Poetry Breaking Down Bars

Within the walls of a prison, beyond ribbons of barbed wire and under orange jumpsuits, sit poets putting their thoughts into verse. Some sit jotting down notes to loved ones on the back of napkins, or scrap paper to continue letter exchanges. With the United State’s two-million-plus prisoners in mind, these literary exchanges constitute one of the largest literary movements to date. The Prison Poetry Workshop focuses its efforts on breaking down bars and walls through the power of poetry. In an attempt to bridge the gap between those incarcerated and the outside world, The Prison Poetry Workshop uses audio as a tool to assemble a community of poets, readers, and listeners affected by imprisonment. Through audio podcasts, they’re able to bring together a world of literature and culture around the theme of incarceration.

The Holy Grail

In an interview with Cory Fischer-Hoffman, a post-doctoral Fellow in the Digital Humanities at Lehigh University, she explained that audio is so powerful because its radio waves can get through unyielding walls of a prison. Those incarcerated are able to hear the programming. Hoffman says, “I see these podcasts as a really powerful way to bring in those directly impacted so that their voices are a part of the conversation.” The programs vary. Some are recorded within the walls of a prison. Visualize men and women in jumpsuits sitting in the common area of a prison listening closely to audio writing workshops. Within these podcasts and workshops, listeners can expect advice on how to cope with their own external and internal conflicts they may have around the theme of incarceration. During podcasts, listeners are often encouraged to put pen to paper to write through their problems vividly.

The Three-Part-Series

The Prison Poetry Workshop came to South Bethlehem for its “Beyond the Bars” series this spring. The first of the three-part series was a public lecture led by Cory Fischer-Hoffman, Jarret Brown and special guest Rend Smith, a collaborator and producer on the project.The Workshop is a national project that provides a public platform bringing the conversation about prison reform to a larger audience. In the lecture with Rend Smith on Thursday, March 23 at 4:10 p.m., he discussed the award-winning radio series,  The Prison Poetry Workshop, and his approach to document, broadcast, and contextualize prison poetries nationally through digital humanities.

The Prison Poetry Workshop continued its South Bethlehem debut on Thursday, March 23 at 8 p.m., at Touchstone Theater for a spoken word event. The event was facilitated by Lehigh University Theater Professor, Kashi Johnson, and included performances by Miles J Davis, Scribe, Yodi Vaden, Tatiana Hernandez, Kiskeyana and the Basement Poets.  Each writer’s contributions focused around the theme of incarceration. Spoken word from a few poets currently residing in Pennsylvania prisons were performed.

The power of poetry resides in its ability to capture and communicate human experience. The Prison Poetry Workshop also works to re-humanize those who are, or were, incarcerated in the American prison system. Prison is alive in people’s lives sometimes directly, but other times unknowingly. The last event of the “Beyond The Bars” series was a screening of “Prison in Twelve Landscapes” with filmmaker Brett Story. The discussion took place on Wednesday, March 29 at 6 p.m. at the Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Performing Arts. The film focuses on incarceration by giving viewers visions of different penitentiaries through a cross-country journey. It also portrays the specific experiences of incarcerated people as they fight west coast forest fires or answer telephones in customer service call centers housed behind bars. “Prison in Twelve Landscapes” interrogates a society built on mass incarceration and for-profit prisons while promoting ways to exchange ideas and ultimately change the system.

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