The Kind of Light That Shines in Minnesota

litOnLockdown (2)

By Michael Nye

Last week, I went to the 2015 AWP Conference (along with 12,000 others, right?) to represent the Missouri Review in a range of different programs. Along with doing my best to meet with writers, editors, and publishers, I also was a part of several programs. On Friday night, TMR was one of six Missouri literary journals that hosted a reading at Segue Cafe, showcasing the diversity of our region and our magazines. On Saturday, I was a panelist not once but twice: the first was on literary podcasts, and the second was on teaching literary magazines in the classroom. Both went really, really well.

But what has really stuck with me was my Wednesday night event.

“Beyond Bars: Voices of Incarceration” was a reading, free and open to the public, in downtown Minneapolis at the Central Library. There were ten readers, all of whom (except for me) instructors and teachers and mentors in prison writing programs from throughout the country. Each of us read a brief piece, five to seven minutes at the most, on behalf of incarcerated writers. After, ten of us were on a panel to answer questions about how to support these programs, how to get involved, what challenges we face, and so forth.

I was invited by Jennifer Bowen Hicks from the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. TMR was the only strict “publisher” at the event, though several of these organizations have created and sold chapbooks and/or books of their students’ work. The other participating programs were Hennepin County Outreach Services (based in Minnesota), the Women’s Writing Program (also in Minnesota), Words Without Walls (Pittsburgh), and Revised Sentences (North Carolina). Several other organizations helped to support the event:  Hennepin County Library, the Minnesota State Arts Board, The Creative Writing Programs at Hamline University, Carleton College, Minnesota Center for Book Arts, Red Bird Chapbooks, and the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

Basically, lots of people got involved.

Our role has always been, I thought, pretty simple: TMR showcases nonfiction from inmates and instructors. That’s it. I didn’t realize how important our Literature on Lockdown series has been to both groups. But that’s what I heard over and over again last week: that what we publish matters, that the writers published in our series are proud to get their voices heard, that we are needed outlet for a group of writers very rarely represented in the small press and literary magazine community.

The AWP conference is a wonderful thing. Readers of this space know how much I enjoy the conference, and over the years, I’ve written blog posts leading up to the event and post-event roundups. There are plenty of those from a wide-range of writers, and they go up every year at the same time, regular as Christmas decorations. And they are all well and good, just like the conference itself, which, for whatever complaints people might have about it, really is a good and amazing conference.

And, yet, despite all the best efforts, it can feel a bit homogenized. You know?

When our previous social media editor, Alison Balaskovits, came up with Literature on Lockdown and the Working Writers series, what she was responding to was the palpable sense that there is a world of writers that is often left out of our culture. We needed to do something, no matter how big or small, to be an outlet for those writers. And this past week has shown me that Alison’s vision has taken shape into something critical and unique, thanks to the many writers and teachers who have answered our call for their work.

So here is our reminder: we want to read more.

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 literatureonlockdown@gmail.com.

If you feel you fit our Working Writers Series — no major awards, no books in print, maybe only a few or no publications, but are still writing — get in touch. Our goal is to give voice to a wide range of writers, to learn from their experiences, and to open a discussion about living the craft. Please send an email to us at TMRWorkingWritersSeries@gmail.com

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye