Julie Rada, left, is a theater maker and educator who has published on prison arts practice and is affiliate faculty at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Elijah Null, center, has taught English and humanities at the high school and college levels and courses with the Prison Arts Initiative. Suzi Q. Smith, right, is a poet and affiliate faculty at Regis University’s Mile High MFA, Lighthouse Writers Workshop and the Prison Arts Initiative.
Julie Rada answered a few questions for the co-editors.
SunLit: Tell us this book’s backstory. How did the idea for involving incarcerated writers originate?
Julie Rada, co-editor: The DU Prison Arts Initiative (DU PAI) was founded in 2017 and provides in-person programming to prisons around the state. With COVID-19, we worked alongside the Colorado Department of Corrections to shift our model to remote learning. This was not easy in a system in which prison residents have little access to technology, computers, no access to internet, etc.
What prior to the pandemic consisted of custom 12-week classes designed for each facility delivered by arts-based practitioners of various disciplines (dance, writing, theater, visual art), became a single class delivered to all facilities via video lecture with independent work submitted weekly by participants.
At the time, I was the Director of Programming for DU PAI and in practice this meant developing a curriculum with one or two facilitators, delivering folders of readings and materials for each participant and driving these folders to all of the participating prisons around the state, making weekly video recordings, burning about 12-24 DVD’s per week, mailing them out to each facility where they would be put on the closed-circuit TV channel for the facility, and residents would watch these lectures.
Then they would complete homework, often writing by hand, and submit it to facility staff. The staff would then scan the homework and upload it to a shared drive that DU PAI could access. I would then disseminate this homework to about 10 different homework respondents, educators and writers with experience in the course content who would grade and respond with a robust narrative to every individual’s work.
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I would gather all of these and email them to staff who would then print them and hand deliver these responses to each person in their cell. We did this every week. It was a many-step Herculean effort with a lot of humans involved, with the DU PAI team and the CDOC team going above and beyond, working hard to get high-quality arts education to every individual participant. We usually had between 150-175 participants across the state in each of these correspondence courses. We delivered three courses in this manner, from mid-2020 through mid-2021.
“Tell It Slant” was the title of the second course delivered in this way (“Imagining Worlds: Reading and Writing Plays “was the first and “Drawing in Place “was the third). Local writers Suzi Q. Smith and Elijah Null co-facilitated the course. With “Imagining Worlds,” the DU PAI team made the collective decision to try a self-published volume of competitively-selected 10-page plays and put them in an anthology by the same name, published under DU PAI’s LuxLit Press. That book was short-listed for the 2020 Colorado Book Awards.
We wanted to push forward with the idea of an anthology again with “Tell It Slant.” This was a creative flash nonfiction course and the writing that was coming out of it was incredible. We invited anyone who completed the class and wanted to submit to do so.
This time it was not a competitive process. We reviewed and edited all the personal essays in the book with a small team of DU PAI staff. The next step was to send all the writing to CDOC for review (to check for issues of security, concerns for people harmed, etc.) and we sent along to Sonya Unrein for layout, and then to be published through Amazon’s self-publishing mechanism. We commissioned the cover art by Jerry Martinez, an artist who had recently gotten out of prison.
Every person involved in the course got a copy of the anthology, as did a member of their family.
SunLit: Place this excerpt in context. Who wrote it and how does it fit into the book as a whole?
Rada: This excerpt was written by Brett Phillips, at the time at Sterling Correctional Facility. Brett has been involved in DU PAI’s programming at Sterling since the beginning. He played the lead role of Randle McMurphy in DU PAI’s production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and has been a pillar of shaping what DU PAI looks like behind the walls.
