forgetting. In the manila-covered painting that is prison, it is easy to forget the cacophony of sound and rainbow of color in the world beyond its walls. The name of the coffee shop on Franklin Avenue. The smell of a pile of raked October leaves. The texture of guacamole. I begin to question myself. Are there three cracked tiles in the entry or two? How many cranes are there in the wood block print above the phone? When did the magnolia tree lose its petals? Writing helps to reclaim the little memories enfolded in sensory thought, and keeps my memory from fading.

I also resist shutting out. The tedium of prison can lull us to sleep.

Same schedule.

Same people.

Same clothes.

Same food.

Same environment.

In order to bear witness and tell the stories that reside within prison, I need to be present. Even on the days that I would rather hibernate. Generally, I like most people and enjoy hearing what they have to say, but there are days when I have to I force myself to listen and to watch. This takes energy and will, and the ability to compartmentalize negative narration.

5. What do you consider to be the biggest threat to free expression today? Have there been times when your right to free expression has been challenged?
Privacy; our society seems under siege. There are cameras in our computers, on our streets, and in most stores. Our conversations and research on the computer and in our phones are saved, recorded, and (can be) scrutinized. While creative work is being documented like no other time in history, this constant recording of our lives does not allow us the art of anonymous mess. We cannot make a mistake, take words back, or develop a project without a visible trail, and I think this stifles the creation process.

I worked as an editor on the prison quarterly paper for a year, and felt that many ideas were squashed. As a prisoner, I can be searched at any time. My room can be ransacked. My mail is opened. My phone calls are recorded. There are many topics I would love to write about that I hold off on. I look at these topics as a conversation for another time. At this prison, it is a “no-touch facility,” meaning we are not allowed to touch anyone. We cannot help someone who has fallen, or hug or hold a hand when someone could use one. We are not allowed to dance or run or ever lay down on the grass in the courtyard. These restrictions on expression condense life.

6. What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
My criterion for daring writing:

  • I was shaking as I wrote
  • I felt it was super important at the time
  • I felt vulnerable
  • I was conflicted about expressing the message
  • The writing involved things that I had been thinking about for a while but was fearful to put to paper

I narrowed it down to three finalists. In third place was a letter I had written at the age of forty-two to the police department about a family member. This did not win my most daring writing because upon reflection, it felt scary and sad more than heroic. Coming in at second was a resignation letter to my boss, who reacted poorly to my decision. I was twenty and working as a florist—my first full-time job—but I quit in order to join a theatre troupe. I hate confrontation and while this letter was brave of me, it wasn’t as plucky as my top contender. Taking the number one spot in daring (terror) writing goes to the me at thirteen, when I was in eighth grade and passed a note to Louie Fagolli, asking him if he would be my date for the upcoming Sadie Hawkins dance. I was sweating with the panic of possible rejection. “Do you want to go to the dance with me?” is the most daring thing I have ever written.

7. Have you ever written something you wish you could take back? What was your course of action?
Last fall the new editor of the prison quarterly paper asked if she could print an excerpt of one of my stories—a five page narrative about my early volunteering in nursing homes and a reflection about the aging of people in my own family. I realized it would probably be cut to fit in available space. “Sure.” I never gave it a second thought. Months later, upon receiving my copy of this publication, I find that: a.) My piece was sliced down to two nonsensical paragraphs, and b.) It was put on a page with two poems, making my piece look like a senseless, rhythmless poem. I was horrified and wanted to find and burn every copy printed. But that was not possible, and even if it was possible, would waste a lot of paper which would upset me even further. Not an option. So I breathed, and asked myself what important lesson I was being given. The gift was that in the future, before I allow anyone to print or use my writing, I need to ask how it will be shaped, modified, placed, and how it was to be used. I told myself that a poetry page in a prison quarterly would soon be forgotten, (if read at all), and the lesson would serve me well going forward.

8. In an era of deep fissures and divides across the American landscape, to what extent can the act of writing provide connection between disparate identities? What are the possibilities for writing to bridge difference—or conversely, what are the limitations?
Conflict of viewpoint is normal, but if we are pushed too far from our normal, we oppose new information and tend to withdraw. In order to learn about social justice, political differences, or a wide range of diversity, it is necessary to move from the illusion of our static comfort zones into a braver space—the space of discovery. By sitting with our discomfort we expand and learn. Story allows us to fearlessly dip our toes at the edge of an experience other than our own. We share space through story. Shared space begins a dialogue of connection, where we find likeness in the human condition. That likeness builds us up. It helps us see that we are not alone. What we learn and believe depends on the storytellers in our lives and the repetition of the story they tell. The power of writing can be used to enlighten or ignite oppression. While we cannot force people to absorb or connect with our words, we can write and know that we plant seeds and the garden will come.

9. Can you tell us about a piece of writing that has influenced you that readers might not know about?
Hmmm. I am intrigued by the concept of sustainability. Sustainability is most often associated with ecological practices but it is farther reaching than that. What sustains our cultural identities? What sustains our connections to our families? What sustains us when we feel abandoned? One writer that I’ve enjoyed reading is Joy Harjo. In her piece, “Ordinary Spirit,” Harjo frames sustainability around writing practice. Her writing sustains her memories and transforms through form (verb tenses, sentence structure) and spirit. “I began with someone’s hatred . . . and wanted to turn it into love by the end of the poem.” “Ordinary Spirit” can be found in I Tell You Now, Autobiographical Essays by Native American Writers, edited by Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat. I found it valuable to hear what sustains other people’s writing practice and what upholds others to feel whole.

10. If you could require the current administration to read any book, what would it be?
If “current administration” means the president, I would have him read The Velveteen Rabbit. It looks at love and the concept of realness—and has pictures. If an audiobook was an option, I would require The Man Without a Face, a biography of Putin by one of my favorite writers, Masha Gessen. In this book, Gessen writes of how Putin’s thug tendencies from early childhood grow into an identity that is wrapped tightly around being a KGB agent and a love for power at other’s expense.

If “current administration” means the entire executive branch, I would require them to read Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. This book is over a decade old, but gives important insight on factory farming, American diet, and the need for change in how we take care of the land.