Interview with Ann Bracken

Recently, Little Patuxent Review interviewed our deputy editor, Ann Bracken, about her new book of poetry, No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom. Ann has worked with LPR starting with our inception in 2006. For the past 20 years she has taught children and adults, and those experiences serve as the inspiration for this new book.

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Ann Bracken

Little Patuxent Review: How have your experiences as a teacher influenced your writing? What aspect of education inspired you to write No Barking in the Hallways?

Ann Bracken: I began writing my student poems when I taught high school in a psychiatric hospital. Many of the students were there because no other school had a place for them due to their emotional distress that resulted in a lot of difficult behaviors.  What I learned in that job is that there are no “bad kids,” but rather awful circumstances that cause pain and trauma. Writing poems about my students helped me to understand them better and to treat them with the compassion they deserved.

I wanted to write No Barking in the Hallways because I believe in the power of personal stories to help people understand complex issues, such as high-stakes testing. The emphasis on test scores negatively affects both teachers and students, especially those with special needs. For example, many of the young men I taught struggled with reading, but rather than accept help and move forward, they developed avoidance behaviors so they could look cool and tough as opposed to being labeled as dumb.  Many of those boys were mechanically or artistically gifted, yet they were stuck in classes that drilled them on multiple-choice items so they could pass the high-stakes graduation tests.  Because their grades were poor, they were not eligible for the technical classes where they could have blossomed.  So for them, school was a place of frustration rather than a gateway to hope.

As for my colleagues, many of them doubled-down on rigid, practice-driven activities just to cover material that would be on tests. I also had an administrator who bribed kids with prom tickets to take the test over again, even when they had passed, just so the school’s numbers would look better for the central office.

LPR: How did this project differ from others you have done in the past?

AB: My previous book, The Altar of Innocence, is a memoir in verse that deals with addiction, depression, and the struggle to claim one’s voice.  That book has a chronological framework and each poem is based on a scene from my past.  My new book features the stories of students and teachers I have known since I first began teaching. The poems are in a looser framework so that the reader experiences stories of individual children and teachers who struggle to find relevance in today’s increasingly standardized, rigid world of public education.

LPR: Your poems feature the voices and stories of real teachers and students. Could you provide an example of a story that inspired one your poems?

AB: “The Voices in My Ear” is based on an article I read by Amy Berand, a young teacher in a charter school who was being trained in a very robotic, harsh method of discipline called No Nonsense Nurturing.  Amy worked in a middle school, and while she was being trained, she had to wear an earpiece so that she could hear the prompting from three coaches who stood in the back of her classroom and told her how to respond to students.  I was struck by Berand’s description of the method, especially because she was equipped with an earpiece to hear the coaches but had no mouthpiece to answer them. The trio of coaches gave her short phrases to say and told her to stop expressing her emotions, to stop praising the students. I found the article very disturbing on a number of levels, chiefly because most teachers know the best way to help students learn self-management is to treat them kindly and to get to know them and their interests. A teacher should form a real relationship and show respect for the students as people. No Nonsense Nurturing trains teachers to act like robots who speak with pre-programmed responses rather than to engage with students as individuals.

LPR: What changes do you feel need to be made in education to better reflect the experiences of students?

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No Barking in the Hallways

AB: First, I’d eliminate most uses of the computer for students in the classroom—see this article on the push for competency-based education for my reasoning.  Teachers would guide student learning using hands-on experiences to explore a curriculum based on research and age-appropriate objectives. The curriculum would be decided on a state level, with each school system free to adapt parts of it according to local needs.  Art, music, and physical education would be as important to the school experience as reading, writing, math, social studies, and science skills. The Common Core curriculum, PARCC, SBAC, and all standardized testing would be eliminated. No more Teach for America. No more charter schools and vouchers. Higher pay for teachers. Local control in the hands of elected school boards would be the norm. Most of all, we would be guiding our students to become thoughtful, kind, informed citizens and treat them with dignity and respect.

LPR: How can we better meld the arts with education?

