Segment from Land of the Free?

Words Between The Bars

For centuries, people have used letters, memoirs, and other personal writings to document the hardships of incarceration. Seth Michelson has led poetry workshops at prisons for years, and recently worked with a group of unaccompanied, undocumented immigrant youth at a maximum-security juvenile detention center. He says the words of incarcerated poets and writers throughout history echo the experience of immigrant children behind bars today.

Fluorescence by Podington Bear
Evenhanded by Podington Bear

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
View Transcript

Nathan Connolly: For some people, a way to cope with incarceration comes with a pen.

Seth Michelson: I’ve often heard of prison cells and dreary things suppose they were. Where gloom and darkness only dwells to fill the prisoner with the spare. And such they are to carnal hearts who have no savior and no God. The day rolls slow and night departs, and leaves them still a drear abode. But glory to the eternal King, who brought me to this little cell. Sweet pleasure here I find can spring. For here my God delights to dwell.

Nathan Connolly: That’s an excerpt from the poem, My Cell, Number One. It was written by abolitionist George Thompson in the 1840s, while he was imprisoned in Missouri. Thompson is one of many throughout history to document the hardships of incarceration through personal writings. The person you heard read that poem is Seth Michelson. He’s led poetry workshops in prisons for two decades. A few years ago, Michelson started going to a maximum security juvenile detention center, and there he led workshops with undocumented and unaccompanied immigrant children. Michelson recently released a book of poems, written by the kids inside the center. He says poetry became a creative outlet for them and created a unique bond within the group.

Seth Michelson: Poetry is particularly available to all of the participants, whether literate or otherwise, and according to the office of refugee resettlement, these young teens are a range in age from 13 to 17 years old, and average a second grade education. They were orphaned at a young age and grew up on some of the most violent streets of the hemisphere of the Americas. And didn’t have the literary, or let’s say, academic self confidence to think of themselves as poets, but were quickly disabused of that by their peers and with a little bit of encouragement from me. In realizing like the Mexican aphorism says, del poeta y el loco, todos tenemos un poco, of the poet and the crazy man, we all have a little bit, and saying let’s all access those things.

Seth Michelson: You don’t need to be literate to be a poet, and especially the prison writing. Histories tell us across the globe that literacy is not a foundational necessity of partaking in these important, nourishing, transformational communities of writers, in situations of immobilization and incarceration.

Nathan Connolly: I spoke more with Michelson about the history of prison writing in the US. We discussed some poets who have written about incarceration, and parallels Michelson sees to the words of the immigrant children in detention centers today. We first discussed the poet Etheridge Knight. He was convicted of robbery in 1960 and spent eight years in the Indiana State Prison. Upon his release he published a collection of works about his time incarcerated. Here, Michelson’s reading Knight’s piece, called To Make A Poem In Prison.

Seth Michelson: “It’s hard to make a poem in prison. The air lends itself not to the singer. The seasons creep by unseen, and spark no fresh fires. Soft words are rare, and drunk, drunk, against the clang of keys. Wide eyes stare flat zeroes, and plead only for pity. Pity is not for the poet, yet poems must be primed. Here is not even sadness for singing. Not even a beautiful rage, rage. No birds are winging. The air is empty of laughter, and love? Why love has flown. Love has gone to glitten.”

Nathan Connolly: So, to what extent does that poem in Knight’s words echo some of what you’ve observed through your workshops?

Seth Michelson: Well, it speaks to something that I’ve experienced in the workshops and it also pervades a lot of the writing coming from prisons, and writing of and about prisons. And in the particular case of Dreaming America and the workshops that I had the privilege to enjoy with these very special young writers, some of the best young writers I’ve ever worked with, you can see that despair. But here’s a poem by a young child in one of the two maximum security detention centers in the United States for undocumented, unaccompanied youth called Olvidó in Spanish, translated as I Forget.

Seth Michelson: “Without reason to exist, I often forget that I am real. And this makes ache the soul that I don’t have or that can’t find me as I wonder somewhere else.” So you can see a certain level of existential despair. And that despair pervades the poems in the book, and in the workshop, and in the [ouverus 00:29:34] of so many or the works of writing by so many incarcerated peoples. And another one, this one’s called El Casamiento, which means marriage.

Seth Michelson: “Yesterday in my cell, my pal asked, man, don’t you wanna marry life forever? And I answered, why marry life if I can’t divorce death?” So this oppressive sense of mortality of the captivity of the isolation of the captive body, and the suffering.

Nathan Connolly: It’s a testament too, to the universality of an experience that we tend to treat as particular, right? I mean the migrant, or the so-called refugee experience gets very small column in the newspaper, or it gets treated as a kind of add on, or a cognate to more mainstream conversations. And there’s something about, one the brevity, and obviously the power and the themes in the works that you’ve just shared. I mean the Olvidó for instance in thinking about forgetting, and when the prison asked is as designed, is meant to make you not see and forget these people. So the idea that somebody behind bars is literally forgetting themself as a consequence of the prison’s own makeup and design and power. It’s extraordinary, it’s extraordinary.

