Vol. 3 | The Poetry Writing Workshop | Rob Halpern

The Poetry Writing Workshop at Women’s Huron Valley Prison:
A Dossier

The limit of my language is the limit of my world.

- Ludwig Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein’s often cited maxim assumes an entirely new valence in the context of the prison where I have been facilitating an ongoing Poetry Writing Workshop since 2012 (Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility). Our group is comprised of seven talented and committed poets who have been writing and studying closely together for the past five years in the interest of transforming their relations to themselves, one another, and the social conditions of their incarceration.

The workshop’s momentum reached a highpoint in May 2017 when we curated a poetry reading in the prison’s auditorium for a capacity audience of close to 200 inmates and invited guests. This reading was a profound event, one that continues to resonate as it enabled the full realization of the women’s solidarity with one another, a solidarity whose potential is regularly nourished through engaged writing, reading, and discussion. Until this event, however, the workshop had never experienced the power of its own collectivity and camaraderie, as the poems everyone had taken such care to write, critique and edit assumed a new force that night. The auditorium resounded with so many critical voices, each poem carrying a transformed understanding of one’s history, while transmitting a sense of collective possibility.

Through my work inside the prison, I’ve learned how poetry can turn otherwise negated forms of social relation into the stuff of living communion, producing new ways of knowing and acting, while constructing unexpected spaces of social promise even under asocial conditions. This has everything to do with how poetry is able to provide a place to gather, enabling forms of agency and self-organization, collective study and mutual aid, while cultivating a deeply rooted - that is, radical - sense of empowerment, even inside the disempowering environment of the carceral system.

Among many other things, the poems we heard on the night of that reading aroused, organized, and strengthened what we think of as “an abolitionist imaginary” as it emerges from within the prison itself. This is a way of imagining a world without prisons as the first step toward abolishing them, a project whose utopian energies foster new practices to survive behind bars, while anticipating a transformed world without bars.

I will refrain from saying more about the workshop, as the best way of offering you a sense of what happens there is by way of the poetry itself. And so, I have gathered a set of recent poems for this issue of Detroit Research, one poem by each poet, followed by a sustained set of critical reflections on our workshop written by one of its co-facilitators, Megan Stockton.

I will conclude here with the short note of introduction collectively composed by the workshop itself:

For the past four years, the Poetry Workshop at Women’s Huron Valley Prison has nourished our creative and personal evolution through the writing and study of poetry. Our collective attention to form and experimentation is rigorous, allowing for a wide range of approaches to poetic expression and construction. One of our many goals is to risk nonsense in the interest of making “new sense”- of ourselves, our language, our world, and our conditions. Our workshop allows us to access richer contexts for communication, collaboration, and study through a more expansive practice of using language innovatively. In addition, the workshop provides a space to voice and share interests and concerns, ideas and questions, while supporting and encouraging, critiquing and editing one another’s work as we move toward refining and publishing our poetry. The poems that we make are places of energy and change, risk and shelter, healing and engagement. We hope you enjoy them!

- Rob Halpern

Common Place is Rob Halpern’s most recent volume of poetry (Ugly Duckling Presse 2015). His essays have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Mediations, Journal of Narrative Theory and Chicago Review. He lives between San Francisco and Ypsilanti, Michigan, where he teaches at Eastern Michigan University and Huron Valley Women’s Correctional Facility. 

I am not supposed to be
this. Bleached shell or even
bone, yet these are my hands

waving, waving. I know
at the bottom is such
violence. The south

still feels like
home. In photographs
our bodies meet

on granite ledges, but
surface has no color
at depths like

this. All her
knowing of me, all
parts of my

life. If I could
make sense out of
the way water

forms around something
received slow because
I am the same as

her. Even if
our eyes are only
daring the

Mississippi. The threat
of deadly flooding
is real. Like

this pen, is
real. White sheets are
real. Mouthfuls

of black blood, ships
swallowed unto the
seafloor. Beneath

ravens, Thunderclouds,
and white insomnia! You
must feel!

Must see, that we’ve
drown. So we ask you:
 Are you sailors?

