Recently we talked with Matt Malyon, our newest addition to the Teaching Artist Spotlight series. Matt is the Executive Director of Underground Writing, a literature-based creative writing program serving migrant, incarcerated, recovery, and other at-risk communities in northern Washington through literacy and personal transformation. He speaks on embodies presence in creation during COVID-19, the relationships that we can form both within and beyond the carceral system, as well as ways he suggests that we as a community can continue to remain involved in our work, even during isolation.
JAC: As we navigate this unprecedented time across our national landscape, what challenges have emerged in your work with artists, specifically those who are impacted by the criminal justice system?
MM: Embodied presence! The biggest challenge by far is the fact that all our sites have temporarily been placed on hold. We have no in-person creative writing workshops right now. Regarding our sites in jail and juvenile detention, we cannot conduct online workshops because the facilities are being cautious about gathering people together in groups. Our writing workshops—and the person-to-person encounters they facilitate—are at the core of our organization. So the challenge now becomes about how we adapt and re-define ourselves for the time being. How do we continue forward in our mission to amplify student voices? How do we generate and publish student writing? How do we podcast? How do we optimally stay in touch with students who are incarcerated? These are questions that will continue to provide productive tensions as we move
forward during this time.
JAC: What action do you feel is necessary to alleviate the safety concerns that incarcerated people face, in light of the Coronavirus crisis?
MM: There are definitely significant safety concerns right now. How do you conduct social distancing for two or three people in a 6 x 9 cell? What if you have a cell to yourself and a new person is booked and then placed with you—is the person virus-free? How do staff in sites of incarceration care for themselves, and how do they know whether or not they’re bringing in the virus from outside? Strange and anxious times.
Others who have been in similar work for longer than I have might be able to provide a more detailed list of proposals. This said, I too am thinking about these questions. They’re vitally important. One idea: Consider releasing people who are incarcerated and accused of low-level offenses. I think this needs to be very seriously considered. This would help lower the number of people in prisons and jails and juvenile detentions, and thus physical distancing between people could be better facilitated. In the meantime, I believe the precautions that the general public are being asked to do should be something incarcerated people can do as well. Each facility should be as accommodating as possible for the sake of safety, humanity, and health.
Finally, and even though it affects our work, I think it’s wise that most the facilities of
incarceration in America have closed their doors to outside programming. It’s tough. It’s sad. Yet it seems for safety’s sake to be the right thing to do for now.
JAC: As you know, the JAC 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?
MM: For the most part—and this is a generalization—I believe most of the relationships being formed with those on the outside via the practice of arts programming in the prison system, these relationships have as their conduits individuals who go into the system to do the programming. This network of programming has, for the most part, been put on hiatus for the time being because of the COVID-19 crisis. Thus, I would say that such relationships have definitely been jeopardized. This says nothing regarding the personal intent of anyone. There still exists a deep care, concern, and an abundant enthusiasm for art and relationships. Yet it’s in jeopardy due to our circumstances in this crisis. How do artists within the prison context get work to the outside? How do facilitators help? It’s still possible, I think, in modified forms, if teaching artists/ programs/facilitators are willing to adapt and be creative. This is something I’m seeing rapidly develop across America. It’s truly encouraging.
Underground Writing has been trying to keep our student/site connections active by adapting to the current moment. We’ve just started offering very simple, e-deliverable “workshops” to all our sites. The format is a simple four-page workshop: One sheet with the workshop on one side and our permission to publish on the other side; the second double-sided sheet contains a poem on each side to be used in the workshop. We plan to continue to send a new workshop out every two or three weeks to our sites. Secondly, we launched a Twitter account three weeks ago to publish more student writing and connect our students and organization to the wider world. Finally, we’ve just started a #WriteHopeNow hashtag/writing prompt for the COVID-19 era. It’s very simple: Write about something giving you hope in your community, and then post it on Twitter / social media with the #WriteHopeNow hashtag.
We’re also currently trying to re-route procedures for our podcast, and are continuing forward with a number of grant-backed projects that are still in-process. And like many other organizations, we’ve been filling out grant applications, doing financial diagnostics, and co-signing petitions for federal and local relief funds for arts organizations.
JAC: The JAC, 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?
MM: One of the things that first comes to mind is getting more people involved with this sort of work. I like to think that our entire field (in general: arts in at-risk settings) is now moving beyond the “emerging field” status. There are more programs and people doing this sort of work than we might think—and far more than is perceived by the general public. I think one of JAC’s greatest initial inroad items for those who might be interested in this type of work (in knowing about it, or in doing it) is the geographical listing of programs. It’s been so useful in helping me understand the field and what’s out there. It’s been great for making connections with people, and we’ve had opportunities arrive at our doorstep simply by being included on the JAC list. Thank you for it!
