The Poetry Project


Justin Rovillos Monson, Mercedes Eng, Tara Betts, Tongo Eisen-Martin

The following discussion, facilitated by Kay Gabriel, took place over email between July 31 and September 13, 2020.

Kay: Lately I've been thinking a lot about the line in Tongo's poem “Faceless:” “If it has a prison, it is a prison. Not a city.” Recently I also reread Ruth Wilson-Gilmore's Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis and Opposition in Globalizing California, and I was struck by her description of prisons in the California central valley: “cities of men, and sometimes women, that lie next to the dim towns that host them.” We know that prisons are located so as to be hard to reach, and hard to think about—both at a distance from but deeply embedded in other social spaces and relations. I guess my question is: what does poetry do to represent or think about prisons in relation to the spaces outside them?

Justin: I've been thinking a lot about Kay's question over the last few days. Honestly, I'm having a tough time answering because, being a poet currently inside of a prison, ALL of my poetry represents or thinks about it somehow. Anytime prison is brought into a poem, it is necessarily in relation to the spaces outside of prison. As soon as you push beyond a certain language threshold—once you bring in the fences & barbed wire & brick—there's a sort of venue/register change because you're given a glimpse into this ghost world that mostly exists as a stereotype or metaphor. Anything said once you cross that threshold fills in or expands a lot of blank spaces.

I struggle with this because, for me, it's not as if I can really escape it unless I somehow become a totally different poet. I can't just decide to cross the threshold—I live beyond it. In my own work, I actually have to check myself sometimes because it's so easy for my poems to begin thinking about prison when that's exactly what I'm trying to get out of.

I'm sure you could make the case for this “trapped” feeling for many of the various poetic genre qualifiers because so many are held up against a white ideal, but—and maybe this is because I've been in a massive cage for years now—this one feels different. When we talk about prison, we're talking about an intersection of the bodies politic, geographic, philosophic, and somatic. “Prison” as a linguistic entity is so ruthlessly ambiguous that its meaning is simultaneously all-encompassing and empty. All that to say: poetry can flesh out what prison often hides from the world. In doing that, a hidden corner is exposed and given an economy beyond the counting of bodies caged in some field in a rural town called Freeland.

I've been thinking a lot about how poetry interacts with economic systems, or how it can take advantage of them in a way that doesn't dilute poetry. I guess I'm really wondering where poetry can meet hustle. I'm thinking here of how hip-hop is currently having a big reckoning with itself, and how I see dudes in the joint responding to that and how can that be bridged into poetry? Anyway, what are y'alls thoughts about poetry's relation to economic systems—capitalism in particular—considering the carceral state? And how is poetry linked to freedom, if it is at all?

Tongo: Much love and respect to everyone.

I've returned with some people to Pedagogy of the Oppressed. And one thing that stands out to me is the conclusion that societies produced by oppressors actually are a practice of necrophilia. That the result of alienation and repression of all human expressions basically makes us the functional dead. Only alive when activated by some function we perform for a ruling class agenda. We accept prescribed identities generated by a surrender to the idea that reality is not in an evolving process produced by historical protagonists that we could become, but rather various sites of suspended animation. We may be suspended with bigger crumbs. Suspended with some semblance of security. But we are dead to the historical process.

Through poetry, especially relating to the ramifications of "naming," there is a reabsorption of power and therefore humanity. A lot of humanization can be synthesized from that flicker of liberation (flicker of an existence as a whole, living human being). But now in our quest to become historical protagonists, do we call our poetry a weapon? Are we prepared to declare an enemy? Especially when the result of this social order is millions and millions of destroyed lives. I think there is a part of the journey of a poet (not even necessarily in a linear sense) in which your craft does not take place in the trenches of social contradictions; but ultimately, if your output never exists in a collective effort of liberation, you are part of a collective effort of enslavement. And while it is perfectly fine and wonderfully human to savor all of the pleasures of an individual and singular moment in your craft as you experience it; whether you consider that coming up for air or going back under the water, the totality of our creative output does not exist outside of being in either the movement to transform society or normalize its genocidal practices. Again, much love. And I hope this is of some use to our conversation.