If we had a name, it
would be ocean! and we
would not try to understand.

 Karmyn Valentine

Karmyn Valentine resides in Michigan, enjoys private living, good guitar music, and exploring her creativity as a novice artist and writer. Quote for 2017: This busy trade of life appears most in vain, since rest breeds rest, where all seek pain by pain” (William Shakespeare).


What if I never recall
life as it was before

washed out midnight azure
corded with fading orange?

Every second I linger
within these walls I become

one with the chipped coarseness
of the uneven promenades

as if my feet never touched
anything before this. Even these

tatters I wear are eminent
domain, as is my muddied

timeclock. Did I have
a domicile before scarification

and belly chains arrayed in lilacs
choked out greedy collections

where I was prominent and you
clamored for me, we as one

ménage? I find this life
recondite, useless for what

it’s intended for. Reform-
ative justice. Refillable coffers.

Free radical scoffers. Machia-
velllianism as its finest.

This place is trenchant, turning
my DNA recombinant, wheedling

through my synapses. I am
folderoi. Will I always be

renegade, persecuted by
ciphers of an enterprise

rampant with imbeciles?
I long to dismiss this

psychodrama, this transient
chamber full of contaminated

caviar and indecent bunko.
Surrounded by effigies. Slum-

lords of state with barely
a smattering of decency for me

when I wax and wane in my
meager sanity. The longer I am here,

the more rapacious I am
to be back in the life I had,

steeped in ochre sunflowers,
gilded water lilies, with frosty

marigold edges, infested with blue
morphos and children. Is that just

my chimera, painted at nocturne?
What… if I never recall?

Sara Ylen

Sara Ruth Ylen is a poet and artist. Raised in a cult, she uses her experience and empathy for others to reach out. With a background in public speaking, she hopes to continue pursuing her art and poetry while starting an outreach program of her own for survivors of domestic violence.

I am gibberish, the notebook that needs no blueprints. I will tell you to cipher leftover Prozac and Xanax. I am exhaust from a locomotive cargo that powders your fungal-infested bread. I want my femur churning bleach into your Hungarian goulash. I am contagious toxic like yellow fever or a black widow. I want to know you like blister puss.

Abracadabra, she snaps into a chant. Her carcass now a klutzy thespian. She cackles, appeasing this masquerade like a ritual. I feel like she’s waiting for an ovation. I want to exploit this animated hallucination.

I debate the instructions. I am the bile she coughs, congests, and even spits into her batter. I am no longer complexion. I will tell you of the fleshy mannequin cramped in filth, cultivated into foam, latex, or rubber. She has procreated. She has hunted. What if I conduct her carousel of guests? What if you’ve tried her stew? What if she is you?

— Jennifer Avery

Jennifer Avery is a creative woman whose poetry, art and acting keep her going after a hard day’s work or just one of “those” days. She’s nurturing, spiritual, strong, smart, and very independent. Life hit hard, but poetry and faith keep her rooted. She is pursuing higher education, and keeps herself grounded.
Speaking to the Walls

Encapsulated within your mechanical grip
                        you stand erect intimidating all
                                                in the vicinity. My simple

request to move on makes you shutter,
                        clank then jerk in response to
                                                multiple fingertip commands,

never a word. At times they confuse you
                        and with rebellious overload
                                                you revolt obedience for

anyone, not just me. Walls that open and
                        close, randomly and repetitiously
                                                without explanation, often

no prompt, your purpose irreplaceable.
                        Insufficient host your place
                                                files to capacity, yet

multitudes continually come. Introverts,
                        extroverts alike either dread or
                                                relax in your asylum. You

hold secretes often pondered in confidence.
                        Lock and key doesn’t stop the mind
                                                that knows where it wants

to be. Broken monotony released or unseen
                        graffiti murals absorbed by
                                                concrete comportment. Cracks

darkened by red-lettered grime. muffled gossip.com
                        I know why caged birds sing. Songs
                                                to the tune of a freedom march

with hope stretched lungs that chirp more freely
                        “Nipped Feather Blues.” Your fingertips
                                                pronounce silent pictures.
Word cavancy a defense presentation, story
                        told volume off. Like seemingly
                                                unanswered prayers you

hit the wall and fall mute, rock with that
                        receptor’s blank stare structure. The
                                                tongue’s cavity waging war,

incoherent ramblings at warped speed,
                        fragmented thoughts virtually
                                                stuck to brick palisades.