In my areas of focus—creative writing / literature / voice amplification—I’m interested in
promoting this work we’re doing in such a way that others will join up. We need more people doing such work. This is what I have in mind for an initiative that’s grown out of our experiences in Underground Writing. One Year Writing in the Margins aims to inspire teachers and writers to consider facilitating creative writing workshops in an at-risk community settings for one year. It launched the day of the current president’s inauguration. One angle: It was me pivoting my deep anger in a different direction, transforming it, and then doing something positive with it. The wider angle: I really believe in the power of what we’re doing in Underground Writing, and what many others across the country are doing in beautiful programs similar to ours. I see its impact all the time. The impact that creative writing can have on an individual can be almost instantly transformative. One Year Writing in the Margins is a small initiative right now. It needs a large organization to take it on and develop it. Someday I hope it will become something like a creative writing equivalent to the Peace Corps. Finish your BA, MA, MFA, or PhD, and then—before entering your career—give a year to teaching creative
writing in an at-risk community near you. Or, if you’ve already been in your career awhile, it’s fine—teach once a month for a year, concurrent with your other roles in life. I have little doubt it will change the lives of anyone choosing to be involved—teachers and students alike.
JAC: What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with incarcerated artists?
MM: First, I love the fresh insights from students. I love the academy, but I love teaching and being outside of it. Our students—many of whom never graduated from high school, or are in high school, or younger still—are bright, articulate, and have good ideas. Whether they’ve ever been affirmed for such, we don’t know. We love dialoguing, hearing what they have to say, and reading their writing. I often find myself in a workshop setting saying things like, “I never thought of it that way, but, of course, that makes even more sense than what I said.” Being outside the academy means were almost always outside the theoretical and into the practical stuff of writing. I love theory, too, but being in these contexts grounds me in reality, in our community, and in the daily ritual of sharing words and literature together.
Second, I find the whole experience of what we’re doing to be humbling. It’s a whole new sort of education for me. A way for me to see through others’ eyes in ways I never did before. To educate me on blind spots I’ve had, or ones I need to work out. On the other side, I think the workshops are enlightening for our students—they have great things to say, they can read a poem by Sappho and find commonality, they can write a riff on the Inferno and thus become part of the tradition of writing, they can be funny and smart and intelligent. And, to top it off, they have someone—our teaching writers—notice these things and reflect it back to them.
Third, if I’ve learned one thing over and over it’s that all of us are in the boat together, as it were. We make sure to convey this to our students. We write, and in doing so we join the great river that is literary tradition. We try our very best to avoid damaging pedagogical models. We facilitate workshops from a seated position. We guide the workshop rather than teach from a top-down perspective. We affirm, convey empathy, and we listen. I don’t feel all that different than our students, as far as our shared human condition. I’m no better or worse. Sure, we’re not exactly alike, but we have so much in common. We meet and read and write together in true community.
JAC: As our art networks look to the future, how do you hope the Coronavirus pandemic, as well as this period of isolation, alters the public’s understanding of the justice system?
MM: I hope more people start thinking about it. I work in these contexts all the time and forget some people just don’t think or know much about such things, such places (and there’s still so much that I need to learn). Our society has more often than not obscured the subject and reality of incarceration from widespread knowledge. I feel like there’s a great deal of momentum right now to change this. It’s very hopeful.
I also hope that as the general knowledge about incarceration increases, a rising pressure to reform can be leveraged enough to cause a real turn to humility within the personal lives and public work of the policymakers and leaders of our American system. We’re not doing things well. It’s not working. So, how about we look to other models that are working far better than our own? Perhaps we should look to other countries, particularly Scandinavian countries like Norway. Why, we might wonder, are they doing so much better, with such lower rates of recidivism?
With all the pandemic coverage that’s happening, with all the calls for adjustments to facilitate what should be simple human rights . . . I hope people will understand just how much reform needs to happen within the justice system, particularly as it pertains to incarceration. And I hope this will have the outcome of actual and real change taking place now and in the near future.
If you are interested in reading or sharing more of Matt’s reading, JAC encourages you to explore his work, The Stories We Save May Include Our Own.
Matt Malyon is the founding Executive Director of Underground Writing, a literature-based creative writing program serving migrant, incarcerated, recovery, and other at-risk communities in northern Washington through literacy and personal transformation. He is the author of the poetry chapbook, During the Flood. His poetry has received a Pushcart Prize nomination and has been featured in various journals— including the University of Iowa’s 100 Words, Rock & Sling, Measure, and The Stanza Project. He serves as a Mentor in the PEN Prison Writing Program, and recently founded the One Year Writing in the Margins initiative.
For more on Matt and Underground Writing, visit: