Lit Chat: Meet Jennifer Bowen Hicks
Jennifer Bowen Hicks’ essays and stories appear in Orion, Kenyon Review online, The Iowa Review, The Rumpus, The Normal School, and elsewhere. Her work has been honored with Best American Essay Notable Mention, Pushcart Prize Special Mention, the Arts & Letters Prize, Tim McGinnis Award, and others. She has received a tuition scholarship from Rona Jaffe for the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, a Jerome Foundation Travel Award, and more. Additionally, Hicks is the founder and Artistic Director of the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop.
Sun Yung Shin: Jennifer, how did you start becoming a writer? Did it start in childhood? What is your writerly “territory” and how did you find it? Can you talk about why creative nonfiction and personal essays draw you? Who are some writers or people who have influenced your artistic practice, style, goals, etc.?
Jennifer Bowen Hicks: I can’t remember a time when I didn’t harbor a secret dream of being a writer. I was not one of those kids who grew up in a house filled with books, but I loved reading at school. Some part of me understood writing was about making meaning, and it seemed like the most important thing any human could do. In second grade, I entered a poem in a Hallmark contest for Mother’s Day. My poem did not win and it should not have won, (my mom was nice/not cold like ice) but that rejection devastated me. Having a poem on a card for all the mothers (!) was the most exalted achievement I could imagine. My first writing success happened in Jr. High when I wrote a love poem, which (rumor had) caused Matt to break up with Yolanda. I heard her sobbing in the hallway the day after I’d slipped the poem into his locker. It’s the first time I remember feeling surprised by the power of my own words. The next day the entire football team found and read and mocked that poem in the locker room, and I learned that one day’s writing success is the next day’s humiliation.
I write a lot about absence, which annoys me. I’m obsessed with echoes—things and people we can’t see, which might be another way of saying I’m fascinated by negative space. My father (among others) was absent from my life from a very early age, and I think that my child mind did what child minds do, which is to try to understand a gaping hole. We do tell ourselves stories in order to live (Didion), but what happens when we discover that the most sacred stories we tell ourselves are porous or ragged or just plain wrong? How terrifying is that? For that reason, and maybe because I grew up with someone who had trouble with the truth, I’m mistrustful of narrative. This creates a tension that frustrates and fascinates me. A couple years ago, I became obsessed with chickens, and it was such a relief to write about something that squawked and shit and had soft, mottled feathers. I wrote about a subject I could touch! But then we butchered the chickens, and I returned to the void.
I love the intimacy of personal essay and memoir. I love feeling like I’m inside another person’s mind/heart/veins. I joke that my favorite fictional POV is third-person claustrophobic. With essays and memoir I think first-person jugular is nice. I enjoy how much play can happen inside an essay—with language, form, the ever-shifting mind. An essay can also just flat out preach, and I love that, too. Some of my most beloved books are poetry collections and novels, though, so maybe I have genre confusion. I read far more poetry than nonfiction, for the language and leaps. I’m lingering in a middleland, between a sentence and a line, a scene and sounds.
Writers who I’ve long felt at home with: Eduardo Galeano, Brian Doyle, Mary Ruefle, E.B. White, Larry Levis, Natalie Diaz, Marilynne Robinson, Willa Cather, C.D. Wright, Tomas Tranströmer, Phil Levine. Annie Dillard. James Baldwin. I have great writer friends who are influential to me, too--professionally and artistically--and who’ve recently put stunning first books into the world. I admire them for different reasons, among them courage and artistry and grit and spirit and intelligence. Integrity. Beauty across the board. Robin MacArthur, Kelly Hansen Maher, Lesley Nneka Arimah, Inara Verzemnieks. If I ever finish a book, and if it’s any good, it’ll be in part because I’m looking up to these writers.
SYS: When and why did you start the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop? What is your vision and hopes for its future? How has that journey and work affected your own writing or sense of literature/s, if at all?
JBH: I taught a writing class at Lino Lakes prison in 2011 with no intention of starting a nonprofit. I worked with a small group of men who were creative and vulnerable and hardworking and fun. They showed no signs of slowing down even as class ended, and I couldn’t imagine not coming back, for their sake and mine. It was the most rewarding, joyful, challenging thing I’d ever done. Those men are why I took the next step. After I came back with our first passionate cohort of instructors, students kept showing up,we kept inviting new instructors, and before long we’d created this vibrant, wily beast that we loved and the best way to feed and sustain it was to form a nonprofit.
My first and persistent hope for MPWW is that it endures. We’ve worked with some of the same men for almost seven years, and women for three. Many of them will still be inside for another seven, ten, twelve years. Some for life. They’re used to things not lasting; I don’t want our programming to be one of those things. Also, prison sentences are long andincarceration rates are not decreasing so there remains a need for arts access behind walls.
