RADIO PRODUCER AND WRITER
Last Monday Strand Bookstore held a Benefit for the PEN Prison Writing Contest. In the Rare Books room, filled with the gold spines of classics, Lili Taylor, Martha Southgate, Nick Flynn, Touré, Soffiyah Elijah, and Bryonn Bain all read excepts of poetry and prose of prison writers. Eric Boyd read his own award winning story. The proceeds of the event went to continue support for the writing teachers and free Handbooks for Writers in Prison.
These stories were submitted by men and women incarcerated in El Paso, Texas; Florence, Colorado; Ft Leavenworth, Kansas; Honolulu, Hawaii; Lexington, Kentucky; Montgomery, Alabama; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Ossining, New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Riker’s Island, New York; Sacramento, California; Salt Lake City, Utah; San Diego, California; Seattle, Washington; Tallahassee, Florida; Terre Haute, Indiana; Tucson, Arizona, and Washington, DC.
PEN receives over fifteen thousand submissions for the Prison Writing Contest, and the stories are collected in the anthology Doing Time.
Bryonn Bain- a Harvard Law graduate who was arrested for witnessing a crime– thumped his chest during the middle of the poem “The Destitute,” as if keeping time with the rhythm. Martha Southgate read in a flat, even tone a story of a young girl’s tea party interrupted by an older cousin who brutalized her toys and threatened to do the same to her. Touré, Bryonn Bain and Nick Flynn read in round robin the story “Checkout Day,” about prison suicide, keeping a steady pulse on a story of a man who found a way to electrocute himself in his cell.
The highlight was Eric Boyd’s reading of his own award winning story “Examination” about an inmate’s experience getting an eye exam and glasses. He hissed the static of an elevator intercom, shuffled and stammered like the neurotic in the story. The story was laced with perfect details. “The room smelled like meat.” He imitated a lazy guard reading the paper at a medic’s waiting room. When an inmate calls to the guard, Boyd welled up his chest and screamed into the microphone. The room went silent. In the story, the guard threatens the inmate into silence, then calmly picks up his newspaper and continues reading. Despite the frustration and banality of day to day life in this story, the potential for violence was everywhere.
One of the goals of the PEN Prison Writing program is to elevate Prison writing into a genre. Writing inevitably reveals different perspectives, and great writing generates empathy, making the trials of the characters on the page important to us. For the millions in prisons, on parole, or with criminal records, who cannot hold certain jobs, cannot live in certain areas, who cannot vote in certain states, this could not be more important.