I spent six and a half years in prison. Much of that time, I was working on one fiction manuscript or another. I had to stumble around in the darkness to figure out how to do this. So do most writers in prison. Now there’s a book to help change that.
PEN America’s The Sentences That Create Us (Haymarket Books, 2022), edited by Caits Meissner, is the dream of every incarcerated writer: a collection of how-to-write essays by those who can speak to that audience best — other incarcerated writers plus people who have taught writing classes in prison. The book includes pieces by famous formerly incarcerated writers like Wilbert Rideau as well as people who have never published previously. It provides lessons on writing poetry, fiction, plays and autobiography. The Sentences That Create Us is a complete manual pitched perfectly for the target audience.
Meissner’s book will bring some welcome and profound relief to incarcerated people who struggle to tell their important stories. I had the pleasure of interviewing her for Truthout about the book. Frequent Truthout contributor Brian Dolinar — a friend, writer and fellow abolitionist activist in Urbana, Illinois — joined me for the conversation.
James Kilgore: Tell us about how you came to write the book and how you got to this space?
Caits Meissner: I taught in prison for five or six years before I came to my current job as director of Prison and Justice Writing at PEN America, an organization founded in 1922 bringing together a national and international network of writers and protecting free expression. I suddenly had all these resources, famous writers, and an incredible community of incarcerated writers. This over 40-year program that was started by PEN on the heels of the Attica uprising in 1971 fell into my lap. I had the chance to bring it into this new era where mass incarceration is actually something that’s talked about. Abolition is a word that’s being moved from the margins to the forefront.
For years we at PEN America had created in-house and distributed a slim handbook called The PEN America Handbook for Writers in Prison. It was essentially a craft book, teaching the basics of how to write. When I came on, the director said, “I think you have a different pedagogy, I think you could do a new book.”
What I thought it needed was the voices of justice-impacted people speaking to each other. And speaking with allies, because we need each other — as we know, writers in prison need their allies on the outside. And vice versa, we need our people in prison to be reporting from the front lines and to be in community.
The task was then looking at all the mail that came in, the hundreds of letters we get from prison — what are people asking for? It became clear to me that people are really asking about not just “How do I write poetry?” … they were really asking, “How do I be a writer?”
I had access to all of these amazing incarcerated writers at PEN who had made incredible things happen through the walls, really on their own steam. I wanted them to write revealing essays to codify and put into motion what that journey looked like.
I remember ideating with Spoon Jackson about his piece. Spoon has done so many collaborations beyond the walls, he’s become a famous writer in prison. He said, “Well, I’m just real, it’s organic.” I said, “Yes, Spoon, but let me ask you this. When your writing instructor came in and it was a white woman, how did you respond to her in order to develop that relationship?”
I said, “Did you ask your collaborators to do things for you outside of your artistic collaboration?” He said, “Never! It a gift culture between two artists and I kept it there.” I said, “People need to understand that. There’s a lot of need in prisons. Your essay is going to be pulling apart each of these collaborations and what it took in order for each to be successful. That’s how we’re going to teach other people, how to show up in collaboration as an equitable artist, how to be seen that way, and how to see yourself that way.”
Kilgore: I’m wondering about the difficult task of how you decided who was going to be in the book. And how did you manage that team? Did you have meetings? How did you communicate? Did you visit people face-to-face?
It came together in a couple different ways. First, I knew the money we made off this book was going to go right back into sending the book inside. There was no profit to be made off the book, but I wanted to pay contributors. We first got a $25,000 grant from the California Arts Council. That dictated that all the writers in the first section had to be California-based authors, not incarcerated. For the rest of the book the contributors are largely justice-involved people.
I went through my so-to-speak “Rolodex” of relationships. Sometimes I had a very clear idea of what I wanted people to write about. To Piper Kerman (author of Orange Is the New Black), for example, I said, “I want you to write about how you write about people you know, ethically, given that your book turned into a major TV show.” And she agreed.
