it’s official…

is in press!

This project has been in the works for nearly two years. Following the success of “Hear Me, See Me: Incarcerated Women Write” (Orbis Books, 2013), co-edited by myself and Marybeth Redmond, our writers inside have repeatedly requested a second publication. Not only for the validation of seeing their words in print; or the validation of being read outside the walls; or even the prospect of sharing their words in person if they were released by the time of the launch.

Their ongoing motivation has been to voice change to a system that no longer serves the needs or goals of its current population. Clearly, not all the onus lies with the correctional system – there are challenges aplenty with addiction treatment and mental health services more broadly, and clearly better coordination, definition and availability apply to both. Nonetheless, corrections is where these writers of ours currently reside. This is the system they must navigate, survive, recover from. In addition to all the other issues they are facing due to the reason(s) for their incarceration in the first place.

The creation of “Life Lines: Re-Writing Lives from Inside Out” has, like the proverbial successful rearing of a child, been a true community effort. Of course, the writers themselves, with their passion, dedication to attending writinginsideVT circles, and honesty about themselves are the foundation on which it all began.

VT College of Fine Arts provided us an intern for a full year! Bianca Vinas joined us as a fabulously sensitive ‘outside’ reader of works from writers she had never met, assuring that the works chosen would carry the strongest message. Kassie Tibbott, Esq, newly-minted from VT Law School and ongoing assistant to the writing became researcher par excellance to gather facts, keep us organized, and provide a sounding board for our overall planning down to specific details. Meg Reynolds, long-time wiVT co-director, poet and artist, thoughtfully provided ink drawings that defined the five sections of “Life Lines.”

Now we have an April 12 launch date to look forward to and hope to see you there!

on silence

Silence. What a double-edged concept. Every year I hold a workshop around the topic,  framed as “Refusing Silence.” Yet even so, every year writing comes out on both sides of silence: the heavy hand that imposes an unwanted internal reality vs the spacious opening for reflective growth and nurture.

Like anything, it is not so simple, Nor are the realities of silence either/or, one extreme or the other. I am reminded of this again and again as I hear stories about silences we carry, silences we suffer, silences we impose, silences we seek. Last week at this time, I had the privilege of speaking to an assembled group at Three Cathedral Square, a Burlington assisted living/retirement community. They wanted to learn more about writinginsideVT and to hear from the incarcerated women who so eloquently write inside prison walls week after week.

I opened with a poem called “Silence” from our 2013 book, HEAR ME, SEE ME: Incarcerated Women Write. Following a chance to check in with what resonated for each of the dozen participants seated in a circle with me, I invited them to think about a silence in their own lives — whether self- or other-imposed — and to consider its lifelong impact on them. And the stories poured out, going back as they will to early experiences of shaming, belittling, being made to feel less-than, invisible, devalued … from men and women alike.

These stories were also interspersed with heartening follow-ups: the shy one who started to speak up against unequal pay at her workplace; the one who would now take positive action in the face of political repression; the one who found her voice after being told silence equalled ‘being good’ … the bullied and marginalized who discovered through writing how to create an identity that would serve them as adults … the misunderstood who just wanted loving acceptance …

Sadly, these very personal stories of otherness and loneliness and despair are all too universal. Certainly they are often the stuff of which the incarcerated write. And yet here I was in the middle of a cross-section of the never-incarcerated. After we shared our own stories, I read more from the book, perhaps another ten or so pieces covering a number of topics. These wonderful elders were spellbound, grateful, engaged and encouraged by the wisdom and perseverance of ‘our’ inside writers. As are all of us who walk into the echoing corridors week after week to witness the power of the written word to promote awareness, growth and change.

As is my usual custom, I followed up the session by creating a ‘found poem’ from the few lines I jotted down while listening to others read. I know you’ll find yourself in here, too.

 

SILENCE CAN BE SCARY

Silence can be scary,
a feeling of endangerment
that imprisons because of what has happened in life.
A repressed childhood, a lot of secrets —
imposed silence feels like being unseen.
Like Sunday School – ‘you need to be quiet to hear’ –
or feeling an outsider in a new school.
It hurts to keep so much inside over the years,
not expressing yourself;
waiting to vote, getting out of line without saying anything
because I didn’t own property;
the shaming and belittling of
who do you think you are?!?

