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The Silent Ones: Missing Women’s Voices From the Inside

Assata Shakur

Listen to the silence surrounding the silent, the other’s other—the often-invisible voice of women poeting on the carceral state—a physical state known for the hushed narrative.

In this neo-enlightenment period of justice reform, we willingly turn towards those who are or have been assigned a state or federal number, like #289-128, to really understand the human condition within prison. Whenever I talk with my friend and fellow poet from the inside, Reginald Dwayne Betts, about the equality of voices being amplified to highlight the prisoner through poetry, we are often left with more questions than answers as to the lack of women’s voices heard that culminate in a single, nationally recognized collection of poetry.

Perhaps not since Assata Shakur’s stunning “covers-off” autobiography, Assata, which put the New Jersey penal system and its state troopers on display, have we seen writing by a woman completely dissect not only the prison system but the systems that ultimately try to destroy a person. What is often overlooked is that Assata’s poetry provided the backdrop for her narrative and served as a critical critique that foreshadowed the prose. In other words, she blended genres.

The question also has to be asked: How much do we view Assata as a poet versus a prose writer and symbol for injustice, and should we even make this distinction?

I do not want to devalue the many self-published books by women who were not able to secure a publishing deal, who nonetheless got their story out (I’m thinking about Susan Rosenberg’s An American Radical: A Political Prisoner in My Own Country), but in many ways, these lesser known books bolster my point that major publishing houses tend to ignore these women. Publishers are not willing to cultivate writers the way editorial mentorship is supposed to be done; they, rather, rely on camera-ready manuscripts to pay a submission fee, win a prize, and thereby gain entry into this contemporary lit-glitz in which we now live.

Of course, I borrow the “other’s other” from poet Reginald Shepherd, who wrote about being black and gay in a white poetic landscape. And so, if the prison industrial complex relegates bodies to invisibility within the landscape of societal interaction, then women on the inside are often hidden behind the other’s (male) narrative. Beginning in the mid to late twentieth-century, we can point to Chester Himes’s The Quality of Hurt and My Life of Absurdities as autobiographies that displayed and critiqued the penal system. The social climate of the sixties gave us Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas, Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promise Land, and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice. These books foreshadowed the emergence of the prisoner as poet in Etheridge Knights’ Belly Song, in 1973.

Knight marks a beginning of the prison poet, the idea that poetry could rescue one from a judicial sentence.

Question: For women, what lineage of work could perhaps precursor the prison poet who garnered national attention? This is why Shakur’s autobiography is important. It is a pivotal and contextual moment for women’s voices; and yet, after Assata there is silence. We have to ask, at some point, why? There could be many factors, as is often the case: motherhood, societal expectations, again, there are many. Because in public space the black male body has been seen as disposable, we perhaps condition ourselves into believing prison were a rite of passage for these bodies.

In order to understand the differences between men and women on the inside, all you need to do is enter a women’s facility on any given visiting day.

Observe the small shoebox holding area doubling as a playpen for small toddlers. Earmark the vending machines to buy snacks and drinks. Study the grandmothers that brought the little ones to visit. Feel the emptiness in the knothole eyes of the women, and ask: where are the men? Admit men are nonexistence, and rarely, if at all come to visit the women. But go to a men’s facility and witness the girlfriends, the wives, the significant others, the sisters, the mothers and daughters, all there dutifully for moral and psychological support. This is one of many examples of how the woman’s narrative lies hidden between the pages of history. To remind myself of the poet’s task, I often return to a blurb from The New York Times book review on Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet, which says: “The day of the first moonwalk, my father's college literature professor told his class, ‘Someday they'll send a poet, and we'll find out what it's really like.’” Where is the celebrated collection of poetry that tells us what it’s really like for women behind bars?

In order to find these poets, I would love for publishers to place a concerted effort in nurturing the poetic voices of incarcerated women to the point we are forced to have the same conversations the male narrative gives the public. I have to acknowledge the groundbreaking importance of the Wally Lamb anthology Couldn't Keep It to Myself: Wally Lamb and the Women of York Correctional Institution (Testimonies from our Imprisoned Sisters), but there is no poetry in that collection. Another anthology of importance would be Interrupted Life: Experiences of Incarcerated Women in the United States, which features personal essays, poems, stories, reports, and manifestos. A memoir that should be mentioned would be Orange is the New Black by Piper Chapman which has created dialogue, along with a Netflix Series, but again, is Piper a poet?

There are many programs across the country that offer poetry workshops on the inside. I decided to reach out to Jennifer Bowen Hicks, founder and Artistic Director of the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, and Caits Meissner, the Prison and Justice Writing Program Manager at PEN America. Both of these women do poetic work with women on the inside, and I wanted to ask them what are some of the roadblocks that they see as preventing nationally recognized women as poets emerging from the experience of prison.