Your false security lays in sheltered crevices
buried under the dust of a severely
unattended drywall cough.

                                                Time To Dust

— Tracy Leigh

Tracy Leigh was born in a small northern town in west Michigan. She writes newspaper articles, poetry, songs, plays, adult and children’s books. Her work has been published with Voices for Christ and can be found at Behind the Narrow Windows. Her heart for ministry is revealed through singing, writing, community theater, and church productions.
Nothing… and Everything

I dare not expound
on prison.

This prison…
This prison like liquid
Prozac tastes acrid
but at times necessary,
isn’t allowed to loll
in and around my tongue,
mowing my flowery taste buds
leaving them wanting
to off themselves.

But since I periodically
have the urge to off
myself, I imbibe
this prison quickly
and without deliberation.

This prison won’t amble
through these fingers.
I will not play
it like a violin
mellifluously for an
ignorant audience
or even for my own
pleasure. Prison…
This prison is
the sound of
nothing and everything,
deafening and mute,
and I both
abhor and appreciate
its reverberation.

In the same breath
I villainize and sanctify
this institution as
not to becloud its
likeness. But,
there will be no Trump-
like harangue disguising
hate in the form of
making anything great again.
No spiel on the ignoble
improprieties of corrections.

I have no interest
in wrothly pawing
at the abominable
wretchedness of WHV
nor do I have the time
to recount the many ways
3201 Bemis Rd
has been the site of

I do not wish
to delve into the shit
green of the walls
or prepare a sermon
on the Balm of Gileads
that propagate
along those walls.
Both wall and flower
so entwined I can’t
tell one from the other

There is no aching
in my bones
to lecture
on the imbecilic ways
in which we’ve “reformed”
the penal system.
Prison… even more dark,
dirty, and overcrowded
than before
the Pennsylvania System.
But I won’t broach
the subject.

I cannot revisit
the days of the Elmira
Reformatory or browbeat
MDOC into adopting
its emphasis on rehabilitation.
I don’t have the power
to bulldoze
the many warehouses
and even tents where
some of us are being
stored like non-perishables,
nor will I discuss
the thanks I give
to the Gods
for the blessing
that is a
2 man cell or
my regret that I’m
not living
in Denmark or Sweden.

Patriotism is a value
I applaud. I am both
proud and embarrassed
to be an American.
But I won’t elaborate
or even state the facts
such as the U.S.
and Russia
having the highest
percentage of
incarcerated people.

I am no propagandist.
I have no love,
loyalty, or loathing
for the
And for that
perhaps I
should be

— Asia Johnson

Asia Johnson is a writer and poet with hopes of one day becoming a documentary filmmaker. She is a native Detroiter and future New Yorker with plans to travel the world. Intensely passionate, she will use her attributes to shed light where there is darkness and be vociferous for those with no voice.
Between Clefts in the Involuntary Plan

-after “Mothers” by Robin Coste Lewis

Cracks made the morning news.
Some crumbles rested.
Tears were too sinister and back-stitched.

Crowds blatantly rallied on chipped benches.
Safe pots boiled drippy French noodles.
Their flavors spread on rocky grounds.

Coolness blows in slick tempered neighborhoods
stations seem corrupted with tainted bellies
thoughts noel out to strange masses up front.

Clusters of Davenport ride with the change
saintly crisps follow buckles that fell away
tolls exceed the usual ploy but stay and stare

Chiseled after thoughts total up seconds of no where
soaring plastic tiles lay crooked and tussled
torn up and bided, too splatted to count.

