Olympia Jones, an inmate at Turley Correctional Center, performed two of her writings at Dwelling Spaces two weeks ago. Through a program at the jail, Olympia was allowed to leave for a few hours to perform her poems for the first time in a public setting. Olympia also has a job at Muddy Paws, a program that employs female inmates in order to give them job experience and training upon their release from jail.
NW: What do you draw from when you write? What would you say inspires you?
OJ: Random thoughts, really. Just the most random things. I get a lot of inspiration from other writers and poets around me and I do a lot of reading. Edgar Allen Poe is big in my book. And when I was in jail, a woman wrote a poem about herself and who she was with the format “I am …” Immediately I thought, “I need to have one of those!” I finally got around to writing my own “I Am” poem just a couple of months ago. But if something nags at you long enough, you’re going to process it and eventually work it out.
When I was in prison they sent me a book called The Pocket Muse. It’s just random little prompts. You open it up to any page and go with it, and that helps a ton.
NW: It’s so interesting that you had all those different types of influences. It’s going to inevitably make your poetry very eclectic, but very specific to you.
OJ: Absolutely. My mother graduated from a very prominent college with a 4.0 in English. She was very big on things like Chaucer and Shakespeare and Beowulf, so it’s cool to have that kind of background, as well as the more modern influences that I’m exposed to.
NW: Your poem “What It’s Like to be a Flamboyantly Gay Latino Man Trapped in a Sardonic Black Woman’s Body (for those of you who aren’t)…” How did you write that? Ellen told me about it last year and it’s so powerful and amazing and completely mind-boggling, even more so seeing it performed.
OJ: Ellen came to the class one day with a prompt. They had us read “What It’s Like to be a Black Girl (for those of you who aren’t)” [by Patricia Smith] and they told us to write a “What It’s Like” poem. I had actually been juggling with the thought, “I feel like a gay man on the inside! But not a gay black man. I’m a gay Latino man.” I know this. They brought the prompt and I just put two and two together and it worked out.
NW: It’s so cool that that allowed you to explore that aspect of your personality. I mean, you wouldn’t have been able to fully understand that otherwise.
OJ: Yeah! The prompts that they brought were really good because they allowed me to get things on paper that I had stored in my head. Their prompts are very inspirational.
You know, the officers took all the books off my bed one day. They took my Qu’ran, my Lorton Anthology of Poetry, my Pocket Muse, and the pictures of my mother that I used for bookmarks. I walked into the dorm and there are about twenty other women; it felt like an intervention. I had just gotten back from working at Muddy Paws, so I was in a really great mood, and when I came in they stopped me and said in this really serious tone, “Olympia, before you go to your bed, you should know that they took your books.” I didn’t even believe them at first, but they were right.
The girls in my dorm are really supportive. I had the paperback version of The Pocket Muse that Ellen sent me while I was in prison, and after (my books were taken) she sent me the hardback version.
NW: What would you say is the hardest part about being in jail for such a long amount of time, both for you and for the other women that you were with?
OJ: For most of us it’s being away from our children. I’ve been blessed, because even though my family is far away, we do not play when it comes to our kids. As soon as I got arrested somebody was at my house, getting my child, and getting him to Alabama. I have a couple of cousins up here and one of us is always going back and forth, so if it’s not me it’s my other two cousins. So my sister came to my house and picked up the baby. My brothers and sisters and I all grew up in Tuscaloosa, so if something happens, especially with the kids, we are there right away. So thankfully I didn’t have to deal with things like DHS, but that has to be the hardest thing for most of the women.
NW: Especially if you know that your kid is going through a system like that. That has to be really difficult.
OJ: I would say for ninety-nine percent of the women, it is exceedingly hard to deal with. There are a couple in there that do not care. But for most of us the hardest thing is not knowing! For the first few days in jail I was on suicide watch, so there are no phone calls or contact with anyone. So I just had to wonder what was going on with my child. It’ll mess with your psyche a little bit. But – God, being away from your kid is the hardest thing. You know, it’s things like this performance tonight that you want your kids to see.
NW: How old is he now? And when was the last time you saw him?
OJ: He’s three… I’ll get pictures of him every once in awhile, but the last time I physically saw him was that morning of my arrest on June 26th. But he’s okay. I know where he is and exactly what he’s doing at any given time of the day. It used to just be me and him. I was the one taking care of him and he was my right-hand man. We never cut the umbilical cord until that day. I get pictures of him occasionally, and I see pictures of him on the Internet when I can, and we talk on the phone pretty often, but the biggest comfort is knowing that he is being taken care of by my family.
These women are awesome. I have this great network of women around me now from Poetic Justic and Muddy Paws. Especially when you go from having nobody to having a lot of wonderful people — women at that. I’m really big on women’s empowerment.
NW: It’s so important to have that network of women, especially in your case, because the system is so completely against women supporting each other.
OJ: Yes! And it is cutthroat! So it feels great to be a part of a group of women on any level, specifically one in which they genuinely care for and love each other, as well as other people.
The Poetic Justice program is looking to expand in the coming year. If you feel that you would like to join or play a part in the process, feel free to contact them through the Poetic Justice Oklahoma Facebook group.