Kay: I think Tongo and Justin are both pointing in part towards the following problem: for whom does writing "political" poetry take the form of an aesthetic choice that someone can make or refuse to make, as if this choice were of the same kind as the other aesthetic decisions that structure someone's work? And actually, even framing the problem in these terms doesn't do it justice, because "politics" is a code word for conditions of life or mass death that greet all of us with greater or lesser proximity. If, as Tongo offers, the conditions of a genocidal world exist objectively, universally, and unevenly, and if we're responding to the world with poetry, are we also intervening into or addressing those conditions?

I'm also thinking that in the framing for my original question, I should've been more specific: we know that prisons are built and located so as to be hard to reach and hard to think about for people outside of them, and anti-prison activists and artists on the outside need to do better to center the voices and needs of currently incarcerated people in the abolitionist struggle. In that regard, I want to keep thinking about exchange and dialogue. Going off of Justin's question, prisons both name actual buildings of brick and fences and the social relations that cage people inside those buildings, and which structure everyone's lives to a greater or lesser degree. And here I'm curious about the capacity of poetry to intervene in those relations specifically by reaching across lines of incarceration—how does or how can poetry be a means of exchange and communication between people on the inside and outside?

Mercedes: Tongo, what a line. “If it has a prison, it is a prison. Not a city.” This makes me think of Mission, a small city about an hour from Vancouver, Canada. Mission Institution, a medium-security prison for men, is located outside of the city, as is the Pekw'xe:Yles (Peckquaylis) Indian Reserve. In Mission a lot of people work as guards or in other positions at the prison; many women and children live there so they can regularly visit their incarcerated loved ones; and some men, when they get out, go live in Mission. The COVID-19 outbreak at Mission Institution infected 120 inmates, approximately 40% of the inmate population. One inmate died. And the virus came in from the outside. So, there is always this movement of people, and currently, distressingly, deadly viruses, between prisons and the spaces outside of them. But I know about the City and the Institution and this flow of people and other things like virus and illegal drugs between them from visiting my father there. Obviously, it is different for people who have never been imprisoned, or worked in or visited someone in a carceral facility, so this is where poetry can come in. To fill in the blank spaces as you said, Justin, to work away at “‘prison’ as a linguistic entity [which] is so ruthlessly ambiguous that its meaning is simultaneously all-encompassing and empty.” To speak to the current conversations on reform and abolition, I think poetry is a way to think about how the carceral continuum pervades so many aspects of life that can be more effective in convincing people that we need to tear down these systems than other types of texts on prison abolition because poetry can access emotion, can be affective.

Poetry had definitely led to exchange and communication between myself as an outsider and insiders. At this moment, a reading group of insiders and outsiders who are taking a university-level for-credit course organized and facilitated through Walls to Bridges (W2B), is reading my book. W2B is an educational program that offers courses that are taught within correctional facilities. Nyki Kish-Field, a former prisoner and the W2B Program Coordinator for BC, organized the reading group. All of our conversations about the reading group have taken place on a farm in Mission. And throughout the entirety of these conversations, Nyki has been teaching me. Teaching me about growing vegetables as we work in the garden worked by people in various stages of incarceration whether former prisoners or inmates on day release. I have learned about the parts of a tomato plant and varieties of tomatoes and how to prune them and to be merciless with this pruning and when to harvest the fruit. That weeds mimic the plants they grow around, that garlic must be cured, that the City of Mission on the land of the Sto:lo Nation is food-insecure, and that the farm provides food boxes of organic fruits and vegetables to people in need.

Still trying to articulate my thoughts on poetry in relation to capitalism and the carceral state, and how and if it's linked to freedom. I echo Tongo and hope my response is useful to our conversation.

Tara: I taught a poetry workshop at Stateville Prison up until the last day on March 7, 2020. I remember clearly because I was assuring my students that it should be OK, and I fully intended on coming back next Monday, by Tuesday all the public events that I had booked to read my work, host author talks, and lead workshops were canceled. We got a call on Friday that we would not be allowed back into Stateville. Not even a month later, one of my former students died. There have been others who have died at Stateville since. I sent them a formal letter with writing advice, prompts, and poems, but that feels nothing like them getting out of their cramped, dark cells and into a classroom where we can talk about poetry. All the written materials are processed and sometimes, I’ve received empty folders from students, so I suspect that there is censorship of materials. I was often searched with a rigorous intent that felt gendered, like a woman could not come in and teach men without good intentions. So, all of that has been on my mind. I have always looked at poetry as healing work. A process to get a story out and envision new possibilities, even under difficult circumstances.

