there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you. - maya angelou
We are perhaps a year or so out until we can secure funding & organizational support, but one of our main priorities is to create/offer safe, reliable spaces where formerly incarcerated & veteran writers can find community & educational support through poetry [without fetishization or judgment]. We want to empower those who have been repeatedly dehumanized, stripped of personal worth from years spent behind bars or in a constant mindset of war with the tools to have their stories/voices heard. We can't erase what's happened to these individuals, but if we can help just one person regain some sense of purpose from their trauma through poetry as they return to civilian life/on the outside, then we'd consider this a huge success. [* not official name of project]
Formerly incarcerated | immigrant | refugee artists
The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Although US accounts for less than 5 percent of the world's population, it has over 22 percent of the world's prisoners. About half of those incarcerated in this country are African American & most of those serving time have been convicted of nonviolent crimes––many for selling marijuana, now legalized in many states.
In 2016, the Prison Policy Initiative estimated that in the United States, about 2,298,300 people were incarcerated out of a population of 323.1 million. This means that 0.71% of the population was behind bars. Of those who were incarcerated, about 1,351,000 people were in state prison, 646,000 in local jails, 211,000 in federal prisons, 34,000 in youth correctional facilities, 33,000 in immigration detention camps, 14,000 in territorial prisons, 5,500 in civil commitment, 2,400 in Indian country jails, and 1,400 in United States military prisons. Please note, these are estimates since our criminal "justice" system remains opaque & it is very likely that these numbers are much higher. But these are not just digits on the screen–these are actual human lives.
The Trump Administration has been on the offensive since Day One toward immigrants, refugees & those seeking asylum. Our government has attempted to ban Muslims from traveling to our country & now the U.S. is separating young children from their parents along our southern border. These barbaric actions are reprehensible. People of color are under constant attack from white supremacy & we must remain vigilant that these lives are not being systematically destroyed. These stories cannot be lost.
It is estimated that 20 to 22 American veterans commit suicide every day upon returning home––an alarming rate that seems to be getting worse while confounding many mental health professionals. More people in the military die by suicide than on the battlefield & exponentially more than their civilian counterparts. This is not a military problem or a troubling "phenomenon"; this is a human tragedy.
We take for granted how many young people, often straight out of high school from small American towns, serve our country in far-flung corners of the world, exposed to unimaginable violence, terror & stress. A majority of veterans experience intense depression & PTSD upon their return, often feeling isolated in their pain & struggle with finding help since our VA system is deeply flawed, if not completely broken. Many are coping with life-altering injuries. Many lack the support system to help them with the next stage of their lives/careers. The majority of those who commit suicide are male & the direct correlation between toxic masculinity & the military cannot be ignored; suicide of women in the military are also on the rise.
Although Poetry Asylum is against war, our veterans cannot be left out to dry, suffering in silence. We have been in conversation with the fine folks at the Minnesota Humanities Center's Veterans' Voice Program to collaborate on future programming. If you are interested in volunteering with us or you know of other similar programs, please get in touch with us!
art as healing | art is universal
For so many marginalized populations, art-making is seen as a luxury––an unfathomably selfish act––or just simply out of reach. Freedom to make art should not be a class or race issue, but the reality is that much of what is considered "fine art" is filtered through a white, supremacist lens. When one is struggling to survive, the idea of art seems ludicrous, but art is life & life is art. Art sustains us. Art is sustenance. Art is our resistance.
We all have the right to free expression instead of being relegated to a mere statistic, but systems of oppression make it nearly impossible for POCI artists to be taken seriously in many art institutions & practices. Poetry Asylum aims to make art a form of connective tissue between & across genres & communities. You don't need a college degree or an MFA to be considered a "legitimate" artist. Art is a language we can all speak & learn. We want to create a network around this idea that art-making is fulfillment of the self; the more we know ourselves, the more we can give back to our communities.
We embody injustice, racism & trauma on a cellular level, but art can heal & promote growth in new, surprising ways. Although we are not trained therapists [Sun Yung is working on her bodywork practice], we believe we can heal these wounds through art & valuing each & every form of expression. We know there is a lot to learn, so we will be in conversation with other organizations & trained volunteers to provide marginalized artists with ways to achieve personal success.