TMR’s Audio Contest
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Our new, enhanced online anthology
Current Issue: Fall 2014
Call for Entries!
The Missouri Review is looking for your short audio documentaries, stories, poems, and humor pieces for our 2015 Miller Audio Prize. A $1,000 prize will be awarded to the winner in each category. The award has been renamed in honor of Patricia and Michael Miller, who have generously agreed to endow our audio competition.
Your pay-by-donation entry fee includes a one-year, digital subscription to The Missouri Review, complete with a bonus audio version of the magazine. Winners and select runners-up will have their work featured on The Missouri Review’s website and as part of our Soundbooth podcast series.
Entries will be judged by TMR’s editors in collaboration with this year’s guest judge, Andrew Leland, host and producer of the Organist (kcrw.com/believer), a weekly arts and culture podcast from KCRW and the Believer magazine. He’s also a contributing editor at the Believer (believermag.com), has taught radio and writing at the Missouri School of Journalism, and has edited books for Chronicle, McSweeney’s, Vintage, and elsewhere.
Extended Deadline: March 15th, 2015.
For details, or to submit, please visit our website here.
We are looking forward to listening to everyone’s submissions!
My initial experience in a level 4 maximum-security prison was horrifying. I was a first time felon who just arrived at Calipatria State Prison, a world I knew about only by reputation. It is known for high rates of assaults on staff, including when several gang members ran up in the program office aiming high and stabbed up a captain, sergeant, and some other ranking COs. They assigned me to a cell occupied by another inmate. Insider were some bunk beds and him. AS the blue cell door firmly slammed close, it felt like would never open again. I was trapped in there with a man I had never seen before. Meeting him was the scariest experience of my life.
It wasn’t that he had an intimidating presence. He was only about 5-foot-4 inches tall, and 160 pounds. Although he was from a notorious gang, he was over fifty-years-old and retired. Plus we were alone and I had a good size advantage. On that note, I was lucky–most of the time the size advantage belongs to the prisoner who has been down for years working out religiously.
It wasn’t that he was a convicted murderer. I am convicted of second degree murder and attempted voluntary manslaughter and can handle violent people. I also understood them. Usually, don’t start none and be a man, and there won’t be none. I had that covered.
It wasn’t that I was 3200 miles from Brownsville, Brooklyn, New York, my place of birth and sphere of influence. In California, anyone who carries himself like a man will be okay.
It was when he told me that he had been incarcerated for over thirty years on a fifteen-to-life sentence. That scared me to death. His words hit me with the realization that I may never ever go home again.
The judge handed me over a sentence of 55 years to life, but it didn’t feel for real. My mind dealt with it by telling itself, we will get out on appeal–that everything would be okay. However, my cellie was living proof that they don’t ever have to let you go. Forever-ever was a reality that I became sober to.
Imagine being trapped in the middle of a war zone indefinitely. Racial tension fills the air. Inmates are only housed with those of the same race. Those of multiple races have to pick a side. When a person of one race gets into a physical combat with another, it causes an instant chain reaction–a riot happens between those racial groups. Shanks come out. Correctional Officers fire live ammunition from a min-14 rifle, as well as tear gas, wooden blocks and beanbags at those , supposedly armed, with warning. In the mist of chaos and fast moving hands, they aim to stop the violence and protect unarmed victims. However, often hit are those defending themselves. I’d rather take my odds against a shank than a gun, but that choice isn’t up to me.
Everyone is punished for the conduct, even if they were in their cells when the violence happened. The prison is locked down. All visits are cancelled. The family member or girlfriend you need to see to keep you sane and human is told “No visiting today.” Their time, money and efforts on making the trip to some small town near nowhere are wasted.
During the lockdown, no packages, or canteen are allowed for up to 90 days.
Once you run out of food, you will be dependent on the state to feed you. They don’t always do a good job. The food is often cold on lockdowns because Correction Officers have to do the serving and it takes them a long time to deliver each tray to each individual cell. Dinner is served at 5:30 pm. The next meal isn’t until 6:00 am … eleven and a half hours later. A growling stomach hampers positive thoughts.
The state doesn’t provide deodorant, lotion, or decent toothpaste. (Sometimes they have tooth powder.) Running out of those items means your cellie has to smell your breath and underarm odor in addition to smelling each other take a crap. This makes living with another human being in the small bathroom space rough on the nose and mind.
Other important mental needs aren’t met. They have a counselor, but they don’t do any counseling. The traumatic experiences you’ve been through aren’t addressed, as groups often aren’t available due to lockdowns, lack of funding, and being to far from a major city for volunteers to regularly make it. More traumatic experiences happen and go untreated. Instead of rehabilitation, you are more likely to become worse.
You are cut off from calling your family. Lockdowns mean no phone calls. Even when there is no lockdown, phone usage is restricted to once a month for new inmates until they are assigned a job. Lifers are the last on the waiting list to get hired, so it may take years. Meanwhile, you get one chance at a fifteen minute call that your family has to accept the collect charges for per month.
