INTERVIEW WITH DESCANT 150: WRITERS IN PRISON EDITORS AND D150 LAUNCH PHOTO ESSAY

Black Coffee Poet is honoured to have been chosen as a contributor for the Descant 150: Writers in Prison issue.  Below is a photo of BCP and Descant 150 editors Matt Carrington, Kathryn Franklin, BCP, Jason Paradiso, and Production Editor Kim Kim.

Enjoy Kathryn Franklin’s thoughts on Descant 150: Writers in Prison:

BCP: Why did Descant decide to do the prison issue?

KF: It was a subject that has been percolating for a while during our editorial meetings. Over the years we have received so many submissions from inmates, mostly in Canada and the US, as well as political prisoners and writers in exile. Truthfully, I think it was a really bold choice for editor-in-chief, Karen Mulhallen, to kick off Descant’s 40th Anniversary with this issue.

BCP: I was told this issue had the highest submissions of any other in the history of Descant. Is this true? What was the selection process? What were you looking for?How long did it take to come up with the final selection that is now Descant 150: Writers in Prison?

KF: I wasn’t aware that this issue had the highest submissions! You’ll have to tell me where you heard that. I love to think that there are Descant rumours circulating! There really was no magic to the selection process. My interest is first and foremost on the quality of the work presented to me. It took months going through the pieces that I felt spoke to the theme of the issue, and then, of course, I had to confer with Matt and Jason.

BCP: Some of you are writers. Did being a writer inform your editing?

KF: Most of the writing I’m currently involved with is academic so it was actually really refreshing to be reading fiction and poetry as well as reading essays that had nothing to do with my dissertation.

BCP: Was it hard to juggle submissions that were written in different genres?

KF: Not especially.

BCP: The cover of Descant 150 is an old photo of the Don Jail in downtown Toronto, Canada. While the issue was being put together several men were murdered in the Don Jail (November/December 2009). How did that make you feel? What were/are your thoughts?

None of you have been incarcerated and none of you are people of colour. Did it feel strange to be editing an issue about writers in prison with North American prison being largely housed with peoples of colour?

Most of the contributors for Descant 150: Writers in Prison have never been incarcerated. Can you comment on that?

KF: I hope it’s all right, but I’m going to amalgamate the above three questions because I think they all speak to a similar important issue. The call out for the Writers in Prison issue was asking for submissions concerning prisons that are both physical and metaphorical. From Bedlam to the Gulag, prisons have been depicted in many forms, and being in prison does not necessarily require one to be in an institution. My interest, therefore, was to go beyond the typical prison narrative and open up the dialogue about what it really means to be in exile, which I think speaks to issues of race and gender that go beyond the prison bars.

BCP: Much of the writing in Descant 150 is political. Were you open to, or did you also want, writing about the rare happy stories of prison life? Why or why not?

KF: It wasn’t really a question about maintaining an aura of austerity for the issue, rather it was the quality of the writing that informed our issue.

BCP: Do you see Descant150 as a form of activism?

KF: All writing is a form of activism.

BCP: Non-accessible academic writing, long and boring speeches, and yelling slogans on a megaphone are given precedence over poetry/literature in the activist world. What role do you see poetry/literature having in activism? Other than literature journals such as Descant, how can poetry/literature get more than a quarter of a page in a magazine (if at all) and be used as more than an opener at political events?

KF: This is a really good question. Perhaps I’m just being idealistic but I think because of the rise of social media, poets and writers have way more opportunity to express their message. I mean, look at this interview right now! (yep, things have just gone meta).

BCP: Aboriginal peoples are the highest percentage per population who are incarcerated in Canada. There are no pieces written by Aboriginal peoples in Descant 150 and no mention of this sad colonial reality. Why?

KF: As I mentioned before, Descant 150 wasn’t exclusively concerned with writers in physical prisons. That being said, you rightfully point out that there are no Aboriginal peoples (at least that we know) that were published in this issue. I can’t answer why, but the fact that we’re discussing this as a result of the publication of our issue at least demonstrates the need for this dialogue especially within the Canadian literary landscape.