— Colleen O’Brien

Colleen O’Brien is a poetry and prose writer, a native of southwest Detroit, and a member of the Potawatami Indians. She is a creative writing student who studies, works, and lives in Ypsilanti, MI.
Toward a Fugitive Poetics: Notes from the Poetry Workshop at Women’s HuronValley Prison

This past May, the Women’s Huron Valley Poetry Workshop brought over 200 inmates and invited writers from the outside to the prison auditorium for a poetry reading, where the poets read their poems born from many hours of writing and workshopping in class. I had joined the workshop, formed in 2012 by Rob Halpern, as a co-facilitator six months prior to this reading, and the awe that this event struck in me seemed exceeded only by the awe of the poets themselves, some of whom had been in the class since its inception. That following week our workshop came together invigorated by what A had called a “collective enunciation” that had happened that evening, eager to discuss the powerful event. Even if much of the audience were inmates who came not for a love of poetry but a unique opportunity to socialize with friends (as S pointed out), what was undeniable was that no matter the reason, the room was enraptured not only by the individual poets’ work, but by how the whole evening cohered around a sense of solidarity. Something, we agreed, had been articulated in the poems that opened up a space for social relation and imagination in the otherwise unspeakable living conditions of the prison. During workshop, K reflected:

The last poem I read was basically a fuck you to the system, and there I was saying it, over and over in my poem, in not so many words. Even if an audience member wasn’t totally following the metaphor or image, there was a sense that people knew what was going on, and how the poem was making that happen.

M echoed this, saying, “Yeah, the poems allowed us to say something we couldn’t otherwise say to a group of people without getting in trouble - basically in code and metaphor.” M said that it was mind-blowing when R read a poem called “After the Prison,” that “it was like building an army with words.” I agreed, that both the veil of safety the poetic language provided and the sense of collectivity demonstrated by the workshop poets had mobilized a radical social. No matter the topic of the particular poem or politics of the poet, the reading served to spark a sense of possibility for a fugitive poetry inside the prison.

Later in the workshop we began to ask: What is this concept of a “fugitive poetics” that came into articulation at the reading, how does it materialize, and how can it build an imaginary beyond the limits of one’s current conditions? (As J put its, “By writing poetry, I can enter a world of ‘unknowns’”). Fugitivity connotes a sense of flight, persisting in a state of brokenness and resisting reduction. Fugitivity is, in many ways, inherent in poetry: a poem “breaks” language on the level of syntax, word, phoneme; it exists orally and textually, and allows for non-sense. A poem thrives when it resists: organization, linear logics, singular meaning. A poem is where fugitivity can be performed and realized in language, where the unspeakable, perhaps even the unthinkable, finds a way into legibility and possibility. We discussed how fugitivity is not only endemic to prison and poetry, but that there is a long history of fugitive modes of communication in cultures and histories which have been subject to violence, oppression, surveillance, and disciplinary tactics. Fugitivity has emerged in the forms of slave narratives and songs, in anti-colonial language practices, in queer expressions and aesthetics, in articulating immigrant consciousness, as well as in poetry written by women living under regimes of gendered violence.

We agreed it was a fugitive poetics that fostered that sense of solidarity in the prison auditorium that evening, and in the workshop we began to consider how fugitive poetics might help incarcerated poets “make a difference.” How can we, the poets asked, harness this fugitivity and provoke a sociality in the otherwise repressive mechanisms of the prison? In asking a poem to “make a difference,” or enable this space of sociality, we often turned back to the question of what we might mean by “material change.” A poem can’t improve the food served inside, can’t end the arbitrary daily violence, can’t get Internet access, or end the inhumane overpopulation at WHV. The poem can, however, testify to and document conditions and bodies trying to survive prison conditions, ask for reform, and to index personal trauma, transformation and healing. There is a sense, too, that the poem, beyond acting as a tool that grates against the systematic abstraction of criminalized & imprisoned bodies, can do something else: a poem can risk imagination. Deceptively modest, it is this possibility of imagining a world that doesn’t yet exist, we agreed, and that is a precondition to “material change”- not only to policy change aimed at fighting the inhumane conditions of the prison, but also in reshaping how justice is understood in our society, and resisting the institution of the prison and mass incarceration as we know it today.

