Interview With Ann Bracken

Generous LPR contributor Ann Bracken has out a memoir in verse called, “The Altar of Innocence.” New Academia Publishing/Scarith published the book on January 30, 2015, and it’s available on their site as well as and Barnes & Noble.

Bracken most recently appeared in LPR’s Food Issue with an interview of Grace Cavalieri. She interviewed Nancy Naomi Carlson in our Music issue and contributed an essay “Crafting a Bridge to Healing” to our Social Justice issue. Her poems “Adultery” and “Wine and Water” appeared in our Make Believe and Water issues, respectively.

I had the opportunity to catch up with Ann just as she began another semester at University of Maryland.

Ann Bracken knows about healing. As a writer, teacher and expressive arts consultant, she is skilled at harnessing the power of creativity to bring light into the darker areas of our lives. So it is no surprise that her new book, The Alter of Innocence: Poems, emphasizes spiritual empowerment and recovery. Despite the dark subject matter—her mother’s mental illness and suicide attempt, her own struggle with depression and an unhappy, sometimes verbally abusive marriage—it is a tone of compassion, not resignation or resentment that runs through the beautiful poems in the collection. “The book was an instrument of forgiveness,” she tells me as we chat on the phone on a chilly January day.  She says she had long ago come to understand the role her mother’s illness played in her behavior. But through writing, she gained greater insight into her husband’s actions, which she believes were partly the result of his fear and an inability to influence the course of her depression. Most importantly, in coming to see her depression as a spiritual illness she has learned to forgive and heal herself. It’s a message she can now share with the rest of us.

ER: Congratulations on your new book, The Alter of Innocence! The writing is lovely and poignant. The poems in this collection all relate to one another and tell a definite story, like a memoir in verse. How did you decide on this structure?

 Ann Bracken: Thank you, Emily, for reading The Altar of Innocence and for this chance to talk about my process. I’m glad you found my story moving.

Originally I started to write a chapbook that would cover my growing-up years and lay the foundation for another book that would deal with my own depression and the eventual decision to leave my marriage.  As I looked for contests to enter and reviewed the guidelines, I realized my collection was too long for most of the chapbook contests.  I decided to keep going and put the two sections together.  One goal that I had was to use the poems about my childhood to foreshadow similar events in my  adult life.

ER: I admire the way you apply adult understanding and compassion to the nightmarish and heartbreaking events of your childhood. I wonder if your attitude toward your mother evolved as you were working on these poems or did you start out from a place of forgiveness?

AB: I think I always had compassion for my mother. Over the years, I realized that she made choices in her life, and even though they seemed to lock her in an endless prison, I really tried to understand her.  When I was growing up, one question that haunted me was discovering the cause of my mother’s depression. Somehow the idea of a lifelong depression that began in her postpartum experiences did not add up.  In the late 90s I discovered a series of original watercolor dress designs that were more or less buried in my parents’ basement storage room. I was so taken with my mother’s designs that I had them professionally framed and then took them to her in the nursing home. When Mom saw the paintings she told me—for the first time in my life—that she had always wanted to be a fashion designer.  One of the saddest memories I have is when, as a child,  I would ask my mother to teach me how to draw, and she answered by hanging her head and saying, “I can’t.”

ER: Your mother was a talented young woman who sacrificed a lot of herself to her family. Would a creative outlet have helped her?

AB: Mom’s paintings have hung in my living room for the past fifteen years, reminding me of her unrealized dreams. And I can see myself as a teen observing her very physical manifestations of anxiety—hand-wringing, hunched posture, and hyperventilation.  I remember thinking, “I’ll never be like my mother.”  In my mind, I think I meant I would never fall apart the way she did. Or at least I wouldn’t look like I was falling apart!  Years later, when I thought about my own writing and how I only wrote when school was out for the summer, I realized I would be like my mother if I didn’t do more to make my dreams come true. My own dreams about being a writer. Ultimately, Mom inspired me.

I have thought a lot about whether any kind of creative expression would have helped my mother, and of course, I’ll never really know.  Even though she did not ever create any more fashion designs or do figure drawing,  I think my mother’s artistic sensibilities infused her work as a homemaker.  But was that enough to feed her soul?  I do think every woman, every person, deserves some time to express themselves in deeply personal and satisfying ways.

