“I know all these men. I ate prison burritos with these men,” said Kevin Reese, softly, nodding reverently at the photos and words of his fellow writers and former prisoners that surrounded him last Thursday evening in a ballroom at the InterContinental Saint Paul Riverfront Hotel.
Two months upon his release from prison, Reese is one of the writers and poets featured in “SEEN,” an exhibit presented by the criminal justice reform/storytelling project We Are All Criminals in collaboration with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop that opened Thursday in St. Paul. The exhibit is particularly groundbreaking, as the Department of Corrections recently lifted its ban on media photography in prisons, which allowed project photographer Emily Baxter to shoot candid portraits of the writers.
“It really feels very much like they’re in the room with us,” said Jennifer Bowen Hicks, founder and artistic director of the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. “Emily captured their spirit beautifully and they were really vulnerable and generous, so I think the way you see them is the way we experience them, so it does feel like they’re here with us. They’re incredible storytellers and really fun students to be with. The fuel of all of this is the men and women right now who are experiencing the effects of incarceration.”
As attendees of the 2019 Facing Race Awards gathered to celebrate community leaders Thursday evening in St. Paul, Bowens Hicks and Baxter were simultaneously unveiling the straight-out-of-the-printer-boxes poster works that made up the opening night of the SEEN exhibit, which will land at the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council building in St. Paul for three months starting in November.
MinnPost took in opening night at the InterContinental Saint Paul Riverfront Hotel, in words and photos:
Emily Baxter, left, photographer for We Are All Criminals and the “SEEN” project, and Jennifer Bowen Hicks, founder and artistic director of the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop.
Bowen Hicks: “This is the first time since we’ve worked with the writers in state facilities that they’ve had their words and images paired together in the world [with] their legal names. They’re incredible writers. Many of them have published their work and won awards, and they can publish their work quietly but it’s not as often seen. Pairing it with We Are All Criminals and Emily Baxter’s photos has a humanizing effect, showing the artistry and showing the complexity of the work they’re doing alongside their faces in a setting that is less connected to prison, and I think it helps people see them as the full humans that they are, and escape the label of [felon or incarcerated] or whatever words people choose to use.
“Like any of us, they have complicated stories and I wouldn’t say that they are any more or less complicated than ours, but they’re reduced to a monolith when they go to prison. Suddenly those stories are completely erased, or ignored. Society simplifies them, and though they can tell those stories behind the bars, if people aren’t there to listen, or if they can’t be heard, it’s pretty complicated for anyone to believe that their stories are as rich and complex as ours. But when you read their words, you see that they absolutely have the chops to tell their stories. Some of the best writers in the state of Minnesota are actually in our prisons, and they’ve got the publications to prove it, so it’s really exciting for people to get to see their faces and their names alongside their art.”
Baxter: “Mass incarceration is dependent upon the erasure of human beings, the ignoring of their humanity. That’s the only way we can cage them in our backyards and forget about them. This project brings people out from behind prison walls and into exquisite spaces like this. What I love most about it is that it’s not just one writer that’s here. It’s a collective.
“They’ve approved all of the photographs and the pairing of the words with the photographs, and it’s been a very collaborative, open and incredibly difficult project, just because communicating through and across prison walls is difficult. But we want them to be here and a part of the process and to have their voices heard and their faces seen and their humanity and warmth recognized.
“It’s a beautiful community that the writers have created at Shakopee and Stillwater, and there’s something really special about bringing their communities here and expanding that community and knowledge scope of care to include the people who are attending tonight’s event.”
Currently on display at the InterContinental Saint Paul Riverfront Hotel, the “SEEN” exhibit will land at the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council building in St. Paul for three months starting in November.
Kevin Reese, whose poem “What Came Looking For Me” won a poetry award from the Association Of Writers and Writing Program in 2018, with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop appearing side-by-side with entrants and winners from prestigious colleges and universities.
“I served 14-and-a-half years inside a prison, and inside a prison you don’t have a voice, right? But you have a lot of pens, and a lot of papers and a lot of pads around. I was actually turned on by one of the original Stillwater collectives, my writing hero, Ezekiel Caligiuri.
“He introduced me to writing. I used to write because it was a way to communicate with family and friends. I grew up writing raps, and he was one of the first people who identified me like, ‘Kev, you know you’re a poet?’ I’m, ‘What do you mean I’m a poet?’ And he read me some of his poetry and I was like, ‘I can do that. I’ve lived that.’ I understood not necessarily the words, but the energy and the spirit of it connecting me. And I’m kind of competitive, so I was like, ‘I can do that. That’s dope, but I’ll see you next week.’
“He introduced me to Jennifer Bowen Hicks and the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, and this is where I understood that writing is a community, and that there’s a thing called a literary community of people who write and exchange energy and spark the humanity in each other like he did with me. And I was embraced by this community and supported and told, ‘Kevin, you’re a writer.’ Because I was in prison, and they were saying, ‘No, you’re a prisoner,’ but I had this other space where people were saying, ‘Kevin, you’re a writer and a poet,’ so I’m, ‘I’m a writer, I’m a poet; I’m a writer, I’m a poet; I’m a writer, I’m a poet,” and the ‘SEEN’ project was a really amazing project because it’s part of that [process] where it helps me transcend some of those other stigmas that they’re called — ‘prisoner,’ ‘inmate,’ any of those things, and begin to be ‘artists,’ and ‘writers,’ and ‘poets.’