You try to maintain a certain level of dignity, but it’s hard with all the searches. Everywhere you go, you have to clear a metal detector and be frisked. Often there are cell searches where they degradingly strip-search you.
You become uselsss to your family. You are helpless to provide for the children you love with all your heart. You become useless to help your mother as she ages and needs you. Inside of being the breadwinner, you have become the burden.
My life in prison is a physical, mental, and emotional torture that may never end and that scares the hell out of me.
Rahsaan Thomas is the sports editor for San Quentin News. He is also the co-author of Uncaged Stories. He was freatued on the Missouri Review’s “Literature on Lockdown” series for his essay “I Write from a Cell.” The 44-year-old native New Yorker is a member of San Quentin’s Journalism Guild, and the William James Arts in Corrections creative writing class under teacher Zoe Mullery. His story “One Bad Apple” was published in the class anthology Brothers in Pen: Storiees From The Annual Public Reading at San Quentin in 2014.
Welcome back to our many part series where we share narratives from those who teach in prison, those who write from prison, or those who previously did either. If you have taught in prison or were formerly incarcerated and are writing, or know someone who currently is and would like to be a part of the series, please send an e-mail to us at email@example.com. A physical mailing address can also be provided.
Today’s Writer is Rahsaan Thomas.
I was sentenced to 55-years-to-life back in July of 2003 for 2nd degree murder, attempted voluntary manslaughter and gun-use enhancements. My speech is the only part of me that is still free.
Incarceration has forced a need to write. It started with letters to loved ones. Next, I needed to write my own habeas appeal. After the courts jerked me, I found a need to help others and tell my side of the story so others won’t follow this path to hell. Now I love writing.
Writing is the one thing I can do from a cell that can make a huge difference. I am not scheduled to go home anytime soon. By the time I do, I will have missed my sons’ whole entire adult life after already missing his childhood. By then, the woman who loves me will moved on and there won’t be nothing to return to except to meet any grandkids my sons may have by then. Writing makes my circumstances worth something more than the circumstances of being a Lifer.
Two prisons ago, I was a law library clerk and I have been using the skills learned there to help others get free. The Federal courts’ one-year AEDPA deadline to file a habeas-appeal came and went before I was able to acquire enough skill to submit the best writ I could. Conditions of lockdowns, outdated books, no borrowing book policies, one law library for two full prison yards and other obstacles made mastering law in a year impossible. Therefore, although I can prove my case is a stack of lies, I lost all my appeals. However, I have been getting successful results for others with the lessons learned at my expense. Therefore, I write to fight for those who can’t read or write well enough themselves.
Since then, I have become the Sports Editor for the San Quentin News, an inmate run newspaper. My job as Sports Editor is much bigger than just keeping track of stats for the newspaper, it’s about giving prisoners a chance to make the papers for something positive. As I was quoted in the LA Times saying, “The last time I made the newspapers, somebody got shot.” I love having this chance to help others make the news for their positive accomplishments, instead of only violent acts.
Now I write to get people to see why some of us have done horrible things. I write to get people to see the changes that could be made that would make the world a better place for all of us. I write to showcase those of us who have made those changes. I write to combat hate with knowledge in an effort to breed understanding. I write to help others get the justice they deserve. I have co-written and published a book of short stories called Uncaged Stories through Lulu.com – each of my tales are focused on waking up youngsters, so they don’t end up my cellmates. I write because it’s the most powerful weapon I have that can effectively hamper oppression.
I am doing everything I can to become a better writer at San Quentin State Prison. I am a member of the Journalism Guild. I am in Creative Writing and Poetry classes. I have gotten B’s in Communication and Business Management at Coastline Community College. I have taken Sociology and English at Feather River. The skills are starting to match the passion.
So from prison I’ll keep writing until there are no more words or there are no problems to write about.
Rahsaan Thomas is currently serving 55-to-life for second-degree murder and attempted murder stemming from stopping a robbery. He is using his time positively. He is the Sports Editor for San Quentin News. He is also the co-author of Uncaged Stories. The 44-year-old native New Yorker is a member of San Quentin’s Journalism Guild. He is also a member of the William James Prison Arts Project Creative Writing class under teacher Zoe Mullery. His short story from last year called “One Bad Apple” was published in the class anthology, Brothers in Pen: Stories from the Annual Public Reading at San Quentin. Levon “Rasta Von” James, a director from Rochester, NY, is currently at work turning “One Bad Apple” into a short film.
December brings many things you can’t escape from: snow, family gatherings, dry skin, the sun setting at 3 P.M. But perhaps the most unavoidable of all? Year-end lists. The minute the calendar strikes twelve, social media feeds are inundated with expansive lists outlining the “best of” in the preceding months. In the bigger picture sense, I think that these lists can be helpful. They refresh us on what was great about the last year or remind us of what we might have missed. But let’s be honest: these lists can also be incredibly overwhelming.
