10th Anniversary: Voices of his past: an interview with Michael Ratcliffe

This essay was originally published on June 19, 2015. It is being re-shared in support of LPR’s 10th Anniversary celebration.

Mike Ratcliffe is the kind of man one loves to spend the afternoon with, whether biking or hiking the rolling hills of Central Maryland or – as in my case – meeting over coffee, grown cold, as we discussed everything from poetry to how people identify with place. His bottle brush hair, brown, is shot with gray as is his goatee. Smile lines frame both his piercing blue eyes and his wide mouth. It’s easy to feel comfortable in his company, and sink into the depths of weighty conversation.

Michael Ratcliffe

Michael Ratcliffe, 2015.

Born in 1962, Mike grew up keenly interested in people. He graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in geography before heading to Oxford to earn a master’s degree at St. Antony’s College. His day job as an Assistant Division Chief at the Census Bureau may seem at odds with his poetic leanings. But the intersection of people, landscape, and meaning – the backbone of geography – aligns perfectly with Mike’s love of words.

LPR Poetry Editor Laura Shovan introduced me to Mike via email several months ago, saying our shared interests in genealogy and history were two sure-fire conversation starters. Mike sent me a draft of his chapbook, along with links to his previously published works, and I devoured it all. An email correspondence began. We met in person one sunny Sunday in late April at a noisy, crowded coffee shop in Fulton, Maryland to talk about his forthcoming chapbook from Finishing Line Press, Shards of Blue, which is based on his genealogical and historical research and focuses on two ancestors: John and Mary Ratcliff.

 NOTE: If you enjoyed this essay, please check out LPR’s Issue 18:  https://littlepatuxentreview.org/issues/18-summer-2015/

10th Anniversary: How to listen so writers will talk

This essay was originally published on July 25, 2013. It is being re-shared in support of LPR’s 10th Anniversary celebration.

Susan at the Music issue launch, for which she interview Marie Howe. (Photo: E. Q. Tennant)

Susan at the Music issue launch, for which she interview Marie Howe. (Photo: E. Q. Tennant)

As a child, I rode everywhere on trains – Chicago, New York, even San Francisco, and that’s a darn long time on a train. My father worked for Amtrak; we rode for free. Train tracks run through back yards full of creaky swing sets, shaggy dogs and flapping rainbows of laundry – the back doors of houses, which seem much more intimate than the face the houses prepare for the faces they meet through the front door.

Watching out those windows for hours on end, I noticed there were so many lives, just as full as mine, which seemed like a revelation to me as a child. I was so curious about all of them. I also read obsessively – my mother used to beg: “Please, at least take the book outside” – for trips through other people’s heads.

NOTE: If you enjoyed this essay, please check out LPR’s Issue 12: Audacity. https://littlepatuxentreview.org/issues/12-summer-2012/

10th Anniversary: Once You’re Inside

This interview was originally published on September 11, 2015. It is being re-shared in support of LPR’s 10th Anniversary celebration.

prison wallsNote: All the men’s names have been changed to preserve their anonymity.

I didn’t know what to expect when Linda Moghadam and I visited the men’s writing group at the Patuxent Institute. I had a clue as to the motivation and tenor of the men from reading a brochure Linda had given me about the creative group. Working together, the members had this to say about the purpose of forming a group and the power of the arts:

“The group wants to have a positive impact on people involved with the street culture, prisons, and policy makers who can re-introduce educational programs into the prison systems.…


NOTE: If you enjoyed this essay, please check out LPR’s Issue 13: Doubt. https://littlepatuxentreview.org/issues/13-winter-2013/

10th Anniversary: An Interview with Grace Cavalieri

This interview was originally published on October 30, 2015. It is being re-shared in support of LPR’s 10th Anniversary celebration.

A Memoir from Grace Cavalieri

A Memoir from Grace Cavalieri

Grace Cavalieri is just as comfortable in the kitchen making gnocchi with spinach and mushrooms as she is in the radio studio interviewing, Juan Felipe Herrera, the new Poet Laureate of the United States. When I talked with Grace about the role of myth in her life and work, she moved easily between making me tea with honey and sharing her latest poetry reviews for the Washington Independent Review of Books—a labor she performs faithfully every month.

