The event focused on poetry from female inmates in Oklahoma, also featuring a screening of the documentary “Grey Matter.”
Oklahoma has almost double the number of incarcerated women than any other state in the U.S. This fact kept coming up during the Poetic Justice event at Magic City Books last Saturday. The event was part of Poetic Justice’s desire to visit all 77 counties in Oklahoma this year, to bring the stories of the women they work with to all Oklahomans and to foster a desire for change within the state.
The event also celebrated the release of Poetic Justice’s third volume of collected poems. Incarcerated women in Oklahoma involved with Poetic Justice wrote each of these poems during classes the organization now holds at every women’s prison in Oklahoma.
Ellen Stackable, the founder and executive director, started off the event by discussing the creation of the organization. As a lifelong teacher, she was inspired by a similar class in a men’s prison and wanted to bring it to women, seeing it as a restorative, therapeutic practice. While she was initially warned no one would continually attend classes, the group now helps about 150 women per week with a long waiting list in some prisons. As budget cuts continue, programs such as this are the core of rehabilitative measures in prisons.
Several volunteers read poems from their students. Each was able to speak about the writers, so that you would not only gain an understanding from what the poet had written, but from a friend as well. The first poem, read by Hanna Al-Jibouri, was a sobering tale from a survivor of domestic abuse, by someone who was never caught. The next, “Ode to the Absence of Heroin,” was more joyful and thankful. “Description of My Queen,” read by Kate Forest, was an adoration of the poet’s mother, of her strength, beauty and wisdom. These poems, along with others, showcased how poetry works for these incarcerated women: some as therapy for past events, some as gratitude and celebrations of important changes to their lives, but all helping them to move forward or let go of pain.
The audience, which spilled out of the designated room and into the store itself, was then told to open envelopes given to them at the beginning. These envelopes, each marked with a six-digit number, represented one of the poets whose pictures were stationed around the room. Each included a poem, and audience milled around, looking at the poets and their self-written descriptions. This reflected Poetic Justice’s desire to give power back to these women; they created their own rules for each class and were asked before included in any media.
The second part of the event featured the short documentary “Gray Matter.” The piece interwove Poetic Justice’s classes with interviews of poets and those outside working to change incarceration in Oklahoma. The interviews further humanized these women, demonstrating their pain, strength and story, while activists provided concrete knowledge about the system in Oklahoma and its problems, of which there are many. By the end, I, presumably along with others, was misty-eyed but also angry at the state for its failure to address its issues.
A short Q&A followed, including Stackable; Megan Hickey, who directed and produced the documentary; Vanessa Blaylock, the Oklahoma field director for Prison Fellowship, formerly incarcerated; and Kassie McClung, a writer for “The Frontier.” They told stories of sentencing in the state, which can be harsher than neighboring states and slanted against women. Overall, they reiterated the need for people to contact state and city representatives to demand change and support their sisters.
Poetic Justice, along with other organizations aimed at serving incarcerated persons, is always in the need of volunteers or funding. Anyone interested should visit their website at www.PoeticJustice.org for more information.