The Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop turns 10 this month, and during the past decade it has grown from a volunteer program that served six inmates to one that has served hundreds, with classes and workshops in fiction, poetry, songwriting and prose. Eleven pieces by eight Minnesota writers were honored by PEN America and published in the new anthology "Breathe Into the Ground."
We caught up with workshop founder Jen Bowen.
Q: How and when did the prison writing workshop begin?
A: We began in 2011, with one mixed-genre class of six men at Lino Lakes prison. It was so rewarding we decided to come back often and with others. We've grown to include 25 teachers, 80 mentors and hundreds upon hundreds of students. We offer re-entry services and public platforms to amplify student voices. Of late, we share resources and programming with prisons across the nation.
Q: Which prisons do you serve? And how difficult has it been to get access?
A: We serve every adult state prison in Minnesota. The Minnesota Department of Corrections commissioner and education staff supported us from day one; the Education team opened doors and devoted resources. MPWW wouldn't exist without their support.
Q: Why is the prison community interested in learning to write?
A: I was able to gather a few students' thoughts. Kennedy says, "Through writing, we experience a high sense of self-actualization. Many inmates feel wasted as human beings sitting for years doing nothing of importance in prison. When we write, this all goes away." Warren says he writes "because we're not allowed to speak." Andrew says writing allows him "to practice a loving kindness unimaginable to me even a few short years ago."
A: What kind of successes have you seen?
Q: We've celebrated student publications in places like Poetry Magazine, the Nation, Agni and more. Countless PEN Prison Writing Awards. Equally moving, though, was seeing a woman give language to her family's story of generational trauma so she could articulate the impossible to her daughters. Or the camaraderie built in a fluorescent-lit classroom. Or the poet whose son began checking out poetry books at the library to share with his dad on calls. Is there a greater success for an arts program than when art connects humans across impossible divides?
Q: What's your favorite story about the workshop and its work?
A: Honestly, it would be impossible for me to choose. One of our students, Will, says his highlight was a reading inside Stillwater where he got to introduce Patricia Hampl to a packed crowd. David's favorite "was leaving Mike's class after a night of sharing work. It was snowing out — so beautiful," and he chatted with EZ and the other guys as they walked back to their cells, and he felt a "huge emotional release," a shared humanity that he'll remember forever.
Q: If people are interested in helping, how can they?
A: Register to attend our virtual 10th anniversary reading on Oct. 30 at mnprisonwriting.org/, listen and offer responses to student work! Also follow us on Facebook and Instagram.
Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for book at the Star Tribune. email@example.com; @StribBooks