Lying in bed, I just wanted Mom to hold me.
I’ve never been much of a talker;
I’m very shy, just listen.
I still don’t like to speak.
And yet – inside silence is an opportunity
if I can really listen.

As a 12-year-old, I found my voice through writing,
forced to find myself.
As an employee, I started writing letters,
speaking up at meetings
for equal pay;
today I would call the Board of Elections.
I’m vocal, I’m not retreating.

Silence can be scary, either way.

swb
[poem ‘found’ from lines shared at our 2/1/18 conversation about writinginsideVT]

hear me see me at 2014 book festival

The reading from HEAR ME, SEE ME: Incarcerated Women Write at the 2014 Burlington Book Festival was taped by RETN. The 55-minute sequence follows. RETN did their best to capture our voices, since we deviated from the expected use of the podium for speaking!

Thank you again to Rick Kisonak who organized the Festival; and to Mike DeSanto of Phoenix Books who suggested our participation and provided books to sell at the event.

Profuse apologies to current Assistant Director Meaghan Reynolds for my failure to introduce her properly at the time. She did a fabulous debut job of holding the space for the readings and we are most grateful to her. And finally, to co-founder Marybeth Redmond, who is no longer involved in the program, gratitude for a gracious holding of the Q&A and her presence to celebrate the women of the book.

burlington book festival reading

Once again, women whose writings appear in HEAR ME, SEE ME: Incarcerated Women Write gathered for a reading, this time at Burlington’s Tenth Annual Book Festival. To a rapt audience of about 50 gathered in a semi-circle in the city’s Fletcher Free Library, four women read of their lives.

One shared a moving story of working in daycare with an autistic boy where she alone understood him; to the extent that, when she changed jobs, the parents moved the boy so he could continue to work with her! And at the time she was just 15 years old.

Another traced her life like the many layers like an onion, ‘until I too am buried under the ground like the onion root that grows new life to the next generation.’

A third read of life inside ‘caged like animals at the zoo, being watched, on display . . . they watch us sleep, they hear us roar. Just our thoughts they can’t keep . . .’ 

And a fourth read a moving prayer which starts ‘It’s me, your daughter . . . me whom you loved, no matter the number of my faults.’ Sitting directly in front of her with barely contained emotion at the words coming from her daughter’s mouth, her mother wept for the gift of getting her daughter back.

Thank you to all you strong and beautiful women for sharing your lives and your hearts before an audience of strangers, each of whom left the room changed – and charged – by your courage. [Photos courtesy Lisa Ritter]

 

HEAR ME, SEE ME goes academic

string and ink drawing by Norajean

Artwork by Norajean

This morning a review of HEAR ME, SEE ME: Incarcerated Women Write went up on the Wellesley College Women’s Review of Books. And tomorrow afternoon, a handful of previously-incarcerated women whose words appear in HEAR ME, SEE ME will read before assembled students, faculty and townfolk at Middlebury College.

We are being graciously hosted by Chellis House, Women’s Resource Center in concert with the Program in Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies; Feminist Action at Middlebury; the Program in Creative Writing; and the Office of the Dean of the College. Tomorrow’s format will differ somewhat from our formal book launch in October. After the reading, a Q&A will permit listeners to ask the questions they would otherwise take home with them. And of course, there will be book sales and signing to follow.

Marybeth and I are so proud of the hard work these women continue to do to try to unravel the tangled threads of their early lives and reweave them into a meaningful life ahead. They stumble, they fall, they get back up. And they have one anothers’ backs, a crucial support network too often woefully lacking on the outside.

At last night’s group, populated with a tender mix of new writers and returned-from-prior- release veterans, one woman penned the following – her words anything but academic!

PLACES OF BROKENNESS

Never before have I been thrown into a place of such brokenness as within these walls. Every woman has her own story to tell, and I have yet to hear one that does not include pain, loss and hopelessness. One thing I have come to see is that no matter what pain I have inside, I still wish there was something, anything, that I could do to help each and every woman who is stuck here behind these walls with me.

We are all broken in some way, but are also some of the greatest women I know. We may be different, but we are also so much alike.

As my time here begins to come to an end, one of the many motivations I have – to keep myself from being locked behind these walls again – is to not forget those women I have met along my journey. I pray that someday I will be that special connection, that even one woman can count on to help her show the rest of the world just how amazing I know she already is.

SC