Ann Bracken recently interviewed me about my book, questions for water. You can read it on her blog: https://annbrackenauthor.com/interview-with-ginny-crawford/
And I interviewed her about her new book, Once You’re Inside, Poems Exploring Incarceration Enjoy this peek into her compelling book.
Virginia Crawford: Your book, Once You’re Inside: Poems Exploring Incarceration, is powerful in so many ways. One thing that makes it so powerful is the immediate intimacy – moments described that allow the reader to experience them too as well as the significant things you learn about people’s lives.
How often do you visit prisons and how do you structure your time with the men? How do you help them write?
Ann Bracken: Thanks for your kind words about my work, Virginia. I’m glad the poems could bring alive some of the people and situations I encountered while working in the prisons. I volunteered at several prisons from 2015 to 2018, and while I am no longer volunteering inside, I serve as a partner/penpal to four men in prisons across the United States.
When my partner, another professor at the University of Maryland, and I worked with the men, we had a “check-in” period where the men could talk about the past week, concerns they had, or share what they’d been reading and writing. Then we spent the rest of the allotted 90 minutes on reading, writing, and discussion activities. The source material ranged from poems to short stories to plays and movies. The topics of the literature ranged from current politics to income inequality, parenting, and personal growth. My partner and I helped the men write either by sharing prompts to spur ideas or by offering critique and suggestions for how to improve their work. The men had a say in the topics we covered and were involved in establishing protocols for how the group worked.
VC: In terms of reading/writing/sharing, can you describe a moment or experience that you feel was a high point or a very significant point when something magical or transformative happened?
AB: I can think of several high points where magical things happened. The first event was when I attended the Literary Day of the Arts as a new volunteer. Several of the men in the writing group presented their stories and poems, and several other men sang and played original songs and displayed their drawings and paintings. The art was truly amazing in its beauty and technique—what was most impressive was that nearly all of the men were self-taught musicians, writers, and painters. Their art provided them with solace and a profound means of expression.
I worked with incarcerated women a few times, and those were heartbreaking experiences. The first time I facilitated a writing group with some of the women, they told me, “We never knew we were special,” and “You’re the first new person we’ve seen in seven years.” Many of the women were mothers and quite young—under 25. That first visit was especially poignant because it was right after Mother’s Day and only a few of the women had been able to visit with their children.
Lastly, one day we read The Velveteen Rabbit with the men and they were as transported and moved as any young child I’ve ever seen. That book became a touchstone for all of them.
Virginia: If you were able to do whatever you wanted with your writing group, what would that be? A special reading event? An anthology of their work? Something else?
Ann: I would love to publish an anthology of the men’s work, but in Maryland, I was prohibited from doing that in my capacity as a volunteer. In an ideal world, I’d also like to be able to help them make a video and share how they’ve changed and matured during their time inside, as well as all the ways they can see themselves contributing positively. Nearly everyone I met wanted to come home and give back to their community in some way.
Virginia: “Elevator Rules” describes an experience of waiting for the elevator and seeing several men and chains already inside. There’s the moment of question – do I get on and enter whatever is happening with these particular people in this particular moment or wait for another? The speaker enters and says they’re going to the basement. That moment of acknowledgement – something is going on and I’m still going to get on the elevator, going to the basement, into the lower realm so to speak, can you say a little about that?
Ann: Oh, I remember that day so clearly, and I remember my split-second decision. I didn’t want to let any fear overtake me, and I did have a sense that I’d be fine. But going into the lower realms—the school is in the basement of the prison—how’s that for a metaphor? I was more struck by the courage of the men in surviving the awful conditions in prison than I was gripped with fear for my safety.
Virginia: Going into prisons, you probably see and hear difficult things quite frequently. How do you see what you see and know what you know and continue?
Ann: Honestly, I’m in awe of many of the folks I’ve met in prison. Many of them committed some kind of crime, plea bargained (90-95% of people who are incarcerated never have a trial), and they’ve spent half their lives in prison. Really, no matter what people have done, 15 years of your life is a hefty price to pay. I hold to Brian Stevenson’s philosophy when he says something like, “We’re all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
The people I’ve worked with, and continue to work with as a penpal, all express deep remorse for what they’ve done. Many of them are quite gifted and creative—we need them to come home. They’re polite, insightful, and determined. I believe they’ve grown in spite of the prison, not because of anything the prison provides.
Ideally, I’d like to see us focus our energies on what we need to do to prevent people from choosing violence. We could teach mindfulness to young kids as a way for them to self-regulate, a skill everyone needs in order to respond to things rather than to simply react. I’d like to see us increase rec centers in the city and teach kids how to garden. When you connect people to the community and nurture their roots, they are more likely to grow into productive, peaceful citizens.
Virginia: Thanks, Ann. I appreciate your answers and admire your courage and kindness. Congratulations on your a great book!
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