Last fall the Creative Writing program at EMU offered a graduate course listed as CRTW 550: Community Outreach for Creative Writers, with the subtitle “Poetry, Pedagogy, Abolition,” which nourished a creative collaboration with incarcerated women at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility (WHV), while examining the prison industrial complex. Through this partnership, the class researched the history of the prison system, and built solidarity with the women writers inside the prison. The class also studied abolition in an effort to imagine a world without prisons. Abolition draws on the history and language of critical resistance with the goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance by imagining and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment. This also involves welcoming the unknown and accepting the unanswered.
This fall, BathHouse Journal released its 23rd issue titled Fractured. The issue itself is fractured with the featured works and authors broken in two by the inclusion of a special section: Poetry from The Bloc, which includes the poetry of seven women incarcerated at WHV. To celebrate their publication, a few graduate students offered to illustrate their experiences with the writers inside and highlight exemplary writing in the issue. Click Here to view the featured works by Needra Anderson, Colleen O’Brien, and several other participating writers of Poetry from The Bloc.
Keleigh, Andi, and Ryan are Creative Writing M.A. students and were enrolled in the course in Fall 2021. Their experiences, interactions, and interpretations with the material offer magnified insight on the collaborative nature of language and writing. More specifically, they communicate how language and writing cultivates a social solidarity. Each student was paired with a writer inside the prison and worked collaboratively, writing and editing one another’s poems, like an electrical current across the prison wall.
Unlike other students, Keleigh explains how her “situation was somewhat unique from other participants in Writers Bloc and the class.” “My collaborator stopped responding after the third letter. I never heard back from her, though I continued to write each week in the hopes a letter would bring some joy.”
Andi describes their semester-long correspondence with Needra as an exchange of “letters and poetry, commenting on each other’s work and talking about the various readings we were both doing.”
Ryan states that as “Colleen and I wrote each other letters: we got to know one another, shared our hopes and concerns and histories, shared our poetry, offered each other advice and suggestions on our written work, and developed a camaraderie, recognizing each other not by face but by words, by the voices of our poetry.”
Ryan alludes to this camaraderie by discussing the need to challenge conventional and normative thinking. “One major revelation worth mentioning, for me, was how the poetry, and the voices of those poems, of incarcerated writers, were as unique as the poetry and the voices of any other outside those walls. The carceral system may impose similitude, restrict freedoms, control and systematize and procedural-ize, and that might cause one to expect living in such a way to standardize and homogenize maybe even the form and content of creativity emergent yet bound within such an environment, but that is not what I found when reading the work of the Writers’ Bloc poets, rather something transcendent that I suggest others explore for themselves rather than rely on me to put my finger on (ie, read the special section of BHJ#23).” This framework is also necessary in establishing a sense of solidarity with the women inside.
Keleigh defines solidarity as “a mindset accompanied with intentional actions.” Ryan furthers this concept by expressing how solidarity is “becoming a part of each other’s experience — caring to understand, willing to participate, wanting to know without pretending you do; finding the ‘we’ out of two strangers by genuinely recognizing the other’s individuality and supporting their humanity.” Andi offers that “creating poetry” together with the women inside enacts this solidarity and engages with resistance. “It [makes] the walls that [separates] us more transparent so that we [can] get a glimpse of who each other really are.”
To spotlight the women writers and their contributions to the most recent issue of BathHouse Journal, Andi and Ryan chose to share poems written by their correspondents that were featured as part of Poetry from The Bloc in the most recent issue of the BathHouse Journal.
Andi: “Needra Anderson – “Talking Walls:” Needra’s voice comes through in all of her poems. I’ve never heard her talk, only read her words, but it’s like I can hear her voice when I read her work. This poem rages against the walls that block solidarity from forming and that both literally and figuratively entrap the speaker. The walls around the speaker become a character themselves; the walls talk, hear, and lie, while the speaker is left to ‘hold it all in.’ This poem reveals the power of walls, and points out the true enemy to solidarity: silence.”
Ryan: “I worked with Colleen O’Brien on “Concrete” as she developed it, and I think it is a phenomenal poem, full of gritty imagery and harsh reflections and stunning phrases — it’s a poem you should read a dozen times and let it knock you around a bit, you should feel it afterward.”
Click Here to view the featured works by Needra Anderson, Colleen O’Brien, and several other participating writers of Poetry from The Bloc, as well as published works from poets across the nation.