Prisons, Jails & Reentry.

Since 2012, I have facilitated, visioned programming, written poems, and even debuted my stage acting (yes, as Evilene in The Wiz!) in over 15 youth and adult prisons, jails and reentry programs. It is the profound depth of this work which challenges me to question what we name as good and bad in humanity, to understand the impact of incarceration on individuals, families and communities as a ripple effect, to grapple with the concepts of justice and rehabilitation, and to commune powerfully with members of our society who often feel forgotten and discarded. I currently engage this work full-time through my role overseeing the prison and justice work at PEN America.

I had the extreme joy of meeting Caits Meissner while serving a Life Sentence at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. Right away, Caits projected a bright light to our poetry class! She reminded us that we were still alive, that we had desires and hopes worth writing about. She witnessed our struggles and listened without judgement. Behind razor wire, gates, locks, and cells, our poetry class was something that we could look forward to every week. For those moments we were able to feel truly free! In our mere hours with her, we did not feel like inmates. When we were with her, we felt like the human beings that we are.
— Samantha Stone, former student

Sample Class Descriptions.

Exploring the Dichotomies of Self

Dichotomies are found all over our current world, the assumption that two impulses or identities live on opposite ends of a rigid spectrum. Some of these include: sin/pleasure, silence/noise, rigid/mutable, freedom/slavery, man/woman, bad/good, right/wrong, nature/nurture... What labels have we externally and internally claimed as truth? What square notches do we bend ourselves to fit into? Where does that serve us, and how does it hinder? Is it possible for our outer and internal our worlds to expand beyond upholding these binary identities and frameworks? Is there another way to define ourselves through poetry and language? We'll take all of these questions to task, pushing up against and redefining our own identities to be as complex and layered as we truly are. Examining stories from the past and present, these threads will touch on the concepts of fitting in, loneliness, creativity, meditation and all the possibilities for embracing gray space. 

& They Call Us Crazy: A creativity-generating workshop following in the footsteps of eccentrics, outsiders and outlaws who crossed the borders of human imagination

In this 8-week workshop we'll be co-conspirators in building a collective vibrant universe of the imagination. Flexing our natural instinct for curiosity, we'll write beyond the world of convention, actively practicing how to find inspiration anywhere. Yes, even in prison! Each week we'll examine a handful of artists who've stepped beyond their perceived limitations, risking ridicule (and worse) to access their unique creative offerings, ultimately proving that what is outside the norm or academically studied is often the most deliciously juicy. A range of silly, light, inquisitive and profound themes tie together disparate artists of various mediums that we'll use as a diving board into short and extended creative exercises.

Reaching In/Reaching Out

Poet Carolyn Forche is credited with coining the term “poetry of witness” — the gray area between the personal and political, where our stories tangle with the stories of others, and where we can inhabit and examine the complexity of sticky multiple truths. This generative intensive writing course invites new and seasoned writers alike to join a guided process in creating original poetry of witness. Reaching in, we’ll bear witness to our own truths, and reaching out, we’ll sharpen the lens on issues and stories that define our world in 2018. Through this process we’ll locate useful writing techniques, ignite textured group conversation, and generate electric poem drafts. 

Poetic Craft & Technique

This class focused on the tools of craft to uplift, shape and chip away at our written words to create our best work yet. We'll learn about and experiment with various poetic tools such as sound, form, line breaks and deep editing to uplift our emotionally-driven words to polished pieces on the page. Centered around poet Mary Oliver's book, A Poetry Handbook, specialized writing assignments will coincide with chapters read on various aspects of poetry. In class, we'll examine and analyze the chapter's content, share out a handful of writings (readers will revolve week by week), gently critique using a guided process, engage generative exercises and become more deeply acquainted with our unique offerings.

Memoir Storytelling

Letters to Self is a creative writing course rooted in personal storytelling. Placing focus on the autobiographical, students write personal essay and memoir prose that illustrates their own journey and voice. Sessions include reading sample writing from acclaimed writers on the day’s topic, sharing stories aloud in a safe space and entering the writing through uniquely crafted guided prompts. Playback theater will also be employed, as well as drawing. This journey will end in a celebratory public reading!