ER: As a society we’ve gained a lot of understanding about depression and especially post-partum depression. And yet I think a lot of mothers today probably feel a sense of isolation and sacrifice. What would your advice be to young mothers based on the experiences you’ve had?

AB: Oh, I would like to hug them and just say, “Ask for help. You’re OK to feel overwhelmed and kind of sad.”  No one said that to me, and most likely, no one said that to my mother. Even when I had my own children in the 80s, there was not that much support for women with postpartum depression. When I think about the tremendous physical and hormonal changes, coupled with the massive responsibility of a new baby combined with sleep deprivation, I have the utmost compassion for any woman who sinks into postpartum blues or depression. I think framing the situation by taking a look at the very real physical and psychological demands is the place to start.  Then we need to look at creative ways of offering women a strong support network, either with family and friends or with professional help.

ER: One of the poems that really affected me was “Time Travel,” in which you write this about your mom:

Maybe I could even
lead her up to the roof
where we would sit together
touching the green of trees
and Mom could see that anything is possible

Could you expand on the imagery here? I felt your desire to get your mother back in touch with the sensual world. She had retreated so far into herself.

AB: The roof image came to me as a way to speak about showing her more of the world, a way of getting her out of the house.  In some ways, the house and her flower garden became her whole world, especially as she got older.   And maybe I saw the idea of touching the green of trees as offering a connection to her love of nature, and a way to reignite my mother’s long-standing love of color. She had a fabulous color-sense, which I now realize was probably developed even more in a color theory class in art school.

ER: We watch you mature throughout the book. Your voice changes. Your understanding changes. Your desires change from wanting your mother to play with you at the pool to wanting her to go to AA. I think you capture the voice of each age so well. Was this difficult to do?

AB: I did not think about voice too much when I was writing the poems. I focused on the experiences and I think the voices just came through me. It was really a mysterious process. One thing that I did was to make a list of incidents that had stuck in my memory and then use them to brainstorm images and ideas that could reveal some character or desire. I adapted a few exercises from Visual Journaling by Barbara Ganim and Susan Fox.  My favorite involved  doodling with colored pencils or oil pastels to capture the mood I was aiming for—curvy pink and teal lines for soft feelings,  jagged orange or black lines for pain or anger.

ER: I was really struck by much of the imagery in your poems. You write about trying to

…ignore the thought about slipping the pointed end of the seam ripper
under the white flesh of my forearm
and ripping out the veins

As a writer, how do you arrive at these sorts of images?

AB: It seems like I am talking about a different person when I say this, but those were my actual thoughts when I was deeply depressed and plagued by what the psychiatrists call “suicidal ideation”.  I had a dressmaking business at the time, so I spent many of my days making clothes for other people.  When I was in my darkest moods, I could not stop thinking about suicide—the only way it seemed possible for me to escape my pain.

ER: Tell me about your ex-husband and the role he plays in these poems.

AB: We met in college and were married for 25 years. For much of that time I was dealing with bouts of depression. It took me a long time to recognize how unhealthy our relationship was. In the first place, in those days verbal abuse was not recognized as true abuse. But also, I realize we were fundamentally a bad match. My ex-husband is a builder. He sees things in black and white and he likes to have control over his environment. My physical illness and journey into the darkness were things he couldn’t control and I think it really frightened him.

I’m actually grateful for my depression because it served to exacerbate his verbal abuse to the point where I could finally see it.

ER: How long have you been writing poetry? What made you want to become a poet?

AB: I have been writing poetry since I was an adolescent, but only sporadically until about 1993.  I wrote the first poem that seemed pretty good when I was on a retreat. I didn’t realize until years later that my spirit knew I was depressed long before my mind identified it, or even my doctors. But the  poem speaks clearly about my inner state.  I think what made me want to write poetry was a desire to have a voice. I felt silenced in so many ways and writing offered me a way to speak.

ER: Who are your influences?