BCP: Was reading the poetry/literature of incarcerated peoples a big help in understanding and forming Descant150?

KF: Absolutely. As you had pointed out before, none of us had ever been incarcerated and therefore reading poetry and literature from people writing to us from jail was particularly instructive in understanding what it means to be so isolated from traditional society as opposed to reading works from those who were in more imagined prisons.

BCP: Rubin Hurricane Carter is featured in Descant 150. How did that come to be? Were you looking at other high profile names to feature in the issue?

KF: Dr. Carter has known our former managing editor, Mary Newberry, for a very long time (Mary details this relationship very nicely in her co-editor’s diary in the issue) and he submitted his piece for the issue. While we are very pleased with Dr. Carter’s piece, we actually were not actively approaching any high profile names. We wanted the writing to be the focus.

BCP: What advice do you have for people thinking of editing or starting up a literature journal?

KF: Have patience and time.

BCP: What advice do you have for young writers hoping to be published in literature journals such as Descant?

KF: Patience and time.

Below is a photo of BCP and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter at the launch of Descant 150: Writers in Prison

Please enjoy Matt Carrington’s thoughts on editing Descant 150: Writers in Prison:

BCP: Why did Descant decide to do the prison issue?

MC: As discussed in the preface to the issue, this issue came about because Descant was receiving regular submissions from prisoners. PiKe Krpan was Descant’s editorial assistant (and later became a co-editor) and began corresponding with prisoners who were submitting to Descant. She worked previously with PEN Canada and was, as far as I know, engaged in prisoner justice activism. The issue was her idea. She later decided to leave Descant for other projects.

BCP: I was told this issue had the highest submissions of any other in the history of Descant. Is this true? What was the selection process? What were you looking for? How long did it take to come up with the final selection that is now Descant 150: Writers in Prison?

MC: Although I never know the exact number of submissions for other guest-edited, special issue of Descant, my understanding is that the number of submissions for this issue was relatively low. I know that the forthcoming Ghosts issue has received almost twice as many submissions, and it’s a similar case with the Cats/Dogs issue (which became two separate issues due to the large number of submissions).

Kathryn, Jason, and I worked together reading the submissions. We were looking primarily for texts from individuals who had experienced incarceration, but were also looking for sophisticated literary texts. Of course this latter evaluation contains a difficult value judgment, but this evaluative task is essentially the task of editors. We were looking for finished texts ready for publication, although Jason did a great job championing a very long text by a writer currently in prison, editing it down to a suitable length.

BCP: Some of you are writers. Did being a writer inform your editing?

MC: I write and study poetry. This means that I was looking for poetry, and was more open to non-traditional forms than other editors might have been. We did not receive a lot of poetry, and so did not end up publishing as much poetry as I would have liked.

BCP: Was it hard to juggle submissions that were written in different genres?

MC: No. We received a wide range of genres. It’s understandable that a themed issue focused on a particular experience provokes a fair amount of prose life-writing.

BCP: The cover of Descant 150 is an old photo of the Don Jail in downtown Toronto, Canada. While the issue was being put together several men were murdered in the Don Jail (November/December 2009). How did that make you feel? What were/are your thoughts?

MC: I did not know about the murders. It’s perhaps worth noting that the photos of the Don Jail in the issue are of the old Don Jail, which has not been in operation since the ’70s (and was deemed unfit for human occupation, as shown by the photos).

BCP: None of you have been incarcerated and none of you are people of colour. Did it feel strange to be editing an issue about writers in prison with North American prisons being largely housed with peoples of colour?

MC: I agree that prisons are a racialized space; prisons are the most visible means of managing subjects who are antagonistic to contemporary, neoliberal discourses and institutions. It is not, however, fair to assume that I have had no contact with incarceration through either family or friends; it is also true that I bring empathy and anti-oppression politics to my reading, writing, and editing. I can repeat here what I said at the launch, that reading the submissions for this issue was a humbling experience.

Does the question imply that we were the wrong people to edit this issue? The three of us took on this project because we believed it was important and because it would have otherwise not been published. I will leave it to others to consider whether we should have approached someone with more direct experience with incarceration to take on this project.

