Longtime LPR readers have enjoyed numerous pieces over the years by Ms. Bracken in our journal and online. That is why I’m so pleased to announce the publication of her new collection of poems, Once You’re Inside: Poems Exploring Incarceration. If you purchase the book through her website, five dollars of each purchase will be donated to the Justice Arts Coalition. I was able to catch up with Ann recently and talk about her new book. Our conversation follows.
Q. Your new poetry collection, Once You’re Inside takes us through your experience visiting prisons in the state of Maryland. Can you tell me a little about how you came about volunteering at local prisons?
A. In 2015, the LPR blog editor asked me to interview the professor who was running the Patuxent Institution writing group and then to visit the group and interview the men so that I could write a blog post for the journal’s website. I never intended to become a regular volunteer. Professor M. repeatedly invited me to return and told me how much the men enjoyed poetry, so my occasional visits soon morphed into bi-weekly writing group sessions that lasted for three years.
Q. The work sounds tremendously rewarding and I applaud your efforts. What have you come away with? How has this experience changed your writing and perception of the prison system in the US?
A. Where should I begin? We frequently hear stories in the media about how much it costs the state to incarcerate people, but you’d never know it by the physical conditions of the prisons I visited. The floors were dirty, the elevator frequently got stuck, asbestos peeled from the pipes, and water seemed to leak everywhere. The classroom I worked in had no chalk or erasers and the air conditioner that hung from the window blasted cold air all year long. The men complained of dirt and grit in the lettuce and rat feces on their food trays. Mice and roaches were easy to spot in the restrooms. I guess worst of all, I learned that solitary confinement was frequently used as a tool of retribution against incarcerated people who dared to protest or complain in any way.
When I first began working in the prisons, I thought that the system needed reform—more education, better living conditions, and more support services for re-entry, for example. But the more I learned about the labor practices, the excessive use of solitary confinement, the inadequate health care, and the rampant physical and sexual abuse, the more I began to see prison abolition as the best solution.
Of course, getting rid of prisons entirely is not going to happen immediately, so in order to make that kind of change, we need to begin imagining what a world without prisons would look like. A chaplain I worked with told me, “Ms. Bracken, if you want to make a difference for these folks, you need to work with them before they ever enter the system or right after they’re released.” To that end, I’d say prison abolition also needs to involve how we care for our youth and families before anyone gets into serious trouble.
Two solutions are already being implemented in communities all over this country: restorative justice circles in our schools and communities and programs that teach non- violent conflict resolution and mediation.
The more I learned about the labor practices, the excessive use of solitary confinement, the inadequate health care, and the rampant physical and sexual abuse, the more I began to see prison abolition as the best solution.
All change starts with a positive and life-giving vision. Let’s begin by imagining a brighter and more just world for everyone.
Q. You’ve been writing poetry for quite some time, with two Pushcart Nominations to your name. What advice would you give new writers, especially new poets in these tech times?
A. If I were a new writer today, I’d love to have someone whose writing I admire and respect read my work and find worthwhile ideas in what I’ve drafted. I’d love to have at least one good teacher who can show me how to unlock the mysterious gates called craft and guide me on the path of learning. I’d tell new writers to be prepared to rewrite and get rejected when submitting, and then to keep on submitting. If you believe in your work, it will find a home.
Q. Talk to me about the Possibility Project? What is it, exactly?
A. Oh, that’s the name I chose for my expressive arts and writing classes. I believe that we all contain seeds of possibility that can blossom into greatness. While my workshop offerings have changed over the years, I still believe in creating opportunities for people to explore both their inner landscapes and the world of craft. To that end, my current programs center around book club discussions of my three poetry collections, techniques to use for journaling, and crafting a memoir in verse. I’m also open to creating customized programs for community groups, conferences, and libraries.
Q. What was the last thing you read that really moved you and why?
A. Oh, I read something every day that moves me—a poem, a calendar post, or an article. This past year, I’ve read several classic works of literature that I missed along the way, and my favorite was House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. The heroine of the story, Lily Bart, needs to marry in order to maintain her place in early 20th-century New York society, but she is not in love with any of the men who could provide for her. She’s a fiercely determined and tragic character who sinks lower and lower as she struggles to provide for herself after a series of poor decisions. Wharton’s prose is elegant, and I found House of Mirth to be a great pleasure despite the tragic elements of Lily’s life.
Ann Bracken has published three poetry collections, The Altar of Innocence, No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom and Once You’re Inside: Poetry Exploring Incarceration. She serves as a contributing editor for Little Patuxent Review, and co-facilitates the Wilde Readings Poetry Series in Columbia, Maryland. She volunteers as a correspondent for the Justice Arts Coalition, exchanging letters with incarcerated people to foster their use of the arts. Her poetry, essays, and interviews have appeared in numerous anthologies and journals, her work has been featured on Best American Poetry, and she’s been a guest on Grace Cavalieri’s The Poet and The Poem radio show. Her advocacy work promotes using the arts to foster paradigm change in the areas of emotional wellness, education, and prison abolition.