Cover Photo: There is an image of the book ‘The Sentences That Create Us: Crafting A Writer’s Life in Prison’ by PEN America. The book cover is tan with white and orange postcards cut into butterflies and seeming to fly around the book title.  Surrounding the book are the same butterflies against a bright red background.
Book cover by Haymarket Books/header design by Eliza Harris

“Prison Writer”: A Meditation on Histories and the Sentences that Create Them

From PEN America’s ‘The Sentences That Create Us Crafting A Writer’s Life in Prison.’
 “Are we going to be consigned forever to tell the same kinds of stories? 
          — Saidiya Hartman 
“In darkness, mine was not a linear condition. 
          Justin Phillip Reed

You live in a house. The house is not small, but for years now the living spaces have felt crowded. In the house there is a locked room, and in that locked room you perform all of your daily rituals. You spend entire days in the locked room. You possess the only key. There is a force that tethers you to your desk in the locked room, like a handcuff made of air. 

When you have visitors, you host them in the kitchen. They become your friends. Yet, through all the time spent, your visitors cannot stop looking at the door to the locked room. You have conversations, you read poetry aloud, you lose arguments. You fall in love, you get drunk, you laugh. And still they keep looking and looking and looking. In the lulls between conversations, they ask about the room. They want to talk about it, understand it, know how it feels. You want to give them everything they ask for. You want them to stay awhile, see how things go. You pace the floor and pour out the contents of your heart and mind in hopes that you might make sense of the room—for them, but also for yourself, if you can admit it. 

When the sun begins to set, your visitors must return to their homes in the cities you dream of. You help them with their coats and watch them as they walk into the crisp autumn air.

That story is unbelievable . . . what a fighter . . . I can’t even imagine . . . how brave. . . . These stories need to be heard. . . . 

You return to the locked room. You sit at your desk and continue to translate a single sentence on a single sheet of paper, written in a language you still do not, after all the years, understand. 

I don’t know what to say. I am tired. I am tired of prison, I am tired of being a “prison writer.” I am tired of spending my years describing to the visitors in my life what lies behind the locked door. In the world beyond the walls—largely driven by algorithms and calculated desire—I feel a strange smugness in believing that any hunger for my work is predicated on my physically being in a cage, or at least on the authenticity of my experiences in prison. After all, consumers chase what they desire, and marketers create and feed those desires. That’s how commerce—physical, digital, spiritual, or otherwise—works. So, what’s the issue? 

Prison invades. It penetrates, permeates. The moment prison or any of its necessary by-products are brought into a passage, the moment a reader is made aware that the writer is or once was in chains, the register shifts. Readers find themselves connecting the dots, threading together the textual and biographical to create a line of logic. And therein lies the issue: prison as an entity and system looms over my writing so much that readers might not be able to separate “prison” from “writer.” To be fair, I struggle to separate the two myself, hard as I try. Who wants a poetics of anti-biography anyway? 

Three hundred pages. Ten packets of thirty. My Presentence Investigation—the official document compiled by the state of Michigan to make sentencing recommendations based upon the facts of a crime, as well as the history of the convicted—had cost me thirty dollars out of my inmate trust account. There in my hands, violence reduced. Felons and writers know this curriculum too well. Both recognize that the key to a plausible narrative—and perhaps freedom—is not an abundance of information, but focus. In other words: not every story will be told. In other words: redaction becomes its own language. 

My plan was to create a series of erasure poems that examined the robbery I committed at sixteen. I thought that, by distilling the institutional language down to its component parts, I might begin to make sense of my own history and understand the man I would become. 

For months I struggled. How to trace the genealogy of a crime? How to redact without forcing silence upon those I’ve damaged? How to translate and expand the narrative, its sentences? I settled on weaving vignettes and personal history among the newly fragmented investigation. (Perhaps that is an apt way to describe all investigations—fragmented.) In the end, I wasn’t sure that I had uncovered any great truth or spiritual redemption. Almost ten years into a sixteen-year sentence, I was still in prison, somehow writing poems that would earn me publications and fellowships, but not the thing I thought I was writing toward: freedom. 

My efforts were not without fruit, though. I had reread and reckoned with the investigation that led to my sentence, the epigraph that contextualized the years that would follow. Via redaction, I had told the same kind of story over and over—in a cage, for what feels like forever. Via addition, I blurred the edges of what was not, but to so many appeared to be, a linear condition. In the end, even though all the previous currency was lost, and through my translation, a message was left. 

Prison plants itself and grows. Prison fractures and fragments, a sentence creating a before and an after. In my work, I’ve tried to document my history, tried to redact and add and translate and reclaim in hopes of creating a universe where I am neither martyr nor menace, neither rampant sinner nor rogue saint, where I do not have to explain my daily living with a cluster of disparate metaphors. In this universe, my history would not be read as a fractured story of redemption. In this universe, I could speak of the darkest cage and still people would not hear a prison. When I woke up this morning, I did not—could not, yet—create that universe. 

In the house there is a room. You spend entire days in the room. Though you possess the only key, you have started to leave the door open at all times. There is a force that keeps you going, that pushes you along. 

Your friends cannot stop looking at the door to the room. You tell them how it feels, and though you can tell they do not fully understand, they nod their heads and they stay for a while.

 When they return to their homes, they walk slowly and watch a flock of geese fly overhead. They look back and wave goodbye—Talk to you soon! You wave back. 

You return to the room. You sit at your desk and you begin to write around a single sentence on a single sheet of paper, written in a language that will be but a string of symbols in the longer arc of your history.


This essay is excerpted from The Sentences That Create Us: Crafting A Writer's Life in Prison, a recently released groundbreaking collection of essays from Haymarket Book and PEN America, edited by PEN America's Director of Prison and Justice Writing Caits Meissner, that draws from the unique insights of over fifty justice-involved contributors and their allies to offer inspiration and resources for creating a literary life in prison.

Justin Rovillos Monson was a 2018 PEN America Writing for Justice Fellow who has been published in the Asian American Literary Review, Poetry magazine, the Rumpus, the Nation, and elsewhere.