Interviews:

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!   

Website: https://annbrackenauthor.com

To purchase my books:  https://annbrackenauthor.com/paypal/

Or https://bookshop.org/books/once-you-re-inside-poems-exploring-incarceration/9780578867687

Happy New Year!

It’s starting off with a bang for me. Monday I start a new full-time job, Thursday I’ll be part of the Putney Library event, and Friday I’ll host Naomi Shihab Nye for the Maryland Writers Alliance First Friday Reading Series! What a week it will be.

And you? Starting or finishing reading or writing a book? Let me know below.

Putney Library Event: Join Zoom Meeting
https://us02web.zoom.us/j/87610139843?pwd=QWpYSmk0Z3FXbUlyYjFjYXdMTFZsQT09

First Friday Registration: https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZEvd–hqD8qH9wqroozp6AkVVxIPg6jxfar
To receive call-in information for the meeting, be sure to register in advance at the above zoom link.

Fall Update and Events

Does it feel like time is shooting by more rapidly than ever for you too?

Recently I became the host of the Maryland Writers’ Association First Friday Event. We feature one poet or author and then have open-mic time. Our November event went very well, and I’m looking forward to more fabulous events each month. Our line-up so far is: Matt Hohner in December https://matthohner.wordpress.com/, Naomi Shihab Nye in January https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/naomi-shihab-nye, possibly Bruce Jacobs in February http://poetrykanto.com/issues/2005-issue/bruce-a-jacobs, and Ann Bracken in March https://annbrackenauthor.com/ Lots to look forward to! For more info on First Friday events: https://marylandwriters.org/First_Fridays

In other news, I appeared at an event marking the closing of Minas Konsolas’ most recent art show. If you’re not familiar with his work, check it out here: http://minaskonsolas.com/ It was great to see his work again and hear other poets I literally had not seen for a decade or more.

The image with multiple fish is by Gary Blankenburg, a beloved teacher and poet and artist who passed about a year and a half ago. We were finally able to attend a memorial service for him. His wife Jo generously offered some of his art. Again it was great to hear his work shared by poets I had not seen in a long, long time. And what a joy to physically be in the same space, hug, and have face-to-face conversations!

In still more news, Ann Bracken recently published Once You’re Inside: Poems Exploring Incarceration. It’s beautiful, tender and heartbreaking all at once. She gives us a chance to see the prison system and those living in it in concrete detail. As a long-time volunteer poetry teacher, she is able to provide readers with both depth and immediacy. Her compassion allows us to see real people instead of a label: prisoners. Next month I plan to post an interview with her about the book. And soon you will be able to read an interview with me on her site: https://annbrackenauthor.com/

As if this was not enough, I’ve been working with fellow teaching artist Gayle Danley to help bring her amazing Lessons in Poetry to students around the state. (Really students all around the world should experience it.) It’s a nurturing program leading students through the process of creating, polishing, and performing their own spoken word poetry. And she’s an International Slam Champion, so listen up! You can learn more at: https://www.lessonsinpoetry.com/

And I’ve managed to write a few new poems. Whew!

Finally, I will be participating in the Putney Library Writers Salon on Thursday, January 6 @ 7pm. Information on how to join: https://iputney.com/putney-public-library-writers-salon-this-thursday/

Yes, it’s been a very busy fall. I hope yours has been full of good things too.

New and Exciting!

Beginning on Friday, November 5th, I will host the Maryland Writers’ Alliance First Friday Open Mic. You’ll hear the wonderful and varied work of Maryland writers and hopefully a few others from around the country. And I’m really looking forward to hearing from all of you as well. There’s always time to ask questions of our featured presenters and share some of your work too.

AND Ann Bracken has a new book coming out that I can’t wait to read! We’re going to interview each other about our new books and share the interviews on our blogs. So keep an eye out for those! 

Next…

I’m very happy to have another event to share, a virtual poetry fest with The New England Poetry Club. There will be 3 hours of poets sharing work! I’m looking forward to hearing and meeting some new people. You can sign up here: https://nepoetryclub.org/nepc-fall-poetry-fest-2021/

Since losing my job in January, I’ve been doing some on-line teaching. Specifically English as a foreign language. And I really enjoy it! So much so that I decided to get a TEFL/TESOL Certificate! Hopefully I will be teaching very soon.

