Like many inspired ideas, this one began with an Instagram post.
Jennifer Bowen Hicks was flipping through the social media site when her eye stopped on an image from Portugal. A small portion of the photo depicted a vending machine. Rather than dispensing snack-size bags of Spicy Nacho Doritos, it was selling poems.
About a year later, the picture popped back into her mind as she was thinking about fundraising possibilities for the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop (MPWW), the nonprofit she founded in 2011.
That memory led to the the purchase of five hand-cranked vending machines now found in bookstores from Minneapolis to Northfield.
Insert a pair of quarters into the slots, give the handle a twist and out pops a plastic container with a thought-provoking poem.
The poems, all previously published, draw from a wide range of sources: famous (and not-so-famous) poets, plus MPWW instructors and the incarcerated students, too.
Each is neatly printed on white paper, carefully rolled up and then tied with colorful twine — that last touch suggested by a member of her writers collective — and placed inside a plastic capsule. Those who discover a poem wrapped with a red silk ribbon have hit the MPWW jackpot: it’s the poet’s first published poem.
The hands-on process of printing, packaging and delivery is managed by volunteers (“Bless them all,” said Bowen Hicks). The group is taking a long view on the machines’ financial prospects.
Each analog-era vending machine costs $180. Add to that shipping costs. And printer ink doesn’t come cheap.
“Just when we’re feeling cocky, it’s time to order more ink,” said Bowen Hicks.
“We’re not making a lot of money, yet,” she said. “Right now, it’s a little better than breaking even.”
Fortunately, last year’s holiday shopping season proved to be an unexpected boon for the poetry project.
“People were buying them for stocking stuffers,” she said. “The demand was creating poetry emergencies. We had to get our elves back to the rolling table.”
Started with an e-mail
What eventually became the MPWW grew out of a creative writing class that Bowen Hicks conducted at the medium-security prison at Lino Lakes.
“It was the only state facility where the warden responded to my e-mail,” she said. Seven men enrolled.
“We really clicked,” she said. “I didn’t want to leave after the class, I was so inspired.”
Eventually, she invited other writers on the outside to participate. Today, hundreds of incarcerated students sign up for nearly 30 classes a year led by more than 25 instructors, whose experience and background runs the gamut.
“We have poets, fiction writers, playwrights, you name it,” said Bowen Hicks. “I’m interviewing a song writer the day after tomorrow.”
In eight years, the nonprofit has grown to serve every one of Minnesota’s state-run adult prisons, and students are immersed in every literary genre, from fiction to memoir, playwriting to poetry.
“Our work benefits the people in prison, but in so many ways I feel like it’s the other way around,” said Bowen Hicks.
“I’ve learned about resiliency and how people try to thrive in isolation. MPWW students have taught me a lot about the kinds of stories that aren’t being told and heard, and the kinds of stories that need to be told. They’re the stories that our literature has largely ignored.”
Along with buying poems, the public can also support MPWW by attending the organization’s next public reading, with student work read by instructors, mentors and family members.
Audience members can offer written feedback, which will be shared with the students.
The event is free and open to the public, and it’s taking place at Hamline University’s Klas Center (1537 W. Taylor Av., St. Paul) at 7 p.m. Oct. 19.
Until then, find the poetry machines at Moon Palace Books (3032 Minnehaha Av. S., Mpls., moonpalacebooks.com), Milkweed Books (1011 Washington Av. S., Mpls., milkweed.org/bookstore), Subtext Books (6 W. 5th St., St. Paul, subtextbooks.com) and Magers & Quinn (3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., magersandquinn.com), as well as Content Bookstore (314 Division St. S., Northfield, Minn., contentbookstore.com).
Don’t forget to bring quarters.