“If any of us hopes to survive,” the poet June Jordan wrote, “s/he must meet the extremity of the American female condition with immediate and political response.” The extremity of the American female condition Jordan speaks of is perhaps nowhere as excruciatingly evident as in the American prison system. Each year, the PEN Prison Writing Awards publishes online and in print some of the extraordinary writing incarcerated Americans submit each year for the cash awards. Yet the lack of gender parity that persists in many American literary awards program has been an issue with the PEN Prison Writing initiative as well. Last year, no women were among the winners. There are far more men incarcerated each year than women, but the gender disparity the awards program sees in submissions more than exceeds the population imbalance in the American prison system.
To address this issue, VIDA outreach director Lynn Melnick asked me to serve as a liaison to the committee to see what could be done to encourage more incarcerated women to submit their writing, as I’ve taught in and written about the prison system, and also written about my mother’s arrest, its impact on her life and on my own. I have several ideas about how we might elicit more submissions, but in this first post for VIDA I’ll just speak about my first idea, as it is already in the works, thanks to the excellent help of Helen Hofling and Rosie Achorn-Rubenstein, editors for the PEN American Journal and members of the Prison Writing Committee. We’ve designed and printed hundreds of copies of the card below. We hope to distribute the cards as widely as possible through teachers and writers who work in or visit women’s prisons. If you or anyone you know will be visiting or teaching in a women’s prison and could help distribute the cards, please contact Helen at Helenhofling@gmail.com. PEN will be open to submissions for next year’s awards through the first of September but submissions come in all year and any writing that arrives past the deadline is considered for the following contest.
Idra Novey is the author of Exit, Civilian, selected for the 2011 National Poetry Series, and The Next Country. A writer/artist collaboration with Erica Baum, Clarice: The Visitor, will be out this spring. She teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Princeton University.