Becoming Visible Through Storytelling
U of A Faculty, Students and Alumni Drive Prison Story Project
On this chilly evening in late November, five days before Americans will gather with family and enumerate their blessings, a hundred people show up at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Fayetteville. They gather in Parish Hall. It’s a good room, well-lit and warm, with a grand piano in one corner and two Gothic windows facing Dickson Street.
At the back of the room are adult beverages and an elegant spread of food, including pimento cheese sandwiches cut into triangles. At the front, on the other side of ten rows of chairs, is a temporary stage with five orchestra stands.
The collective mood here is light and festive. People chat and embrace. They eat and drink, while waiting for the performance to begin.
Stories From the Inside Out, a program of the Northwest Arkansas Prison Story Project, features works written by women who cannot be here tonight, because they reside, for now at least, at the Northwest Arkansas Community Correction Center, two blocks from St. Paul’s. The project, driven in part by University of Arkansas faculty, students and alumni from the Program in Creative Writing and Translation, helps incarcerated men and women – from death row to minimum security correction centers – have a voice through storytelling.
For four months, the incarcerated women met weekly with members of the Prison Story Project team. The team members introduced the inmates to published poems, essays and short stories and gave prompts to encourage the women to write their own stories, as a way to understand themselves and their lives.
“I was reluctant at first,” says Lee Ora Evans, who paroled out of the Northwest Arkansas Community Correction Center a few months ago. Tonight she’s sitting on the front row with her friends. She’s a little nervous about her writing being read aloud to so many strangers.
Evans admits she hadn’t done any writing before the program sessions, but that wasn’t the reason she was reluctant to dive in. “I knew I’d have to go in here,” she says, pointing at her chest.
Understand Me, Sugar
As creative writing director for Stories From the Inside Out, the women’s program, Jane Blunschi led writing sessions with the incarcerated women from early August to mid-November. Tonight, she and Karstin Hale are greeting visitors outside Parish Hall. A native of Louisiana, Blunschi is the author of Understand Me, Sugar, a book-length collection of short stories published in 2017 by Yellow Flag Press. She came to the University of Arkansas in 2012 to get a Master of Fine Arts in fiction. After completing her studies, she worked outside academia for a while and now she is assistant director of the creative writing program.
The story of how Blunschi got involved with the Prison Story Project is fairly typical. Like others, she came to a performance and was hooked.
“I’d always been attracted to people talking about their lives,” she says. “I realized the Prison Story Project was an extension of what I came here to do.”
Blunschi worked with Katie Nichol, the Prison Story Project’s first creative writing director and also a graduate of the creative writing program. After Nichol moved to Minnesota, Blunschi took over as creative writing director for the women’s program, which had been named Stories From the Inside Out. For this latest version, Blunschi brought in Hale, a poet and student in the creative writing program. Hale, who is from Mission Viejo, California, was immediately swept up in the inmates’ stories.
“I got involved because for these women, the stakes are really high,” she says. “They are literally writing to survive.”
During writing sessions, Blunschi and Hale introduced the women to the work of Blunschi’s U of A colleague and Hale’s teacher, nationally acclaimed poet Geffrey Davis, who, along with other project team members, had participated in earlier writing sessions for On the Row, the men’s program with Arkansas prisoners on death row. This led to Davis leading a writing session with the female inmates.
The women were inspired and awed by getting to meet an award-winning poet whose worked they’d discussed. Davis, associate professor of English at the U of A and author of two books of poetry, Revising the Storm from 2014 and Night Angler from 2019, serves as writer-in-residence and educational advocacy director for Prison Story Project.
Working with the women inspired him too. Their stories felt personal, he says, and the details of their lives were not that far removed from those of his own.
“I have immediate family members who are currently or formerly incarcerated and been around drug use and certain kinds of violence and abuse,” he says. “So for me, being where I am, with some of the choices I made growing up, it feels more like an accident… according to my own volition. I got lucky… or I didn’t get as unlucky as some community members and family members.”
Save My Own Life
As a young woman, Kathy McGregor had endured a few traumatic and, in one case, life-threatening experiences. She had drifted and floundered, struggling with the emotional effects of these experiences, and in 1981, right when she was about to unravel or slip into oblivion, a friend took her to a storytelling festival.
“I found I could save my own life,” says the 67-year-old retired nurse and soon-to-be Episcopal deacon. “Though storytelling, I became visible.”