I’ve also looked at poetry as an approach to pinning down the details that accurately portray a situation. We are too often taught in school that poetry looks and sounds like something or someone that does not reflect our lived experiences or our respective cultures. I have consistently refuted that as a writer and a teacher. I also find myself asking students to challenge what they read so they can write from a unique perspective. For example, I was speaking at IL-CHEP, a statewide conference for prison educators in Illinois, and I was breaking down the term “pedagogy.” The actual etymology of the word relates to slaves who sat outside the classroom for the students that they served. That fact alone made me want to rethink terms that we consistently use to describe our work as students in an exchange with each other, which is why I’m glad Tongo mentioned Paolo Freire. His work is indispensable if we’re talking about empowering literacy. I also think of the books that helped me when I first taught a literature class with Tsehaye Hebert at Cook County Jail years ago. PEN produced a slim book on teaching in prisons co-authored by Janine Pommy Vega and Hettie Jones, and Judith Tannenbaum’s Disguised As a Poem: My Years Teaching Poetry at San Quentin. I met Vega in New York City, and she generously invited me to come read and meet her students at Eastern CF. Vega’s legacy of encouraging poetry outside the academy is part of a legacy of poets that I have deeply identified with before and when I started teaching. That idea of space within writing poetry begins there for me. We don’t need confinement to feel excluded. Being shut out can begin before you are born. Every obstacle can lead an individual closer to literal confinement, and that idea of access to money, power, language. Each of those impacts our freedom and how quickly we can access a space, find healthier spaces, bigger spaces, or simply space. Sometimes, poems are about creating a space too. One that explores our interior space, as well as one that can explore our exterior surroundings, no matter how circumscribed or expansive they might be.

Kay: Right now, I'm looking at the news from Kenosha, and the ashes of the corrections building that went up in flames last night. I'm also thinking about how a month ago in Seattle the construction site for a prison for young people was destroyed—and that this and other collective actions effectively forced the state to abandon building youth prisons in and around that city. There's an intimate, if not always explicit, connection between the movement for racial justice and police abolition in the streets currently and the movement to break the chokehold of the carceral state for good. I want to know more about the poetry that you all think speaks to that connection—the poetry that measures up to the movement at present. What does it sound, look, and feel like to you? Who is it coming from and who is it speaking to? What does it say that can't be said otherwise?

Justin: I'm not much enmeshed in the poetry world, or even much of any world other than prison, at least in most senses. So, I don't know much about what poetry might measure up to the current social movements. I will say, though, that I'm thinking a lot about Nate Marshall's new collection of poems, Finna, and how his use of language opens up so much possibility for a legitimate dialect that historically hasn't received enough respect in the literary world. I'm also thinking about Tongo's delivery when he performs his poems, how there's this level of inherent coolness mixed with a poetry that's so clearly a Euro step toward some species of revolution. Finally, because hip-hop is fine art and emcees are poets, I'm thinking of Kendrick Lamar's “Alright,” Fivio Foreign's “Big Drip,” and Pop Smoke's “Dior”––all songs that have found their way into the canon of protest music, whatever the subject matter. Point is: the poetry that propels and shoulders the movements in the streets is going to come from the streets. It's going to be problematic, wavy, and impossible to avoid. It's going to say “WE HERE.”

That all brings me to some of the points Tongo made. I'm really feeling the notion that “through poetry … there is a reabsorption of power and therefore humanity.” I wholeheartedly believe in poetry as a vessel for power & humanity, if done the right way. I have some trouble, though, with the notion that poems and their poets are entrenched in a battle between social transformation and the normalization of genocidal practices. I think what gets to me is the feeling that I must choose sides in a battle I haven't even chosen to fight in. If I have to decide, of course I'll move toward a poetry that pursues liberation because what poet doesn't want to find some freedom, whatever that might mean?