BCP: Most of the contributors for Descant 150: Writers in Prison have never been incarcerated. Can you comment on that?

MC: A large number of the contributors have experienced incarceration personally, have worked with people who have been incarcerated, and several are currently in prison.We decided to also accept pieces from writers who had less (explicit) experience with prison, because we thought the texts deserved to be included. The three of us worked hard to circulate the call for submissions outside of Descant’s usual audience, specifically to prisons, to groups that work with recently incarcerated individuals, and to other publications and prisoner justice organizations. We did not solicit any submissions directly; we then chose the best pieces that we received.

BCP: Much of the writing in Descant 150 is political. Were you open to, or did you also want, writing about the rare happy stories of prison life? Why or why not?

MC: Yes, I was open to happy stories of prison life. However, I was also wary of using the prison setting to tell exotic stories that have been cleaned up for easy consumption. I did not want to romanticize prisons. The photos of the Don Jail, for example, do a great job of showing that beauty can be found anywhere, while also showing what a horrible place the Don Jail was.

BCP: Do you see Descant150 as a form of activism?

MC: I do. I think it is important to give voice to writers who are hidden by institutional structures. I also think that this issue of Descant deals with racialization, class oppression, and other oppressions more than any other issue Descant (but I can’t speak to all the issues published in the decades before my involvement).

BCP: Non-accessible academic writing, long and boring speeches, and yelling slogans on a megaphone are given precedence over poetry/literature in the activist world.

What role do you see poetry/literature having in activism? Other than literature journals such as Descant, how can poetry/literature get more than a quarter of a page in a magazine (if at all) and be used as more than an opener at political events?

MC: This is a really complicated question. I do see a role for poetry and literature as part of political activism. My thinking follows theorists like Foucault in seeing that fiction can tell truths that the facts of essays and journalism cannot. I believe that poetry can function as a kind of knowledge that makes possible things that are otherwise impossible. All of this is utopian and possibly naïve.

BCP: Aboriginal peoples are the highest percentage per population who are incarcerated in Canada. There are no pieces written by Aboriginal peoples in Descant 150 and no mention of this sad colonial reality. Why?

MC: Good question. We didn’t receive any submissions from aboriginal people that I know of.

BCP: Was reading the poetry/literature of incarcerated peoples a big help in understanding and forming Descant150?

MC: I read some Canadian writing, such as the recent anthology Words Without Walls: Writing & Art By Women in Prison in Nova Scotia.

BCP: Rubin Hurricane Carter is featured in Descant 150. How did that come to be? Were you looking at other high profile names to feature in the issue?

MC: My understanding is that he submitted like anyone else. I know he is an acquaintance of one of Descant’s former managing editors. I was not particularly interested in high-profile names.

BCP: Did you think about teaming up with PEN Canada for Descant 150? Did any info by PEN Canada help out with the issue?

MC: I know that there was some contact with PEN Canada. I don’t know what happened with this. PEN Canada did not help with the issue.

BCP: What advice do you have for people thinking of editing or starting up a literature journal?

MC: I think that literary magazines are essential to literary culture. They should be the places where experiments are taken, where pieces are published that are published nowhere else. If a magazine already exists that publishes the kind of work you want to publish, I would reconsider your project. I think that the move to publishing online makes a lot of sense, since printing and distribution can be very expensive. No one, of course, will ever make money running a literary magazine.

BCP: What advice do you have for young writers hoping to be published in literature journals such as Descant?

MC: Submit. Write a lot. Learn to be OK with rejection. Submit again. There are a lot of literary magazines in Canada. Look for the magazines that publish the sort of work you write.

Get your issue of Descant 150: Writers in Prison in stores now:

Tune in to Black Coffee Poet Friday December 3, 2010 for a video of Black Coffee Poet reading his piece “The Bull Pen” featured in Descant 150: Writers in Prison.

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About Black Coffee Poet

Black Coffee Poet is a mixed race poet, essayist, and journalist who focuses on Social Justice, Indigenous Rights, STOPPING Violence Against Women, Film, and Literature.
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