These are the questions I presented to Jennifer and Caits: “I have often raised concern about the silence of the woman’s poetic voice. Of course, there are several programs like the one that you help run which celebrates women writers on the inside, but we have yet to see a woman poet with a marked beginning like that of an Etheridge Knight, Reginald Dwayne Betts, or even me, Randall Horton. Also, from your experience working with women, do you see a lack of opportunity to having their voices shared and heard, and are there other challenges at play that women face that we often overlook?”

Caits Meissner

In many ways, the tremendous barriers to discovering or amplifying one’s creative voice while in prison cuts across gender lines—or are the flip-side of the same coin. The latest Bureau of Prison statistics show that, though rising, only 7% of the country’s incarcerated population is made up women. The pool of potential writers is simply larger in the male population. 

But to stop at an issue of scale would be irresponsible. Sexism in the criminal justice system at large is an extreme version of the same American reality we live in on the other side of the wall. Already, in extreme numbers, a largely abused demographic, convicted women now enter a system that further strips personal agency down to a number in place of a name. Prison is particularly brutal on the female-presenting, isolating from family and children, nearly guaranteeing exposure to further abuse and removing the basic amenities often taken for granted in the building of our public identity: access to basic hygiene, adornment, cosmetics, style. This last piece may sound almost silly, but becomes especially significant in a society that repeatedly reminds women that their worth hinges squarely on appearance. 

Believing your story is, or could be, important to others relies on a basic foundation of self-worth. Poetry can offer a chance for reinvention, self-acceptance, the possibility for a new narrative—but how does one get turned on to the art form in the first place? Who feels permission to give it a try? Who ignites the spark? How does one flip from a therapeutic orientation to one of rigor and craft? And once a woman claims the title of poet, the act of getting her work in front of an audience outside the walls requires either an intensely committed agent/advocate (extremely rare), or a driving determination to acquire resources and attempt to map the literary world from a technology-barren land. 

To put that grueling work in, you’ve got to really believe what you’re producing is worth reading. You’ve got to withstand the numerous rejections any writer faces, and keep stepping back to the page—but while sequestered in an environment that already degrades and questions and spits in the face of your very humanity—which sits within a society that has, since you were born, socialized you to be seen and not heard. 

I think often, as well, about who is on the receiving end—the “us” in this question, the literary community, the readers. Perceptually, women who’ve committed crimes, especially mothers, are far less redeemable than men in the court of public opinion. Acceptable incarceration narratives in America are hooked to extremes—prison yard exposés, true crime stories, and tales of redemption. The abstract form of poetry doesn’t fit neatly within these categories. The question implicates us as much as it is does the larger system. Is the collective “we” ready for an incarcerated or formerly incarcerated woman to be expansive, nuanced and layered, and if not forgivable nor worthy of our compassion, then respected for her skills and talent? I think it’s going to take a long journey of education and shifting perceptions, but I’m hopeful. 

Jennifer Bowen Hicks

There are logistical difficulties for incarcerated folks of all genders having their voices heard. There’s no Internet access. A fifteen-minute call costs 1-3 hour’s wage; same for a stamp. Poems are often handwritten and arrive with a literal red warning slapped across the envelope. There’s impetus on those of us on the outside to find a way in since it can’t work the other way around. If a poet on the outside reaches in to invite voices out, like some of the work you’re doing, that makes a tremendous difference.

Aside from those structural obstacles, there are more subterranean hurdles for incarcerated women. We know there’s a gender gap in publishing. Far fewer women submit work than men in the outside literary world and I think that’s even more true for women in prison. Sharing your story is vulnerable, of course, but it’s also a way of taking power. It’s way of becoming visible. How dare we, right?

I worked with a poet who could be the next Ethridge Knight. S’s “poems of the belly” were fire and body and brilliance, but she was also very young with four kids and no support system. It seemed like her children and a history of trauma took a ton of space while she did her time, space that a book of poetry might otherwise be born into.

The statistics for incarcerated women are staggering: More than 75% have kids while teenagers; over 60% percent of women in US jails were sexually abused before the age of 18; two-thirds of women working as prostitutes were sexually abused as children and more than 90% said they never told anyone.*

So many carry the weight of sexual and physical violence right alongside their cellmates and the women they sit beside in class and the chow hall. Where’s the space in that for a habit of art? S’s books my never be written, which is our tremendous loss. But I absolutely believe there are Ethridge Knights and Dwayne Betts and Jimmy Bacas and Randall Hortons inside women’s facilities writing poems. Unfortunately, I think our literature is pretty tone deaf to the poetics of motherhood or violence against women, and as a result we don’t treat those poems as consequential. Or we don’t read them at all.

 

*From, Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women by Susan Burton and Cari Lynn.

Originally Published: October 15th, 2018

Randall Horton is the author of the poetry collections Pitch Dark Anarchy (Triquarterly/Northwestern University Press, 2013), The Definition of Place (Main Street Rag, 2010), and The Lingua France of Ninth Street (Main Street Rag, 2009). His honors include the Bea Gonzalez Poetry Award, a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship in...