How a Collective of Incarcerated Writers Published an Anthology From Prison
A literary community that thrived in a dehumanizing system
It would make sense that any history would begin at Stillwater Prison, where so much of the story and mythology of prison in Minnesota also begins. It is where Cole Younger of the famous James-Younger gang did their time, and where they spent their own money to start the Prison Mirror, the world’s oldest and continuously run prison newspaper.
My first experience with a writing community came when I was still near the beginning of my sentence, decades ago, and was welcomed into the Stillwater Poetry Group (spg), the first place where I felt that art was something to be taken seriously. As part of the spg, we met with so many interesting local writers: Desdamona, Wang Ping, Ed Bok Lee, and J. Otis Powell, among others. It was exhilarating, until decision-makers in the facility realized the threat that artists and poets pose to the ideas of the captivity business. After only a year and a half, the group was disbanded. It was my first lesson in how easily good things in prison get discarded. Watching art and culture go away can create a bleak and hopeless landscape that will jade and obscure a person’s faith in creative community. It was a pattern shown to us repeatedly.
Several years later, after a long education shutdown and budget cuts, and years into Minnesota’s own mass incarceration expansion era, a new wave of incarcerated writers/thinkers/persons were emerging at Stillwater. Dr. Deborah Appleman and Dr. John Schmidt volunteered to teach courses on linguistics, literary theory, and creative writing. Out of these classes, a semblance of a new writer’s community was created and a book was published. Letters to a Young Man and Other Writings offered us both the gratification of seeing our words in print and a renewed sense of purpose. Then, collectively, we waited, just as before, for the facility to let the professors back in to cultivate our new community. Again, we were reminded of how good things in these places are rarely allowed to come back once they’ve left.
During those early classes I formed a friendship with Chris Cabrera, a genius young artist with whom I shared similar lofty aspirations for both our work and our lives. We spent hours conversing and arguing over the creative and intellectual visions we had. Cabrera would shout these big, abstract rhetorical questions at me, one after another, as we tried to figure out what so many more years as artists in prison would look like without fundamental change. We argued whether art was enough to free us, and to what extent we might go to make our dreams reality—or if it would even make a difference in a system that had pretty much always disregarded our work and our humanity. In the end, I think we agreed that neither of us wanted to disappear without the chance for our work to be realized, or at least the chance for it to be recognized and embraced by the people about whom we cared most.
Chris envisioned an ongoing writing program facilitated mostly by a collective of incarcerated writers. Ideally, it would harness resources so that it could offer writing classes and opportunities throughout a writer’s incarceration. I thought it was a great idea, but our experiences with administration and abandonment in the past made me suspicious of programming in these places. I wanted to publish and to have a career, even if it had to be behind these walls. I was working on a book project and was constantly worried something administrative would mess it up. We both argued that a collective couldn’t work unless we were ultimately reconnected to the greater, free-world literary community to which we had very little introduction. It was lofty thinking for guys who had sparse writing credits between them, and who really had no formal writing instruction outside an early creative writing course. Our experiences with Dr. Appleman, though, had empowered much of our thinking. Why not think big? Another writer from our community and I had just won the Pen Prison Writing Awards. Why shouldn’t we believe our work and our community had a right to be cultivated?
It was from these conversations that the Stillwater Writers’ Collective (swc) was born, out of an agreement that our power was as a community, and a realization that if we didn’t support each other, who would? We also realized that it was hard to get our peers, even when they are threatened, to write when there aren’t instructors to read and validate their work. Historically, there just hadn’t been enough support or success in our prison system to warrant that kind of confidence.
The swc was also created because our small cohort agreed that, at some point, someone or something was going to come along with opportunities that we had been waiting for throughout the long stretches of our collective incarcerations. There was agreement that as a community we would need to be ready so that the blessing we felt was supposed to be ours wouldn’t get passed along to somebody else. We believed it would be a crime for the story of writing in the Minnesota state prison system to be told, or written, without us. Just as the foundations of these old structures had been laid by the hands of the imprisoned, we were trying to lay a new literary and intellectual foundation. We were fortunate to have the support we needed from our then-education director, who introduced Jen Bowen and Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop (mpww) to us, and whose own vision made for an ideal partnership for the community at Stillwater, and throughout the state, to grow into what it has.
American Precariat: Parables of Exclusion is the culmination of a special partnership between Coffee House Press and the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop with an editorial board starting with twelve writers from the prisoner-created collectives of the Minnesota Correctional Facilities at Stillwater, Faribault, and Moose Lake.