“All of these men I know, and for me to see them here, in a new light … And it’s like, ‘No, we’re writers. We’re poets.’ I ate prison burritos with these guys, and we’re bigger than that space.
“I just got out 68 days ago. I come to a swanky place like this and people are asking me, ‘Kevin, how are you doing?’ And I’m saying, ironically enough I’m OK, but don’t leave yet because that’s only part of the answer. The rest of the answer is I’m OK because of the result of something, the result of a community that was calling me writer and poet before I left [prison]. So I walk in here tonight and I’m like, ‘I’m a writer.’ So I meet you and I have this interview with you and it’s like, ‘Actually, I AM a writer, man. Nice to meet you: Kevin Reese, nice to have this interview with you.’”
Excerpt from “Coming to America,” by Sarith, reprinted courtesy of the author and the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop:
Every refugee in prison has a unique, compelling story. Each varied story shares one traumatic theme: growing up in the midst of violence brought by war or genocide. Fearing for our lives, we flee our homelands. For years we drifted from camp to camp in foreign countries—I from Cambodia to Thailand, then to the Philippines, my friend, Omu, from South Sudan to Ethiopia then to Kenya—before being resettled in the United States. Omu and I came to America to find freedom. Instead, we find ourselves locked up. Maybe that’s why we both love the movie Coming To America, for its reversed version of our personal story.
Akim, the main character played by Eddie Murphy, came to New York to break away from his royal boredom.
We ran away from war and genocide.
Akim found his queen.
We found prison.
“Ancestors of the North” by Dawn, reprinted courtesy of the author and the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop:
Deep into the night I hear council’s query
transported to tranquility
Guided by Wisdom’s gentle voices
the quest of daytime’s meanings
Warn against illusions; test heart’s Truth
dreams steeped in embracing image
Mysterious veil of past and future
Laced in Ancestral love’s adulation
When I am lost, they find me
When in flight, they join me
When I sleep, they hold me
Ancestors of the North
“This Is Where” by Louise, reprinted courtesy of the author and the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop:
I’m from Bineshi’s bloodline
That’s Bill Baker if you don’t speak Ojibwemowin.*
Ni migizi dodem. **
I’m from sitting on green boxes on
6-mile corner, watching cars go by.
Sometimes their four doors didn’t match.
I’m from Packers games on Sundays, Greyhound trips for the
holidays, and Easter baskets with Karla.
I’m from women with the same last name and a father
None of us knew.
I’m from the woods: northern.
Where pines and birch bark blanket
both bends of tribal roads,
paved and gravel.
I’m from a single-parent household.
Michael Jackson cassette tapes, Purple Rain posters, and latchkey kids
I’m from Title V programs. Commods on pantry shelves,
cucumbers grown in
grandpa Jake’s garden, and a
mean ol’ dog named Turkey
I’m from “crying won’t change anything” and you
“should’ve known better”
I’m from where silence is normal and
Hugs are warm and forced Catholicism still
weighs heavy on my mother’s shoulders.
At 73—the burden has lightened.
This is where I’ll always return.
**I am eagle clan.
“American School” by Fong, reprinted courtesy of the author and the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop:
I cried my first day in American school—
Denver, Pennsylvania—no one like me in American school
My spirit flew back to those huts in Thailand’s refugee camp
As tears washed my face, in American School
Where are my friends with dried snot across their faces?
Why my parents left me alone—in American School?
A little girl with white hair and blue eyes grabbed me, like she
was kidnapping me
I didn’t know then and there that it was called a “Hug,” in
We would become best friends and I kidnapped her every day—
She would giggle when I annunciated A-B-C and 1-2-3 in American School
When we have to move again—I again despise them
I could not leave that blue-eyed girl behind in American School
Fong—go and hug her for the last time
Soon she will forget about you at this American School
Excerpt from “The Brief Artist Bio” by Fresh, reprinted courtesy of the author and the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop:
If I choose to paint a series of landscapes or wildlife paintings, then the mere fact that those paintings were filtered through my eyes and interpreted by my hand make them urban, street, and hip-hop in essence.
Excerpt from “RANT” by Bino, reprinted courtesy of the author and the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop:
While I was conversating with a scholar I said the word conversating and they said to me, “You know that’s not a word.” I said “Yeah. That’s too bad.”
I was typing a poem in Microsoft Office and used the word unhospitable. Microsoft placed a red squiggly line under it, informing me that unhospitable is not a word. I right clicked it and added it to my computer’s dictionary. Now it’s a word. One day I was conversating with an intelligent thug and he assured I mistakenly misused a word, which he took upon himself to correct me on. I said to him, “People misuse the N-Word every day-all day.” But, then again, maybe they’re not misusing it at all.
On a different day while a group of intellects were conversating I referred to white people as Caucasians. They told me, “That’s a made up word.” I said, “All words are made up.”
There wasn’t much disagreement after that.