Book Launch – Words After Dark: A Lyrics, Lit & Liquor Anthology

We are excited to share the book launch of Words After Dark: A Lyrics, Lit & Liquor Anthology, edited by Amy Dupcak and JAC community member Amanda Miller. The anthology, now out on Lucid River Press, features poetry, essays, stories, comedy and song lyrics, originally performed during the now eight-year-run of Miller’s literary/performance series Lyrics, Lit & Liquor. We invite you to join tonight’s live-streamed rooftop reading in celebration of the book’s official release (Saturday 9/19 at 5pm ET via Facebook live). 

We are also delighted to announce that Miller and Dupcak are generously donating 20% of the book’s proceeds to the Justice Arts Coalition! The anthology is available in paperback for $12 on Amazon


We had the pleasure of speaking with Amanda Miller to learn more about her work and the creation of Lyrics, Lit, & Liquor and Words After Dark. 

JAC: Please describe a bit about your background as it relates to the work you are doing today. How did you become involved in this work? 

AM: I am a writer, performer, event producer, yoga instructor, massage therapist, Jewish educator, and activist. To me, these roles are all interconnected and overlapping, falling under the umbrella of arts and healing. Theater and writing came first and organically sprouted into the rest.

I became involved in JAC through my work with PEN America’s Prison Writing Program where I have served as a Prison Writing Awards Committee member, event co-curator, book reviewer and performer. I co-curated and performed in the program’s virtual event A Stronger Desire To Live as part of PEN’s World Voices Festival in June 2020 featuring visual art from JAC’s roster of artists, which is how I first connected with JAC. I got involved with the Prison Writing Program when the director was reaching out to NYC Reading Series to feature work by incarcerated writers as part of PEN’s first ever BREAK OUT series, a movement to (re)integrate incarcerated writers into the literary community.

JAC: What inspired you to start Lyrics, Lit & Liquor and how has it evolved over the years, culminating in the release of this anthology?

AM: Inspiration for the series came when my writing group member, Scott Hess, launched his novel back in 2012 with a variety show. At the time of Scott’s launch I’d been hosting a comedy variety show, but I’d never attended one in which literature was featured let alone the centerpiece of the evening. I found that breaking up the readings with other forms of art helped audiences listen more deeply.

For a while I’d been straddling the performance and literary worlds, but Scott helped me see a way to bridge the two. A chapter from my memoir One Breath, Then Another was due out in an anthology that August. I decided to celebrate with an event in the dive bar where I hosted the comedy show with a reading of my chapter sandwiched between various acts. It was a memorable night, moving from the hilarious to the heartbreaking with lush tunes interspersed throughout. Afterward, the venue invited me to host an ongoing show in this format and, with that, Lyrics, Lit & Liquor was born.

While other performances would be sprinkled in, readings and music would form the show’s backbone. The most important thing was to have a fun, welcoming, unpretentious, DIY feel open to a wide array of writers, musicians, and performers, with no fancy credits or a book deal required. A discussion about the series with dear friend, fellow writing group member and Jeopardy! fan Amy Dupcak led to the idea to include original themed trivia at every show, a question between each performance.

While we have changed venues four times in our nearly eight-year lifespan, we’ve remained in the East Village. And while the overall vibe of that neighborhood has dramatically changed over the past decade, it’s still hallowed ground for DIY alternative art and culture. We’ve always aimed to contribute to the spirit of a neighborhood that keeps that torch lit.

Words After Dark is a natural outgrowth of our series and the brainchild of myself and Amy. We wanted to feature some of the talented readers and musicians who have graced our stage over the years, and to share their work with an even wider audience. Editing this anthology has been a labor of love nourished by a deep commitment to maintaining a space for open artistic expression and community.

JAC: What is unique about Lyrics, Lit & Liquor and how have you maintained/translated this into the anthology? What makes Words After Dark different from other collections of poems, stories, lyrics, etc?

AM: Lyrics, Lit & Liquor’s eclectic nature makes the series unique: at any given event you may experience an old lady character stripping down to her leopard print drawers, satirical political country songs, an operatic magician, a topless woman with a political message scrawled across her chest rocking out on her electric guitar, confessional poetry, quirky fiction, gripping memoir, and audience members shouting bizarre noises to answer a trivia question for a candy bar.