AB: My paternal grandfather wrote a poem for each of his grandchildren up until he died in 1955. His poem for me hung in my bedroom and I memorized it at a very early age.  I have so many poets I admire—Grace Cavalieri for her unflinching honesty and heart, Sharon Olds for her magnificent use of imagery, Lucille Clifton for taking on the underside of life with simplicity and plain language, and  Mary Oliver for two poems-“The Journey” and “The Wild Geese”-that helped me to find a deeper meaning in my experience of depression.

ER: You’ve channeled what you’ve learned from your difficult past into a dedication to help others. Tell us a little about the work you do through the Possibility Project. What do you find most rewarding and what is most challenging?

AB: I trained to be a poetry facilitator through the International Federation for Biblio/Poetry Therapy. In going through my own depression, I found poetry and literature to offer an in-depth understanding of my spiritual, psychological, and emotional journey.  I can’t say enough about the fabulous CD by David Whyte called “The Poetry of Self Compassion,” where David explores many poems and literary works that speak of  the gifts in the darkness, the necessity of entering the darkness without fear.  David was a keynote speaker for the association, which is where I learned about poetry therapy as a field.

My own work is simple—sharing my love of poetry and its rich ability to both reveal and conceal as a tool for self-discovery and healing. Over the years, I have moved away from a focus on poetry because so many people are afraid of it—they think they can’t understand it. So I have developed workshops that incorporate improv, journaling and simple art projects as a way in to the layers we are sometimes called to explore. Some typical issue I work with are negotiating life transitions, processing grief of many kinds, and deepening one’s own artistic expression. I’ve also been a poet in residence in an elementary school and offer journaling and art workshops at creativity conferences.

ER: You’ve addressed the issue of sexual violence in some of your writing. What are your thoughts on the attention being paid to sexual assaults in the military and on college campuses? Is the culture changing?

AB: I think the culture is inching toward a new place, but we have much work to do. The mainstream  media and many of the voices of authority engage in victim-blaming, especially when they talk about how women should dress less provocatively and avoid  excessive drinking. But what about the men? What responsibility do they bear?   I believe we need to talk about mutual respect in relationships. No more wink and nod that “No means yes.”  We need to educate both young men and young women about the need for mutuality of consent.

When I interviewed a former Marine about her experience with sexual assault, I was shocked to hear about the way she hid the events, even from her husband, and the way she was harassed and hounded by her commanding officers. The incident caused her to suffer from PTSD  for years, but eventually she was able to help others with her Fatigues Clothesline Project, where female vets write and illustrate their stories of trauma and assault on the inside of their uniform blouses.

Last semester, I discussed the issue of sexual assault as a topic for research and suggested that a male student might take on the issue. I stressed that sexual assault is not just a female issue, and that male have an important role to play in changing  attitudes and behavior. Thankfully, one young man stepped up and his research was excellent.

ER: I’m interested in the work you do with journaling. On your website you talk about using the power of story to harness life’s goals. Can you talk a bit more about the healing power of journaling?

AB: I started journaling many years ago, before I had ever heard of it as a practice for self-reflection and healing.  I remember choosing various materials for journaling that matched my emotional state.  Once when I was especially frustrated and angry, I spread newspapers on the kitchen floor and wrote in huge letters with thick crayons.  I felt better afterwards.  When I went through my last depression, I kept a journal which really helped me to make sense of all the craziness of  finding the right treatment and struggling with my ex-husband.  Even though I now do all my journaling by hand, at that time, I  typed all of the entries as a way to work on my writing skills and to become a better typist.  When I worked on the second part of my manuscript, I hadn’t read the journal in 20 years, and I was amazed at what a resource it was for details about significant experiences that could illustrate my journey. I even used snippets of dialog that I had recorded.

I remember being terribly depressed and despondent for many of the four years of that depression, and keeping the journal offered me a way to objectify the experience by reflecting on significant events. I also began to play with metaphors and images that helped me more than I realized at the time.  I still journal on a daily basis, but now I handwrite everything. I use journaling to get rid of frustration, to make sense of puzzling events, and to set and keep track of my goals.  I often talk to my students about the value of journaling when they are upset or overwhelmed as a way to quiet their internal chatter.

