A message from the Richmond City Jail:

Poetry waits for no one. 

Our seminar on poetry is set to begin in late January, but john began hosting readings in the jail almost immediately after we agreed to the course. Today the men were kind  enough to let me sit in while they read. I was there three hours; there wasn’t an awkward silence to be had. 

The writers are incredible, the enthusiasm is higher than anything I’ve ever seen in a classroom, and “reading” is not an adequate word for their performances. And when I say enthusiasm is high, I mean the participants showed up with notebooks full of writing, and wrote poems in the margins throughout the reading, all while giving supportive comments to others as they read their own work. Then they read the poems they’d written in the margins. The men appear to be writing constantly and about everything.  I will write more on this soon.

If you read this site (about 100 of you these days), you know Poetry is one of the few periodicals I read consistently and on repeat. For years I’ve relied on Poetry as a connection to contemporary writing that is portable, accessible to students, and geographically unfettered. I left the jail this afternoon with the overwhelming sense that to see poetry as it is today, at its most immediate and innovative, one has to be willing to go local and to confront the ways we fetter the few bright clear young voices that exist in American letters. 

David Biespiel is wrong. Americans are reading. More than that: they are writing, and they have everything to say about their local and national landscapes. He simply doesn’t have access to them, and they don’t have access to means of publication. 

As a writer and reader I’m incredibly inspired. As a teacher, very intimidated. Our VCU students are going to show up the third week in January and have their asses handed to them on the page. I hope they’re ready.

Launching at the City Jail

Yesterday was my first day at the jail. I sat in on David Coogan‘s prison writing workshop in preparation for my own poetry class this spring. The students were great. The RCJ inmates were great. I am really looking forward to working at the city jail. 

There has a been a lot of talk for the last ten years about our tendency to build schools like prisons. The hallways of the Richmond City Jail are very much like the schools I attended growing up, simply larger. The “school” in the RCJ, however, is nothing like any school I have ever been in. john dooley, education director with the sheriff’s office, has created a precarious paradise in what feels like the very center of the jail. It’s a tiny room, crammed with books, and every inch of wall and furniture space is covered with material for thinking: art, solar system diagrams, mantras, quotes, photos of global civil rights leaders, flags, flowers, more items and words and images than I could write down in the two hours I was there. john fills every chair with students. His programs produce more GEDs than any other in Richmond. 

The room is covered with words like “sanctuary.” john seems to see language as a kind of magic. He places words like “peace” and “thoughtfulness” on chairs and on notebooks as a way of instilling these traits in those who come into his room. He’s using every resource at his disposal to keep students safe during the small amount of time they are afforded to learn. Safety is not easy to accomplish in such an overcrowded and under funded facility. 

Yesterday, the Richmond City Jail. Today, back to VCU. On the docket: Bansky and Allen Ginsberg (click through for the originals):

VCU Students:

I will be teaching a 300-level course on poetry through the English department this spring semester. It will meet at the city jail, and enrollment will be open to VCU students and Richmond City Jail residents. See the course description below. 

I’ll be recruiting students for the course early, because we will need to complete some fall orientation to allow students to enter the jail. Send me an email if you’re interested! kreed@vcu.edu

Image: by Graysky on Flickr. 13 May 2010. Creative Commons. 


This course explores the ability of poetry to communicate experience across wide boundaries. It meets at the city jail, and will offer enrollment both to VCU students and to city jail residents. We will read texts from a diverse set of writers who all use language to translate personal perspectives to an audience that is otherwise inaccessible due to limitations of language, geography, or cultural boundaries. Imprisonment is fundamentally a limitation of access—of inmates to the outside world and vice versa. During our meetings our class we will be afforded a rare exception to this rule, and we will use that time together as an exercise in the particular challenges and joys of a free exchange of ideas.

This class will not be a traditional writers’ workshop. We will use poetry as an exercise in dialog: in confronting and understanding ourselves, our environment, and one another. This work will demand an awareness of our context, a capacity for honesty, and a genuine interest in the experience of others. It will treat poetry not solely as an aesthetic experience, but also as an ethical one.

Our class is framed around one central question: can poetry instigate change? In search of an answer to this question, we will explore the ways language impacts us and others, the power we have when we tell stories, our responsibility as storytellers, and the evolving role of poetry in public discourse. We will read works by, Langston Hughes, John O’Donohue, Paul Muldoon, Jane Hirshfield, Pablo Neruda, Bob Kauffman, Vijay Seshadri, Elizabeth Bishop, Pedro Pietri, Saphire, Margaret Walker, Bob Hicock, and others. Our readings will be selected predominantly from twentieth and twenty-first century writers, and we will supplement poetic works with essays on the role of language in understanding our lives and environments.

 Participants will create portfolios of approximately 6 poems and several short writing assignments that are not only statements of personal experience, but testaments to mutual impact and to language as a product of community. 

What is the Geography of Incarceration in the United States?

What is the Geography of Incarceration in the United States?:


Posted over at FlowingData: “New York University graduate student Josh Begley grabbed 4,916 satellite images of prisons via the Google Maps API and put them all in one place.” Both FD and Begley present the project as data representation, which I don’t quite follow. These are images, that give us no concrete information with which to work. The data on US prisons, of course, is astounding and very difficult to represent for adequate impact. Communicating our exponentiating incarceration rates or the social and economic impacts this system would be a nearly impossible task. 

We frequently consider mapping to be data representation, and there is a very slight sense that these images function as micro-maps. The project would be fascinating paired with density mappings of prisons across the US, but as it stands each image is detached from its location, standing alone as an aerial view of the prison itself. The inner structures, of course, are wholly off limits to us as viewers, so even as architectural representations the images are frustratingly limited.

Begley’s project, however, a tremendously powerful design narrative. We have a wealth of information about city growth and urban design, and on how design can impact or narrate the quality of life of a location’s inhabitants. Armed with the limited information that these spaces house a huge population of people whose mobility is totally restricted, a small number of people with free range, and a very restricted number of visitors, we can interpret a lot about the philosophy of these spaces and of the culture that produces them. In this way, this collection is of incredible value, and will surface in this coming fall seminar’s unit on Richmond history and urban planning.  

I’m hoping to design next year as a service optional course that examines urban social problems and incarceration alongside personal histories. It now looks likely that I will be teaching with Open Minds this coming spring semester. Later this month I’ll be blogging about the structure of two courses: my freshman seminar and a service learning poetry class that will meet in the city jail. 


Sub-images generated with Google Static Maps API and re-edited by Josh Begley. Prison Map. n.d. (site est. 2012). 12 June 2012. 

One in One Hundred: Behind Bars in America.” Public Safety Performance Project, The Pew Center on the States. 28 Feb. 2008.