Organized into sections that pair beverages with writing and trivia (answers in the back—no peeking!), Words After Dark recreates the Lyrics, Lit & Liquor experience on the page. Sip a Dirty Martini while snickering at the lyrics to “A Sweet Fucking Word” by award-winning comedian and musician, Jessica Delfino. Indulge in a Bloody Mary while absorbing the gut-punching novel excerpt from critically-acclaimed author Scott Alexander HessThe Root of Everything. Toss back a tequila shot while taking in the heart-stomping prose poem “My Past and Future in Present Tense” by PEN America Prison Writing award winner Sean Dunne. Drinks are hand drawn by New York graffiti artist Matthew Litwack. All these elements make Words After Dark different from other collections.

JAC: What inspired Words After Dark

AM: As we were rounding the corner to the eight year mark, Amy and I came up with the idea for the anthology together. We wanted to celebrate our tenacity in keeping the series going this long and the awesome community we’ve built along the way. We originally intended to publish this anthology in May 2020 in tandem with a celebratory bash at the bar where we’ve been stationed for the last couple of years. Alas, Covid-19 shuttered venues, eliminated in-person gatherings and relegated us to the walls of our apartments for the indefinite future. And so we postponed our publication date, waiting until we could hold a proper release party in our proper venue. But as the pandemic has persisted with no clear indication as to when “normal life” will resume, we decided to publish now.         

The title Words After Dark comes from the fact that the words in the book were literally performed when it was dark outside. But it turns out that the title works on a more metaphorical level that speaks to our current times. Venues may be dark, but artists are still here, and the world needs art and connection more than ever.

JAC: Why are you choosing to generously donate 20% of the book’s proceeds to JAC? 

AM: In the time I’ve been a part of the JAC community, I’ve been so inspired by the work this passionate, open-hearted network of human beings is doing. This is a group of people harnessing the power of art for its highest purposes: healing, liberation, education, community, and justice. I’m donating a portion of the proceeds to JAC to support this work and also increase awareness of JAC as an entity.

JAC: What are you hoping your readers will get from Words After Dark?

AM: I hope readers will enjoy a fun, moving, enlightening journey through the drawings, trivia, comedy, short stories, song lyrics, essays, poetry, and novel excerpts on these pages. I hope they will be inspired by the unbound, uncensored creative expression.

I hope that in this time of physical distancing, the collection will provide a feeling of connection and remind readers of the power of words to lift us up.


Words After Dark is a great gift for aspiring literary writers, songwriters and comedians hankering for unbound, uncensored creative inspiration. It’s essential for anyone with an interest in NYC’s independent arts scene and for all who believe in the power of words to lift us up.

Featuring Sheila-Joon Azim, Mac Barrett, Brian Birnbaum, Adam Blotner, Emily Brout, Britt Canty, Jessica Delfino, Sean Dunne, Amy Dupcak, Rachel Evans, Juliet Fletcher, Jordana Frankel, Christie Grotheim, Jared Harel, Scott Hess, Helen Howard, Nancy Hightower, Meher Manda, Valdaniel Martins, Amanda Miller, Noam Osband, Zachary Parkman, Kyle Pritz, Joel Remland, Waylan Roche, Megan Sass, Christopher X. Shade, Shawn Shafner, Melissa Shaw, Simi Toledano, and Jenny Williamson. 

Miller and Dupcak invite you to raise your glass, silence your phone and enjoy!

Guest Blog: Annie Buckley – Oasis in the Desert

By Annie Buckley

This is the first in a series of four blog posts for the Justice Arts Coalition, excerpted from the series, “Art Inside,” published by Los Angeles Review of Books. The full series is available here. Stay tuned for the second blog in Buckley’s JAC series, which will be posted on Friday, October 2nd.

For this series of posts, I am focusing on our Arts Facilitator Training (AFT) program with Prison Arts Collective (PAC). This is a program that is close to my heart as I developed it with the goal of empowering and giving agency to the hundreds of men and women that we are privileged to work with in prisons across California to develop and teach their own art classes. Initially, I fused elements of my art education classes at the university with skills to support leadership in cultivating creative communities in prisons. Since then, the AFT has evolved with input from peer facilitators in the prisons, my colleagues in PAC, and faculty and students in the four California State University campuses where we have PAC chapters. I am thrilled that the students in our first AFT program have been teaching weekly classes to their peers for the past four years. In addition, at least three have been released and two of them are working full time as teachers of rehabilitative programs in prisons.

photo by Peter Merts

Oasis in the Desert

Excerpted from Art Inside #5: Facilitator Training, 10/16/2017

It is 120 degrees out and yet the locals continue to insist that this is a cool July. I stopped noticing the constant sheen of sweat shortly after arriving here with team of student teachers to help lead a new class on the fundamentals of teaching art.