Thank you, Emily, for your thoughtful questions and your careful reading of my book. Thank you for the opportunity to talk to your readers.

ER: Now that The Alter of Innocence is complete, what are your next projects?

AB: I was a special ed teacher for years and my next book of poems will be a collection about some of the significant students I taught. I’m excited to tell their stories.

Ann Bracken is a writer, educator, and expressive arts consultant whose poetry, essays, and interviews have appeared in Little Patuxent Review, Life in Me Like Grass on Fire: Love Poems, Reckless Writing Anthology: Emerging Poets of the 21stCentury, Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence, Pif Magazine, Scribble, New Verse News, and Praxilla. Ann was nominated for a 2014 Pushcart Prize. She serves as a contributing editor for Little Patuxent Review and leads workshops at creativity conferences, including The Creative Problem Solving Institute, Florida Creativity, and Mindcamp of Toronto. 

She is the founder of the Possibility Project, which offers expressive arts and creativity workshops for women of all ages, as well as poetry workshops in schools. Ann Bracken is a lecturer in the Professional Writing Program at the University of Maryland, College Park. She lives in Columbia, MD.


Audacious Ideas: Postcard Life Stories

Audacity defines the best and worst within us. It is boldness or daring, accompanied by confident or arrogant disregard for personal safety, conventional thought or other restrictions. It is also effrontery, insolence or shamelessness. The “Audacious Ideas” essay series celebrates this theme, which serves as the basis of our Summer 2012 print issue.

Conventional wisdom says that you need to write volumes before you can adequately address the complexity of someone’s life. A biography, a novel. At least 50,000 words, maybe as many as 175,000. Even a short story requires somewhere between 1000 and 20,000 words, but the scope is proportionately narrowed. “Something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing,” people tell you, mouthing what short story writer Raymond Carver said that short story writer and critic VS Pritchett was said to have said.

Michael Kimball, looking for life stories

Since people have told me, wagging their invisible fingers, that my short stories read more like novels, imagine my delight when I came upon Michael Kimball’s 500-word stories–well within the range of flash fiction–that had the audacity to attempt to encompass a person’s entire lifespan to date, whether that be one year or 100. Never mind that Michael’s stories were intended to be entirely true. I’d never found the distinction between “truth” and “fiction” particularly useful. We all become “unreliable narrators” once we start to tell a story, and “fictional truth,” therefore, can be found in all forms of writing.

Right after I completed my first “Audacious Ideas” essay, which featured “outsider” art, I started to look for examples of what could be considered literary equivalents. This led me back to Michael. So I asked if he could write up something–in approximately 500 words–about how his Postcard Life Stories Project came about. Here’s some of what he was kind enough to send me:

My friend Adam Robinson was curating a performance art festival, the Transmodern in Baltimore and asked if I wanted to participate. We joked about what a writer could do as performance, and I suggested writing people’s life stories for them while they wait. It is, after all, the thing that many strangers say (and more think) when meeting a writer, that the writer should write their life story. The idea was absurd but also fascinating and seemed oddly possible if constrained to a postcard. Adam insisted that I give it a try, and that’s how the Postcard Life Stories project started.

I thought that it would be fun and funny, that I would ask a few questions and write on the backs of a few postcards and that would be it. The first story I wrote was for artist Bart O’Reilly. When I finished the postcard and looked up, a line had formed. For the rest of the night, I interviewed people and wrote their stories for them as fast as I could. It was a true performance. Those first few dozen postcard life stories were pretty brief. I interviewed people for 5-10 minutes and then wrote as they waited. It was intense and intimate. I remember being struck by how earnest and forthcoming most people were, how eager they were to share their life stories, how grateful they were for their postcard. Here’s the one I wrote for “C” (#5):

C was born in 1976 in California. At 4, she moved to Utah with her family, which led to some problems. At 12, she realized music would be her life’s calling. At 14, she realized there were problems with being a Mormon. At 17, this led her to stop walking, leaving the Mormon Church, and then begin walking again. This kind of movement took her away from her family in Utah to Colorado Springs, Colorado. Then she kept going—Seattle, New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Los Angeles again, and Baltimore. She likes Baltimore and has finally moved far enough away from home to stop moving. C will eventually find somebody to play great music with and to tell that she secretly loves romantic comedies.

