24 November 2016

Messages in a Bottle, or Notes from the Pen

For the next several days, our band of authors will be writing about writing— for magazines, especially non-mystery magazines. We’ll have a couple of surprises and a lot of expertize. Thanks to Eve for kicking off the program with non-traditional penmanship. You'll see.
by Eve Fisher

I just got back from a weekend workshop at the local penitentiary, which (as always) was full of interesting moments, hard work, and definite characters.  If nothing else, the weekend confirmed (even if I do say so myself) that I really nailed the young meth-head who's the centerpiece of my latest story, "Iron Chef", in the November, 2016 issue of AHMM.  ("He thinks he's a lady's man because he wants to get laid," and more here...)

I did not tell the guys that.  Actually, I don't tell them much about my writing, because (1) That's not why I'm there (I'm there to facilitate an Alternatives to Violence Project Workshop, not talk about myself all the time) and (2) most of them don't really want to hear it.  Including the writers.
(Sometimes especially the writers.  Recent dialog between myself and an inmate:
Me: "There's a place on-line that lists publishers and -"
Inmate (interrupting): "I HAVE an agent. Or I will soon."
Me: "Okay."
Inmate: "Yeah.")
And there are a lot of writers (and artists) at the pen.  Interestingly, I haven't met one yet that writes mystery or crime stories.  I'm not sure if that's because it doesn't interest them, or they don't know how to do it, or if they're afraid if they put anything in writing, it might be held against them in a court of law.  Like a confession or a plan for future criminal activity...  Anyway, most are poets and/or songwriters.  Some write sci-fi and/or supernatural/horror. And a few write autobiographies.

Getting prison writing published is easier than you might think, thanks to the internet.  Here are just a few of the on-line resources for magazines, newsletters, anthologies and e-zines dedicated to prisoners' writing:

From South Dakota, The Prisoners for Prevention blog.
The Prisoner Poetry Page.
The on-line Prison Poetry Workshop podcasts.
The Prisoner Express which publishes poetry, journals, essays, etc.

One of the main problems, of course, for prisoners is that these days so many places only accept on-line submissions, and access to the internet is hard to get in the pen.  And sending out ms. in hard-copy is expensive when you only make 25 cents an hour.  (Not to mention that getting access to a typewriter is hard to come by, too.)  And almost all of the markets specifically set up to publish prisoners' work are non-paying.

In the search for paying markets, Writers' Digest is invaluable to prisoners:  I'd bet there's a (more or less) old, battered copy in every prison library.  I know inmates who've sent stories to Glimmer Train, Analog, Asimov's Science Fiction, and Playboy.  (No, I don't know any who've been accepted yet, but at least they're trying!)  I've read a couple of the stories, and even given a critique here and there. When I am specifically asked.  Again, not every inmate wants to hear any opinion other than that it's a great poem/story/song.  For that matter, not every writer OUT of the pen wants to hear anything else...

Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing from the Pen ProgramAnother place where inmates writers can get published is with the PEN Prison Writing Contest. Prizes and publication in an anthology make this very prestigious.
And, for all of us, let's not forget sites like Angie's Desk and My Little Corner, both of which list anthologies and markets of all genres (although primarily mystery and science-fiction/fantasy).  Thank you, ladies!  Your hard work has opened up markets for us all!

Most of the work the inmates finally do get published is and has been edited by someone outside for content.  What gets passed around in the tier, chow hall, and our sharing circle is unedited, raw, and cannot be reprinted on this family blog.  Besides the poems of suicidal despair (since this is NOT the Gingerbread House of Corrections)

gangsta rap is HUUUUUGE.  Personally, I get bored with gangsta rap, because they all say pretty much the same thing:  ultra-explicit rap symphonies in F Major on drugs, bling, fights, arrests, killings, and sex.
(It's like the prison tattoos:  the first few times you go in the pen, you see these guys who are absolutely COVERED in tattoos, and it's hard to look away.  But after a while, you realize that they're mostly skulls, naked women, snakes, names, etc., in endless repetition, and the only reason you study them is to figure out what gang they're in.)
But there are those stories that show real creativity and thinking, and poems that take your breath away, like the following from PrisonerExpress.org/?mode=poetry

The thirteenth amendment, Amended

by Name Withheld by Request
A coffle of state slaves shuffles
Slowly into the radiant rays
Of dawn's early light.
Spartacus nowhere in sight.
Flight scarred all, and bone
Weary from strife and stress,
Destined to toil under the sun til
Twilight's last gleaming brings rest.