AB: If we value creativity, and our business folks are always searching for that quality, then we need to improve the opportunities for children to be creative. You can’t foster creativity with standardization, rigid curriculums, and corporate-designed lessons.  We need to keep the arts—music, poetry, dance, visual art, and theater—in the forefront of our children’s education. Not only do the arts offer a variety of ways to express oneself personally, they also offer a chance to speak to issues in new and challenging ways.  Most important, the arts offer all of us a way to imagine the future, to move beyond what constrains us and to create a new vision for society. Instead of cutting the arts, we should be expanding them.

If you’d like to know more about Ann and her work, please visit her website at www.annbrackenauthor.com.  Ann’s launch reading for No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom is on February 24th at Zu Coffee in Annapolis, MD, from 6:30-8:30 pm. Diane Wilbon Parks will also be featured at the event, part of the reading series The Poet Experience.

Interview with Linda Moghadam

To celebrate Little Patuxent Review’s tenth anniversary, we’re highlighting previous posts.

Linda Moghadam, 2015.

Linda Moghadam, 2015.

I used to fear going inside a prison. Like many people, my ideas were fueled by media portrayals of the “hardened criminals” who exist behind the walls, locked away from society. But in recent years, thanks to Michelle Alexander’s fine work The New Jim Crow, I’d learned more about how the prison system operates and could see that, in many ways, our current criminal justice system was stacked against poor and minority populations.

The radio show Crossroads, a weekly radio program on WPFW in Washington, DC, hosted by Roach Brown only reinforced what I learned about prisoners from Michelle Alexander’s work.

Brown identifies himself as a former inmate and a national advocate for the men and women in and out of our prisons. Every week, he relates stories of former inmates who struggle to make a better life for themselves but face tremendous obstacles to reentering society. I’ve learned a lot from listening to Brown’s personal tale as well as the stories of countless men and women—many of whom freely admit to making bad decisions as young people and serving long years locked away. Their stories revealed to me a human side of the people we lump into the category of criminals. After a couple of years as a steady listener, my fears melted a little as I began to understand the complexity of their lives and to hear over and over again how many of them work to improve themselves in prison, much like Brown did, and how many want to give back to society in a positive way.

Because of my feelings, I had been already thinking about visiting a prison and myself offering a writing group even before I met Linda Moghadam and learned of her work at the Patuxent Institution. I felt a kinship with Linda as we sat in her office at the University of Maryland College Park, and chatted about her background, her interests, and her experiences with running a writing group at Jessup for the past eight years.

Linda Moghadam received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees as well as her and Ph.D. in Sociology (1989) from the University of Maryland College Park. She has served as the Director of the Sociology Undergraduate Program since 1989 and also lectures on the sociology of education. Her areas of interest include work and family, inequality issues, and education.

Ann Bracken: Tell me how you came to work at the Patuxent Institution. How long have you been volunteering there?

Linda Moghadam: I started volunteering in the college program at Patuxent (a partnership between Anne Arundel Community College and Patuxent Institution, funded by a small grant) eight years ago.  The college program was active for a little more than ten years and was quite successful.  Over 50 men and women (there is a small women’s unit at Patuxent – kept separate from the men’s) earned associates degrees.  Ed Duke administered the program and ran it on a shoestring.   When the funds ran out, we were able to raise enough money to allow those closest to an AA degree to graduate.

AB: What can you tell me about the programs that were there at the time?

LM: During that time there were several enrichment programs (resumes workshops, social entrepreneurship programs) available.  The end of the college program was accompanied by an end to these programs.  I stayed on and did a writing workshop with a group of interested men, most of whom I had taught in various sociology courses.  The chaplain’s wife, who is an art teacher, also volunteered. She initiated and ran a very successful art program.

AB: How many men are currently in the writing program?

LM: There are ten men in the writing program.  These programs and others could be expanded with additional volunteers.   The members of the writing group are interesting and engaged in their work, the discussions and the work they do are about things that matter.   The time I spend at Patuxent is in many ways one of the best parts of my week.

AB: What has most impressed you about working with the men?

