I was published in The Kenyon Review (Winter 2010) and Descant 150: Writers in Prison (Fall 2010).
Descant asked me to read my essay The Bull Pen (published in Descant 150) at the October 6, 2010 launch of the issue.
I opened the event and had the privilege of meeting Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, also featured in Descant 150. Carter also read at the launch.
Pictured above are Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and I.
Please enjoy a video of me reading my essay The Bull Pen at the launch of Descant 150: Writers in Prison.
Interview with Descant 150 Co-Editor Jason Paradiso:
BCP: Why did Descant decide to do the prison issue?
JP: The idea was first suggested a number of years ago after the editorial assistant at the time, piKe Krpan, noticed that we were receiving a number of submissions from prisoners. Descant’s themed issues are scheduled years in advance, and piKe eventually left to pursue other things. The Editor-in-Chief, Karen Mulhallen, then entrusted us with the 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?
JP: I’m not positive, but I think it’s fair to say that Writers in Prison did not receive the most submissions. I’d love to be wrong though. Our main focus was to collect an array of contributions from people (not just writers) who had been affected by the prison system. We circulated our call for submissions as widely as possible. Outside of contacting the usual literary people, we contacted social service agencies, prisoner justice organizations, in-prison volunteer groups. We sent letters to the Inmate Welfare Committees of over thirty prisons of various sizes and securities across the country. Once the submission deadline had passed, the three of us spent a few months reading through and discussing the submissions.
BCP: Some of you are writers. Did being a writer inform your editing?
JP: I write a lot of different types of things, and I also get the opportunity to edit a lot of different types of things. I’d like to think that writing and editing have a symbiotic relationship.
BCP: Was it hard to juggle submissions that were written in different genres?
JP: Not at all. The three of us (and our fellow co-editors) regularly read a wide range of submissions for Descant.
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?
JP: For a couple of months, I lived directly across the street from the Don Jail. It sort of became a symbol of my old neighbourhood and since then whenever it comes up in the news I always pay a little more attention. I remember hearing about the third death and thinking about my old porch and the overcrowded prison across the street. We could do an entire issue on the Don Jail. There were a number of tragic prison-related news stories that caught my attention over the years while we worked on the issue. I’m not sure that I would have taken note of any of them otherwise.
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?
JP: If anything it felt strange to be editing an issue about writers in prison. Race/ethnicity didn’t play into the way I felt (unless that’s what the piece was trying to evoke). Editing the work of a multiple murderer: that felt strange.
BCP: Most of the contributors for Descant 150: Writers in Prison have never been incarcerated. Can you comment on that?
JP: The majority of contributors have been directly affected by the prison system. A good portion of them have been incarcerated, some of them have volunteered/worked with prisoners and more than a few of them are currently being held. There are also a couple of contributors who have been separated from loved ones, stuck on the outside. We also accepted a few pieces by those with looser connections to prisons because they were well-written and intriguing. Prisons, as institutions and symbols, affect people in different ways.
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?
JP: We were open to any and all well-crafted prison-related work.
BCP: Do you see Descant150 as a form of activism?
JP: We were able to help tell thirty-plus stories of incarceration and oppression and if they get people to talk then I certainly do.
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?
JP: This is a good and complicated question. Poetry/literature can play a large role in getting people to start thinking about, discussing and understanding various situations. The new forms of social media are certainly helping writers to get their messages out.
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?
JP: A valid point and a good question. There’s really no specific reason other than that, despite our best efforts, our call for submissions didn’t reach far enough.
BCP: Was reading the poetry/literature of incarcerated peoples a big help in understanding and forming Descant150?
JP: I’m not sure how big of a help it was considering that we were restricted by the submissions we received, but it certainly did help.
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.
JP: The Rubin Carter and Ken Klonsky piece, Surviving Prison, came in the mail and was considered just like everything else. We didn’t solicit/commission any of the written work. It’s possible that Carter and Klonsky heard about our call for submissions through a member of the Descant family, but if that’s the case the three of us were unaware.
BCP: Did you think about teaming up with PEN Canada for Descant 150? Did any info by PEN Canada help out with the issue?
JP: There was some contact in the initial stages a couple of years ago, but I can’t say whatever became of it.
BCP: What advice do you have for people thinking of editing or starting up a literature journal?
JP: I’m not the person to ask for advice about starting up a journal (there were 132 issues of Descant before I was ever involved).
BCP: What advice do you have for young writers hoping to be published in literature journals such as Descant?
JP: a) submit your best work b) be patient c) rework your best work and resubmit. Try not to take rejection personally because it’s more than likely nothing personal.
Get your issue of Descant 150: Writers in Prison in stores now:
Tune in to Black Coffee Poet Monday December 6, 2010 for a special week: Remembering the Forgotten Women of December Sixth.
An event featuring local artists selling art and crafts, accompanied by readings and performances.
Saturday December 4, 2010 2pm to 9pm, readings/performances from 6pm to 7:30pm 28 Marshall St. (south of Dundas, off Brock).
Come spend your saturday eating delicious vegetarian food, supporting local artists and checking off all those special people on your holiday list (items from as little as 2$), all the while enjoying some fabulous queer entertainment.
Featuring: Alyssa Poma, Belinda Poolay, Clara Ho, Karleen Pendleton-Jimenez and Trey Anthony.
For inquiries email: firstname.lastname@example.org