What I love about Brett’s piece, “Impact,” is the action and physicality, the nuanced masculinity, and the centering of love and sensitivity. In this short piece, Brett exemplifies a lot of what I have experienced as an arts practitioner going into prisons (men’s prisons, in this case). There is a kind of rawness blended with kindness, exuberant energy combined with tenderness. It’s a great piece of creative nonfiction, a tight and descriptive essay. And as someone who knows Brett fairly well, it’s Brett all the way. I’m sure he’ll say more.
SunLit: How did you bring this prison project to completion? What hurdles did you face and how did you overcome them?
Rada: The hurdles were primarily logistical in the delivery of the course. There were technical issues with the lectures and so some facilities had lower participation simply because there were issues with the TVs in the units and participants could not complete the work.
It was a massive coordination effort, and I am indebted to so many who were instrumental in pulling it off. On the DU PAI team: Joan Dieter-Mazza, Tess Neel, Nicholle Harris, Dan Manzanares, Madalyne Heiken, and countless affiliate faculty. On the CDOC side, there were so many staff and administrators who helped all while also dealing with all the challenges of COVID.
That was the other major hurdle, simply the alienation, fear, and loss that came with the pandemic. Some participants sent us heartfelt letters saying they could not complete the course because of their own illness or their worries about loved ones.
On the other hand, at a time when depression was high (both inside and outside the walls) and morale was very low, a lot of participants expressed that their experience with “Tell It Slant” was like a lifeline.
Inmate author Brett Phillips, who wrote the essay “Impact,” also responded to a few questions. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
SunLit: What influences and/or experiences informed your piece before you sat down to write?
Brett Phillips: There is so much in life that informs writing and shapes a writer. I know that being incarcerated has really fed my maturation process, and brought into sharp detail the areas in which I need to grow and the things I need to work on to strengthen my emotional and spiritual life. The University of Denver’s Prison Arts Initiative (DU PAI) has been instrumental in that development and growth.
I first experienced DU PAI through gentle urging from my cell mate. He asked me if I would like to take part in a theater ensemble class and I distinctly remember telling him, “Hell no.” He then informed me that he had already signed me up for the class and that I should try it out. I decided I would give it one week to see what the class was about.
While in the class I met Dr. Ashley Hamilton, executive director and co-founder of DU PAI, and assistant professor in the theater department at the University of Denver. She asked us to do crazy things in prison, like closing your eyes in a room full of felons, sharing about yourself to people you hardly know, allowing yourself to be vulnerable — crazy.
The craziest part is that I bought in. Full of self-doubt and shame, feeling like I didn’t deserve anything good in my life after all the damage and pain I have caused in the world, I saw the way she treated me, treated us, like we were actual people, capable of and deserving of kindness and goodness and love. Human. We were treated like human beings.
It was completely new to me and at first it was difficult to accept. But there she was, every week, the same person doing and saying the same things and in a world in which the ground is constantly shifting, consistency is an oasis. And I started believing.
Then she brought to us the chance to be in a play, to perform in front of inmates and the public. The play was “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and I was all in. I I decided to try out for a small part (Dr. Spivey) and also be an assistant stage manager.
“Tell It Slant”
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I felt like I could dip my toe into the “uncomfortable” by acting and stay in the shallows of tedium, schedules and record keeping by being in stage management. Dr. Hamilton, who was also the director of the play, had other ideas and asked me to audition for a slightly larger role, Randle McMurphy, one that I not only received, but that I cherish to this day. It was a beautiful experience, one that I will never forget, one that changed my life forever.
When the opportunity arose to take a playwriting class, I jumped on board. In true community fashion, we decided to hold a large workshop in the day hall of a living unit in Sterling Correctional Facility. I know my work would have never been as good as it was without this invaluable feedback. Beyond that, though, was the care and thoughtfulness we held these deeply personal works with, and in doing so, holding each other in compassion and love.
This is the basis for my piece, not just the story of a coach and a young man, but a tale of seeing people exactly where they are and embracing them in their humanity.
SunLit: What were the biggest challenges — either creatively or logistically — that you faced, or surprises you encountered in writing this story?
