Jennifer Bowen Q&A

March 1, 2021
Jennifer Bowen brings literature to the incarcerated.

“I have opinions about the conditions of carceral state. And oh man, where to start. The list is unending: crap food, constant dehumanization, inadequate medical care, no dental care, and on and on. But let’s focus on one problem for a second. People in prison make around .25 to $2 an hour. It costs just under a buck for every 15-minute call home. If you want a reasonable conversation with your daughter, or your mom, expect to spend $3, which can cost a person 12 hours of pay. It’s .40 per ‘stamp’ for the equivalent of an email that goes out via the JPay system, so even a quick check-in to family can cost an hour’s wage. Can you imagine if every email we sent on the outside cost an hour’s wage?  If every time we tried to reach out to someone we loved it was a morning’s work? This system is so destructive to human connection. There are many cruelties in prison, but the severing of people from their beloveds, by design and for profit, is among the worst.”

When did you decide you wanted to teach in prisons?

Right after grad school. I wanted to teach creative writing, and I also wanted work that felt meaningful. I emailed every warden in the state and one replied, so his facility is where I started.

You’ve said incarceration in your family motivated you. Do you have memories of conditions not being acceptable?

I was far more motivated to teach in prisons because of a mentor of mine, David Jauss, who spoke warmly of his experience working with incarcerated writers. But yes, I have family members who have done time, some for short stints in jails, others for years in prison. My dad and grandfather, to name a few, had long been estranged from my family, so their absence preceded prison and/or didn’t impact me directly. Though after years of teaching inside prison, I certainly think often and with sadness and anger and curiosity about my family members and what their experience must have been like. A friend shared Nadine Graves’ podcast, The Waiting Room, with me. In one episode she has a conversation with a woman who is directly impacted by her father’s long incarceration. She reveals a kind of pain and waiting that is invisible to society. Experiences like hers are seldom heard. Her experience is seldom heard. She speaks powerfully about the collateral consequences of the carceral state. But yeah, I do have opinions about the conditions of carceral state. And oh man, where to start. The list is unending: crap food, constant dehumanization, inadequate medical care, no dental care, and on and on. But let’s focus on one problem for a second. People in prison make around .25 to $2 an hour. It costs just under a buck for every 15-minute call home. If you want a reasonable conversation with your daughter, or your mom, expect to spend $3, which can cost a person 12 hours of pay. It’s .40 per “stamp” for the equivalent of an email that goes out via the JPay system, so even a quick check-in to family can cost an hour’s wage. Can you imagine if every email we sent on the outside cost an hour’s wage? If every time we tried to reach out to someone we loved it was a morning’s work? This system is so destructive to human connection. There are many cruelties in prison, but the severing of people from their beloveds, by design and for profit, is among the worst.

The government cut off Pell Grants to prisoners in 1994. Is education for prisoners mostly unavailable? Do you have hope the new administration may make reforms?

Crazy, right?  This is a really complicated question. Not only are educational opportunities different in each state, they’re different in each facility within each state, depending on staff and culture and security level. Minnesota does mandate GED education for those who enter prison without a diploma or equivalency. The MN DOC, which is a far better system than most in the U.S., offers higher education, but getting a degree is still not simple. Most of the education directors and education staff I’ve worked with are great people who do difficult work inside a destructive system. To the extent that anything positive happens in prison, it’s due to individual folks’ efforts to persist despite the system. There does seem to be a national, bipartisan appetite for prison reform. Fingers crossed.

Are you still teaching in class these days or has your job turned into mostly administrator?

Teaching is my first and enduring love. I administer programs solely to make the classroom possible. I don’t like spreadsheets. Or calendars. I love teaching beginning writers for the sense of discovery and new possibilities. And I love teaching experienced writers so we can really dig into ideas around craft and creativity. Most times in an MPWW classroom, we find a mix of all of the above and I love that, too. I have talented colleagues, including Managing Director, Mike Alberti, plus a raft of instructors who share social media and publication tasks. Many of our students also do an incredible amount of work on the inside, from keeping rosters, to setting up events, to editing anthologies, giving craft lectures, serving as TA’s. Many hands share the load for a large-ish organization that operates on a relatively lean budget. Together we’re a pretty agile and elegant team that gets to (has to) do a bit of everything.

