Poetic Perspectives on Prison

Northeast LibraryRead Feed

Poetic Perspectives on Prison

Lives and Literature Behind Bars

The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, making prison culture a topic of constant political and social relevance in our country. The subject of incarceration is also a compelling source of inspiration for many poets. The following recommended books are written by formerly incarcerated artists or writers inspired by the experience of prison.

Bastards of the Reagan Era by Reginald Dwayne Betts
Betts was a 16-year-old honor student when a carjacking landed him in prison for more than eight years, including a year spent in solitary. Through his experience, Bett discovered his voice as a writer. Bastards of the Reagan Era is his third and most recent book, in which he explores the devastating effects of the “war on drugs” on his generation of young men of color and the wave of mass incarceration it spurred.
 
To Float in the Space Between: A Life and Work in Conversation with the Life and Work of Etheridge Knight by Terrance Hayes
Mississippi native Etheridge Knight famously wrote on the back cover of his first book, Poems from Prison: “I died in Korea from a shrapnel wound, and narcotics resurrected me. I died in 1960 from a prison sentence and poetry brought me back to life.” While serving eight years for armed robbery, Knight found poetry and became an influential figure in the Black Arts Movement. In To Float in the Space Between, National Book Award-winning poet Terrance Hayes weaves autobiography, biography, literary criticism, essay and drawings into a compelling book about how a person evolves into a poet. He links his experiences with Knight’s, shedding insight on the lives and creative processes of two beloved American poets.
 
Singing at the Gates by Jimmy Santiago Baca
At the age of 13, Baca ran away from the orphanage where he was placed, and landed in prison eight years later on drug charges. While incarcerated, Baca learned to read and write and became an avid poet. Over a dozen books of poetry later, Baca remains engaged in using writing to turn lives around, as evidence by his work with at-risk youth and formerly incarcerated people through his non-profit Cedar Tree. Singing at the Gates is a compilation of four decades of his poetry, which vividly meditate on family, imprisonment, oppression, and freedom. His unique perspective as an American of both Chicano and Apache descent provide a powerful lens to his verse.
 
Stay, Illusion by Lucie Brock-Broido
While Brock-Broido never personally spent time behind bars, Stay, Illusion delves into the experience of death row in part of her book, using the stories of the executions of Ricky Ray Rector and Stanley “Tookie” Williams. In these mournful poems, she addresses the prison industrial complex, explores the concept of victimhood, and evokes the American aversion to clemency. Stay, Illusion is a powerful book inhabited by ghosts.
 
Words without Walls: Writers on Addiction, Violence, and Incarceration, edited by Sarah Shotland and Sheryl St. Germain
As demonstrated by the stories of the previous poets, writing while incarcerated has proven to be a form of rehabilitation and reclamation. Words without Walls is an anthology of more than 75 poems, stories, essays and scripts that aim to inspire reflection and creativity for budding writers in prisons, shelters and halfway houses. Contributors to the anthology include literary greats like Sharon Olds, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Tim O’Brien. A recommended read for those interested in the power of language to heal pain and confront the past.