For the past decade, mpww has provided a first-of-its-kind ongoing writing program within Minnesota state prisons. What started from a single creative writing course taught by the organization’s founder, Jen Bowen, has expanded from one facility to every prison in the state. The program offers a wide range of writing classes at all levels of the learning spectrum, as well as an extensive mentorship program. The workshop has become a model admired by potential prison writing programs across the country.
Before mpww, there was already a burgeoning community of talented, but mostly unrecognized, artists and writers incarcerated in the state of Minnesota. Mpww’s presence offered opportunities and resources to meet and take instruction from the larger literary community in the state, helping us to grow into a stronger community and to develop as individual writers. The relationship between mpww and the incarcerated writing community has produced numerous awards and countless publishing credits for many of the workshop’s students, as well as for many of the incredible writers that make up the mpww instructor staff and mentor program.
The twelve members of this book’s editorial staff are a small group of the much larger collectives that have grown up in our state, and throughout the country, in the sense that writers and artists always find each other in these kinds of spaces. There are creation stories that connect to make this community possible.
Most of us on the editorial board of this project recognize how exceptional it is to have the opportunities mpww provides. It affords us agency in our work that most incarcerated writing communities in the country do not share. Writing communities have and do exist in other prison systems that don’t have the same kind of programming infrastructure that we have in Minnesota. Ever since human beings began using confinement as a means to control other human beings, there have been writers imprisoned. Writers have risked their safety and their futures to find ways to sneak their words out into the world. The written word matters. Just as likely—and for just as long—writing and intellectual communities have existed in those spaces. Just like we did, artists will always find each other. It’s like a law of nature—if you put a thousand people in a single space, the artists, even with their own divergent energies, will gravitate toward each other.
Time in the life of a writer, or a prisoner, is an emergency. Incarcerated writing communities provide for us what we can only assume they offer to non-incarcerated writing communities: peer support, friend- ship, competition, rivalry, and shared stakes in the success of their members. These communities offer reminders of time and the emergencies time represents. Classes get canceled and cut. In 2005, our whole education department shut down for months and every computer in the joint was wiped and scoured. Stories, essays, poetry, and even an anthology of our work disappeared from the universe. There are lockdowns, seizures of materials, intentionally, and sometimes collaterally. There are surprise transfers that leave us without computer access, and we must figure out how to keep the things we need most. We, who are working hard to mend some of the wounds in the social and familial fabric of our lives, live with a stopwatch to create evidence that will show something redemptive within us.
I published my first memoir, This Is Where I Am, after 17 years in prison with the support of my small but unified family unit. Less than a year later, my mom passed away. She was my last living blood relative. Deadlines, story and book completions fulfill the need to have whole pieces of writing that can speak for the incomplete parts of our lives and families. They are our main emergency.
We build community because we can’t expect, demand, or control the machinations of the captivity business. Likewise, we can’t be sure that the politics of confinement will provide the spiritual and artistic resources we need to transcend our encagements. These collectives are our expression of both community and art. They provide our agency. The carceral state will not feed the kind of hunger an artist in these kinds of places experiences. So, we find ways to feed each other. There is a ceiling to the kinds of programming corrections provides, and this includes education. A member of the collective (and the editorial board) connected me with the right people to be able to finish my bachelor’s in English when the prison system was unable to help me. Most of the computer labs in the system were originally proposed, and in many cases set up, by members of our community who knew their value. There is a constant nourishing in the books and magazines we pass around. There are the friendships—the several successions where one member will encourage the work of a newer writer to keep revising, because they see the genuine value, and then, later, they see these stories win awards or find publication in reputable journals. There are also the rivalries, so strong and ingrained into the history of collectives. They have driven some to become the writers they were never sure they were supposed to become. We join forces because individually we are writers and poets and artists, but collectively we are power and possibility and refutation of the hypocrisy of the carceral complex.
Does your life matter? Does your art matter? I hope so. I know that I could never rely on an ever-constricting prison system at a pivot point of mass incarceration to answer these questions for me.