Which also means I haven’t been writing very much. Self-discipline, I know. How do you do it? Promise yourself a reward? a treat? or maybe the reward is having new work. Hmmm. There’s something to that.

So let me know how you do it. Or your favorite prompt. Or your favorite writing spot. I’d love to hear from you!

Virginia

Hello!Hello!

It’s been a busy week and a half. Much of it was spent driving half way across the country to a dear aunt’s funeral and back. I still don’t want to believe we won’t see her again in this life. And I spent much of the last few days helping our son prepare for a trip to Germany. I took him to the airport this morning. That brought several competing emotions as well. To say the least.

And tomorrow I have the delight of giving my first in-person reading for questions for water! If you’re near Annapolis, MD, I hope you can pop in. There’s plenty of open mic time if you want to share something too! Here are a few more details. Hope to see you there!

https://www.facebook.com/events/221884396207232

New Again

Good morning, and happy June!

Yesterday I did something I haven’t done for almost a year and a half. I saw a film in a theater with my family. It was such an odd feeling – one part anxiety, one part excitement, and one part oh-yeah-I-remember-this. Discussing the film on the way home was almost like watching a flower thought to be extinct blossom again. Maybe that’s excessive, but it’s very odd to do things we haven’t done in a long time that we used to do so casually.

Speaking of… I’ve been invited to be the featured reader at an in-person reading series. I think it will be their first in-person event in a long time. It will be my first opportunity to give an in-person reading from questions for water. Just like going to the movie, I feel a little anxiety, some excitement, and I’m really looking forward to that sensation of oh-yes-I-remember-this!

I will share the date when I have it, but I expect it will be a Sunday afternoon in June. If you’re in the Annapolis, MD area, I hope you will stop in and enjoy that new-again feeling of being with poets and sharing work.

Hoping you, too, are enjoying familiar things that are new again.

Books…

I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to finally have them in the world, to see other people with them, to read the poems to others!

The events I’ve had so far have been wonderful in a way that’s hard to describe. Even though they’ve been virtual and not at all what I had imagined more than a year ago. My poems come from my true self, so to have people listen and discuss them with understanding is deeply satisfying. Maybe it’s silly to say that. But the feeling of sharing something personal, intimate, and sensing the audience’s reaction is one of my favorite experiences. Deep sharing, that’s what I call it.

Isn’t that what all art is about? for?

So packing and sending them out to friends and family in the last week has been great and also surreal. My Aunt once told me that having a child is like having a piece of your heart walking around outside your body. Yes, it is. To a certain degree, so is having your book in the world.

I hope you have a chance to read questions for water or hear me read from it in one of my upcoming events. And let me know what you think!

every water

My favorite poem by Lucille Clifton:

the mississippi river runs into the gulf

and the gulf enters the sea and so forth,
none of them emptying anything,
all of them carrying yesterday
forever on their white tipped backs,
all of them dragging forward tomorrow.
it is the great circulation
of the earth’s body, like the blood
of the gods, this river in which the past
is always flowing. every water
is the same water coming round.
everyday someone is standing on the edge
of this river, staring into time,
whispering mistakenly:
only here. only now.

Every water is the same water coming round. I love how Lucille captured the cyclical and interconnected nature of everything in this poem. She points to our mistake of thinking any thing or place or person can be separated from another. The water in the Atlantic is also the water in the Pacific and the Adriatic and so on.

I learned the concept of interdependence through Buddhism. Nothing can create itself without the help or presence of another thing or condition. Seeds will not grow without water and light; children will not be conceived without two specific cells and a conducive environment; water requires both hydrogen and oxygen. Try as we may to individuate ourselves, divide ourselves into this group and that — us and them, it’s not possible. It’s not possible to prevent a drop of the Atlantic from becoming a drop of the Pacific. It’s not possible for humans to completely separate themselves from each other, the past, and the future. For me, all of this is present metaphorically in Lucille’s poem.

The title poem of my new book was written in response to a painting in which water features prominently. In my poem, water functions as both connector and divider of different lands, a thief of my grandfather’s native Italian language, a source of fossils and livelihoods. It is essential for life and can also take life away.

I can’t remember a time when I was not fascinated by water, its power — its ability to change, create and destroy. I hope you will set sail with me on the journey that is this book, questions for water.