Guest Blog: Annie Buckley – Art and Healing

By Annie Buckley

This is the second 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. To read the first post in Buckley’s JAC blog series, see: Oasis in the Desert. Stay tuned for the third blog, which will be posted on Friday, October 16th.

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.

Notes To Self, Gregory A. Coglianese, graphite and colored pencil, 2015.

Art and Healing

Excerpted from Art Inside #8: Does Art Contribute to Restorative Justice?, 09/03/2018

I have been thinking a lot about the integration of art and restorative justice. I decided to take this question behind the walls, asking incarcerated participants in our Arts Facilitator Training program what they see as the benefits and limitations of the arts in the realm of restorative justice.

image by author

I typically begin by asking if anyone knows what restorative justice means. I start with the two or three raised hands, most of whom learned the term in other rehabilitative programs. They explain that restorative justice depicts crime not purely as an individual act but as an embedded community issue with an emphasis on healing for victims and the opportunity to make amends.

From here, we read a short text on the topic and ask whether art can be part of restorative justice. We chart their ideas on a large piece of paper. The prevailing responses are, “family connections” and “connecting to community,” followed by “art is therapeutic” and “art promotes healing.” Another response that comes up often is the way that “art brings people together” and “builds community.”

In Flight, Henry Frank (Hawk), colored pencil and pen, 2014.

I also ask where art falls short, how art does not meet the needs of restorative justice. That chart is generally much shorter but, on a recent visit, it inspired a spirited conversation. One student argued passionately that “a pretty picture” does nothing to ease the suffering of his victims and or make communities safer. The others listen respectfully but several rebut the idea, citing funds from sales of art that could be used to promote victim awareness and public safety and the value of connections they have re-formed with families and communities through their art.

photo by Peter Merts, courtesy of the California Arts Council

When I offer that art does not put victims and offenders in direct dialogue, a few students rebut this, too, sharing that they use journaling to tackle forgiveness and write letters of amends. The subject of shame comes up often and, with it, identity and bias. Students mention that art is a means of “personal transformation” and a way to create a positive identity. Many speak of the way that others only see them as “bad” and continually associate them with their worst acts. Many share a passion to change misperceptions and stereotypes of those that are incarcerated through art.

One thing I love about the Arts Facilitator Training is that I have learned so many new and fascinating ways to combine art with the principles of restorative justice from our peer facilitators. In one peer-led class, a former student in our training leads his students through journaling to build empathy and promote healing. In another peer-led class that grew out of the training, the teacher guides students to connect interpretation in art with interpretation in life, developing an innovative way of applying criticality and openness of art interpretation to how we see life, from interactions with correctional officers to calls with family. Coming from shared experience, the peer-led classes more specifically integrate the tools and principles of community building and personal healing inherent to restorative justice.


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.

Artist Spotlight: Gary Farlow

by Isa Berliner, JAC Intern

“A Rainy Night…in Queens”

At 10 years old, Gary Farlow was given his first set of pencils, markers, and pens. Growing up, he was never very athletic or outdoorsy, but while he couldn’t play sports, what he could do was draw. The son of an accomplished home designer and builder, Gary would “borrow” his father’s supplies so he could make art. When his father eventually realized the depth of his son’s creative passion, he purchased the boy his own art set, and as Gary describes, “there was no looking back!” 

For as long as he can remember, art has been Gary’s refuge — helping him through his most difficult times. During his incarceration, art has become all the more meaningful, providing a much needed escape (“a bad word in prison!” Gary jokes). “When I am drawing, I think of only what I am drawing. I turn on a local classical music radio station and I’m no longer in prison – I am in my studio.” For Gary, art is a way of reducing stress, of feeling the satisfaction of creating something for others to enjoy, and perhaps most importantly, of affirming his self-worth. He reflects that this is especially true in carceral settings, as incarcerated populations are typically “out-of-sight/out-of-mind” for most of society:

We have little value, no voice, no rights. So art is a creative process by which I say I am here. I am a human being. I exist.