There is great significance to a panel of incarcerated writers editing an anthology on the precarious class in 2023. We, the editors, are the same population who have been tweaking and revising our work so that our voices might gain acceptance into the journals and anthologies we’ve hoped would validate our efforts. We are trying to make greater sense of our place in the larger, broader world. It matters that this is a volume edited by the imprisoned, because the history of class hasn’t always been written by the powerful, but they have always been its editors. We are a group of human beings who sought out community to consolidate the power of our own work; we, the incarcerated, are editing this most recent chapter on class. As a group, we have come to understand, or have tried to understand, power and class distinctions through the ways we have, as an incarcerated community, categorized and divided ourselves. Incarceration is the extension of the same mechanisms of power and marginalization that Black, brown, queer, and impoverished human beings have been manipulated and oppressed by through the institutions of our society. We are the depository of that pipeline.
Just as the largest of corporations believed that they could drop sewage into nearby rivers, or bury our human footprint in a land-fill or in a plastic swirl in the oceans, without the earth spitting its truth back at all of us, we dispose of human problems into the chasm of the penal system without confronting the socioeconomic circumstances that created the problems in the first place. The power dimensions that are at once manipulative, deceptive, and plain old mean are also cowardly and speak to the fragility of the human place in the eco-system. We have felt for so long—and our social and economic systems support the belief—that human beings must control each other to control the world.
As a broader, new American society in the wake of a global pandemic, we’ve now felt the soft incarceration of being sequestered, a fear of being trapped, and a fear of catching invisible sickness with uncertain consequences. The trapped analogy is obvious. The pathologies in all forms—viral, bacterial, psycho-sociological—well, we’ve been passing them back and forth unknowingly for generations until we are too sick to know any better. We watched, from inside and out, as a knee pushed on a neck and the stop-clock-emergency-of-time ran out, and then, like so often in our history, we have watched the fire and the rage. We bite down because we know that the violence of taking a person’s time and all their hope can’t be represented in a short video clip on tv, or even elicit the flash or rage such violent taking should.
During the course of this project, our editorial board went through two cohorts—the first, pre-pandemic, totaled twelve individual editors in three separate correctional facilities while the second consisted of a much smaller concentration of editors. Covid-19 did just what time in these places does—change and complicate things further. There were expected and unexpected transfers, incongruent security priorities and lockdowns that made it impossible for our cohorts to meet, so we had to depend on individual institutions to relay memos and manuscripts. Institutions have never been known for an ability to make adjustments to benefit the humanity of their inhabitants. In the pandemic, prisons reverted to the answer they knew best—tightened security. Our project went from finding its purpose and personality to frozen indefinitely—and that continued well beyond when the rest of the world started to open and venture out again. Significant effort was made to keep up momentum, but it was extremely difficult to keep twelve humans, all separated in different carceral compartments, connected to each other and to a changing outside world. When we did come back to this work, we were without members from both cohorts and access to the entire group from Stillwater was cut off. We were left with the cohort from Faribault, with participation from a couple of transferred editors in an entirely different facility in Moose Lake. And by that time, the entire world had transformed. Editing a book about class looked, felt, and tasted exponentially different.
We are now a community that has grown up, inside and out, with so many individual careers and successes. There is a pathway for young artists who believe in their work and in their ability to live a creative life in and outside of prison cells. We are also a community that is hyper aware of its own precarity. We’re here—curating, editing, and presenting a series of essays edited by twelve complicated, unique, human writers at different stages of complex lives and incarcerations, with different personal goals and philosophies of the world, working in community, and confronting and arguing over the invisible and not-so-invisible lines that shouldn’t mean anything, but too often draw the borders around what we are all afforded in this lifetime.
As an editorial board, we now represent twelve different voices, split between three prisons. We are made up of African American, Kenyan-born, Hmong, and, not unexpectedly, white males, unfortunately without women because of the structure of prison. There were plenty of voices missing from our tables as there are too many voices missing from any table when we discuss class in America.
In so many ways, prisons are secrets hidden from the rest of the world. Society has always hidden its most disturbing transgressions. Yet, culture still matters in these hidden spaces. We, the incarcerated, are the caretakers of it. If a prison is old enough, it remembers the prisoners that quarried the granite for its walls, or laid the bricks for its cell blocks that we have spent a century inhabiting. The incarcerated have always been more expendable than the buildings that house us, but our ideas echo long after we have left our initials scratched into old slabs of inmate-laid concrete, or scribbled on the walls of holding tanks. The state may maintain the institutions, but we nurture the culture, always—we, the artists, students, musicians, and writers. Prison writing communities are proof of a force stronger than single unread poems or stories. They are proof that there are more of us coming!
Excerpted from the foreword of the anthology American Precariat: Parables of Exclusion by Zeke Caligiuri, published by Coffee House Press.