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“Firm Hands”

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Teacher/Artist Q&A

Note: Usually, in the Q&A, the artist and poet speak about what’s behind their creations and what seeing the other’s work prompted. However, due to Covid-19 and prison regulations, we were not able to ask poets questions at the moment of publication. We’ve asked their teachers to step in and hope, in the future, to add the poets’ voices as well.

Where was this poem written, and why do you teach in the context and program where it originated?
Teaching Writer George Franklin: Emilio C. Hernandez’s poem was written at Everglades Correctional Institution, just west of Miami, Florida. It’s a medium-security prison (which in Florida means that it does not have a death row). It is also designated an honors prison, so the prisoners have a bit more in the way of resources than in other Florida prisons. But, prisoners live in crowded unairconditioned dormitories, have no access to the internet, and a very limited library. They especially value the classes provided by volunteers.

I have taught for Exchange for Change for more than four years. I have been on its board, and I’m currently its general counsel. We teach writing classes of all kinds at South Florida prisons, but I mostly stick to teaching poetry because it’s what I do best. There have been few things in my life more fulfilling than teaching writing classes in prison. In general, prison takes people who are wounded from the outset and places them in a dangerous environment that deprives them of their humanity, but somehow, the students I teach are still intelligent, attentive, and appreciative. They come from all types of backgrounds. They take their work seriously and are thoughtful and supportive of each other in workshops. And, they love challenges. They’re a lot of fun to teach, and I’m proud of their accomplishments.

What drew you to this poem or guided your visual response?
Artist Stacy Isenbarger: I connected quickly with that Wilson mitt and the feel of it encasing my left hand. I learned how to catch, awkwardly, from my dad when I was younger. There were always shapes to remember in the strategy of learning the game. The C formation of where to put my glove and all the places among the lines of the diamond that were best for fielding; these visual lessons stick with me. He was a good coach. In regards to catching a football, that diamond shape you make with your hands, I understood it conceptually but never quite connected with it. Reading how Emilio did while crashing into water triggered a visual of hands opening and waiting. His words are both refreshing and bittersweet due to the connections he makes, and I wanted to create a piece highlighting some back and forth tensions and connections with the diamond form—both seen through hands straining to catch and from someone viewing a neighborhood ball field who is maybe just outside the fence line.

Who would you give this broadside to, if you could choose anyone in your life, and why?
Artist Stacy Isenbarger: My Dad. In the exchange, we’d talk about the past and enjoy the stories.

Can you tell us briefly about the prompt(s) you created for the pieces that appear in this folio?
Teaching Writer George Franklin: It’s embarrassing, but I don’t actually remember what prompt Emilio was responding to when he wrote this poem. I have very often told my students to write about real things that happen in their lives. Perhaps it was in response to that kind of prompt, but Emilio is an experienced writer who can write out of his own life without being given prompts in a class. So, he may have just sat down and started writing.

What would you want the viewers of this image to know about you?
Artist Stacy Isenbarger: I may not catch a football well, but don’t let that lead you to feed into some stereotypes about artists.

How has teaching in settings of incarceration changed both your students and you?
Teaching Writer George Franklin:  I don’t know how my classes have changed my students. I have never set out to change anybody. Sometimes, I get a sense while talking with them that being given a context where it’s OK to express feelings, to let other people into your head, and to know that the other writers in the group are doing the same, may make a difference and make prison more bearable. Many of my students are lifers without expectation of release. For them, I don’t think it’s about change. It’s about survival.

I have noticed that some writers on the inside, and I believe Emilio is one of them, use their writing as a means of understanding themselves and defining themselves. Writers like that manage to turn their incarceration on its head and use it as a place to consider their lives: a harsh place, a terrible place, but a place to reflect on. Their writing is a record of that process.

Have you read anything lately that has felt important to you?
Artist Stacy Isenbarger: I read Ling Ma’s book Severance in March. Great book, loved it… but maybe not the best time to read it?!? Not going to spoil it, but it does have some odd, strangely uncanny parallels to our current global crisis. It is not about Covid, but it gets to the heart of things that perhaps connect and plague us even more.

Anything else? (This time we’re inviting Teaching Writer, George Franklin, to invent a question, add a comment, or otherwise speak to what the questions so far have not tapped about their Broadsided experience).
Teaching Writer George Franklin: …When readers spend a moment with this broadside, they are engaged in something large and meaningful. The prisoner who wrote the poem may never know you or know that you read his poem, this broadside, but I promise you that he is more grateful that you took the time to see it and read his words than you can possibly imagine.


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