The tools are issued:
One hoe per man, each
Dull the blade, each
Seven pounds of sweat-stained misery,
Each, in proper hands,
Seven pounds of peril.

Let there be no peril today, we pray:
No quick and vicious fights, where, sweat stinging,
Fists flying, we cull living from dying:
No riots fought for fast forgot reasons__
Swinging steel scintillating in sunlight,
Blood gouting from the too slow heads__
Brown, black, white___
Our blood ruby red and thick with life,
No respecter of color or creed.

Let there be no peril today, we pray;
No dry crackling reports of leaden soldiers,
Chasing wisps of smoke from forge fashioned barrels,
Speaking the ancient tongue of Authority;
Guns guardgripped fast by bossfists,
In confederate gray cloths,
Their fire felling friends, freeing foes.

Let there be no peril today, we pray:
Today only__hard work, for no pay.

"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except
as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall
have been duly convicted, shall exist within the
United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

So let it be rewritten.
So let it, at last, be done.


  1. Thanks for sharing this, Eve--fascinating stuff. It reminds me that I got a letter from an inmate with some questions about writing, and in the midst of various things, I've been negligent in responding. Need to make up for that soon. Appreciate your work and your perspectives here.

  2. Insightful as always and the Thirteenth Amendment, Amended is truly terrific

  3. Thanks for this piece, Eve, and for the important work you're doing in the prisons. That must take incredible emotional stamina.

    In this context, it seems almost frivolous to wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving. But I'm now more aware of yet another reason I have to be grateful.

  4. Thanks, Art; and yes, Janice, I LOVE "The Thirteenth Amendment, Amended". Few people realize that that little clause is still in there, nor that that's the reason why so many blacks were (and still are) stopped and jailed over minor (as well as major) infractions - keep those prisons full so the free labor force (they used to call them chain-gangs) are still working. B.K., when I come home from a workshop, I am always so grateful that I can get out, and that I have a home to go to.

  5. It's a tough job you do, Eve.

    On a visit to Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock Magazine offices, I learned that prisoners occasionally send in sample art work seeking commissions. I have no idea what their policy is, but clearly prisoners have talents they could use in non-criminal ways.

    Thanks for leading off the series, Eve, and Happy Thanksgiving.

  6. Eve, I've been meaning to tell you that I met the "Iron Chef" (AHMM November 2016) a couple of decades ago in Rapid City. Marlo had been a cook at the D&E Cafe in Pierre until he decided to burgle their safe one night. He then got sent to Yankton as their prison chef. After he got out, he ran into me and got to go back and cook for the South Dakota prison system again. Nice guy, but he had a couple of problems he couldn't handle.

    As for the 13th Amendment poem, Colorado just voted to leave the terms about slavery and involuntary servitude in the state constitution because of confusion that courts might not be able to sentence criminals to community service any longer if those terms were removed from the state constitution. The author of that poem was more timely than he knew.

    Thanks for the article.

  7. I've known my share of prisoners, Eve, and the poem sounds true-to-life from what I heard! And yes, thanks for the work you do there! (Oh, and some of the inmates/ex-inmates I worked with called the minimum-security place they had just been in "Candyland!") Happy Thanksgiving!

  8. Happy Thanksgiving, Eve & thank you for what you do. Al Nussbaum was a bank robber from Buffalo who served time in the 1960s or thereabouts & while he was incarcerated, submitted stories by snail mail to AHMM and/or EQMM. Can't remember which, since I've never been published in either one ... I've read several of his stories & was very impressed.

  9. I agree with what Jeff and Elizabeth said… bless you.

    I have to look up about the 13th amendment.

    Elizabeth, are you a writer?

  10. Great piece and powerful poem. Elizabeth, the Nussbaum story is very complicated and interesting. When he was on the run from the cops he made a fan phone call to Dan J. Marlowe, mystery writer. When he was in prison Marlowe helped him start his writing career. Later Marlowe had a stroke that wiped out his entire memory and Nussbaum helped him in his last years. Marlowe's biography is GUNSHOTS IN ANOTHER ROOM. You can also read essays the two wrote about it in a book called I, Witness, edited by Brian Garfield.

  11. Oh, R.T., "Iron Chefs" are everywhere, aren't they?
    Thanks Leigh, Jeff, Elizabeth, and Rob!

  12. Eve, this is brilliant. Thank you so much for doing the work and writing about it. Thank you to the prisoner for sharing the poem.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>