JAC recently spoke with Ann Bracken, an artist, poet, and author of three collections: The Altar of Innocence, No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom and Once You’re Inside: Poetry Exploring Incarceration. Ann also serves as a contributing editor for Little Patuxent Review, and is a co-facilitator for the Wilde Readings Poetry Series in Columbia Maryland. She volunteers as a JAC correspondent, exchanging letters with artists inside to support and foster their use of the arts. Ann’s work reflects a desire to lift up voices which otherwise go unheard and to extend her practice of poetry as a mode of personal expression and healing to others around her.
JAC: How did you become involved in this work? What was your path to where you are today?
AB: My editor at Little Patuxent Review asked me to interview the professor who was running the writing group at the time and then to visit the group and interview the men so that I could write a blog post for the journal’s website. I never intended to become a regular volunteer. Professor M. repeatedly invited me to return and told me how much the men enjoyed poetry, so my occasional visits soon morphed into bi-weekly writing group sessions that lasted for three years.
JAC: In considering the work you have done teaching inside, what is unique about the programming you have created or been a part of?
AB: I’d say what is unique about the work I did in prisons is that I used poetry as a gateway to any topic that the students were interested in. For example, many of the men I worked with were interested in history and the place of the marginalized in the United States. One of the most impactful poems I shared with them was one by Langston Hughes called “Let America be America Again.” Hughes wrote the poem in 1935 while he was riding a train from New York City to Ohio and reflecting on the struggles he faced as a writer.
Themes of the hope and promise of the American myth are powerfully juxtaposed with the reality of strife, poverty, and prejudice encountered by minorities and immigrants throughout American history. Sadly, many of the men commented that the poem could have been written today.
JAC: How have your students impacted your teaching practices and even your own art? What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with incarcerated artists?
AB: What was most interesting to me was the breadth and depth of subjects that the students found interesting. Many of them were well-read in history, American studies, literature, and politics, so I took my cues from them regarding how to focus lessons. As a teacher, it was freeing to be able to share more variety of materials than those in a given curriculum, like the ones I was bound by in some of my teaching jobs. And after teaching many high school students who hated school or found nothing of value in the lessons, it was refreshing to see people who deeply cared about learning and wanted to engage with new and challenging material.
JAC: Will you tell us about your most recent book Once You’re Inside?And with regard to the book, will you share what the collection means to you and what the process of writing it was like?
AB: My most recent collection, Once You’re Inside, is based on my experiences of running writing groups in Maryland prisons over a three-year period. The book began the first day I went inside—I took notes on everything I saw and jotted down snippets of the conversations I had with the men and women. I remember feeling overwhelmed by the atmosphere of despair inside the prison—the insulation peeling off the pipes in the hallways and classrooms, the puddles of water in odd places, the elevator that could become unbalanced if you stood in the wrong spot, the locked library. I jotted my notes as a way to stay calm and focused and not give in to the anger and sadness that flooded my being. I remember repeating over and over, You can’t cry. At least you can leave this place.
An excerpt from Once You’re Inside:
Once you’re inside
ignore the wreckage
of time, the lined faces
of men gray with age,
the once-cagey 16-year-old, the disorganized shuffle
of papers, of rules, of feet.
The torpor of boredom
thick as dreams
of honey on toast.
Once you’re inside
every smile is suspect,
every glance a risk.
Even hope tucks into a corner when these doors groan closed.
JAC: What inspires you?
AB: The unfailing resilience of the human spirit, despite the odds. I’m also deeply inspired by nature—the way that change always comes with the seasons, that we can count on new leaves in the spring and bursts of color in the fall.
JAC: The Justice Arts Coalition, as it grows, will continue to seek out and implement a vision of how to better support teaching artists. In your view, what does a supportive network need to include?
AB:I would have loved to know about JAC when I was working inside. I think someone to problem-solve with is invaluable as are ideas about engaging ways to work with people who must conform to the rigid, often nonsensical rules of prisons.
JAC: As our art networks look to the future, how do you hope the pandemic, and the past year of protest, will alter the public’s understanding of the carceral system?
AB: Oh, I dearly hope so. But like so many news stories out there, the stories of our incarcerated people often get buried by the sound-bite of the day. What keeps me hopeful is that there are so many sources of stories—movies, news shows, books, plays, songs, and poems—that deal with the injustices of mass incarceration that truth is breaking through and people are beginning to ask important questions about how we run our carceral systems. There’s always hope and we must do what we can with whatever our tasks are.
Check out Ann’s website and latest book: Once You’re Inside! If you purchase a book through Ann’s website at this link, https://annbrackenauthor.com/paypal/, she will donate $5.00 of each sale to JAC.