It’s always the year-end book lists that get to me. Mostly because I can’t remember the last time I read a book the actual year it came out. I don’t mean this in a cool, hipster way; I am not above getting excited every year when the New York Times publishes their “100 Most Notable Books” because, gee, those sure do look like great books that I hope to read someday. For now, I’m just a 21-year-old making my way through all the literature that was published before 2014. Bet y’all knew this already, but there’s a lot. There are so many books in this world.
In the spirit of being late to the party, here’s my personal list of the best books that I read this year, in no particular order:
1.) Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (1985)
In all honesty, I’m not sure I would have picked up this book had it not been required reading for a class, which might be upsetting for those who have a portrait of Harold Bloom hanging above their fireplace. But it’s one of those few novels of my college career that I’m glad I had to read. McCarthy’s stark descriptions of the Glanton gang roaming across the borderlands were honest in a way not many authors can be about ruthless and absolute violence. Also, in all seriousness, were dead baby jokes born of Blood Meridian?
2.) Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon (2009)
Full disclosure: I only read this book because Paul Thomas Anderson directed the movie adaptation that is coming out later this week. It was also the first Pynchon I read, much to the chagrin of English professors everywhere. Though a complete mess-up of a human, I found Doc to be a completely endearing character and I’m curious to see how this’ll all shake out on screen.
3.) Class Matters, The New York Times (2005)
This book is actually the culmination of a 10 part series published in the New York Times in 2005 that looks at a combination of factors to determine what class is, how it exists in America, and how it affects the outcomes of the lives of everyone interviewed. Of all the books I read this year, this one had the biggest impact. There’s an incredible amount of information covered and even if the statistics mentioned might be outdated by now, it challenges the reader to face the fact that not all opportunities in America are made equal.
4.) The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides (2011)
I have been an unapologetic fan of Eugenides ever since I read Middlesex late in my sophomore year of college and I feel like this novel is even that much better. Not to say that it doesn’t have its flaws- a story that focuses on three white kids and their Ivy League education can only go so far- but I believe I liked this book so much because while I was reading it, I identified with Madeline Hanna, a young English major about to step into the real world with a whole lot of uncertainty surrounding her future as well as her interpersonal relationships.
5.) Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer (1400’s)
Wow, have you guys read this? So good, right? I’m positive it’s going to be an important piece of literature someday.
Follow Sarah on Twitter: @sarahmosier
After weeks of reading, passing, recommending, rereading, and more rereading, we’re proud to announce the winners of our 24th annual Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. We received almost 3000 entries this year, and the quality of our finalists made this a very tough decision. I’d like to thank all of the writers who gave us the opportunity to read their work. Without further ado, here are our winners in all three genres:
Winner: Rachel Swearingen of Minneapolis, Minnesota, for “How to Walk on Water”
Robin Romm of Portland, Oregon, for “What to Expect”
Edward Hamlin of Boulder, Colorado, for “Indígena”
Dana Fitz Gale of Missoula, Montana, for “Leah, Lamb”
Winner: Alexandra Teague of Moscow, Idaho
Jennifer Barber of Brookline, Massachusetts
Miriam Bird Greenberg of Berkeley, California
Phillip B. Williams of Chicago, Illinois
Winner: Andrew Cohen of Portland, Oregon, for “Ronaldo”
Nicole Banas of Devon, Pennsylvania, for “Rash”
Nynke Passi of Fairfield, Iowa, for “Oom Ealse and the Swan”
Jeff Wasserboehr of Leverett, Massachusetts, for “Possess Stonewall”
In all three genres, we read all the work twice, getting our selections down to a group of semi-finalists in each category. Call it anywhere from two dozen to fifty, depending on the genre. Then we passed the manuscripts around again and discussed the pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses, and passed the work around again until we came to a decision. We were able to finish our reading and make our selection a little early this year in comparison to the past, and that’s really due to all the hard work of our staff. So, my thanks to everyone who made our contest a success this year: contest editor, Anne Barngrover, who was terrific in managing our her team and spreading the good word to get all these high-quality submissions. Also, Anne’s staff of readers and assistants were wonderful. Big thanks to Evelyn Somers, Brad Babendir, Chun Ye, Leanna Petronella, Angie Netro, Marek Makowski, Richard Miller, Chasity Hurd, Justine Reale, and Dedra Earl for all their help.
For over thirty-five years, the quality of our magazine has depended on the work writers send to us, and we think our Editors’ Prize issue is always one of our best. We frequently se the best of a writer’s work, and that makes the selection process a tremendous challenge. Which, of course, is what we want. Thank you to all the writers who entered our contest this year and trusted us with your work.
We’re making plans right now for our Editors’ Prize weekend, our annual spring reading and reception to honor the winners of the contest. Details will be forthcoming as soon as we lock down the date, but we’re aiming for dates in March or April. This Editors’ Prize issue, featuring our winners and selected finalists, will also be out in spring of 2015.
Congratulations to Rachel, Andrew, and Alexandra!
Follow Michael Nye on Twitter: @mpnye