“Strong and Wise”
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: Verna’s poem “Strong and Wise” 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 you in your visual response?
Artist Julie Evanoff: I like the hard edges of the nouns and the verbs and the way the lines break into new strings of words that shift my preconception of what strong and wise is. The rough honesty of the needle and the oozing—the poet is not mincing words. And the strength that she is grabbing hold of wakes me up. I want to listen to this native Woman and stand behind her.
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.
If this broadside were a season, what would it be?
Teaching Writer Susanne Paola Antonetta: Definitely spring. It reflects a renewed joy.
Artist Julie Evanoff: I would say summer, when it’s hot and the flowers are in full bloom.
Who would you give this broadside to, if you could choose anyone in your life, and why?
Artist Julie Evanoff: I would give this broadside to Alida Hannum. There was a Navajo boarding school in Utah in the town where I grew up. As an adult I understand there are deep problems with those schools and the movements to assimilate; but as a young person it was extremely powerful to have Native American students in my small town. They performed traditional dances and modern interpretations of their traditional stories at our schools; we went to their craft shows and bought jewelry and sand paintings they made; and they created public art at a variety of local festivals. Alida Hannum was a friend of my family, and she worked as a volunteer very closely with the students at the school and frequently hosted them in her home. Also, her husband worked as a volunteer doctor at the reservations close by. Alida opened my eyes to a bigger world in so many ways, and looking back now I imagine that she must have contributed to the quality of lives of many of the young Native Americans living there.
Can you tell us briefly about the prompt(s) you created for this poem?
Teaching Writer Susanne Paola Antonetta: Verna’s poem came out of an exercise based on Maya Angelou’s poem “Phenomenal Woman.” We discussed the way Angelou takes features of herself that the larger culture would consider negative and makes them a positive. I invited my group to consider parts of themselves others might look down on, and then evaluate these as positives. How would it feel to flip this script? I say that a lot in my workshops.
What would you want the viewers of this image to know about you?
Artist Julie Evanoff: I was nervous about making an image for this poem because of my white privilege and not wanting to appropriate, but I wanted to try and honor Verna’s work. I had several conversations about this issue and decided, after several attempts, to turn to plants that are native to North America. I carved my drawings into blocks and printed them. Patchwork came to mind as I arranged the blocks in a way that resonated with what I experienced when reading “Strong and Wise.”
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.
Have you read anything lately that has felt important to you?
Artist Julie Evanoff: Women, Race and Class, by Angela Davis, looking at race, class, and gender and how they work together to shape inequality. Babel-17, by Samuel R. Delany, a science fiction novel with a woman poet as the main character. Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler, a dystopian novel about a woman fleeing Los Angeles as America spirals into chaos.
Anything else? (We’re inviting you to invent a question, add a comment, or otherwise speak to what the questions so far have not tapped about your Broadsided experience).
Artist Julie Evanoff: Thank you to Broadsided Press for your unwavering commitment to keeping alive the tradition of mingling art and poetry and creating a format to bring them into communities!