Nathan Connolly: I’d like if we could look at another poem, and maybe do a similar kind of move in terms of this connection. This is a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks. Certainly someone who’s far more known. Certainly not forgotten, we’re lucky to say. She wrote a poem in 1981 called To Prisoners. Can you share that with us?

Seth Michelson: Sure, I love her work. I call for you cultivation of strength in the dark. Dark gardening in the vertigo cold. In the hot paralysis. Under the wolves and coyotes of particular silences. Where it is dry. Where it is dry. I call for you cultivation of victory. Over long blows that you want to give and blows you are going to get. Over what wants to crumble you down, to sicken you. I call for you cultivation of strength to heal and enhance in the non-cheering dark, in the many, many mornings after in the chalk and choke.

Nathan Connolly: What sticks out to you about this? Least one thing.

Seth Michelson: A deep empathy. A deep love for others, which is what poetry can lead us towards. To discovering Jacques Derrida, French writer who loved poetry, and wrote philosophy, talks about poetry is a way of tracing the heart of the other, and it’s certainly true in our workshop. We have children coming together from multiple nations, countries of origin, converging on a table. Maybe having overlapping histories in certain ways, socially, politically, or deritically within the carceral system, and coming to seek a better life, pursuing the so-called American dream. And then in a workshop, exhausted, bleary eyed, terrified often struggling to endure the conditions of captivity, coming together and connecting deeply. And the poetry is groping for that. She’s reaching out the embrace the incarcerated reader, right? The call for him or her, and then also like we talked earlier, the specifics of tropes in poetry.

Seth Michelson: So here’s there’s repetition that’s so very, very powerful. We saw in Etheridge Knight, too. And this use of repetition that arrests while also intensifying. And so I think it’s the combination of the tropes with that deep love that she’s sharing so courageously.

Nathan Connolly: So we have an intimate connection with prisons and incarcerated people, even when we don’t always acknowledge it. And it’s no exaggeration to say that some of our most important breakthroughs in the world of letters are actually indebted to the thought work of those behind bars. I’m thinking for instance of someone like Martin Luther King, who wrote Letter From A Birmingham Jail, which was obviously a scathing critique of liberalism and liberal politics, that had a variety of different affects and consequences in the way that people thought about racism and its connection to seemingly political normalcy.

Nathan Connolly: I’m very curious to get your sense of somebody who spent a lot of time meditating and working in this area very deeply. What’s your sense of our appreciation of the prison as a place of knowledge production, as a bibliography that we already are dependent on, and is there some connection between the work that you’re doing now and that tradition of building a world of letters from the cage outward?

Seth Michelson: It’s inspiring me to think in multiple directions. The first thing though is probably a kind of warning to our listeners against romanticizing prison. And there’s real lived material violence against these bodies that’s excrutiating. That said, another important qualifier is to think of carefully about the exceptionalism of these fabulous and deeply influential writers that course through our minds, even unknowingly to many. Like Dr. King, in that not all people discovering new modes of writing in prison, and going to become canonical influential thinkers in transnational minds. But that doesn’t invalidate the importance of their prison writing experience, nor the significance of its contribution. Even though it’s more veiled, or less visible, or less known. It’s still partaking in this crucial process. It’s a mode of discovery, and in discovery, one of the things that’s discovered is the transformative power of language itself.

Seth Michelson: And that is to say that we need to work against rhetorics that normalize the caging of humans. You know, many of the young poets in the workshop, they’re realizing that through language, you can at least symbolically question the lived violence of captivity, and start to work against those discourses that normalize it. Where we say, “Ah, yes, these bodies need to have their rights suspended. They need to be removed from the social. Relocated to the space that immures them, that captures them within walls, and that incapacitates them, right?” Is incarceration the best answer to migration? And I think poetry can help us to find new language to sort of discover what we might formulate as alternative modes of understanding and being.

Nathan Connolly: Seth Michelson is a poet and a Professor of Spanish at Washington and Lee University. He’s also editor of the book of poetry called Dreaming America: Voices of Undocumented Youth in Maximum-Security Detention.

Joann Freeman: Well, that’s gonna do it for us today. Do get in touch. You’ll find us at Or, send us an email to Follow us on Facebook and Twitter @BackStoryRadio. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.

Speaker 1: BackStory is produced at Virginia Humanities. Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Provost Office at the University of Virginia, the Joseph and Robert Cornell memorial Foundation, and the Johns Hopkins University. Additional support is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the Arts, the Humanities, and the Environment.

Speaker 9: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Ed Ayers is Professor of the Humanities and Professor Emeritus at the University of Richmond. Joann Freeman is Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University. Nathan Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams Associate Professor of History at the Johns Hopkins University. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for Virginia Humanities.