LM: Since the writing and art programs have been in place we have had two joint events that combined presenting the work of the writing group and the art group, along with some musical accompaniment from several of the men.  I have been moved by the energy, hard work and collegiality among the men in producing and performing.  Several of the therapists have also been extremely supportive in helping to arrange these events.  There is a considerable amount of talent among the participants and the opportunity to present their work as well as the opportunity to collaborate with others has had real value.   One of the poets who participated in the first event observed later that it is was the first time he had not felt like a number since he had arrived at Patuxent.

AB: How would you describe your philosophy of life?

LM: I suppose my philosophy of life can be borrowed from the author of the one-act play The Cultivators I sent you.  The play was inspired after the author read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.

“And what does the nettle (seed) need?  Very little soil, no care, no culture; except that the seeds fall as fast as they ripen, and it is difficult to gather them, that is all.  If we would take a few pains, the nettle would be useful; we neglect it, and it becomes harmful.  Then we kill it.  How much men are like the nettle! . . . My friends, remember this, that there are no bad herbs, and no bad men; there are only bad cultivators.”

We read and studying these things, and yet we fail to benefit from their wisdom.

AB: What are the men most interested in learning?

LM:   Just about everything.   Some of the men are voracious readers and are interested in history, literature, science. As you noted during your visit, they put you and me to shame in how well read many of them are. Neither one of us has read Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Proust, yet several of the men had.  They also have an interest in learning more about restorative justice and in finding ways to give back to their communities..

AB: I know that one of the men has written a play. What’s it about?

LM: Actually two men wrote plays. One of the plays was particularly impressive for the way in which it incorporated a vision and understanding of society garnered from literature as well as the social sciences. It’s exciting to observe the ways in which the men have applied what they have learned—both from experience and literature –in their story telling.

AB: What has been the most surprising thing about working with the men?

LM: No real surprises here. When I was growing up, my dad had gotten burned quite a few times by friends – sometimes by family. As a result, his view of the world changed, and he was always telling me that most people were not to be trusted. He was sure that I would learn this lesson eventually.   But working at Patuxent has reinforced my view of the world—most people are good, trying to be better, and sometimes making terrible mistakes. But they’re basically good people. I suspect my father knew this as well, but was trying to protect me.

AB: How has the work changed them? How has it changed you?

LM: At the first program where we did readings, one of the poets made an observation that he found it ironic that he would have to come to prison to find that people would actually care about him. In a subsequent meeting of the writing group, he said that in presenting his poetry, it was the first time since he had arrived at Patuxent that he saw himself as something other than a number.   I hope that both through the college program and the writing and art program – and also the therapy that is provided at Patuxent—they have an opportunity to believe in themselves and discover what they are capable of.

This experience has changed me in all sorts of ways. The men helped me choose a book for my grandson’s 5th-grade graduation. I’ve developed an ongoing appreciation for the many undeserved breaks I’ve had. I realize that great company comes in unexpected places. And I feel a push to read more to keep up with the group.

AB: Anything you’d like to add?

LM: These types of program are important, but, even more, important are policies that stem the flow of our citizens into prison.   You can see from just one meeting with the writing group how talented they are and what they could contribute to society had their early lives been different.

Linda’s words about what the men could contribute once they can return to society reminded me about a program I attended a couple of months ago with Betty May, a theatrical director, writer, high school teacher, circus coach, and clown from Columbia, MD. Betty did a presentation on her book Faces, which details how she worked with women in the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women and helped them put on an original play. May supported the women, all of whom were serving life sentences, as they wrote and performed their original play “Faces,” which was performed at the prison and also found its way to the Kennedy Center Stage. The play told their collective stories to serve as a warning to young people who were on the wrong path in life. The women had one simple wish: “If we can help just one kid, all the work we do will be worth it. “

I feel the same way about the work Linda is doing with the writing group: If a few people are moved by the men’s stories from the writing group, it will be worth it.

Editor’s Note: If this interview interests you, check out LPR’s Issue 21: Prison https://littlepatuxentreview.org/sales/individual-issues-2/.

 

On Being Invisible: Our Nation’s Incarcerated

As part of Little Patuxent Review’s tenth anniversary, we’re highlighting previous posts. Enjoy!