Our participants — and future teachers — are men that are incarcerated in two local prisons. They will eventually develop their own arts courses and teach their peers while cultivating creative community in the prison. On this day, we are midway through the 60-hour training designed to empower them to teach what they have learned, many while locked up, about painting, drawing, music, and poetry.

photo by Peter Merts

At this particular prison, our class was placed in an area designed for vocational training. Because of this, and the high security level of the institution, the students were strip searched before each class. They could tell this saddened us and offered the kindness of shrugging off the indignity to save our feelings. Being in that room also meant that they couldn’t bring any of their art or writing. So, until this day, we had nearly completed the 60-hour training without seeing any of their artwork.

On this special day, we were given access to another space where the men were allowed to bring their art: paintings, poems, cardboard sculptures, ink drawings, songs. We oohed and aaahed over detailed pencil drawings, paintings made of coffee, cardboard helicopters to rival model ones, and colorful animated characters. After a moving performance by the band, it was time for readings. We heard the most ingenious rhyming fairy tale, a moving apology letter that left many misty-eyed, poems that our musicians wanted to set to song, stories that opened up a window into someone’s life, and reflections on art and imagination and life.

photo by Peter Merts, courtesy of the California Arts Council
photo by Peter Merts

The last reader was the youngest in our class. He was tall but baby faced. His piece was about expectations and implored listeners to find their voice: “Let it be your answer. Let it be your truth.” When he was done, an older student said with admiration, “You’re a philosopher, man!” Another mentioned that it was really hard to write in the second person and that he had done it so well. “What’s that?” The young philosopher asked with genuine curiosity. Later, I saw them talking. The youngster wanted to know more, saying, “I want to sign up for your class.”

photo by Peter Merts

This is what I love about this program. We provide tools but they build the house. In a few months, these men who may not have spoken to one another on the yard before this, begin to see one another as artists and mentors. Over time, this is reflected back at them through their peers, and they begin to see that in themselves.


About the Author:

Annie Buckley is a professor and the director of the School of Art + Design at San Diego State University and the founding director of Prison Arts Collective (PAC), a project of Arts in Corrections, a partnership between the California Arts Council and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. PAC provides multidisciplinary arts programming and peer facilitator trainings in 12 prisons across California through an innovative partnership between California State Universities and state prisons. Buckley’s writing on contemporary art is published in Artforum, Art in America, The Huffington Post, and she is a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Review of Books, where you can find the full series of “Art Inside.”

See JAC’s recent Teaching Artist Spotlight for more about Annie Buckley and her work with the Prison Arts Collective.

About the Photographer: 

Peter Merts has been photographing California’s prison art programs for 15 years; his images have appeared in the New York Times, The Economist, and the Huffington Post. He co-published, with Dr. Larry Brewster, a book on the topic—Paths of Discovery: Art Practice and Its Impact in California Prisons (2nd ed)—and is on the advisory board of the Prison Arts Collective.

Amber Daniel

“A voice from inside…

All my life I’ve been a drug addict, at least since I was 13 years old. What caused me to come down this life road? 

IDOC # 101969 Inmate Daniel, I was supposed to be somebody special. Not some loser. 

What makes me a loser? Societies views, and harsh opinions do… 

In the eyes of the law I’m nothing more than a criminal. A bad person, with a history of lying to the police. I’ve only ever been who I am, but who am i? 

The best part about being human, is the ability to change. 

Maybe I was a loser once, a drug addict who lied to the police. I have committed crimes. I’ve done, bought, and sold, I’ve slammed, smoked, snorted, even ate all types of drugs. 

I’ve stolen, borrowed, and used, I’ve been stolen from, robbed, mugged, and raped, I’ve been molested in my youth. 

I’ve given and I’ve taken all types of abuse. I’ve hated, and I’ve loved, I’ve built and I’ve broken. I’ve hoped and I’ve hurt, had and I’ve lost. 

I’ve been dirty, and homeless, alone, and now found, I’ve been clean, and I’ve cried, I’ve lived, and i’ve died, I’ve tried and I’ve failed, I’ve been numb, and I’ve felt. 

I’ve been beaten, and I’ve won… I’ve come and I’ve gone, and damn it I’m back again. 

I can’t change the things that have already happened, but being human I can change who I am going to become. 

Faith is believing in what you can’t see. At this moment life isn’t easy for me but that doesn’t mean anything. I just have to keep believing, and continue to be me.”

