The Committee for Advocacy for Incarcerated People: An Interview with Amanda Hadlock, Brett Hanley, and Anthony Borruso
In the fall of 2021, members of Southeast Review’s masthead met and discussed a new initiative: The Committee for Advocacy for Incarcerated People. It was inspired in part due to previous work by FSU alum Dyan Neary, a former SER Nonfiction Editor, who began holding writing workshops with incarcerated writers in 2019, as well as SER’s long-standing goal of inviting submissions from incarcerated writers. Spearheaded by Amanda Hadlock, SER’s Assistant Editor, the committee planned a two-day writing workshop with the nearby women’s prison, Gadsden Correctional Facility. Following the completion of the workshop in February of 2022, I had the chance to follow up with the members of the committee, Amanda and SER Poetry Editors Brett Hanley and Anthony Borruso, to talk about their experiences..
Currently, SER is interested in increasing its publications by incarcerated writers and invites both incarcerated writers and those who know and work with incarcerated writers to submit. Submissions can be sent through our Submittable page or by mail to the below address:
English Department, Williams Building
Florida State University
Tallahassee, FL 32306
Please help us spread the word!
Savannah Trent: Have any of you had experiences with running creative writing workshops outside of a college classroom? What made you decide to participate in this initiative?
I know the wealth of stories incarcerated people have to tell.
Amanda Hadlock: This initiative is something close to my heart, as my own parents were incarcerated when I was growing up and I know the wealth of stories incarcerated people have to tell. I had previously co-led a workshop for homeless and unstably housed youth in Springfield, Missouri, but this was my first time leading a workshop for incarcerated individuals. Compared to a more formal, academic setting, the community workshop experience felt like a more low-stakes environment. The participants were able to write whatever they wanted, from poetry, to short nonfiction, to one participant even writing and performing a rap. The low-stakes nature of the setting was conducive to the participants taking creative risks and being unafraid to share.
Brett Hanley: I’ve run workshops in the Poetic Technique classes I teach at FSU. I wanted to participate in the workshop at the Gadsden Correctional Facility because prison abolition is something I feel passionate about, and it felt like a small thing I could do. I increasingly feel like I could be doing a lot more! I’m also really interested in expanding SER’s reach to the incarcerated population. I want to help spread the word about us and for us to get more submissions from incarcerated writers.
Anthony Borruso: I did have some prior workshop experience that helped to inform this one. At Butler University, while getting my MFA, I was a co-leader of the Writing in the Schools (WITS) program at Shortridge High School where we ran a weekly after-school creative writing workshop. It was a wonderful time, as their underserved student population really took to our writing prompts and delighted in sharing their work during our “open mic” portion. To see burgeoning writers developing their craft and learning the power of honing their voice is always exhilarating. I’ve also taught a creative writing workshop at Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis, which was similarly rewarding. My students there were curious and ambitious young writers who, though many were new to the craft, made great gains in terms of learning how to use syntax, metaphor, structure, and other formal features to their advantage. Workshopping at Gadsden, I felt, would give me another chance to help aspiring writers find a voice and share their unique stories. I wanted to spend time with people who’ve led very different lives from me and help to bring them the feeling of joy and liberation that I often find when writing.
ST: As this was a group initiative, how did you divide the work among yourselves? Were there particular tasks you felt drawn to?
AH: I planned the reading and writing prompt, but Brett and Anthony were instrumental in facilitating the workshop. I think we all worked together well to create a comfortable atmosphere which helped all the attendees to participate without fear.
AB: We each prepared a short speech about the experience of being MFA/PhD writers as well as some tips on revising our writing. While we gave our workshop a lot of forethought, we didn’t want to be overly regimented, as we hoped the workshop would have a loose and unscripted feel. We highlighted some main topics that we would discuss in our speeches, but a lot of our time was spent responding to the thoughtful questions that the Gadsden women had for us. They were very curious about the nature of publishing and different ways to get their writing and art out into the world.
ST: What was your experience like running the workshop? How did you take the two-day structure into account?
AH: On the first day, we began by introducing ourselves, then reading Andrea Gibson’s “Letter to a Playground Bully from Andrea (Age 8)” and discussing it. The attendees loved the poem and found a lot to relate to in its lines. After discussing the poem, we introduced a writing prompt, then answered questions for the rest of the hour. The second day was focused on discussing some tips for revision, then listening to the attendees share what they wrote (either based off the prompt or not—they could share anything they liked).
On the second day, we also distributed free back issues of Southeast Review to the attendees, along with a handout instructing them how to submit for free while incarcerated. The participants had plenty more questions on the second day, too. They were incredibly enthusiastic and eager to learn about writing and publishing.