A few days later, “C” sent me a note that said, in part: “You took a dark and difficult time in my life and made it manageable for me. It was a kind of postcard therapy.” That note—and the feeling that I was somehow meant to do this thing—was a primary reason that the Postcard Life Story Project continued after that first night.

Eventually, I set up a blog, posted a few of the life stories and invited people to get in touch with me if they wanted their story written. I started doing interviews over the telephone and by email. I used a special micro-tipped pen that let me write smaller so that I could fit more words onto each postcard. I asked more questions, and the text got longer and included a lot more detail. It was after I wrote Adam’s story (#45), one of the first that I wrote at home, in private, giving myself as much time and as many words as needed, that the project began to take the form it has today.

Michael also included material on where the project went from there, which I share here:

I never expected that strangers would tell me so much about themselves, so many things that they have never told anybody else. But I found an unexpected intimacy in the Postcard Life Story Project. It taps into something human and humane, and I continue to be amazed by what people tell me. I write one for anybody who wants one. I don’t want anybody to feel as though their life story isn’t interesting enough. In fact, I’ve found that everybody’s life story is interesting if you ask the right questions.

I have learned that there are life stories everywhere. Most of the postcards have been for people from the United States, but I have also written these stories for people from the UK, Canada, South Africa, Portugal, Russia, Finland, Uganda, Zimbabwe, the Philippines, Greece, China and Italy. And one for a man who claims to be an alien. I have written postcards for two sets of married people and for two sets of people who married after I wrote their postcards. And two participants whose stories appeared in close proximity on the blog dated each other for a short time, but it didn’t work out. I’ve written postcard life stories for two babies and for four people who claimed to be miracle babies. Besides people, I have written postcard life stories for four cats, two dogs, a rooster, an apple, a bar of soap, a T-shirt, a chair, an umbrella cover, a fictional character, a pseudonym and a literary magazine.

Jenny-Anne Dexter's story (#214)

Jenny-Anne Dexter's story (#214)

The longest interview was over 10,000 words, and that material was condensed to 531 words for the postcard life story (#195 Kaya Larsen). Six hundred and sixty-seven words were the most I ever fit onto a postcard (#210 Erik Larson). Erik was only 28 years old when I wrote his postcard life story, but he had already lived so much life. And one of the postcards, #240 Monte Riek, is what I call a “double,” 1362 words. It was condensed from 20 single-spaced pages—the life story that he wrote for himself as he came to terms with his lifelong addiction to drugs and alcohol.

So far, I have condensed 9821 years of life into 301 postcards. The youngest participant is one-year-old Kaya Larsen (#195); the oldest is 65-year-old Effie Gross (#221). Author Blake Butler (#66) said, “The scope of the thing is just kind of flabbergasting: Kimball as a filter for all these people’s years. I can’t imagine anyone else capable of such an undertaking.”

Given that Steven King, among others, has characterized the contemporary short story as “airless” and “self-referring,” not only written but also read primarily by lit majors and lit mag submitters, and that editors such as the infamous Ted Genoways have anticipated the death of fiction if young writers don’t “swear off navel-gazing in favor of an outward glance onto a wrecked and lovely world worthy and in need of the attention of intelligent, sensitive writers,” we would do well to return to the roots of storytelling, as Michael has done. A story, Salman Rushdie reminds us in a New York Times video, is a great thing, and its greatness far exceeds professional writing. Storytelling is something we all do all the time with each other. It’s our way of understanding ourselves and others. As Michael has shown, it doesn’t require all that many words. After all, Ernest Hemingway famously managed to do it in six: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

As for myself, Michael’s postcards have motivated me–despite what others will say–to continue cramming three generations worth of events into 5777 words, as I did in “Making Soup,” or a mere 3000, as I did in “Winter Wonderland,” depending on the style that I elect to use. And to tell those stories from whatever perspective works best, be it that a one-month old infant, as I did in my soup story–over much objection; a sperm, as Jeffrey Eugenides did in Middlesex; or even a bar of soap, as Michael did on a postcard.