If storytelling could save her life, thought McGregor, surely it could help others. Years later, McGregor approached Rev. Suzanne Stoner, associate rector at St. Paul’s, and the two women discussed the idea of starting a storytelling project as a way to help incarcerated women overcome their own trauma and transition to life outside prison. The Northwest Arkansas Prison Story Project was born. On Oct. 4, 2012, the project’s first performance was staged for women inside the community correction center on College Avenue. A public performance, at St. Paul’s, occurred later that day.
The project and events were well received, and McGregor, with help from Katie Nichol and local actress Erika Wilhite, as well as financial assistance from St. Paul’s, immediately started a new program. They helped inmates share their stories not only through writing, including poetry and essays, but also songs, life-mapping and art. As with the first program, the women’s stories were collected and compiled, or stitched together – “collaged” as one teacher likes to call it – into a script for the staged reading. Performances for the second Prison Story Project, billed for the first time as Stories From the Inside Out, occurred on April 18 and 19, 2013.
From these initial class sessions and performances, the Prison Story Project grew and expanded in ways that McGregor couldn’t have imagined. With funding from the Mid-America Arts Alliance and matching support from St. Paul’s, additional productions of Stories From the Inside Out, directed by Jonny Schremmer, were held in November of 2013, April 2014 and the Spring of 2015.
U of A Volunteers Read Works of Incarcerated Men and Women
As the project grew, so did personnel. Through her connections at St. Paul’s and the creative writing program, Nichol knew the poet Matt Henriksen and asked him to help with the creative sessions. Henriksen, a 2004 graduate of the creative writing program, is the author of two volumes of poetry, Ordinary Sun, published in 2010, and 2016’s The Absence of Knowing.
With Henriksen on board, the project team made chapbooks of the inmates’ work and gave the books to the women at the correction center. McGregor, Nichol and Henriksen then travelled to Pine Bluff and shared the female inmates’ writing with male prisoners at Randall L. Williams Correctional Facility. Listening to the words written by the female prisoners had a profound effect on the incarcerated men, says Henriksen.
“Katie and I were watching them, to see how they reacted,” he says. “There was this moment in one of the scripts when we saw about half of the guys just lean forward with their mouths open. Then, when we gave them the opportunity to write, they just cracked open.”
In 2016, David Jolliffe, emeritus professor of English and former holder of the Brown Chair in English Literacy, joined the project team as utility player of sorts. As part of his Brown Chair responsibilities, Jolliffe had co-chaired the university’s annual One Book, One Community event and reading, which had featured Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. After reading Stevenson’s book, Jolliffe approached McGregor about getting involved with the Prison Story Project.
From May to October of that year, one Saturday a month, he, McGregor and Henriksen drove to the Varner Supermax Unit 28 miles south of Pine Bluff, Arkansas where they worked with 12 men on death row. (Two of these men were executed in 2017.) Theatre director Troy Schremmer (Jonny’s husband) developed the inmates’ writing into a theater script, and the the first edition of On the Row, the Prison Story Project’s new program, was staged in October. Jolliffe, who had had some acting experience, performed as a reader at both the inside performance at Varner and the public performance at St. Paul’s.
Following that performance, a friend of Jolliffe’s at the University of Colorado Boulder asked him if the project team could bring On the Row to a Colorado conference focused on non-academic, community writing. Jolliffe said he and McGregor were interested but didn’t have a budget to pay the actors for their work and travel. As a compromise, they auditioned and, with funds raised by the conference, hired local actors to perform, along with Jolliffe.
This performance and system worked well, and through Jolliffe’s academic connections, he and McGregor staged additional performances of On the Row at the University of North Carolina Asheville, University of Notre Dame, Bethany College (Jolliffe’s alma mater) in West Virginia, and Wheeling University, also in West Virginia.
Geffrey Davis got involved with On the Row, also working with the inmates at Varner. In the Spring of 2019, Davis won a $50,000 Whiting Public Engagement Fellowship award, which paid for a video production and helped fund On the Row performances in Kansas City, Wichita, Tulsa and Dallas. Additional funds will pay for a tour of high schools and juvenile detention centers in Arkansas and a story-project curriculum developed by Blunschi and Henriksen. The curriculum will serve as a teaching manual for other organizations to replicate programs and practices developed by the Prison Story Project team.
Feeling Human Again
A letter from “Joseph,” death row inmate, to Kathy McGregor: “Thank you to all for reminding me what it feels like to be human.”