During the interview, we talked about her home life, her life as a Navy wife, and her early years as a writer when she was raising her four children. Here’s a brief teaser from a section in Grace’s memoir, Life Upon the Wicked Stage, where she explores the function of work in our lives:

“The workplace is a laboratory for the human spirit that allows us to overcome the obstacles we need to overcome to find what we want. The ‘wall’ people put up for us is a perfect way to find what we want on the other side. It focuses. Desire is made better by the wall. I never said it was easy.”

NOTE: If you enjoyed this essay, please check out LPR’s Issue 8: Spirituality. https://littlepatuxentreview.org/issues/current/

10th Anniversary: An interview with Naomi Thiers

This essay was originally published on May 14, 2016. It is being re-shared in support of LPR’s 10th Anniversary celebration.

Naomi Theirs

Naomi Theirs

I met Naomi Thiers at The Nora School last February when we both participated in a reading. Naomi’s poetry spoke powerfully as she read her stories about women and girls who are marginalized and forgotten, as well as her poems about her grandparents. Her gift lies in getting beneath the surface to reveal and then polish the tales that so many people never get to tell.

Naomi is one of the featured poets in a new anthology, Veils, Halos, and Shackles (Kasva Press) edited by Charles Ades Fishman and Smita Sahay,  which features the works of international poets addressing the topics of  women and sexual abuse. I spoke with Naomi recently about the anthology, her work, and her hopes for abused women.

 

 

NOTE: If you enjoyed this essay, please check out LPR’s Issue 11: Social Justice https://littlepatuxentreview.org/sales/individual-issues-2/

Interview with Eddie Conway by Ann Bracken

Continuing our discussion from our recent prison-themed issue, LPR Deputy Editor Ann Bracken recently interviewed Eddie Conway, executive producer of Real News Network. Having served 44 years in prison before his sentence was overturned in a retrial, Conway became an advocate for prison reform. Read the full interview below.

Some people might say that Eddie Conway is finally home. Others will tell you he never really left Baltimore behind.  And he has always been deeply committed to working for justice in his community.  At a very early age, he became aware of the disconnect between the American Dream that lies within reach for a majority of white Americans, but remains a caustic lie for many Black Americans.  Conway likens his feelings of betrayal to the time when he was about five years old and could barely reach the glass of water sitting on the kitchen counter. Proud that he finally grasped the glass, looking forward to the cold water, Conway choked and sputtered as he swallowed a glass of bleach.  In his memoir, Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther, Conway has this to say of that memory which “returns to my mind time and again, for it seems to me an analogy for the quintessential experience of oppressed people in this country. White supremacy permeates every aspect of our lives here in the United States and the forced acceptance of it tastes much like that glass of bleach.”

Conway grew up in the 40s and 50s in East Baltimore and then joined the United States Army in 1964 where he rose to the rank of Sergeant.  While serving as a medic in Germany in 1967, Conway saw newspaper reports about the use of force by police and the National Guard related to civil rights protests in the States and was shocked to see American soldiers pointing rifles at unarmed civilians in the streets of Newark, New Jersey.  Disillusioned and distraught over that incident, Conway questioned his role in the military and decided that he would take his energy and skills to fight for justice back in his Baltimore community. On his return home, he worked briefly as an orderly and operating room technician and then as one of the first Black firefighters at the Sparrows Point Bethlehem Steel plant.  In 1968 Conway joined a local chapter of the Black Panther Party which was just forming in Baltimore. He worked on educating other party members, providing free breakfast to the children in his neighborhood, and encouraging community members to take action to address the high levels of inequality that permeated every area of Black life.  In 1970, while still a member of the Panthers, Conway was accused of killing a police officer, denied adequate legal representation during his trial, and convicted based on the testimony of a jailhouse snitch. He spent 44 years in Maryland’s prisons, always maintaining his innocence.  He was released in 2014 for time served because the judge in his original trial had neglected to inform the jury that they could only convict someone if they were convinced of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Conway and I sat down to talk in his second-floor office at the Real News Network where he currently works as an executive producer.  The walls were hung with pictures of famous Black activists like Kathleen Cleaver as well as coloring book pages taped near his desk.   Conway told me that parents sometimes bring their kids to the network offices and he’s only too happy to display their artwork.