This essay is part of a series inspired by our Winter 2012 Social Justice issue. The first one was posted September 2011, and all feature people who have helped make marginalized segments of our world more visible to mainstream America through poetry, prose and visual art.

Not long ago, I learned that Russia has the third highest incarceration rate in the world (542 prisoners per 100,000 population). Given my background, I can’t say that I was surprised. (I was born in Latvia around the time that Soviet soldiers were piling my compatriots, including my mother’s brother, into cattle cars and transporting them to gulags in remote regions of the USSR.) Nor did I find it particularly remarkable that Rwanda, site of the 1994 Genocide, comes in as second highest (595/100,000).

What did come as a shock was discovering that my adopted country–the United States of America, where I sought refuge at age five from war and oppression–ranks Number One (a whopping 743/100,000). In fact, while my fellow Americans represent only about five percent of the world’s population, about one-quarter of the entire world’s inmates are housed in US prisons. What was even more disturbing was that it seemed as though many of those inmates never had the same shot at the American Dream that my family and I did, even though we had arrived at Ellis Island bereft of all our material possessions.

Over 60 percent of the adults that the United States has seen fit to imprison read at or below the fourth-grade level; in other words, they are functionally illiterate. More than half have a history of drug abuse or addiction. And a disproportionate number are non-Hispanic blacks (39.4 percent of the 2009 prison population compared with 12.6 of the general population, according to 2010 US Census Bureau statistics). Many neither had the means to make it in American nor the wherewithal to voice the injustice of it all.

Apart from the occasional, well-publicized prison riot, most remain invisible in a place that Nobel Prize-winning poet Joseph Brodsky has characterized as being “essentially a shortage of space made up for by a surplus of time.” A fortunate few in Jessup, MD, however, have gained notice due to the efforts of Baltimore poet, former head of the Towson University English Department, publisher of BrickHouse Books and Little Patuxent Review contributor Clarinda Harriss. Here’s Clarinda, in her own words:

Clarinda Harriss

Clarinda Harriss, seen twice at the Minás Gallery in Hampden, once through the artistry of Minás Konsolas.

The most visible I ever felt was when I first walked up a flight of iron stairs inside the Maryland House of Correction in the early 80s as a guest of the newly formed MHC Writers Club. I was a woman. I was nobody’s girlfriend. And I was white. The residents–you do not say “inmates”–were all male, and about 95 percent were black. Many were gray-haired, gray-bearded. Residents of MHC, better known as “The Cut,” stayed there a long, long time, usually for life.

My initial job–actually, I was never more than a volunteer–was merely to provide a female voice for Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls who have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, read out loud in tandem with the Writers Club president. He wanted to convince the other members to work with him on a male answer to Shange’s choreopoem. The resulting For Colored Guys who Have gone Beyond Suicide + Found No rainbow became the best selling book that my venerable small press, BrickHouse Books, ever published and is about to go into a fifth edition. It has been performed on TV and stage and started me on decades of monthly visits to the Writers Club.

The Club owed its beginnings to a feminist scholar, Margaret M. Blanchard, who taught writing courses at The Cut, and owed its many years of flourishing to a visionary activities coordinator, Hannah Coates. Hannah said “yes” to things that other administrators said and are still saying “no” to. This is one reason why Margaret and I worked at the men’s instead of the women’s prison, where residents–then as now–were permitted far less visibility than their male counterparts.

The men at The Cut had figured out and were allowed to pursue a variety of ways to be visible: writing for the prison newspaper, The Conqueror, a mimeographed monthly that always struck me as remarkably uncensored; sporting interesting and highly decorative hairdos; fashioning beautiful hats from scraps of brocade and velvet gleaned from the prison’s upholstery shop.

At The Cut, I could communicate with Club members (and eventually other MHC writers as well) without having to include their DOC numbers on the envelopes. The administrators and guards knew them by name. Guards sometimes even sought Club members’ assistance in writing letters and papers. I witnessed more than one instance where a resident played Cyrano to a guard’s Christian. But, of course, those love letters went out under Christian’s name, not Cyrano’s. And many who died in The Cut ended up in anonymous graves.