Gary often waits until the evenings, when the daily sounds of the cell block finally settle down. As the melodies of his music replace the noise, he enters his creative world and gets to work. “It quickly becomes the favorite part of any day!”

“A Salute to Volunteers”

Gary’s creative process is simple: he needs only to see a photo that interests him, and from there he can begin to sketch in his mind. Before touching pencil to paper, Gary allows the image to take on new life in his head, often mentally altering the picture so much that it barely resembles the original. He finally brings his mental drawing into reality with a 2H pencil. Once the image has taken shape, he uses color pencils to develop the minute details that are a hallmark of his art. “Whether it’s items in a store window or detail you must look closely to see, I believe it is these which bring life to my work and set it apart.”

Landscapes, and more specifically cityscapes, are Gary’s specialty. Occasionally, he ventures out of his comfort zone and creates wildlife pictures or other material that moves him, but he is most inspired by buildings. From Art deco to Victorian, and the “ruffles and flourishes of architecture,” Gary supposes his fascination with buildings is one legacy of his father’s work. “The Chrysler Building, The Smithsonian ‘Castle,’ N.C.’s own Biltmore House, the canals of Venice, colonial charm of Williamsburg, the majesty of London, and the romance of Paris – all inspire me.” 

One of the challenges Gary faces as an incarcerated artist is the difficulty of accessing adequate art supplies. “This was not a challenge in the ‘real world’ but behind these walls it is often difficult to acquire materials to work with.” Gary explains that in North Carolina, families are not permitted to order supplies for artists inside, so the artists are responsible for obtaining their own art supplies. In addition, they are only allowed to order from approved vendors, so it can get quite costly. Gary goes on to describe that there are often art supplies for sale “on the yard” but one has to be cautious and know who you’re buying from: “I’ve seen far too many purchase stolen art materials.”

This past year, Gary faced an even bigger challenge where he worried that his art days might be over for good. He needed to have surgery to reattach the retinas in both eyes and feared he would lose his vision and be unable to continue making art. Thankfully, the Duke Eye Center in Durham, N.C. successfully completed the surgery and saved Gary’s eyesight. “They are truly amazing,” he reflects gratefully. Gary has gone on to create dozens of pieces since his surgery, including submitting 36 pieces to his recent prison art show. 

“Venetian Dawn”

The COVID-19 pandemic has been an unexpected catalyst for Gary’s art. While thankfully Gary’s area has not been hit with a Coronavirus outbreak, the prison is still under restriction, which means no visitors, volunteers, religious services, classes or programs. As everyone finds themselves with an abundance of time, Gary is filling it with art. He comments, “I don’t think anyone could have foreseen the “new normal” that Covid-19 has ushered in. Yet, it has provided ample time to focus on my art.” 

In addition to his visual art, Gary is also a writer and poet. He has written dozens of poems, using his talent for words to share insights, memories, thoughts, and reflections on a wide range of topics from his background and family to life in prison to speaking out against hate.

“A Snowy Sunset on Park Ave, NYC”

Gary wishes more people could see the remarkable impacts of art, stating, “you seldom hear of the positive effects of art on inmates and the trickle-down benefits for society.” He emphasizes the transformative power of art in penal facilities, explaining that a dollar spent on art in prison actually saves thousands of taxpayer dollars. “The arts are humanity’s greatest achievement and our most civilizing influence.” As he writes at the end of his poem titled “Revelation”: 

A poem
is a way to strap on your
own armor – even if only
for a moment.

So slide a pen from your holster,
unsheath a pencil from your scabbard,
lock and load the words you choose and
use them to cry, shout, whisper but
Just step up,
come forward and let your revelation speak.
Loud. Proud. Strong.