BH: The experience was great! The inmates we worked with were super engaged, and they also had a lot of questions for us about professional writing and Southeast Review. My favorite component of our time there was when they shared their work with us. Their perspectives on the world around them and themselves were remarkably insightful, and that really shone through in their writing.
After reading and discussing Gibson’s poem, Amanda gave them the prompt, which was to compose a letter to your past or future self. Many of them completed that prompt outside of class, though, and we spent the majority of our first day there answering their questions and talking about writing. They shared the letters they’d written and other writing with us on the second day, and then we spent some more time talking with them about their writing interests.
I find that when you start with language itself, it sometimes opens doors into memories and ideas that you would not have found otherwise.
AB: It was really a phenomenal experience. The workshops I’d taught in the past were always fun and engaging, but this one was even more so, as I could tell the women were savoring this break from their routine. As soon as we arrived, they were introducing themselves and asking questions, and you could tell that they were happy to have us. In the previous session, someone had wanted to know what our respective graduate school experiences were like so Amanda, Brett, and I each talked about our schooling and the development of our craft as writers. We also discussed places and techniques for finding literary inspiration. One method that I mentioned was keeping a “word journal,” a little notebook or pad where you collect interesting words and images from throughout the day. I find that when you start with language itself, it sometimes opens doors into memories and ideas that you would not have found otherwise—rather than taking on the monumental task of writing about your happiest or saddest or most confusing moment, sometimes just starting with a word can simplify your job as a writer, letting the language lead you into the true subject, the thing you really want to talk about.
We also discussed how to revise our work and make it as professional and polished as possible. Lastly, we had an “open mic” in which the women shared the stories and poems that they had written on the previous day. They read heartbreaking love poems, stories about struggling with addiction and trauma, and environmental parables that asked the reader to think about the beautiful planet they live on. It was an astounding variety of subject matter and truly impressive to see how much they were able to produce in the matter of a day. It was also great to see how mutually supportive these women were—they cheered and clapped each other on and made it so that everyone felt comfortable sharing even the most intimate of experiences.
ST: Gibson’s poem makes use of epistolary form. What about the poem made it a “good fit” for the workshop?
AH: I had seen the same poem by Gibson used by my mentor, Jennifer Murvin, at the workshop I helped her lead for homeless and unstably housed youth in Missouri. The participants loved it then, so I thought it would be a good choice. The poem deals with a lot of emotionally heavy subjects, such as bullying, gender identity, and socioeconomic struggle, yet the poet engages with these ideas using fun and whimsical figurative language. I think this approach makes the subject matter less intimidating for readers. I thought an epistolary writing prompt would work great for this workshop because everyone is familiar with the genre, even if they don’t know the ten-dollar word for it. And you can have a lot of fun with letter writing, such as writing letters to people you’ve never met or nonhuman entities (for example, one participant at the Gadsden workshop wrote a love letter to the Publix Deli!).
ST: As this was a two-day workshop, you were able to focus on both writing and revision. How did you approach the subject of revision given your own backgrounds in creative writing as both writers and teachers yourselves? What were some things you incorporated from your own pedagogy? Lastly, what were some things you learned from teaching revision in a nonacademic environment?
AH: I really wanted to focus the revision advice on writing toward truth as opposed to writing toward formal or grammatical perfectionism, because I knew our audience would likely be broaching “big” topics in their writing. I think the advice we gave them was more practical for the kinds of stories they want to tell. I tried to be conscious of the participants’ experience and tried to give them information that would be most useful for them as writers.
It’s unbelievable to me that [the inmates are] cut off from so many resources, especially when the prison system is allegedly supposed to be preparing folks for reentry.
BH: When I teach Poetic Technique classes at FSU, I also stress honest writing over perfectionism, and I think I try to practice that as a writer too. I don’t think I necessarily adapted my mindset for the workshop. In my experience, it’s hard for interesting things to happen on the page if you’re censoring yourself too much or worrying about the writing being perfect during the drafting stage. Even during the revision stage, it doesn’t seem useful to strive for perfection, but I do think the revision stage is where writers can let that critical part of their brain take over and address craft-level concerns.
Something I did have to adapt to is that the inmates didn’t have access to the internet. At one point, one of them was asking questions about business writing and search engine optimization (SEO), which I have some experience with, and I began to answer the question with suggestions of websites, and then they reminded me that they don’t have internet privileges. I felt embarrassed that I hadn’t known that. It’s unbelievable to me that they’re cut off from so many resources, especially when the prison system is allegedly supposed to be preparing folks for reentry. They expressed such a thirst for knowledge about writing, and the information out there online could be so helpful to them. I printed out some resources about SEO and shared them on the second day, but I wish they weren’t separated from such a big part of our current, digital world. [Another difference] was the time constraint. It’s possible to do a lot more and cover a lot more ground over the course of a semester in the creative writing classroom. A more traditional workshop model wouldn’t have worked. Given the time that we had, it felt important to give the participants the opportunity to share their work and ask us questions, which became our main priorities during our two sessions with them.
