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 Susanne Paola Antonetta: Heather’s poem, “I Swallowed My Faith,” was written in the Skagit County Community Justice Center in Mt. Vernon, Washington. The jail is a new, spiffy building but within its walls, inmates live in close quarters and have little access to the internet or reading materials. As Washington state was the first state to be hit by the coronavirus, our folks have been on lockdown for a while. And as it is a jail our students may be out relatively quickly or in for the long haul, due to outsized bails.
I have been a teaching writer in my group, Underground Writing, for four years. I grew up with two cousins who were in gangs. One ended up in federal prison. He also survived a homicide attempt that left him permanently disabled. These were young adults I had known, loved, cuffed around, played with, for my entire life. They loved me and they loved their families. They had ambitions. Many circumstances create situations like theirs, often involving the needs for money and protection. I am aware of the privilege I have now, with a white-collar job and a degree. Sometimes the choices you make are the only ones you can see in front of you. A small and vulnerable percentage of the population tend to be the ones who pay so dearly for them. We need to complicate the social myths of those who are incarcerated.
What drew you to this poem or guided the art you created?
Artist Lisa Sette: When I first read this poem, it made me think about time and free agency. The poem says, “I can swallow the time.” So I started thinking about time, incarceration, and the idea of “doing time.” But having to swallow that time? 30 years, 20 years?
At first, I was thinking about the weight of that time, the sentencing. I have a scale weight, and I played with that as an image, but it didn’t work. Then I started thinking about time itself, and that’s when I went to the compass grass. Where I live on Cape Cod, my life is built on sand… and the world around us is dominated by sand-tolerant species. The sands are moving all the time. There are very strong winds. They work on low-lying species, like the grass in this image, blowing it in arcs. The result is a pattern that looks like a clock or a compass (hence the common term, “compass grass”). The grasses bend to the winds, but they tell their own story in that bending. This poem spoke to me in that way.
What would you like our readers to understand about why we’re not hearing from the student?
Teaching Writer Susanne Paola Antonetta:The virus lockdown is difficult for all of us. For our students, lockdown means even more isolation—sitting and sleeping in a tiny space with less than the minimal interaction they’d had before. We have minimal contact with the jail right now and some of our folks have been released, often to a very insecure housing situation. Many we will see again, but it’s hard to say when. Right now, we’re working on sending e-deliverable workshop materials to our students.
One of the things that helps our poets keep going is knowing that their words are being heard outside of their situations. These broadsides are a way we can keep our poets connected with the world outside the walls of jail.
Who would you give this broadside to, if you could choose anyone in your life, and why?
Artist Lisa Sette: Anybody working in the judicial system, which is morally bankrupt. I’d give it to any judge or jury who is considering the fate of a person.
If this broadside were a season, what would it be?
Teaching Writer Susanne Paola Antonetta: I think winter; it’s got a harsh landscape. Bearing in mind that winter always holds under its soil that which becomes spring.
What would you want the viewers of this image to know about you?
Artist Lisa Sette: There’s a deep love and caring for a local landscape that is behind that photo. Sand is so symbolic as a sense of time. I live on a sand dune; there’s always accretion and loss. This back and forth feels similar to what I see in the poet’s work. Also, I think about the delicacy of the grass… Our lives are so delicate and fragile. Yet this delicate grass comes up, each year, from nothing. It survives by bending to wind but continuing to move and grow from its rooted place.
Can you tell us briefly about the prompt(s) you created for this poem?
Teaching Writer Susanne Paola Antonetta: I was using poetry that had been written at the Foxconn sweatshop in Shenzhen, China. This sweatshop is essentially an incarceration for most workers; they live on site and it is very difficult for them to leave. There were so many suicides at this facility that Foxconn installed a net to catch workers who jumped. Foxconn workers began writing poetry—they sent poems of theirs out of the facility using phones. It’s an extraordinary story. This poem, “I Swallowed an Iron Moon,” spoke deeply to my poets. They understood that situation of having to swallow a hopeless isolation, losing control of your life, very well.
Have you read anything lately that has felt important to you?
Artist Lisa Sette: The stories, essays, and poems in Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy, particularly the one by Robin Wall Kimmerer, blew my mind.
How has teaching in settings of incarceration changed both your students and you?
Teaching Writer Susanne Paola Antonetta: It is deeply meaningful to our students to know their work is being shared outside of their facilities. I always begin classes with new students by telling them we consider this outreach part of our project with Underground Writing. These broadsides will feel like a heartline to the world they can no longer see and interact with. And it changes them, they always tell me, to get the words down on paper. To find new ways of thinking about their situation and who they are.
For me, the question of change comes down to what I wrote about above—my own experiences with loved ones who get caught in this system. It reminds me that the questions of criminal justice are very complex and very biased.