Poetry is making things happen! Installment #1 (Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project)

We’re nearly a week into National Poetry Month.  Poems, poems, everywhere. Also economic chaos, heightened criminal activity, catastrophic climate change…and all the other worrying realities of our time.   This world is full of real-time hard times. How can poetry make it better?

April is a month of heightened awareness.  In addition to National Poetry Month, April is also Heartworm Awareness Month, National Pet First Aid Awareness Month, Mathematics Awareness Month, Sexual Assualt Awareness Month, STD Awareness Month, Alcohol Awareness Month, Autism Awareness Month, National Donate Life Month… I’m sure there’s plenty more to be aware of, but, honestly, I’m already overwhelmed by this list of worthy causes.

Against such pressing issues, what use is poetry?

With that question in mind, I’ve decided to dedicate several of this month’s posts to organizations and individuals whose work proves that poetry really can make a difference in our world.

Today, I want to talk about the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project, a program “founded on the principle that all people can benefit from quality and sustained experiences in the arts and humanities.”

According to their website: “APAEP grew from one poet teaching in one prison, to a pool of more than 35 writers, artists, scholars and visiting writers teaching in twelve correctional facilities in Alabama.  Course offerings have grown from poetry and creative writing to Southern literature, photography, African-American literature, Alabama history, drawing and other art classes.”

One of the goals of the project is to develop the general libraries of the 17 Alabama prisons in which it is active. APAEP accepts donations including older edition textbooks and slightly damaged books that would not otherwise be sold.  Since 2001, over 14,000 volumes have been made accessible to the 30,000 men and women incarcerated in the state of Alabama.

According to one beneficiary of the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project: "I, quite simply, have fallen in love with writing . . . The Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project has given me the opportunity of a lifetime. "

Donors include Alice James Books, BOA Editions, Copper Canyon Press, The Feminist Press, Natural Bridge, Sarabande Books, Lotus Blooms Journal, Ausable Press, Five Points, Poets & Writers and many more.  If you or your press would like to find out more about becoming involved in this worthwhile venture, visit the APAEP website here.

The writer and activist Audre Lorde once wrote:  “…poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, made first into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”  I applaud the APAEP for helping to make poetry available to 30,000 Alabamans who otherwise might not have access to this powerful and positive mode of expression and survival.

Originally Published: April 7th, 2009

Poet and editor Camille T. Dungy was born in Denver but moved often as her father, an academic physician, taught at many different medical schools across the country. She earned a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.   Dungy’s full-length poetry publications include Trophic...

  1. April 8, 2009
     anti-poet no.4

    a dose of cynicism if you will:\r

    i can't help but wonder why\r
    this endless drive to justify poetry through use\r
    is always at issue here. it is a little bit tiresome.\r

    i'm sure it is theraputic and gives ditzy intellectuals many jobs at various educational institutions.\r

    and on another note:\r

    why not give some of those books to law-abiding citizens who can't afford them? why not give those doctors treating prisoners to the law-abiding citizens who don't have state sponsored health insurance?\r


  2. April 8, 2009
     Catherine Halley

    I wonder what you mean by "justify poetry through use"? Do you mean that it's tiresome to talk about who reads poetry? Or that it's misguided to claim that it's useful? Do you take issue with Camille's statement that "poetry is making things happen"? Would you argue that poetry does not have the power to transform people, especially those who have made mistakes or hurt people?\r

  3. April 8, 2009

    Dear Anti-Poet No. 4,\r

    I don't see that my colleague is trying to "justify poetry through use" as you say. Poetry has, as have other forms of literature throughout history, served various functions, including that of providing pure aesthetic pleasure. At other times literature has veered more towards the instrumental. Dickens' novels, especially Hard Times, are one such instance. Camille refers to the fact that we are living in a period of "real-time hard times" and I'm sure the eminent Victorian novelist would agree with her and see absolutely no reason not to bring poetry into the prisons. Just because it is being read in the prisons does not mean it is being "used". Prisoners "read" just as non-prisoners do, and both groups make use of their reading as they will. Your alternative solutions certainly don't preclude the programs referred to in the post above. \r

    As for "ditzy intellectuals", well, ditziness is a broad and much misunderstood category, certainly not confined to the intellectual classes.\r


  4. April 8, 2009

    Camille - thanks for this post. The APAEP sounds fantastic, and certainly encouraging to hear about. If I may, I'll add a small plug for The Prison Library Project based in Claremont, California, which also does book collection and distribution to inmates. I'm a big fan of the Dostoevsky quote they have on their website: "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by observing its prisoners."

  5. April 9, 2009
     Joel Brouwer

    Thank you, Camille, for recognizing the crucial work that APAEP does for the people of Alabama. Kyes Stevens, the brilliant and tireless founder and director of the Project, has inspired me and many of the young writers I work with at the University of Alabama not only to lead classes for inmates through APAEP, but also to rethink our assumptions about what poetry is for, and, yes, what it can make happen. Thanks again.

  6. April 9, 2009
     Patrick Rosal

    Kyes Stevens invited me down to Alabama to do workshops in two correctional facilities in the program. Of the men I've known during my lifetime who have been incarcerated, I visited none. This would be my first experience inside a prison. \r

    If I had any romantic notions about who the prisoners were or where they came from, they were quickly dispelled by the front-gate patdowns, cavernous sound of steel closing on steel, and the deep grief in the inmates' faces (made barely legible by a kind of coldness, though that's not it, more like self-imposed distance). \r

    It was March 2005, exactly forty years since Bloody Sunday in Selma and the same length of time to the week since King and marchers made their way across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, finally unimpeded, to Montgomery. \r

    If there is any foolish time to be color blind it is on a drive from Auburn to Selma and back, a day trip I made on a day off between prison workshops. Selma is quiet -- and eerie. There's a small "museum" recalling the confrontations of 1965 and other significant Civil Rights events. It is, like the city, a tempestuous calm. \r

    Black people are more likely to be convicted for drug crime and more likely to serve harsher sentences. This is inequity. Our judicial and legislative systems are flawed. The work of the Civil Rights movement isn't done -- black president or not. \r

    Almost all the inmates' faces at the two prisons I visited were black. They didn't prove to me they could not express rage or appreciate delight (the taste of southern red clay on the tongue, one said). Neither workshop passed without laughter and good stories -- some good poems too, and if not entire poems then damn good lines of poetry that could become whole poems. We should (and do) have enough poetry that can be given freely to the poor both in and out of prison. It is the most portable and cheapest of art forms. \r

    Poetry is not guaranteed to transform miraculously or even merely rehabilitate those who have lead terrible, painful, and even gruesome lives, but poetry will erupt in the most unlikely places anyway. It is one of the few made things in the world that can alter, no matter how slightly, the ways everyone in a room can see. This is true for the ones who stay -- behind bars -- but also for the ones (like me) who, at the end of the day, drive home.