Half of my homies are doing life. I think about that a lot, how my life has shifted toward that statement. I've asked some of the men around me in prison: What do you think about abolition? I haven't yet found anyone who cares much about it. Blame institutionalization. Blame crack & heroin & pounds of weed. Blame family trees. Blame brainwashing. Blame whiteness. They're all complicit. But so are we, or at least, we may have been. These dudes haven't seemed much concerned with social reform or abolition in the revolutionary sense. They want to know when they can go home, how they'll feed their people, and how we can come up on some money. Can you blame us?

What it comes down to, for me, is whether or not we can lean on poetry to create a new lane for writers involved with the justice system. When I say “lane” I really mean a way for writers to hone their craft and, directly or indirectly, make money to let them live their lives. I suppose that makes me a reformist. Perhaps I'm wrong and I do need to choose a side in this Hegelian movement toward freedom. I just can't shake the thought that the hustlers want to eat, whether that means cooking at the stove, stealing from the counter, or burning down the building to grill meat in the flames.

I've been a bit too noncommittal. The system needs massive reform. Abolition could work, depending on what that means tangibly. Poetry can do things other forms of writing cannot, and vice-versa. Poetry itself is not the output that will bring about the changes.

I like what you said, Tara, about pushing against the notion that poetry is this thing outside of our cultural and experiential reach. That was my experience with poetry. I was a young hustler, only concerned with girls and money. What the hell could poetry do? And yet, now I see that is where the possibilities live––in the stories. So, yes, abolish prisons. Put the work in. Educate. Vote. Take action. But, if you want to even begin to give some of these revolutionary tools to those on lockdown, teach the hustlers & the renegade saints & the savages how to tell their stories and how to evaluate their lives through the lens of their own language. Then give them more language. If we end up with more capitalists, so be it. If we end up with revolutionaries, so be it. As long as we end up with poets. To cultivate that within these walls would mean giving weight where there's often an assumption of emptiness. That's where we begin.

Mercedes: For me the poetry the measures up to the social movements in the streets right now is by the queer and Two Spirit Indigenous youth like Brandi Bird, jaye simpson, and Justin Ducharme who I see in the streets of Vancouver, organizing and participating in actions in solidarity with Black people and Indigenous peoples and their fight for land sovereignty. Their poetry might not be explicitly about cops and prisons, but it is absolutely in tandem with their efforts in movements for racial justice and police abolition. Earlier this year there was an outpouring of support and solidarity with the Wet'suwet’en peoples who are fighting to protect their traditional and unceded territories from the expansion of a pipeline, and these young folks repeatedly interrupted the flows of capital by blockading the entrance to the Port of Vancouver, the largest port in Canada, the third-largest port in North America. They organized rallies and blockaded a viaduct in Hogan’s Alley, the historically Black neighbourhood of Vancouver, to protest the deaths of Black people by the police. So, I think here of Brandi Bird's chapbook I Am Still Too Much and how their work addresses mental health care systems. Of jaye simpson and their new book It Was Never Going to Be Okay, who as a former youth in care organized a rally to raise awareness of youth aging out of the foster care system. Of Justin Ducharme, a filmmaker, and contributor and co-editor of Hustling Verse: An Anthology of Sexworkers' Poetry, whose work considers racialized desire in the sex economy.

I also think about the poetic scholarly writing in Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, and Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake, and how they have influenced Canisia Lubrin and Billy-Ray Belcourt, poets whose work I love for the formal innovations, the beauty of the language, and the ways that it opens up new ways of thinking.

There's the poetry of my sisters, Cecily Nicholson and Junie Desil, who have been involved in racial justice community organizing for over a decade now. I think Junie's debut book Eat Salt | Gaze at the Ocean, which just dropped, took a while because of her movement work.

All of these poets—whose writing is different in structure, methodology, look, affect, and sound—speak to me in their written and embodied resistance to the carceral continuum and the genocidal Canadian state. It would be lovely not to need the beauty of their words as balm for the terror wrought by capital, but the terror is here and we need beauty.

#262 — Fall 2020