AB: Actually, it wasn’t a very different mindset, as I always strive for honesty first both in my writing and as a teacher of writing. I think readers are, usually, quite good at sniffing out when something feels false or disingenuous, and so I try to always encourage my students to write about what they know and what they’ve been through. This doesn’t mean that they can’t use their imagination or ever go outside of the TRUTH, but it does mean that there should be something of their thoughts, feelings, and emotions in everything that they write, otherwise it can be hard for people to connect with. Still, I was conscious of my new audience and had to adjust or steer clear of academic jargon. By joking around with them, complimenting their writing, and highlighting small areas for improvement, I think I was able to find that sweet spot between friend and teacher that works best for a workshop like this one.
ST: I’m eager to hear more about the revision tips you gave and, if you were there, how did you introduce the prompt?
AB: One of the revision tips I gave for dealing with a creative piece that doesn’t feel like it’s quite working is to experiment with taking it apart or considering major structural changes. For example, if you like the beginning of your work, but find the ending underwhelming, you can try to lop off the sentences (or in a poem, the lines) where it goes awry and rewrite a new ending. The same advice can work for a beginning that doesn’t engage your reader as you had hoped—try writing your way to where the action picks up rather than creating an entirely new piece. Some other radical revisions that I threw out there are: combining language from two different pieces to see if they can be made into a cohesive whole, including an unexpected “swerve” into a topic or place that might surprise your reader, or trying to either drastically expand or shorten your work. Making major changes such as these can sometimes lead you into unexpected areas of the imagination where your work can really thrive.
ST: SER has previously published the works of incarcerated peoples, specifically John Luckett with his essay “Prophets and Angels Weeping” in Vol. 38.1. How does this new initiative fit in with this? What do you hope to do next?
That’s our real goal with this initiative, to help humanize people who are often ignored . . . and give them a chance to share their own stories in a way that is self-affirming.
AH: Our hope is that the participants will submit their writing to us! We made sure to instruct them on how they can do so before we left, though, of course, we didn’t make submission to the magazine mandatory for participants. Several participants told us in the open-ended surveys that they wish we could come back and conduct the workshop monthly or even biweekly. The first goal, though, is to make the workshop at Gadsden an annual thing. From there, I hope it will grow even more! We have always had an initiative to publish work by currently incarcerated writers, but our hope is that conducting workshops like this one will increase our submissions in this category so we can feature more of this important work. Several participants also wrote on their surveys that they were glad to have the chance to talk to new people and be treated, as one participant said, “like human beings”—and that’s our real goal with this initiative, to help humanize people who are often ignored by society at large and give them a chance to share their own stories in a way that is self-affirming.
If you’re interested in learning more about incarcerated writers and workshop initiatives for incarcerated writers, please feel free to browse this link for more information. Or visit https://pen.org/prison-writing/.
SAVANNAH TRENT is a PhD candidate at Florida State University studying contemporary Asian American and multiethnic literature with a focus on empire, race, war, and the invisible labor that fuels imperialist desires. She holds an MFA in Poetry from Miami University of Ohio and a BA in Neuroscience from Knox College. Her scholarly work has been presented at the Society for the Multiethnic Study of Literature and the Association for Asian American Studies.
AMANDA HADLOCK is an MFA candidate in fiction writing at Florida State University where she is Assistant Editor for Southeast Review. She received her MA in English in spring 2020 from Missouri State University, where she also worked as the Graduate Assistant for Moon City Press/Moon City Review. Her nonfiction, fiction, and graphic narrative work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as NPR/WFSU’s All Things Considered, Essay Daily, Fractured Lit’s second anthology volume, judged by Deesha Philyaw, Hobart, Wigleaf, New Limestone Review, The Florida Review, and others.
BRRETT HANLEY is a Poetry Editor for Southeast Review. She holds an MFA from McNeese State and is a PhD candidate at Florida State. Their work is forthcoming or has recently been published in West Branch, Gulf Coast, Ninth Letter, Puerto del Sol, THE BOILER, Poetry Northwest, and elsewhere. She was a semifinalist for the 2022 92Y Discovery Contest and has received support from The Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.
ANTHONY BORRUSO is pursuing his PhD in Creative Writing at Florida State University where he is a Poetry Editor for Southeast Review. He has been a Pushcart Prize nominee and was selected as a finalist for Beloit Poetry Journal's Adrienne Rich Award by Natasha Trethewey. His poems have been published or are forthcoming in The American Journal of Poetry, Beloit Poetry Journal, Pleiades, Spillway, The Journal, THRUSH, Moon City Review, CutBank, Frontier, and elsewhere.