Michael Kimball has authored four books, including Dear Everybody and Us, which have been translated into a dozen languages, including Italian, Spanish, German, Chinese, Korean and Greek. His new novel, Big Ray, will be out this September, and the postcard stories will be available in book form sometime in the spring of 2013. Other work has appeared in The GuardianBomb and New York Tyrant and been broadcast on All Things Considered. He is also responsible for several documentaries, the 510 Reading Series and the conceptual pseudonym Andy Devine

If you’d like to try something that could start you off in an unanticipated direction the way that Michael did, check out the various 2012 Transmodern Performance Festival calls for proposals. Or attend the event, which will be held May 17-20.

On Being Invisible: Our Nation’s Incarcerated

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:


On Being Invisible: Welfare Recipients

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

Barbara Morrison's memoirThis September, the Census Bureau released a report indicating that a record 46.2 million, or one in seven Americans, lived in poverty last year. August 2010, USA TODAY reported survey results showing that government anti-poverty programs that have grown to meet the needs of recession victims serve a record one in six Americans and continue to expand.

Though these statistics should be a warning that the odds of any of us needing access to some form of welfare have increased, most of us living in the 7th or so richest nation in the world have little idea what this entails. And available data sets are unlikely to capture the essence of the experience. That might require a poet.

Fortunately, we have one in Barbara Morrison, whose memoir Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother was published this July. While Morrison addresses a period prior to the 1996 welfare reform act, her portrayal of people on public assistance is pertinent today. Here, then, is Morrison, in her own words:

When my marriage dissolved, I found myself with a one-year-old baby, another on the way and no job, health insurance or child support. Despite having a college degree, I could not find work with a salary sufficient to cover food, rent and childcare costs. Welfare was the only way for my family to survive. As my friend Jill asked, “How bad do your choices have to be before welfare seems like your best choice?”

My story is not unusual.

A friend told me that while recommending my book to her friends, one of the women said, “That’s my story.” A widow with three children–the youngest only three months old–she had a Masters degree in counseling and still couldn’t get a job that would pay enough to support them. The economics are simply against single women with pre-school children requiring child care.

Quite a few of my business colleagues, upon hearing about my book, have told me that either they or their parents had also been on public assistance. Why hadn’t any of us mentioned our backgrounds before? Because there’s a stigma associated with welfare, which keeps people who need assistance from applying for it.

In a new afterword to the seminal Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Barbara Ehrenreich tells of returning ten years later to see whether things had changed for those in the bottom third of the income distribution. “The most shocking thing I learned from my research on the fate of the working poor in the recession was the extent to which poverty has indeed been criminalized in America.”

In a recent discussion, two participants told me that people “choose to be poor.” When I was on welfare, no one I knew had elected to be poor. A few had given in to the hopelessness that I also fell prey to after so many of my efforts proved futile. But most were like Margie:

A Hispanic woman I visited, Margie, had newborn twins and two daughters, one of whom was going to Head Start. Margie’s twin 16-year-old brothers also lived with her. We sat around the kitchen table talking for a long time. She was interested in my classes, but all her spare time was dedicated to getting a job so she could get off of welfare. I didn’t say anything. We all wanted to get off of welfare, but I didn’t see how Margie could hold down a job with six kids in the house, two of them newborns at that.

David K. Shipler, in the extraordinary book The Working Poor: Invisible in America, correctly identifies the combination of factors needed to combat poverty. In order to work, people need more than food and housing. They need reliable transportation and child care. They need training and workplace contacts. They need to learn how to write a resume and handle a job interview. I needed all those things and was lucky enough to receive them.

Let us ignore the stigma and tell our stories. Let us set the truth against the misconceptions and stereotypes so that we can begin to approach real solutions.

Women who have previously told their stories include Richeline Mitchell, who wrote Dear Self: A Year in the Life of a Welfare Mother; Mary Childers, who wrote Welfare Brat: A Memoir; and those in Jason DeParle’s American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare.

Barbara Morrison is the author of the poetry collection Here at Least as well as the memoir Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother. Her work has been published in The Sun, Scribble and Tiny Lights. She has won Society of Southwestern Authors and National League of American Pen Women awards.