– Amber Daniel

Teaching Artist Spotlight: Annie Buckley

We recently talked with Annie Buckley, our newest addition to the Teaching Artist Spotlight series. Annie Buckley is a professor and the director of the School of Art + Design at San Diego State University and the founding director of Prison Arts Collective (PAC), a project of Arts in Corrections, a partnership between the California Arts Council and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. PAC provides multidisciplinary arts programming and peer facilitator trainings in 12 prisons across California through an innovative partnership between California State Universities and state prisons. Buckley’s writing on contemporary art is published in Artforum, Art in America, The Huffington Post, and she is a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Buckley has written a series of  four blog posts for The Justice Arts Coalition excerpted from the series, “Art Inside,” published by Los Angeles Review of Books. The four blogs will be posted every other Friday starting September 18th.  

photo by Peter Merts

JAC: How did you become involved in this work? What was your path to where you are today?

AB: I have always loved art and had a passion for social justice so I have worked at the intersections of these in various ways for most of my life. In bringing art to prisons, specifically, I am inspired by my mother, who was a volunteer in juvenile detention for nearly 20 years, and by her friend and mentor, Gregory Boyle, S.J., the founder of Homeboy Industries.

JAC: In considering the work of your own organization, what is unique about the programming you have been creating?

AB: I think what is most unique about Prison Arts Collective is that we have a comprehensive arts facilitator training in the prisons to empower and support those with arts experience to teach others. We started this program in 2015 and our first graduates have been leading weekly classes in the prisons since then, cultivating creative community within the institution. We visit monthly to offer mentorship and support. I remember on one of those visits, I happened to be in the hallway when a student arrived late. He looked flustered so I asked him if I could help and his reply made me smile, “Oh no,” he said, rushing past, ‘I’m looking for my teacher.” It didn’t matter that I came from outside, or taught at a university, or any of the other markers we might assume grant authority to help or answer questions. He was looking for his teacher, the person that guided him and had formed a bond for him to grow as a musician. I loved that moment.

I think the second thing that is unique to our program is that our teaching teams are collaborative and include university students as well as alumni, interns, staff, and faculty. Rather than one expert or master teacher, we are community-based and our model integrates a variety of experiences and voices. Each term, we try to offer at least two different courses per site so that we always give our participants the opportunity to make a choice. We want to encourage them to have a voice and to have agency in the process as much as possible within the many restrictions.

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: It is really hard to say what is most rewarding about teaching in prisons and growing a program to support others to do this incredibly rewarding work. I feel strongly that it is a gift to be able to teach and build community with individuals that are so largely forgotten. I have met so many amazing people in the prisons that inspire me and help me to be a better person and teacher.

Another thing I have gained is a reconnection to the real meaning and purpose of art. I have two degrees in art and have written for international art publications so I am very familiar with the contemporary art world. What drew me to this work is my passion to expand access to the arts for all yet what I gained is a renewed connection to art as a transformative human experience.

JAC: As you know, the Justice Arts Coalition is focused on ways in which art can connect those in the prison system with those on the outside. How has this relationship been jeopardized by COVID-19? How have you been keeping connections active during this time?

AB: Prison Arts Collective is a project of Arts in Corrections, a partnership between the California Arts Council and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. We are fortunate that AIC allowed its programs to continue in alternative formats. The last day we went inside the prisons was March 12, which was a couple weeks before the institutions stopped programs from going inside. But we felt it was important to protect our team and our participants so we paused in-person programming. Right away, we started planning what we could do instead.

Collectively, our teaching team has made and sent in over 1,200 packets to participants in 11 prisons and we are currently creating new packets for the fall term. In addition, we collaborated with faculty and outside artists as well as our teaching team to create a new video series called Outside:Inside Productions. We have already created nine videos in this series and are working on two more. Finally, one of our newest volunteers, Sabrina, a student at CSU Los Angeles, developed a partnership with a local radio station so that we could create radio content, both for those in the prisons to listen to as well as for people on the outside to connect with this work.

JAC: As we navigate this unprecedented time across our national landscape, both concerning Covid-19 and anti-racism protests, what challenges have emerged in your work with artists, specifically those who are impacted by the criminal justice system?

It probably sounds like a corny soundbite but I think what stands out most to me now is not the many obstacles we face but the opportunities for evolution. Systemic racism is not new but the new national dialogue is powerful. How can we leverage this to create real and lasting change? The pandemic is tragic on so many levels and for so many people all across the globe, including being a nightmare for those in captivity, so there is no way to put a positive spin on it. My hope is that we use this experience to evolve as a society. In my own life, I have learned and grown more in my darkest moments of grief and illness. I hope we do the same as a world today.

