Sean J. White arrived to prison in 1997 at the age of nineteen. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous journals, most recently Xanadu, Natural Bridge, and Connecticut River Review. He has previously won awards from PEN American Center’s Writing Awards for Prisoners, honorable mention for poetry in 2013 and second place for drama in 2014. He is a fine artist as well as writer.
With Sean being an incarcerated writer, the interview we have below is a little different from traditional Quick Temper interviews. PEN America posed Sean questions about how the literary community can engage with incarcerated writers, and this is the response he had. We implore you to read it, and pursue the ways in the Sean implores for more inclusivity.
What are your hopes for how your work is received by literary community on the outside?
Bright lights, big city. I aspire to fame inasmuch as most people do. Who in their life has not entertained a daydream of being a high-profile artist? I want to someday do an interview on Fresh Air, and be featured on a segment of the PBS Newshour. Such things, however, do not occur without people, that is, if no one hears or sees my work, the work will remain confined to the limits of my existence. Of course, I had better put together damn good work if I want recognition.
I want notoriety and acclaim within the literary community because I have this dream that if my work becomes significant enough it will help me get out of prison–be it commutation, or parole, or whatever. Is that realistic, or does it fall within the theme of David Hammons’ “Higher Goals” sculpture? At the same time anything I achieve affects the collective. With a spotlight, prison and the issues of mass incarceration appear in the background. To some extent some people will take an interest in at least learning more about my circumstances inasmuch as a person reading Jhumpa Lahiri takes an interest in India. Any level of fame I gain also gives me a platform to highlight prison issues.
In what ways can you envision a lasting connection with literary community outside the walls? From your perspective, what can we do to be more inclusive, or to help shift the narrative?
The incarcerated are famished for connection, and connection requires dialog. Outside
of prison people go to where the literary community congregates–readings, bookstores, workshops, et cetera. We have little of that here, and that which we do is typically brought from the outside. I feel it necessary to say that although some in prison have less than ideal intent, most have a genuine desire to have a reciprocal relationship (I use that word in the broadest sense) with those who communicate and connect with them.
Additionally, gatekeeping (in the literal and metaphorical sense) creates issues. Prison staff deny access at times to those wishing to say, run a workshop, and impose numerous restrictions on those they do let in. From the literary community gatekeeping occurs because of the sheer volume of requests — insufficient money, insufficient time.
For anything to succeed requires grassroots development. That is, if a non-incarcerated writer “adopts” one incarcerated writer into his or her circle, or a bookstore “adopts” twenty five to fifty incarcerated writers, eventually the majority receive the connection they need and desire as enough people and venues participate. The problems always develop because the desire/need for connection by the incarcerated exceeds the capacity of any one person, organization, or venue.
All that stated, I have three suggestions to make a more lasting connection between incarcerated writers and the literary community.
First, bring more workshops and reading to jails and prisons. The poet Bruce Dethlefsen visited New Lisbon Corr. Inst. several times while I resided there. He would read a few poems, then issue prompts the results of which we could share with the group. Unfortunately, he is one man, and there are over a hundred prisons, correctional centers, and county jails in Wisconsin alone. That puts the national number well in the thousands.
Second, newsletters. A regular compilation of news and notes for and about incarcerated writers. It could lead to a journal exclusively for the incarcerated. Finding places for prisoner writers to have their work seen (if not published) is imperative.
Finally, I would suggest something akin to PEN’S mentorship program, though on a grander scale. It would provide more inclusion in the literary community. Unfortunately, anonymity costs money. However, in a system operated by, say, a bookstore, such correspondents could pay for postage and use the address of the venue that a person might visit regularly any way. In those cases where a prisoner has access to Corrlinks (an electronic messaging service–growing more frequent in application) or something similar, a postcard could be sent with a name and email address. The likelihood of potential crimes perpetrated against a correspondent seem minimal.
Writing a cross-country prisoner would diminish that further, as most blue-collar crimes involve drugs, and what drug-addled mind drives hundreds of miles to burglarize a home (Truman Capote’s book offering an outlier). I hope this helps.