The PEN American Center, a literary organization with a human rights focus, sponsors writing programs in U.S. prisons and gives annual awards for the best submissions of poetry and prose by incarcerated writers. This year’s winners were posted on their website in July. Here are some highlights of my reading so far.
Christopher Myers’s second-prize poem “Tell Me the Story Again About the Frogs and the Seeds” is a poignant and hopeful message from a father to his young son about the future springtime when he will be released.
In Ezekiel Caliguiri’s gorgeously written first-prize memoir “The Last Visit from the Girl in the Willow Tree”, the girl he loved as a teenager remains in his heart as a radiant image, like Dante’s Beatrice–a bittersweet reminder of the life he could have had, if he hadn’t yielded to fatalism and the desire to appear tough.
Atif Rafay’s first-prize scholarly essay “Bleak Housing & Black Americans” indicts American prison policy as a disguised return to segregation and disenfranchisement of African-Americans, and asks why our prison system is more brutal and ugly than either crime-prevention or fair punishment require. Because racism is irrational and covert, rational appeals for reform have a limited impact. In addition, he argues, “The argument from racial disparity ultimately scants the crucial point: present policies are wrong because they are destructively harsh…An argument that invites human beings to regard themselves as part of a ‘race’ and to think of compassion for the Other rather than to think of justice for all will ineluctably break any promise it might seem to hold out.”
Leonard Scovens’s honorable mention memoir “How I Became My Father” takes us inside the struggles of a fatherless young black man seeking male role models. “You grow up without a dad and you dream his ghost into a god. When Luke [Skywalker]’s phantom god was smashed and broken across Vader’s confession, he lost his grip. If Vader was his father, what did it mean for his fate? The sins of the father, after all, are visited upon the son.”