Thursday, November 3rd, Poetic Justice held “Poetry & Pie: Poetic Justice Volume II Anthology Release” at Tyrell Hall. The poetry presented at the event came from the new Poetic Justice Volume II Anthology, a collection of the best poetry written by women incarcerated at the David L. Moss Criminal Justice Center and Mabel Bassett Correctional Center. Several of the program’s volunteers read selected works from the anthology, preceding most with a story about the writer or the situation surrounded the poem.
Poetic Justice is a volunteer-run program, with its volunteers women from the school system. The group was founded by Claire Collins and Ellen Stackable in 2014, as the pair were inspired by a similar writing program offered to incarcerated men. Since then it has expanded to fourteen volunteers who offer a writing class to incarcerated women.
Each writing class offered by the organization is eight weeks long, with each week having a theme for the poems to be structured around. When they start a new group, Poetic Justice tries to “level the playing field so the [incarcerated women] feel they’re women of worth.” That’s why, a volunteer said, they emphasize that each participant is already a poet and has potential before even starting to write. At the end of the eight weeks, each participant receives a bound copy of the session’s poems.
In the first week the theme is an ode, a lyrical poem in enthusiastic praise of something. Two of this type read at the event, an ode to perfume and an ode to the underwire bra, detailed the writers’ treasured experiences or objects, but hinted at the world behind bars, which, for instance, only allows sports bras. The second week’s theme was “a place you have loved,” which, in the work read, was the author’s kitchen. A poem describing “the unwritten rules you live by” was required in the third week. For that, the audience heard one woman’s tale of how she would never steal from her mother to feed her drug addiction. Each woman wrote a letter to herself in her fourth week, and in doing so, a volunteer said, the writer realized she had changed drastically from the woman she’d been.
Patricia Smith’s “What It’s Like to Be a Black Girl (For Those of You Who Aren’t)” served as a model for the fifth week. Before reading the poem from the anthology, a volunteer explained how the title evolved from “What It’s Like to Be a Prostitute (For Those of You Who Aren’t)”, to “What It’s Like to Be a Survivor.” The sixth week focused on identifying one emotion that had profoundly impacted the writer and personifying it, in hopes that that would begin the process to let it go. One poet personified her grief over her lover’s death as an attractive man she invited over once to drink with, but who kept returning, uninvited. In the seventh week, the volunteers asked for a poem about a place the women felt safe in.
After reading the poems, the hosts held a Q&A session where they shared more about their plans and those they had worked with. Many of the women, they said, still report writing daily, with thick journals of poetry and other writings. Some of the past participants they have continued visiting in and out of prison, with one volunteer having written several statements of character for participants who were in court cases.
The women disagreed if they’d ever felt unsafe in the prisons. One, who brought up the topic, said she’d never felt unsafe, while another recounted how, when she first arrived to teach her first class, the guards asked if she was there to turn herself in. The profiling she experienced, she said, reminded her of where she was going to volunteer.
In the future, Poetic Justic hopes to expand its reach, aiming for all facilities in the state women are incarcerated in. Most importantly, the group needs dedicated people who are willing to undergo the training and commitment needed by the program. Over two hundred women are on the waiting list for Poetic Justice in Mabel Bassett, which is first-come, first-serve, no credit class. Word has spread around prisons, and thus the program has surpassed the expectations of some who suggested would not last one session.
As the night was coming to a close, one audience member introduced herself as one of the women who’d participated in the program, while in Mabel Bassett. She profoundly thanked the program for their work and emphasized the need for more, and similar, programs and reforms in the Oklahoma prison system, which incarcerates the second most women in the US.