As the pandemic, racial unrest, and protests against police brutality crisscrossed the country this past summer, many ER&M students did not watch in idle. Some embraced meaningful summer opportunities such as interning at non-profit social justice organizations, or finding new ways to connect with and advocate for underrepresented and underserved communities in New Haven, their hometowns, and beyond. This series of posts highlights the compelling summer activities that our inspiring students undertook and features the students’ reflections on their work. This week, Ananya Kumar-Banerjee ER&M’21 shares with the ER&M community her work with the YPEI Creative Writing Workshop, which she helped develop over the summer.
Please describe the YPEI Creative Writing Workshop and its goals.
The Yale Prison Education Initiative (YPEI) Creative Writing Workshop (AKA “the Workshop”) is a correspondence-based program for students in MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield, Connecticut. Since the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Workshop has been communicating with students via mail, as all in-person programming has been suspended indefinitely. It has welcomed a series of notable contemporary authors to pen packets to students. Guest editors of weekly packets include contemporary authors Morgan Jerkins, Alexander Chee, Hanif Abdurraqib, David Gorin, and Briallen Hopper, alongside an archival unit with Melissa Barton and Nancy Kuhl (co-curators of the Yale Collection of American Literature at the Beinecke Library). Our first packet comes courtesy of Franny Choi, the Gaius Charles Bolin Fellow at Williams College and the 2019 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellow. Her packet reflects on how poetry can, as she says, “make you feel alive, given the terrible world.”
We hope that creative writing can serve as a window into a better world for ourselves and our students. In this moment, we are considering what a future driven by care, listening, and abolition would look like. Writing gives us the space to imagine a path to this world and a way to live in it. We hope to disrupt the constructed separation between those of us outside of the prison and those who are inside. The materiality of the prison is not abstract for our students, as it is not abstract for their loved ones. It is a real, terrifying, and damaging place. It is certain in its violence.
During a time of carceral isolation, creative writing serves as a collective medium for the students to engage with each other and the world. More than anything, creative writing is a tool for the YPEI students to reflect upon, reconstruct, and reimagine Yale life both inside and outside while caught between the two pillars of COVID-19 and police brutality. Ultimately, we aim to assist our students in their creating “…artistic practices radically [that] challenge the impenetrability of prison, with its architecture, administrative systems, economies, and metaphors of locked doors, metal bars, and fortresslike walls.” (Nicole Fleetwood: Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration.)
How have your ER&M courses informed your work with this workshop?
Like YPEI at large, the Workshop does not seek to affirm the role of prisons in contemporary society. Rather, the Workshop is crafted within an abolitionist framework, encouraging students who are incarcerated to make art as a way of claiming agency. Instead of training the students to depoliticise their positionality as writers who are incarcerated, the Workshop seeks to critically inform their agency through creative writing. My understanding of my own subject-position, and how I operate within the confines of Yale University, is informed significantly by my ER&M courses. ER&M informed my own critical consciousness, which is what makes the Workshop essentially different from many other programs: we are uniquely engaged in abolitionist pedagogy. I see myself not as someone who performs a public service, but rather, someone who seeks to redistribute the knowledge capital I am given as a student of this University. I see Yale as part of the same institutional anti-Black violence that produces mass incarceration; the prison and the university are inextricable institutions. I wouldn’t be able to make these critical interventions in the fraught work of prison education without ER&M. In the grand tradition of ER&M’s coalition building, I conceive of the Workshop as a space for communal learning during a time of intense isolation.
What challenges have you faced and how did you overcome them?
It has been challenging to coordinate the workshop without being physically present with the students, many of whom are severely isolated. They haven’t seen their families for months. As it stands, the Workshop is a correspondence-based workshop, operating entirely via the Postal Service. Building this (new) format required that we build all new infrastructure specific to the demands of the pandemic. We’ve also experienced delays in correspondence. I’ve found that it is key to remember that the Workshop is driven not by anger with the carceral institution, but out of respect for YPEI students’ education. In honoring their dedication, we’ve found new ways to innovate. When you’re centering people in your work, and not institutions, there’s a lot less time to feel frustrated. We sit down and we act. We find new ways to move forward.
What were some of the important lessons that you learned from this work?
I’ve learned a lot: from the students I work with, from the founder of the program, Dr. Zelda Roland, and from the peers who’ve helped me make this vision a reality: Minh Vu and Gabrielle Colangelo. I think one key lesson is that you can and should prioritize the needs of the students, but never at the cost of your own mental health. You can’t write good response letters if you’re not fully there, embodied, present. Especially because our students don’t get to attend in-person classes like they normally would, the stakes of our correspondence feel inordinately high. It’s important to care for ourselves and to transform the pressure of those stakes into a degree of care which the students have said makes all the difference.
What are some ways that the ER&M community can contribute to this project?
Getting involved with the Transcription Network, which is run by Gabrielle Colangelo, is one way to start. For those willing to make a substantial commitment (at least two academic years), we’re looking for ER&M students who are looking to continue working on this project in the future. My personal goal is to ensure that the Workshop sticks around after I graduate. Please contact email@example.com if you are interested in working with the Workshop and the Transcription Network.