Works of Justice is an online series that features content connected to the PEN America Prison and Justice Writing Program, reflecting on the relationship between writing and incarceration, and presenting challenging conversations about criminal justice in the United States.

This September, in commemoration of the Attica Riots, PEN America and The Poetry Project launch BREAK OUT: a movement to (re)integrate incarcerated writers into literary community. Throughout the month, over two dozen local reading series in New York City—and across the country—will feature the work of a currently incarcerated writer. One of our featured writers is Edward Ji. Learn more about the effort here.

“I file my departed friend
Into my memories of the gone,
And inherit his work-boots
As if I were the living,
And he the dead.”

From “My Co-Worker” by Edward Ji

I first read Edward Ji’s poetry as a PEN America Prison and Justice Writing Program intern, when I had the opportunity to curate work for PEN America and The Poetry Project’s BREAK OUT reading series. As soon as I read his work, I was drawn to Edward’s unflinching vulnerability and beautiful lyricism. With every word, I felt a thread of connection extending from Edward to me; each myopic moment he described burned vividly in my mind. In the spirit of BREAK OUT, which seeks to (re)integrate incarcerated writers into literary community, I wrote to Edward, asking him about his approach to poetry and his experience as an incarcerated member of the literary community.

illustrated panel of "The Storm" by Edward Ji

An illustrated excerpt of “The Storm” by Edward Ji. Artist: Rachel Masilamani

Edward Ji is a poet who has received Honorable Mentions in the PEN America Prison Writing Contest for his pieces “The Storm” (2018) and My Co-Worker” (2019). Edward’s work explores small moments of grief and mourning within the prison setting. His vignettes simmer with underlying tension and nostalgia—watching an approaching tornado on a prison TV, being unable to say goodbye before a coworker is released on parole, reflecting on childhood while field-working outside the facility in which he is incarcerated. Edward’s work pushes back against the statistical and totalizing nature of contemporary discussions around mass incarceration. The exacting language he employs urges readers to confront the widely varied and extremely individualized manifestations of loss that the criminal justice system perpetuates. 

ELEANOR MAMMEN: Your writing style is incredibly detailed, lyrical, and nostalgic. How have you developed your unique voice over time? From which writers’ work do you draw inspiration?

EDWARD JI: My “writing style.” It comes from nowhere and everywhere. I am not well-read. I’ve been in prison since age 16. I know no poets, no masters, no style. The books that float by my cell: to nourish my mind from them would be to drink from a wet stain. I am a thing grown in isolation. I hone myself by re-writing, as if grinding stone into a blade. I have no tool but myself.

MAMMEN: Two of my favorite pieces of yours, “The Storm” and “Tornado Watch,” present almost feverish scenes of being in prison during moments of natural chaos. What drew you to this theme of natural disorder? How did these moments provide an opportunity to share aspects of life in prison with your readers? 

JI: I wrote of storms because I can see them. Just as you can see the same sun and moon—cats, mosquitoes, grass, cloud. Nature connects us, nature remains. I am not of the modern world, but a human time capsule. “Write what you know.” But what do I know? Cells, noise, time, chess. I cannot write of children I do not have, of cities I’ve never seen. Only my eyes remain to feed me. 

MAMMEN: In “My Co-Worker,” you describe the loss you felt after your coworker was released from prison on parole. You write, “I file my departed friend / Into my memories of the gone, / And inherit his work-boots / As if I were the living, / And he the dead.” Does writing poetry serve a cathartic role for you? Do you believe writing can be a tool for healing, and, if so, how?

JI: Writing is cathartic. It is why I began. Not here, but as a child. I had no one to tell my woes. With few friends, and parents who literally spoke a different language, I told my stories to myself. I poured my grief, joy, rage—my heart and tears into a page. 

MAMMEN: Your poem “Alive” describes the “grief” and “numbness” of being incarcerated. You write, “Why am I alive? / Because half-human, I refuse to die, / Howling in my skin.” How is writing part of this refusal? What is the relationship between writing and resistance in your work?

JI: Writing is not “resistance.” This places counts me eight times a day, but does not know I’m here. Like winter, life does not care if you die. It is up to us to keep our souls alive, to light a flame. 

MAMMEN: Your work is deeply personal, sharing moments of both joy and anguish. Who do you write for? What do you hope readers take away from your work?

JI: I write for no one. I write for myself. I write for you. I write so I may be read. Let these pages be my voice and speak in my stead. Feel what I feel, see through these eyes. Inhabit this skin for a syllable. For I live through you.

Edwards’s work was staged live on September 3, 2019, in Queens, New York, at the First Tuesdays reading series. Learn more about the BREAK OUT movement, and join us for our multimedia Prison Writing Awards celebration on September 18!