In workshop we talk a lot about how one’s imagination is shaped by the conditions one lives under.  If the poem can be a space for saying the “unspeakable” and thinking the “unthinkable,” it is a tool to help think that which cannot be thought. The ways the prison tries to control inmates’ thoughts is omnipresent: A reported that the list of banned books is a mile long: she can’t get the Angela Davis book she wants to read, for example. K said that while it exists, the single copy of Sylvia Plath is constantly checked out. C said, “It’s the feeling of being frozen in time,” about the lack of access to internet and contemporary textbooks. What is thinkable, and by extension what is imaginable, is limited by the censorship, repression, and disciplinary mechanisms of the prison. Despite these material constraints, the workshop cites the poem as a strategy to transcend repressive conditions and imagine otherwise through proposing worlds, thoughts, and social relations that whose existence seems impossible.

Of course, this censorship goes both ways: the prison polices what is let outside as well. Unfavorable depiction of conditions inside – whether written or shared via telephone – could be deemed “inciteful” and could come with disciplinary consequences. The public’s imagination of life inside is materially constrained by this censorship; prisoners are not only removed from society, but invisibilized and made abstract. Writing about prison not only comes with the risk of “inciteful behavior” if one chooses to document inhumane conditions. As with any act of representation, it also comes with the risk of simplifying one’s own experience and thereby reinforcing the dehumanizing abstraction of life in prison while feeding redemptive narratives that justify the prison’s existence. This is something the workshop articulates again and again, particularly as it is made obvious by the types and motives of publications that solicit their work.

One poet A, refused until a few weeks ago to write about prison. In the poem about prison she ended up writing, called “Nothing and Everything,” she exemplifies a fugitive poetics that engages with the material limit of the imagination and refuses to essentialize her life lived inside. Throughout the poem she proclaims her refusal to write about “prison”:

I do not wish
to delve into the shit
green of the walls
or prepare a sermon
on the Balm of Gileads
that propagate
along those walls.

A’s refusal to write the prison is her fugitive way of writing the prison. While simultaneously listing its faults, A’s poem refuses to engage in a propagandistic mode of demonizing prison, thereby challenging both the inhumane prison conditions and flattened narratives of life in prison. A’s fugitive mode is all that is said in the “not-saying.” In this mode, A later writes, “the wall and the flower are so entwined I can’t tell one from the other anymore,” suggesting that the wall itself is arbitrary - is unimaginable, even before her very eyes. This also serves to show that the violence of the state is pervasive: that gendered, classed, and racialized violence is a reality that structures daily life and results in trauma and uneven precarity to certain populations. That is, the mechanisms of the prison don’t stop at the walls. This inability to “tell” refers the reader back to these material constraints of the imagination: hers and the readers. In so doing, she sparks an abolitionist imaginary: A both suggests the wall exists only as a symbol for the multitude of disciplinary tactics of the state and simultaneously disappears the wall, as we imagine it taken over by ivy. For three pages the poem continues “not-telling” the prison, and in the self-proclaimed resistance, ends up doing the work of both documenting & imagining. Her poetic imaginary moves beyond just denaturalizing the institution and abolishing prison, but gestures toward abolishing the larger carceral society. Paradoxically, in refusing to write the prison, A seemingly enacts a simple task that prison abolitionists repeat again and again: imagine a world without prisons.

Whether writing the prison or not, the poems from the poets at WHV are able to produce a space of fugitive sociality and radical imagination. The poems emerging from WHV can make legible the censored bodies and life inside prisons, making the violence to those living within thinking and sayable, while testifying to life where life itself is again and again repressed and abstracted. The poems - and the relations they embed - become acts of resistance in their mere existence. Perhaps the awe we all felt in the auditorium during the May reading, confronting the viscerally felt sense of solidarity, testified to a collectivity that couldn’t have been imagined without the poems. The following week we left class with a new prompt to write towards together: How can we write a fugitive poem?

-Rosie Stockton

Rosie Stockton is a poet and publisher living in Detroit. She is the current editor-in-chief of BathHouse Journal, a member of Problem Press, and editor at Weekday Journal. She recently graduated with her Masters of Creative Writing from Eastern Michigan University.