New York: Voices Unbroken


A poet famous for writing about the civil rights movement and for epitomizing black arts movement feminism, Sonia Sanchez passed through Attica’s gates 8 years after its legendary 1971 uprising. Though she’d never been incarcerated herself, for several years, she’d been married to widely praised prison poet Etheridge Knight. As Sanchez took the stage for a reading, memories of Attica’s insurrection and its casualties must have still lingered. In this episode of PPW, we go looking for prison poetry and prisoner poets in New York, visiting legendary institutions like Riker’s Island jail and Attica prison, to discover poetry as transformation.

Segment – A
McGregor prison is a tough place. According to the Correctional Association of New York, about 54 percent of its inmates are serving time for violent offenses. Yet, poet Cara Benson opens a session of the poetry workshop at the medium security prison by asking a group of all male prisoners to write a feminist poem. As we get to know this group, we see how well it cultivates sensitivity.

Segment – B
Bronx native and writer Victoria Sammartino takes us through a writing exercise that utilizes anaphora— and also explains what that is. Afterward, we take a drive with Derrick Anderson, a former McGregor poet whose family is facing eviction, and who isn’t sure he’ll be able to find a job in time to prevent it. With all the stress and time constraints in his life, he’s found that the easiest way to continue writing and sharing poetry is by text message. The guy on the receiving end of those digital missives is Sean Dalpiaz, another former inmate.

Patrick Mathieu says that, back in the 90s, he was always wishing he had more time to pursue his myriad interests. When he was sentenced to 10 years in prison, he wondered if the universe had finally answered his prayers, and couldn’t stop laughing. Angie Ortiz, on the other hand, found nothing funny about her situation. Incarcerated at Rikers Island while she was pregnant, she wound up  giving birth in shackles. Both ex-offenders use  poetry to relay their experiences.

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