Phillips: The biggest challenge for me was definitely on the creative side. I fancy myself a writer, having penned hundreds of poems, some of them actually pretty good. The process of crafting a poem comes so naturally to me, finding succinct ways to convey large ideas in such small spaces. I love it. The concept of poetry is romantic and tragic and beautiful to me.
When I started the “Tell it Slant” class, I was surprised how difficult it was to find my voice, to transfer my thoughts into a form I was happy with. This class was about fashioning creative flash nonfiction, a form I had not actually been aware of previous to this. As creative as I thought I was, I was astonished to discover that my brain faced a huge test in converting my memories into a piece that was not only accurate to the actual event, but also interesting and compelling.
I workshopped it to everyone I knew, trying to describe activities that are foreign to most people. Getting into the nitty-gritty of the senses, as well as the mind of a 12-year-old boy undergoing a life changing moment. I think I wrote like 14 drafts before I was happy with the result.
I know for this story in particular I was especially determined to do it justice, because the main character was very important to me, standing tall as a huge influence in my development as a young man. The man was my first football coach.
This story describes my initial practice and the revelation that it is not only OK, but crucial for men to be able to use compassion and warmth as a tool in guiding boys to be men. He was as strong as it gets, physically intimidating and a bigger-than-life persona and yet he showed real care to a boy he didn’t even know. What an amazing testimony to an insecure, undersized kid who just wanted to be a football player.
SunLit: Walk us through your writing process under these very unconventional circumstances. Where, when and how did you write?
Phillips: It is different, I suppose, writing while incarcerated. There is the dull thrum of not-so-white noise provided constantly by your fellow residents, the constant mechanical slamming of doors opening and closing, the invasive click of plastic dominoes on a wooden table, but I imagine that no matter where you are there are distractions aplenty, especially when you are stuck, and looking for one.
I like to write on my bed, a small bunk bed at the back of the room, a sheet metal base that pops every time you get up. Or move. Or roll over. I keep a dictionary and a thesaurus at the end of my sleeping space, handy for quick usage. I write on a tablet of paper with a cheap ballpoint pen that says “Inmate Property” on it.
One thing about being in prison, there is no privacy. None. The most private place that there was in SCF is your cell. It seems like you could shut your door and block out a lot of the hub-bub going on outside, but you have a cell-mate. Now don’t get me wrong, the guy that shares the space with me is great. As a matter of fact we lived together for over eight years, and he is my best friend. But I don’t care how good the living arrangement is, you are still sharing the space, which means that there are interruptions in your process. Did I mention the bathroom is in the room?
I can say this about writing in prison: You have to really want it. There is a level of commitment you need to have and that commitment is tested every day. The journey is worth all of the distraction, I promise you that.
SunLit: What did you want to achieve by participating in this project?
Phillips: Of course I wanted to create a beautiful and meaningful piece of art, and to learn another aspect of that art. The reality, though, is that we, the prison population, more than anything wish for the world to know that we are not the boogie men sensationalized on the TV, that we share our humanity with everyone out there on the street.
Yes, we have made horrific decisions that have impacted many lives, more than we can ever know. And many of us in here are ready to face up to those impacts, knowing that we can’t ever make up for the crimes that we have committed, but willing to try.
I know in my experience, I can never repay the debt that I owe, never right the wrongs that I have caused. What I can do is live my life in a way that honors those that I have harmed, and strive to prevent future harm by spreading care and love into the world around me. This mindset has caused me a lot of turmoil here inside, but also much joy and peace.
The idea of shared humanity, that we all have similar desires — to feel safe, to be loved, to find happiness — means we are all made from the same cloth. Instead of looking at someone and asking, “What’s wrong with that person?” how about we ask, “What happened to that person?”
Projects like this provide opportunities to show the world that you cannot know someone by what they have done. We have to know their story, and find the common ground. That is what I want, what we in DU PAI want.