McGregor and the U of A writers and poets understand the power of story, that it saves us, that it helps us understand who we are and why we exist, but none of them anticipated the profound effect of the Prison Story Project on the lives of the incarcerated men and women. Part of this effect is what Henriksen meant when he said the men at Randall L. Williams “cracked open” in their writing after hearing the words of the female inmates.
“The thing I still haven’t gotten my head around is hearing someone say, ‘thank you for making me feel human again,’” says Geffrey Davis. “I mean, I can’t even know what that really means. The power of having someone say what you did made me feel human again, to receive that… I don’t yet know how to receive that.”
At St. Paul’s, an actor reads a line – “I just know it’s different and weird and there’s nothing bad about it” – and Evans, sitting on the front row, leans forward and laughs. It’s her line. She says she uses humor as a defense mechanism.
Evans has struggled as an adult, spending years in and out of prison. The Prison Story Project transformed her, she says. The stories restored her self-worth. Out on parole, she lives at Magdalene Serenity House, supportive, transitional housing, and is working to turn her life around. She plans to go to college and study psychology and wants to eventually work in drug and alcohol treatment.
“I’m in a good place right now,” she says. “My life’s not dark anymore.”
The Prompts: How the WITS Legacy Reached the Prison Story Project
The U of A-trained poets and writers do not teach prisoners how to write.
“We give them a few suggestions to make their writing vivid,” says Blunschi.
But how does this work? McGregor, a storyteller herself, marvels at the process. She says it never fails to elicit a response.
“I can just tell you what I witnessed every night. Jane will hand out a poem. I’ll look at it and think, well, it’s another one of those damn New Yorker poems that I have no idea what they’re saying. I mean, they’re very esoteric. And I’ll just think, well, that’s a ballsy choice for women who are locked up in prison.
‘I Don’t Know What I Just Wrote.’ Matt Henriksen discusses craft, Prison Story Project in ‘Short Talks’ podcast.
“Then Jane will read the poem. She’s so calm and relaxed. Then she’ll ask if one of the women want to read it. Eventually, someone will start reading. It’s OK if they can’t pronounce the words. Then another person will read the poem. They’ll read it three times. Then Jane will say, ‘What do you think about this poem?’ The women will give their own interpretations of the poem, and then, after they’ve discussed it for a while and Jane senses they’re terribly comfortable with this very difficult poem, she’ll say, ‘Would you like to write?’ And then she’ll give them a prompt of some flavor from that poem, and the women are off.”
Blunschi, who says she herself was intimidated by poetry, learned the prompt method from Nichol, the Prison Story Project’s first creative director. And here begins the tracing of a pedagogical lineage going all the way back to 1973, the year Jim Whitehead – celebrated poet, novelist and beloved teacher of hundreds of young poets and writers, Whitehead co-founded the university’s creative writing MFA program in 1966 – and student John Biguenet started Poets in the Schools, a program that introduced creative writing to many young Arkansans. In 1989, Poets in the Schools, or PITS, changed its name to the more inclusive Writers in the Schools, or WITS, which still exists. Each year, graduate students in the creative writing program conduct two-day workshops in elementary, middle and high schools throughout Arkansas.
Henriksen was friends with Whitehead and one of the last students to work with him before Whitehead died suddenly in 2003 at age 67. He says Nichol, whom he worked with for several years, adapted the prompt method from ideas that came out of Writers in the Schools. The system, which he calls the “generative workshop model,” is different than the traditional method taught in creative writing workshops.
“We give students basic guidelines about what a poem can be,” says Henriksen. “And these can be really broad. Then we ask them to use concrete, specific language, no rhyming. Rhyming gets in the way of the generative idea of letting the language flow out.”
Sometimes the generative approach is accomplished through a simple poetic device called anaphora (emphasis on the second syllable), by which the poet, or orator, repeats a word or words at the beginning of two or more successive verses, clauses or sentences. Henriksen says many children learn anaphora in elementary school but forget about it later, unless they are re-introduced to the device in a literature or poetry class. Probably the most famous example of anaphora is Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream…” speech, in which anaphora is so important that it is found in the title of the speech.
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia…”
“I have a dream that my four little children…”
“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted…”
Devices such as this create a channel, Henriksen says; they liberate the writer from obstacles to creativity, including the writers’ own social and political beliefs.
“It’s a means to give them an easy way to start and keep the piece moving,” he says. “They see the device and make it their own. Then, they don’t have to know what to start with.”