JAC: As our art networks look to the future, how do you hope the pandemic, as well as this period of protest, will alter the public’s understanding of the justice system?

AB: I hope that people awaken to the reality that we are interconnected. There is no us and them, just us. The sooner people recognize the depth of that truth and we develop systems — including education, justice, healthcare, and more — based on that idea, the better off we will be as a society. The justice system is one of many interconnected systems that have led to mass incarceration. We need to address the poverty and wealth gap and give all people a living wage. We need to ensure that no one in this incredibly wealthy nation is without access to a home. I would like to see what our country could be if we re-designed our systems with an ‘us’ not ‘us and them’ mentality, with the sense that when we lift up one, we lift us all up.

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: The idea of a national coalition is exciting and powerful. I like how we can learn from one another. When I teach socially-engaged art at the University, I always ask students if they believe that art can change the world. Many say yes, but not all. When I teach art in the prisons and ask if art can change the world, there is never any question; literally every single incarcerated person I have asked this to has said yes. This is power. And I believe that we are more powerful when we work together. I am excited to see what we might grow from these shared conversations and how we might evolve our practices to educate and empower not only those behind bars, but those outside, too, to imagine and ultimately build a more just world.

photo by Peter Merts

Artist Spotlight: Chad Merrill

By Joslyn Lapinski, JAC intern

Chad Merrill’s story truly embodies the transformative power of the arts. When he was first incarcerated, Chad was on a path towards self-destruction. He barely cared about what happened to him or anyone else. He says, “I was so full of hate that I couldn’t see past my nose.”

This is a difficult mindset to escape from once in the system. There is a vicious cycle of hate and destruction that does not let people out easily. Luckily for Chad, though, he had someone pushing him off of his toxic path. A teacher named Casey constantly encouraged him to do better, asking Chad, “What do you want to do with your life?” and not letting up until he gave an answer. 

He introduced Chad to art history and they would analyze and discuss it together. Even when Chad was struggling, Casey never made him feel “anything other than his equal.” This encouragement and care is exactly what Chad needed to get on his new path: the path of an artist. He had finally discovered what he wanted to do with his life.

“My life is pretty much centered on art and around getting better at it. I had no idea that through art I could make a positive impact and seeing that in real life has lit a fire in me and after years of being a selfish asshole I can give back some and maybe even things out a bit.”

Although his art career started by analyzing historical pieces, his style is anything but traditional. At his facility, Chad does not have access to many typical art supplies. He is only allowed to work with pen and paper, but he still manages to create incredible paintings.

“I make homemade paint brushes using toothbrushes and I use a toothpaste cap to blow the pen ink into and I paint.”

By deconstructing the three pens he is allowed to purchase each week, Chad gets ink to paint with. As you might guess, he goes through pens like crazy and is always “on the grind” to find more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He is not allowed to purchase art paper so he needs to have it sent in to him. There are many restrictions on this and even when all rules are followed, getting supplies in is “hit or miss”. When Chad runs out of paper he uses snack boxes, styrofoam trays, and anything else he can get his hands on. His creativity is endless and his ability to work within his means is truly amazing. Looking at his work, you would never guess he was creating with such limited supplies.

Chad is inspired by the unique expressions of the human face and he strives to capture this in his artwork. Since every face and every expression is so different, Chad says that he never knows how his portraits will end up, but that he is always excited to see where they go.

Whenever I sit down to paint with my junky paintbrush and pen ink I’m transported out of this cell and am totally consumed with filling that piece of paper full of my emotions, my stress, anxiety, fear, love, etc. I’m able to let it all out with each little stroke and it never fails to surprise me when I’m finished at how cool it comes out. I’m completely in love with painting. Thank you for allowing me to “set free” each portrait I do. It’s stupid but I like to think that just because I’m in here it doesn’t mean they have to be as well.

So with just a few pens, a toothbrush, and some paper (if that), Chad sets out to convey the complexity of human emotion in the form of beautifully painted portraits. With each piece, he embarks on a transformative, all-consuming, and freeing journey.

“No matter what they take from me they can never take my creativity and truth is, that has forced me to become a better artist, and for that I’m thankful.”

 

You can view more of Chad’s work in our galleries. If you are interested in connecting with an artist experiencing incarceration like Chad, please sign up for our pARTner Project!