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

“Locked Up”

Gary K. Farlow attended Guilford Technical Community College, majoring in Administration of Justice. He completed undergraduate studies at the John Marshall School of Law in Atlanta, and earned a Juris Doctorate from the Thomas Jefferson College of Law at Head University in Christiansted, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. He also holds degrees from Western Illinois University, South Piedmont Community College, Montgomery Community College, and Southeastern Theological Seminary. He is past chairman of the Greensboro Human Relations Commission; represented North Carolina Governor James G. Martin on the North Carolina Board of Examiners for Nursing Home Administrators; represented North Carolina at the 1984 national Conference of the Aged; was a Reagan and Bush Administration nominee for the African Development Foundation; served on the United Arts Council of Greensboro, Greensboro Historical Museum and Society, and the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce. He is a former vice president of the Gate City Jaycees, the Lions Club, and the Founder of the Senior Theatre Consortium. Mr. Farlow’s previous writings have appeared in Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul, the Volunteer’s Soul, and The African American Soul, as well as Serving Time, Serving Others, Serving Productive Time, the Journal of the American Health Care Association, and two poetic anthologies of the National Library of Poetry, Essence of A Dream and Visions. He is the author of both Prison-ese: A Survivor’s Guide to Speaking Prison Slang, first edition published by Loompanics Unlimited, and The Cellblock Gourmet: Inmate Recipes From The Big House and Doin’ Time: How to Survive and Thrive in Prison, both published by the Graduate Group. Mr. Farlow is a Former Associate Editor of the East Triad Press and The Greensboro Sun; sports reporter for The High Point Enterprise, and has written various features for The Greensboro News and Record. He is a recipient of the PEN Award for Prison Writers and has written several play scripts including Sticks, which deals with the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the nation’s prison system; Beyond Bars, dealing with the difficulties faced by those transitioning back into society after incarceration; A Homeless History Lesson, which explores the plight of the homeless and substance abuse in America. His poetry has been released on audio-cassette by the National Library of Poetry entitled Visions: The Poetry of Gary Farlow. Mr. Farlow has travelled extensively and has been a guest lecturer at Rand Afrikaans University in Johannesburg, South Africa, and at the Medical University of South Africa in Pretoria. He has appeared on Eye on Washington and Good Morning South Africa. His poetry has also been released in two additional anthologies, Collections, by Iliad Press and The Best Poetry of America, by the National Library of Poetry.

“Mid-winter Thaw, Central Park, NYC”

An accomplished artist, specializing in urban landscapes utilizing colored pencil, Mr. Farlow’s works have been on display at Art With Conviction in Tucson, Arizona, the Prisons Foundation and Safer Streets Art Foundation in Washington D.C., and at the Durland Alternatives Library at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. 

“The BOX” Virtual Performance: A Play About Solitary Confinement by Sarah Shourd

by Isa Berliner, JAC Intern

On October 1st and 3rd, audiences from around the globe are invited to a live Zoom performance of The BOX, a play about solitary confinement. Written by a survivor, Sarah Shourd, in collaboration with other survivors, The BOX is a story of human connection and resilience — a piece of transformational theater that asks us to re-examine long-held notions of punishment as it reveals the tragic, and sometimes painfully comic and absurd, realities that dictate life “inside the box.”

This unique Zoom production comes at a moment when millions of people around the world have new reason to resonate with the message of isolation. While Shourd certainly didn’t write The BOX to be performed during a global pandemic, she explains how “the experience — of being separated from loved ones, of being quarantined, of living through a crisis of epic proportions with no clear end in sight— can be a window into the ongoing suffering, deprivation, and resilience of our incarcerated population.” These stories demonstrate the fortitude that has kept these men and women alive, and offer insights into the perseverance we need as individuals and as a society to get through this pandemic and whatever we face next.

Despite the remarkable parallels between The BOX and our current global moment, the story behind this play actually begins over a decade ago. In 2009, Shourd was working in Syria as a journalist and ESL teacher when she was captured by Iranian border police while hiking around a popular tourist destination in Iraqi Kurdistan. She was tortured and imprisoned as a political hostage, spending 410 days in incommunicado solitary confinement — a form of detention considered cruel and unusual punishment under international law.

