Gretchen Primack on Her New Book & Teaching Poetry in Prisons | Books & Authors | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

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Gretchen Primack on Her New Book & Teaching Poetry in Prisons


Last Updated: 04/09/2019 11:16 am

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GP: That's the intention.

JV: And it sounds like that's how you are once they've left prison as well. It's saying you are a person, in the world, and we have a relationship that could be good or bad, regardless of this part of your history. It's the rehumanizing of a person who should never have been dehumanized in the first place.

GP: Right, the individualizing. Because I think human beings tend to group into a faceless mass that we don't understand, or which it benefits us to not understand. So, if we're going to continue this mass incarceration, we need to see incarcerated men and women as faceless masses. If we're going to vilify undocumented people, then we need to see them as nameless, faceless masses. We can't see them as an individual.

JV: This work happened organically, for you, you didn't approach it with the intention of re-humanizing the inmates, so how did that aspect come out of it?

GP: Because they are individuals. When I write about them, in fictional or real ways, I'm writing about individuals, and I want that perspective to be put into the world. So, it's not that I try to put individualism on them; they are individuals. And then the idea is that, when the poems go into the world, people who might not have seen them that way will see that.

JV: And what are some things about these people that were not individual? What are some things that you noticed, that are the same?

GP: Well, that becomes a political and sociological question, because what you notice is the racial—the insane racial makeup. [Charles the cat jumps into her lap and she immediately begins to scratch his ears.] When I am walking down the hall to the classroom, escorted by an officer, I am intensely aware of who's coming toward me, which is a sea of black and brown. And I just want to scream. But I can't scream, I have to do my work. But to see it, is to not believe that people are accepting it. Because it's not physically possible that this is the criminal makeup. It's literally not possible. So, whether we're in that environment or outside of that environment and knowing about it, the fact that we all are just allowing this is preposterous. So that's something you notice. You notice the racial makeup of the group.

JV: Right. The brutal reality of racial profiling and targeting.

GP: Right, and who they're choosing to examine, because every community has rampant drug use, but who came to Oberlin and arrested us?

JV: Right, I had a boyfriend in college who sold a lot of drugs, and everyone knew, but he was white and from New England, so nobody bothered him. But if he were black, he probably would have gotten expelled, and even arrested.

GP: Exactly, it's exactly the same thing, but if you transfer the business model that he used to a primarily black or otherwise non-white section of town, suddenly he's put away. And that's not to say there are no white men in prison, there are. Nevertheless, the discrepancy is enormous, and often what they did to get there is much more serious.

JV: You have a line in Visiting Days which really stood out to me: "this place is ugly because you are ugly." It's so direct, and so brutal. That's what makes this work so important, that it communicates the reality of what's happening to the men and women in prisons. Because people have to know, before they can respond.  So how can we use this brutality as a catalyst for change?

GP: Yeah, I think, as with any issue, there are a lot of avenues. It's important to know as much as you can. What organizations attend to these issues, what bills can be voted on, so forth. And then there are things like writing to incarcerated people, or raising and donating funds to different educational programs. There are so many opportunities to volunteer, to raise funds and awareness, to employ inmates hoping for clemency, or recently released inmates, and so on. There are so many things that can be done, so the more educated we are about the issue, and the more fired up we get, the more will be done.

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