eddie-conway

Eddie Conway

Ann Bracken (AB):  Thanks for meeting with me today, Eddie.  It’s an honor to talk with you and to bring your story to the Little Patuxent Review’s readers.  I first heard you on “Democracy Now” when Amy Goodman interviewed you in March of 2014, the day after you had been freed from prison after 44 years. What was the greatest challenge you faced as a returning citizen?

Eddie Conway (EC): Nothing really challenged me at first because I had spent my time in prison working with people and trying to stay up on all of the events happening in the society at large. But what soon became a challenge for me was seeing the conditions in the city of Baltimore. I was prepared to see better conditions for everyone.  After all of my years of organizing—both inside of the prison and outside—I thought I was done with organizing at 67 years of age. But when I saw the conditions of the neighborhoods, the people, the schools, and the community at large, I had to pick up the mantle and try to change that.

AB: What kinds of projects are you involved in now as a community organizer?

EC: Right now I am working at Tubman House in the Gilmore Homes neighborhood—the same neighborhood where Freddy Gray was killed. We work with the children and adults to grow food, learn cooking, and offer support to the young people in the neighborhood. We do lots of community outreach, like giving out Thanksgiving turkeys, Christmas gifts, school supplies, and teaching dance to the youth.

AB: What led you to become a producer at the Real News Network?

EC: When I was in prison, I noticed that none of the United States networks covered the news about what was really helping to the people in America.  I couldn’t find stories about the environmental movement, the gay movement, or Black Lives Matter, just to name a few.  I had to look at networks like Al Jazeera, BBC, Russia Today or the Chinese News stations.  I finally found the Real News Network and I wanted to be a part of their work, so I began as a volunteer about two-and-a-half years ago and then I was hired as a producer. (Conway often reports on mass incarceration issues in a series called Rattling the Bars.)

AB: It sounds like you had a pretty smooth reentry after your many years of incarceration, but many others struggle to be successful after their time in prison. Are there programs that help returning citizens with re-entry?

EC: There are so few available that it amounts to a drop in the bucket.  The programs that do exist only reach a small part of the population. In Maryland alone, the numbers of people cycling in and out of the community are staggering.  About 1000 people come back every month and 1000 go in (to prison). (1) There’s a flood of people all the time. They get arrested and charged with everything from resisting arrest, to talking back, to having a little pot on their person, to everything except maybe mass murder (defined as shooting  4 or more people in a single incident, not including the shooter). (2) The statistics show that about 80-85% of people will come out at some time—so we’ll always have folks reentering our communities that need some support.  In my work at the Real News Network, I try to spotlight things that work to help returning citizens, but there are so few programs and they reach a very small population.  That’s why I did the story on Living Classrooms in East Baltimore.

AB: Say more about what impressed you with Living Classrooms. What is it that they do that makes their program so effective?

EC: That program is a tiny drop in the hat, but one of the things that makes them so effective is that they hire ex-offenders to work with the new returning citizens, so they have a good grasp of all the things someone newly released from prison needs help with—the problems, the challenges, and the resources. The program runs with case managers—about five or six of them—who work with about 50 or 60 returning citizens.  They have about an 80-85% success rate and very low recidivism rate, as opposed to state-run programs with about a 60% success rate and recidivism of about 40%.

AB: Most people know very little about labor in prisons or any other conditions that incarcerated people are subjected to.