I was thinking about the book as being inspirational, aspirational, instructional and then historical, when we got Wilbert Rideau on board, former editor of The Angolite. He never gives interviews and decided to give us an interview because of the theme of the book, and who it was for. He closes the interview with a truth he learned and believes deeply: Writing gets people out of prison.
Brian Dolinar: You’re sending copies of the book inside. How are you making that happen? How are you getting around the censorship issues? The authorities are always looking over people’s shoulders, reading their mail, listening in on phone calls. Did you worry about getting censored?
We were lucky enough to get a grant from the Mellon Foundation to send 75,000 copies inside. We called every prison and jail in the U.S. to find out where our allies live and where we can send the book. When the book came out, we also advertised with a form that we’re sending these copies inside and individuals and organizations can request the book. We’ve had over 50,000 requests within the first month of the book’s life, which tells me there is a hunger for this project.
There’s a couple of things I did worry about. This book, while it appears to be a lovely book on writing — if you look a little deeper, it’s a book on organizing in prison. As I think of it, it is a book full of life. And often prisons are very scared of the creative life force, because that’s personal power.
What I was worried about more so even than the book getting inside was what happens to some of the contributors. For example, Thomas Bartlett Whitaker is in the book. When I got my copy of the bound book, and I read it again, I remembered how profound his essay is; it’s called, “The Price of Remaining Human.” He writes about watching 161 men on death row be executed and their stories going with them. His own story is that his sentence was commuted minutes before his execution date and he has run into a tremendous amount of pushback from the prison administration because he writes about death row and he publishes online. Through his allies on the outside, he has a blog called Minutes Before Six.
As I was reading the book, I started to think, wow, Thomas is already in segregation [solitary confinement]; this is what he takes on as a writer. It started to frighten me the world could double down on the punishment he gets for exactly what we’ve asked him to do. Of course, he took the project on knowing the risk, that’s what he’s writing about.
I’ll get calls from our Writing for Justice fellows who are fighting things in the prisons. Recently, one told me, “I’m about to go into solitary confinement for two months, you won’t hear from me, wish me luck.” The sense of responsibility of what it takes to become a writer in prison is immense.
Dolinar: Have you been inside since COVID has lifted and visitations have resumed?
In December 2021 I went to San Quentin, and that was special on a personal level. I did a book tour in 2016 or 2017 for my poetry book, “Let it Die Hungry,” when I went to prisons. I had visited a writing group run by Zoe Mullery at San Quentin. I got to come back and visit this group in December after not seeing folks for almost five years.
It was jarring to be back in a prison; it was visceral remembering how oppressive it feels. I was also reminded of the vibrancy behind the walls. One of the writers said a wonderful quote, “Imagination is a toy.” I shared about our new book. The men were very excited. They kept saying, “We want to see this and this.” I was pleased to be able to say, “It’s in the book!”
I’ve visited over 25 prisons across the U.S., so I’ve talked to a lot of people. One of them is Sterling Cunio, a writer I met when he won our PEN essay contest with this absolutely beautiful essay about discovering his purpose through doing hospice work in prison, and seeing a man through his death process. Sterling was sentenced to life without parole at 16, he was part of the “Oregon Five.” I later sat in on his parole hearing for six hours.
Sterling became a Writing for Justice Fellow in 2019. He received money and a mentor to stage a play in prison. I got to hear the performance via phone. I was blown away. When the book came around, I said, “Sterling, can you write about how you staged this play?” Sterling had to lay out how he worked with administration, how he had to navigate the system and get permission to do good work. An antagonistic stance isn’t going to move projects forward.
Even though Sterling did not make parole at that hearing, a year later his sentence was commuted. Sterling is now home, in his 40s.
Kilgore: How do you see your book as a tool for helping support significant change to this horrible system of mass incarceration that has dominated the landscape for the last four decades?
In order to shift the system, we need justice-impacted voices forefronted. We’re hoping to bring the voices of powerful, directly impacted people into major publications [and] start to shift the needle through narrative change.
There’s a sense that I come across from publishers that prison stories are a specialized niche topic. My response is, with 2.3 million people inside at any given moment, plus parole, plus probation, plus families and friends affected, plus communities affected, this is simply another take on the American story.
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