Writers Block: Voices from Macomb County Correctional Facility, Michigan

Last fall, I traveled to Detroit on a guest invitation from the Hamtramck
Free School to help direct a workshop and discussion at Macomb County Correctional Facility called “Writers Block.” Founded in 2011 through the University of Michigan’s Prison Creative Arts Project, this weekly meeting between inmates and volunteers has become a place of contact for both groups with new ideas, new models of learning and expression, and for a serious, alternative discourse surrounding poetry, prosody, image, and the line.

One of the many aspects of Writers Block that may seem obvious, but
is moving all the same, is that these writers have decided poetry is not
just a worthwhile, but a necessary endeavor in their lives. Beyond the weekly workshops and prison-approved visits, their only contact with the outside is through the approved cable networks and books in their state- regulated library. Those who want access to paper, pencils, or a typewriter have to save for and purchase them by working for the standard prison-wage of twelve cents an hour, and, as one might imagine, the conditions under which they produce and share work are difficult and tightly regulated.

Still, conversation in those two hours I was present dealt with the philosophy and poetics of the institution we were inside—the “architecture
of control,” as facilitator Jonathan Rajewski would say—with more
awareness than any other workshop I have ever been involved in. Members enthusiastically and critically dissected the intersections of race, class, and the law with poetry itself. The sense of community in the room was palpable, and relationships extended beyond the traditional bounds of writer-to-reader/ writer, forming an inclusiveness that encompassed the wide range of styles, training, and interests of the participants. Any sense of competition in the work only served to bolster the discussion of ideas and the propulsion to create more work in the future, a sort of pedagogical, yet non-didactic cycle lacking any form of ideological exclusion.

The seven poems in this feature come to us, yes, from marginalized, and perhaps, unfamiliar voices. As Rajewski says, many in the group “were told as teenagers they would die in prison.” What’s remarkable is that they “[have] become writers and artists, musicians and teachers.” Here, poetry is both
the artistic end we typically think it is, and also a means toward building
new ways of thinking about one’s life and engaging the others therein. As surrounded as many of us are by poetic infighting, camp divisions, and by the many arguments against the quality and usefulness of poetry in our lives, one might look to the Writers Block to see how poetry and the practice of poetry can create a common space—and that that is only one way that poetry can be, and is, necessary.

Mike Lala, 2013-14 Poetry Editor


by James D. Fuson

I’m watching a pair of frogs,
in a drainage ditch,
watch me.
They sit there in the shallow water—
deep to them—
calm, waiting for that bug to fly by to snack on.
I take a step closer and they flee into the drain pipe
and don’t come back as long as I stand here;
so I sit on the stone bench
just off the track.
A small crab spider,
light green, almost white,
crawls on my hand.
It travels across my fingers—
great valleys, steep hills—
stopping to look around,
gauge distance, direction,
and then, for whatever reason,
chooses a direction and goes.
A strong breeze blows and the spider lets loose a silken parachute,
to drift on a zephyr whim.
Behind me, a small flock of birds—
sparrows, starlings, red-winged blackbirds—
peck at the grass
just beneath the gun tower,
unaware of this miraculous ability to fly
through the links in the fence.
Then, the yard closes,
and the frogs and the spiders and the birds come and go,
and I get on my bunk for count.