EC: Prisons do two things: they isolate the people on the inside and they isolate the people on the outside so that they don’t know what goes on.  When you are riding on 83 coming into Baltimore, there’s a billboard that talks about putting down the gun   and when people ride by that, they have no idea about how many people live in those brick buildings behind the billboard. I bet many of them don’t even realize a prison is there.  So not only are the buildings themselves invisible to most people, but there’s an invisibility to the prison structure itself. Oftentimes people will tell you that one day they talk to a friend and a few weeks later, they ask where the friend is and someone tells them, “Joe? Oh, he got 20 years.”  So many people from your community are there one day and gone the next.  They become the disappeared.

AB: When I discuss the topic of prison labor with friends or students, the most frequent response goes something like this: “Well, it’s better to have people in prison working than just sitting around doing nothing all day. Besides, they can learn a trade or some skills if they have a job.”  How would you respond to that?

EC: I’d say that you could make the same argument about slavery. Isn’t it better to have people picking cotton and rice than just sitting around all day? At least they had a place to live and a little food. It’s the same mentality with labor in prison. People in prison have to pay for their survival—paying such things as deodorant, soap, toothpaste, stamps, snack food, books, and phone calls. (3) If they do work in the prison, they may make about $50-$75 a month. Oftentimes, they also have to pay for child support or family support. Additionally, when they are sentenced, they may be sentenced to 30 years and have to pay a $30,000 fine.  How are you going to do all of that on $75 a month?

If you are out on work-release, you do get paid federal minimum wage, but then you have to pay for room and board, taxes, and maybe child support. There is a very small sub-set of folks that are actually paid minimum wage.

So I’d say yes, it’s better to have work and a decent wage, but the system that currently exists is abusive—it’s a form of neo-slavery. People are dehumanized. How do you self-actualize in conditions like that?

For example, I worked as a graphic art designer making signs—a highly technical skill. I made things like the highway signs for BWI, the Orioles signs, and the wraps on MTA buses. All of that work requires a very special skill set. I was at the top echelon of prison pay, making about $6.50 per day.  A graphic designer on the outside would make about $250 per day.  So because I wasn’t even making minimum wage, I was dehumanized.

On the other hand, if prisoners were actually paid the minimum wage, they would be able to take care of their basic needs and also do things to bond more with their families.  They could buy cards, send letters, or maybe even small gifts. People would have to treat the prisoners differently because incarcerated folks would  begin to see themselves differently.  Paying the prisoners a minimum wage will humanize them.

AB: What would you like to say to people who may be thinking about doing volunteer work in a prison?

EC: That it means a lot to the folks who are locked up to know that people on the outside are thinking of them and are willing to get involved with them in some kind of meaningful way.  After a while, you lose track of yourself and how you are related to the world. But if you see people come in to work with you on job skills, or writing, art, music, or alternatives to violence—anything—you begin to realize that you matter. You hold on to your personhood and begin to feel like maybe you can make it. If you encounter people who have no obligation to visit you—folks other then your parents, siblings, relatives, spouse or friends—it helps you to feel like a real person rather than a number.

AB: Finally, I’m very interested in your work with “Friend of a Friend,” a program developed with the help of the American Friends Service Committee to help incarcerated people learn new skills for dealing with anger management, conflict resolution, and other interpersonal coping skills.

EC: Yes, Friend of a Friend is a peer-mentoring program that is run inside the prisons and helps prisoners develop a lot of the skills they need to be successful in their lives. Most of the men who participate in the program go on to work with the youth back in their communities.   The program runs in both state and federal prisons all over the United States.

AB: Thank you for your time and your work, Eddie. I’d like to close with your hopeful and inspiring words from the brochure about Friend of a Friend: “Our goal has been to equip these young men to leave prison in a better position emotionally and intellectually than when they came in. Our great hope is that they will contribute to the uplift of the communities that they come from.”

 

Notes from the Interviewer:

  1. Bureau of Justice Statistics: 95% of all state prisoners are released at some point and nearly 80% are released to parole supervision.
  2. Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Fiscal 2015 Budget Overview: 10, 946 entered prison and 11, 394 were released in 2013.
  3. For further resources, please visit Maryland Department of Corrections at Maryland Correctional Industries website.

 

 

 

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.

ann-bracken

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.