Upon her release and return to the United States, Shourd was shocked and horrified to discover that tens of thousands of people in the U.S. are held in similar conditions to what she experienced in Iran but for much longer — years or even decades. She began writing and advocating against the overuse of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, investigating and uncovering stories from the “deep end of the prison system.”

“I had a need to tell the story in a more intimate, personal, way,” Shourd recalls. Journalism and theater had always been inter-connected in her work: in her 20s, she used theater to demonstrate against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to tell the stories of Zapatista indigenous communities in Southern Mexico. Empowered by her experience, she turned to political theater.

The question on Shourd’s mind was how to reach people who may not see the humans behind the statistics: “someone that may not be persuaded by the data, that may not be persuaded by the scientific studies or the facts, or may not be able to make something real and tangible and human out of the number.” While the numbers themselves are staggering — of people we incarcerate in this country, of people in solitary confinement, of how long people are kept in these conditions — Shourd points out that such disturbing statistics can have the unintended consequence of depersonalizing the issue. “How can you wrap your head around 80 to 100 thousand people in isolation a day? You really need to focus on a few of those people to understand their stories and get to know them as human beings.” And so, the idea for The BOX was formed.

Shourd spent the next three years conducting an in-depth investigation into solitary confinement in the United States, interviewing 75 prisoners in 13 prisons across the country. She explains that while the suicide rates in solitary confinement are much higher than the rest of the general prison population, many people “still choose life.” Shourd was struck by the kindness and resilient humanity of the people she met: the way they could make her laugh and would make the most of every human interaction. Informed by her personal experience and the people she got to know, The BOX was born.

“The BOX is about how humans will find a way to connect with each other, regardless of the obstacles and the barriers between them. The more governments or carceral systems try to separate us, the more hungry we are to find each other.”

In 2016, The BOX premiered at San Francisco’s Z Space Theatre to sold out audiences of over 3,000 people. The show went on to be performed in a historic production at Alcatraz Island in 2019, and has been adapted into a graphic novel called Flying Kites. Shourd is always writing and rewriting and adapting the play, breathing new life into the story. Now, with this Zoom production, Shourd is working with what she views, in many ways, as an entirely new piece of art. “Storytelling is always taking advantage of new mediums, and I think that Zoom as a medium is still in its really early stages when it comes to entertainment… I think we’re on the eve of a new way of engaging with live theater virtually.”

Stepping into the role of director, Shourd describes how she and the cast have tried to approach the work with no preconceived notions. They are drawing from the experience of the previous productions, but with “a beginner’s mind,” responding to the current moment. For Shourd, being able to draw on the parallels to people’s “shrinking world” during the COVID pandemic is one of the most powerful things about this performance: “we’re all suffering that isolation and can relate to the subject matter in a new way.” Shourd reflects that there’s a rawness with a Zoom production: this performance is streaming live into the audience’s homes, directly from the actors’ homes.

While working with Zoom has been wonderful and expansive in some ways, Shourd has found it limiting and frustrating in others. There are aspects of the production that have proven to be easier through the virtual platform, such as how the consistency of what audiences will see allows Shourd and her technical designer to more specifically craft what is in every viewer’s frame. But at the same time, Shourd laments that there’s, “an intimacy and a visceral quality that’s lost over Zoom… It can be quite alienating.”

The medium of Zoom, by nature, puts everyone into disconnected boxes —  reducing each person to a disembodied face. “There’s not a lot of depth to Zoom, so the physicality is lost and Zoom theater becomes a lot about face and hands and voice.” Nevertheless, the loss of intimacy makes this virtual production all the more impactful. In this way, Shourd remarks, “the message of the play is kind of baked into the platform itself,” emphasizing the dehumanization of reducing someone to a pair of eyes or a food slot.

