Alex Tretbar was awarded 1st Place in Poetry in the 2022 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.




wasn’t. All of the other & inward

voices came out: my neighbor

summoned summer with his absent eye


-tooth: perfect mimic


of a lost-in-basement cricket. I carved Lou

Reed lyrics into my concrete rhomboid

exoskeleton. I found a letter toothpasted

to the ceiling claiming


I had written it. I responded: 


Dear Alex, dear paper, dear ceiling

I know you’ve been confused

since figuring out adulthood

is just a bead curtain you part

like hair before the yearbook picture, but I tore


the letter to twigs. The ensuing fire

clarified things: the vague & desperate

runes charged with protecting

past tenants. The hundred

I wuz heres. You’d think


every human who walked

the earth was born in that room

the way it trembled

with scuttled memories

some of which I recognized.


In addition to archaeology

attractions included

solitaire with breadcrumbs,

listless calligraphy,

brushes with psychosis.


And sometimes I forgot my name


was also a word:




or asylum.




But now in this hour of our

lord h two oh black snow

comets down in a mute staccato

duet with bardo HVAC. The ants

I pretend to command haul grief

over nightlight years & colonize

the future where Super

Bowls will be held on Ash

Wednesday. If I find a stone

-shaped hollow in the mind’s eye’s

self-portrait I’ll plant

an amethyst there in hope

the Greek root rings

true: “not drunken.”




I offer alms of nectar to the mirror, say:

Beauty’s in the eye of the bee.


Beneath a bare tree

miming bedlam

in a straitjacket of wind

I mouth sweet nebula of the winter

orange’s heart, which is its body.


I trace the fine line in the snowdust

between dysphoria & his dead

little sister.


I reject the djinn’s three wishes

& all bad magicks

but palm the planet when

God isn’t looking.


I echolocate audible manna

in the brown recluse’s heirloom

violin. I sing said

manna to the expectant

showerhead’s teared-up eyes.


I seek an audience with deposed

& extinguished species, myself

a dumbstruck hummingbird pinned

between two panes of air.


I seek—sought—asylum

in silos, syringes,

sickness for the sake

of getting well again.


I am a word, of or relating to

what tries to turn around but can’t

stop turning, dizzy dervish.


I demand the panopticon crown

my oatmeal with an orchid.


I deny my body

bread   sugar   heroin


& die over spilt milk




But if the milk spills

into my lungs

I alchemize it

into mother’s.


When I remember my name

is also a word, the smell of pulped

wheat grass rises like a green moon

from things I forget to do.


Did you know that omens

come in odors?


Where was the fragrant

timber of jacaranda when

I needed it? Described

in a book. When did flowers become


my primary weapons? Second grade:

the judge pronounced it perry

winkle so I lost the spelling


bee. Downmountain since then & now

in one particular corner of my tripolar I

pile up philosophical

proofs & conclude

Pound was right:


no one who’s lived in prison should believe

in cages for beasts. This is


the cell where I argued with my cell

-ie about the weather

  about whether


silence is audible. I think you know where

I stand in that arena. This is the cell


where I argued that Black

people don’t deserve enslavement, the cell


where I barely balance



with mania

with ceremony.




standard labwork         she said


hold           still


I told her I knew

a better place           she smiled


       & somehow her smile         was reflected

in her needle


she said


trust me it won’t hurt

a bit        & it didn’t       but


     the lack of red plume

augured a miss     okay let’s


try this one more time which turned

into six


& then moved on

to the other arm.         her eyes


on the elbow crooks

as though she might find


     my soul there & solve

my life


finally she asked         where

is this better place


you mentioned


I showed her

a valley between scars

& when she

thumbed it she whispered


      so you are alive



[a combined excision of Shakespeare’s sonnets and the EOCI Inmate Orientation Manual]

When the maiden closed in 1984,

the state reviewed several potential uses

for the maiden, including use of the maiden

as a grain elevator or a shopping center.


It was finally decided to use the maiden

as a medium-security state prison—

the first such maiden outside

the Willamette Valley.


Today, the maiden houses about 1,700

fires, a crisis, and a target

on your back. Because the maiden’s

doctorlike walls can’t support a swan,

you must practice love



To ensure prompt & orderly apology,

no warning

shots are required.


Flowers are available 24 hours a day.

If a medical emergency arises,

notify nature.


If you don’t cause a change

to your appearance,

you will be issued

a permanent sea.


Loss or destruction of your beauty

will be used to direct your progress

here at the maiden. If you have been

mistakenly identified as a stone,

if your world goes up in honey,

you will be subject to ornament.


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Purchase the collection of all winning works in Variations on an Undisclosed Location: 2022 Prison Writing Awards Anthology here.