For Colored Guys Who Have gone Beyond Suicide + found No rainbow

The cover of the best-selling book of writings from inside the Maryland House of Correction

Amazingly, the handful of Writers Club members who created For Colored Guys… not only did not die “inside” but also (except for one, who got devoured by the street) defied prison statistics on recidivism to become solid, productive citizens “outside.” True, some deliberately maintain an aspect of invisibility, asking me not to emphasize their prison past when writing about them. That’s why their names don’t appear here.

But every one of them has his name on the cover of that book.

Clarinda’s fostering of American prison literature followed in the footsteps of authors like H.L. Mencken, who founded The American Mercury in 1924 and regularly published pieces by convicts, and Norman Mailer, who helped publish letters he had received from convicted murderer Jack Abbott as the 1981 bestseller In the Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison. Public support for such efforts, however, has waxed and waned.

The Great Depression brought suppression, with prison manuscripts perceived as profitable subversive tools. The social and political unrest of the Sixties and Seventies engendered a renaissance of sorts. Prison writing made its way into paperbacks, periodicals and even major motion pictures. Then, the trend reversed again. New York State passed the “Son of Sam law” in 1977, making it illegal for convict authors to profit from their writing. And later in 1981, Abbott killed a man during a fight only six months after his release on parole, which Mailer had championed.

These days, one of the few remaining sources of support is the PEN Prison Writing Program, which published the 2000 anthology This Prison Where I Live: The PEN Anthology of Imprisoned Writers that includes the Brodsky quotation cited above.

Still, those incarcerated in the US prison system have managed to produce an impressive body of literature over the years. Notable books include:

Editor’s Note: If you enjoyed this article, check out Issue 21: Prison and Issue 10: Social Justice at https://littlepatuxentreview.org/sales/individual-issues-2/.  

Thank you

We had a great time at AWP. We’re thankful to everyone that stopped by to say hello — both old and new friends.

Many of our published writers attended the event, and we are pleased to share some of their photos below.

We reminded everyone who stopped by our table that our submission period for the June issue ends on March 1st. Please send us your best work!

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Dan Vera

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Rebekah Remington

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Dorothy Chan

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Ann Quinn

Open Call for Submissions

The submission window for the next issue of Little Patuxent Review opened on December 1, 2016 and will close on March 1st. The issue is unthemed.

LPR is looking for the very best smart, engaging and well-crafted submissions of poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction. The editors welcome vibrant creative writing that demonstrates a strong sense of craft, a clear voice, and an ability to captivate the reader. The editors and readers of LPR have a variety of aesthetics and welcome a broad range of work, from the experimental to the conventional. Send work that will engage the imagination. Please read the information here. We thank you for your submissions!

Little Patuxent Review is a community-based publication focused on writers and artists from the Mid-Atlantic region, but all excellent work originating in the United States will be considered.

Interested? Keep reading…..

Little Patuxent Review at AWP

The following was written by Little Patuxent Review Co-Publisher, Desirée Magney.

How fortunate for Little Patuxent Review (LPR) and local writers that the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) Conference is taking place in Washington, DC this year! AWP is celebrating its 50th anniversary and the conference – running from Wednesday, February 8 through Saturday, February 11 – will be held at the Washington Convention Center and Washington Marriott Marquis Hotel!

Come visit LPR at table 613-T in the Exhibit Hall at the Convention Center.

Take at look at our newly released “Prisons” issue featuring the art work of Lania D’Agostino, interviews with poet and novelist Chris Abani and activist Betty May, as well as poetry, fiction and nonfiction from numerous writers.  Peruse some of our back issues with themes ranging from “Social Justice” to “Food” to “Myth” and our unthemed issues as well. This is our 11th year of publishing a high quality literary journal. While based in Columbia, MD, we welcome writers nationwide to become part of our LPR family.

This will be my first AWP Conference. I will be joined by our editor, Steven Leyva, Deputy Editor, Ann Bracken, and some of our interns.  We are looking forward to reconnecting with LPR friends and meeting new ones. We would love to talk with you about our journal and the submission process, so stop by our table for a chat.

If you’d like to know more about the conference or haven’t yet registered to attend, here is the link.