You’ve said that the most popular story you’ve brought into class is “The Long Road Turns To Joy” by Robin MacArthur. Why is it is appealing?

Oh yeah, that  is a beloved story, in part for its musicality and imagery, but also for its compassion and grace. It’s filled with love in a place where there is little. It’s beauty in a space where beauty is scarce.

What does your syllabus look like these days?

I teach James Baldwin in almost every course. Heavy by Kiese Laymon is one of my favorite memoirs to teach. Natalie Diaz, Annie Dillard, Lucille Clifton. It’s always a privilege to teach Danez Smith’s work, especially when I can show videos of them performing. Many of the students I’ve worked with over the years — Zeke, Louise, Paul, Chris, B — are well published. Their work resonates and it’s a joy to share it in the classroom. Once per quarter I teach an intro course for folks just coming into prison so it’s a different group of men each time. I’ve taught Martín Espada, A Van Jordan, and Louise Waakaa’igan in every “welcome session,” for years. I keep waiting to get sick of that trio of poems, but I just can’t quit them.

My preferences aside, we’ve got a dynamic cohort of instructors who have different loves and obsessions.  They all assign engaging reading, so our students are exposed to a wide variety.

Malcom X said he never felt more free than when he discovered books in prison. Do you find it exciting to turn students onto reading as much as writing?

Yeah, for sure. It’s rarely the case that I turn students on to reading for the first time.  Most of them come with their own list of beloved writers and poets and musicians. But once in a while there’s a special book that cracks open a student’s understanding of craft, or trauma, or humanity and—as all readers know—that’s when we’re reminded that books are a fucking miracle. Zeke, an incarcerated writer I’ve known for a decade, and who was writing long before we came along, once said, “I want to write those books that changed my life. I want to write books like the books that made me see the world differently. I want somebody out there to read what I write.”  And sure enough, years later, he’s did just that. Many people have discovered his memoir, This Is Where I Am, and, just as he’d hoped, they’re changed by it.

The MPWW leads classes in poetry, spoken word, oral storytelling, playwriting, fiction, fantasy, essay and more. Was it quickly apparent there was a great thirst for these programs?

Yes, immediately apparent, and ongoing still. There’s a hunger inside prisons that current programming options don’t come close to filling. We stress sustaining over growth. It’s a difficult system, so we proceed with caution and we pilot everything new. That said, we’ve grown and changed a ton in a decade and the key to that growth is our students. We follow their lead in every way, especially as they evolve as artists. They tell us what they want and need. They’re the ones who recruit new students into our community. They write about classes and readings for facility newspapers. They invite friends to events. We come in for a class and leave at switch out, but they’re left inside. They are always teaching each other.  They are always building. They’re not just the key to our growth, they’re the source of our thriving.

It must be a remarkable feeling when you discover a student who is gifted. What is that like?

It’s a great joy. Some students, yes, have the most singular voice or vision. Some have incredible facility with language. But it’s not just encountering a gifted student that’s a thrill, it’s also wonderful to see a writer who is consistently loving toward their characters. Or one who fearlessly revises, or listens, or responds to classmates’ work. Being in a position where you can reflect back the best parts you see in another person and — because you stand at the front of a classroom, they’re maybe just a tiny bit more inclined to believe you — is a huge privilege.

What’s next for MPWW?

We’re always working to sustain operations, first and foremost.  Folks in prison are used to things going away, so our eternal commitment to them is to keep coming back. This means we’re necessarily conservative with finances.  It’s maybe the financial equivalent of “do no harm.”  That said, we do have big dreams, among them: someday offer a full arts-in-corrections program which would include music and visual art.  We’d love a place to sleep near Duluth so we could expand programming at the Moose Lake facility. And after a decade in this work, we have students coming home.  We’d love to start offering more formalized reentry options to make their landing gentler.

Are you working on your own writing? Anything you can share?

Sure. I’m really close to finishing a personal essay collection that’s about a decade behind schedule. For years I was a daily writer: 5 a.m. at my desk without fail. Now I’m a binge writer out of necessity. I work best when I can escape my house for a day or a weekend or even a week, which makes me this city’s most eligible cat sitter.

Photo by Michael Kleber-Diggs