The costumes and props have been shipped to the actors, and the cast is rehearsing virtually. A large part of using Zoom, Shourd explains, is finding creative and interesting ways to use props and taking advantage of the camera’s ability to create illusions. One of the most difficult elements of the show in traditional live theater is showing how prisoners pass notes to each other, through what is known as “kite flying” or “fishing.” Using a line made from elastic in their shorts or a torn piece of sheet, prisoners in solitary confinement across the country learn to very adeptly sail notes to each other underneath their doors. In live theater, actors struggle to learn and accurately portray this practiced art, but through Zoom, they’ve been able to embrace the platform’s potential for smoke and mirrors and craft a consistent method.

The “kite flying” is essential to conveying one of the largest themes in the play: how do these prisoners find themselves and find human connection against all odds? Shourd states, “It’s a play about resistance – about how these prisoners find each other and get to the point where they were ready to risk their lives to participate in a collective resistance against the conditions they’re in.”

The BOX can be meaningful for those who have survived solitary confinement, as well as their families and loved ones.

“Art and theater is absolutely necessary as a form of witness, and for the healing and restoration of dignity to communities of people who have been deeply wounded by this practice. I think that art is like a fire or a hearth around which communities can join or gather and reignite their spiritual connection and heal.”

Shourd also hopes The BOX can reach an audience of people who have never been to prison and are not at risk of going to prison. It’s these communities of privilege that really need stories, “to help them mine their own experiences of isolation and hopefully deepen their empathy for and outrage against what we’re doing in our prisons.” Shourd hopes that youth in particular can connect their experiences of separation and disconnection to our senseless and cruel “justice” system — to see that it doesn’t rehabilitate people and it doesn’t make our society any safer — and be called into prison reform and prison abolition.

Shourd invites anyone who is feeling alone during the pandemic to join this global audience. Unlike anything theater-goers have seen before, the three virtual performances are sure to be powerful and moving. There is no admission cost, but registration is required to attend. Additionally, the Pulitzer Center is hosting a webinar discussion the week after the performances with Shourd and Damien Brown, one of the actors who is also formerly incarcerated: “we want the conversation to keep going.” 

Come see this incredible story of human resilience in the face of dehumanization and isolation: October 1st at 4pm PST and October 3rd at 11am and 4pm PST. 

“We can do so much better, and we deserve better. I really hope that this is a moment of reckoning and awakening.”


Sarah Shourd is an award-winning author, investigative journalist and playwright based in Oakland, CA. Over the last decade the majority of her work has centered around exposing the inhumanity of solitary confinement and the ways it which the practice enables mass incarceration in U.S. prisons. Shourd’s approach to her work in many ways reflects her unique life experiences. After the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, she became actively involved in the antiwar movement while finishing her undergraduate work at University of California, Berkeley. During this time, Shourd also lived as an International Human Rights Observer in Zapatista indigenous communities in Chiapas, Mexico. In 2008, she moved to Damascus, Syria to study Arabic, teach Iraqi refugees, and start out as a journalist. In 2009, Shourd’s life took a dramatic turn when she was captured by Iranian border guards while hiking near a tourist site in Northern Iraqi Kurdistan and imprisoned as a political hostage. Shourd was tortured and imprisoned in incommunicado, solitary confinement for 410 days in Iran’s Evin Prison.

After her release in 2010, Shourd became an internationally known advocate against the overuse of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. As a UC Berkeley Visiting Scholar, she conducted a 3-year investigation into isolation in U.S prisons, interviewing 75 prisoners in 13 prisons across the U.S. Based on this investigation, Shourd wrote and produced a play, The BOX, which premiered in San Francisco in 2016 to sold-out audiences. She also co-authored an anthology, Hell is a Very Small Place, comprised of the stories of incarcerated Americans she collected. Her Op-eds and journalism have been published by The New York Times, Mother Jones, The Daily Beast, CNN, San Francisco Magazine, San Francisco Chronicle, Reuters and many more. In 2015 she was a Ragdale Artist-in-Residence, one of 7×7 Magazine’s HOT 20 in 2016, a recipient of the GLIDE Memorial Church Community Hero Award in 2016 and in 2018 she was chosen for the prestigious John S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford University.

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.