Beyond continued existence, of course, we have many visions and dreams for MPWW. I’d love someday for us to have a resident artist in each facility. We’re expanding programming so that it’s rooted in words but moves more often from page to performance: i.e., songwriting + singing, playwriting + performance, more oral storytelling, more spoken word, etc. We hope to work with the Department of Corrections to bring more, and varied arts programming into the prisons. And of course, our students do get released. We’d love a more vigorous reentry program to welcome former students into the Twin Cities’ writing community and a habit of art on the outside. The best innovations come organically and from our students; they know what they want and need and what works inside a correctional setting, particularly when it comes to community building. When programming starts shifting because of their nudges, I always trust that.
One way this journey has affected my writing is that I do much less of it. When I do write, I question the urgency of my own work and that of a lot of existing literature. My students write from a complicated place of exile. There’s so much pain and grief in that that it can make me doubt that my particular concerns need voicing.
Derek Walcott says, “To change your language you must change your life.” When I was in grad school and first read that quote, I craved that kind of seismic shift. It didn’t even occur to me to fear that change. Any change to my language has manifested as a sort of rupture. There is often silence when I want words. That may be a very good thing someday, but right now it’s scary. (Also possible: early onset Alzheimer’s.) Intellectually, I trust a fracture, but emotionally and artistically, the space inside the fracture is pretty uncomfortable.
More optimistically, while I don’t think we can ask art to “do” anything—after working with my students--I’m more convinced than ever of art’s potential to open a space that is fertile, healing, sacred, and shared. Tomas Tranströmer says, “Every person is a half open door/ leading to a room for everyone.” This work shows me time and again how writing opens that door. It is the most hopeful thing I know.
Yes, working in the prisons has had a dramatic effect on my view of literature. The stakes feel higher for which stories are (and aren’t) told and who does the telling. There are men and women currently locked up who can write a hole into your heart! They can tell you what it means to be raised by the state from adolescence til old age. Writers of witness are fine, but incarcerated writers are pretty proximate to themselves and can blow you away with their art not because of their subject, but because they’re talented and original and thoughtful. An occasional voice—(moment of hurrah forZeke Caligiuri)—breaks through the walls and the noise, but nowhere near the percentage we should be reading when well over two million of our neighbors are locked up. (This is 1 in every 110 US citizens; 1 in 10 if you’re a black man in his 30’s.) Our literature largely does not include these varied voices. There are plenty of journals that work hard to invite submissions for special prison issues. Those are wonderful and needed (please keep doing them!), but that very structure, en masse, can marginalize, and sometimes exoticize already isolated voices. I’ve received many calls for submissions for our students to submit to one-off prison issues. I have never received a call for our students to submit to an issue on hunger, on sex, on enemies, on wilderness, on fatherhood. What would happen if our very infrastructure—AWP, lit journals, academic creative writing programs, reading series, publishers—made invitations and structural accommodations for writers who live behind bars?
Because these are not predominantly white-middle-class-MFA-voices who’ve learned to define literary merit through a specific lens, what might an influx of that work do for our literature, aesthetically?!
And what would happen if our gatekeepers accept that an incarcerated writer’s concerns are broader than incarceration? We certainly need them to illuminate captivity and the effects of the U.S. Criminal Justice System, but literature isn’t making room for them to illuminate a million other things that transcend the razor wire: citizenship and resilience and love, for instance, all of which also exist and evolve in prison, alongside parenting and jobs, and future dreams, and marriages. To say nothing of what often precedes incarceration: Poverty. Abuse. Addiction. Racism. Mental illness. Neglect. These stories are vivid and human, and if we make room for them, they won’t just change our literature, they’ll show us that we belong to a different society than the one we think we live in, which is to say, they’ll do literature’s job.
If we want to expand literature’s margins there are simple structural ways to invite ongoing inclusion: not as isolated, special issue contributors, but as dynamic, innovative, underexposed members of our literary community, who happen to be incarcerated.
SYS: What have you read lately that you’ve really liked? What’s on your writing shelf that you’re excited to read? Any recommendations to share?
I made a quiet promise to myself to read like a maniac in 2018 and watch fewer episodes of The Voice. I recommend: Jeanette Winterson’s memoir Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal, which made me laugh and bawl. Donte Collins’ poetry. I just finished his chapbook, Softer; it is inventive, painful, moving. (Thank you TruArt Speaks). I am such a fan Michael Torres’ writing; I print his work and teach it the second it hits the web. Danez Smith’s, Don’t Call Us Dead is incredible. It left me speechless. I enjoyed Ali Smith’s novels, Autumn and Winter for their organic movement and play and political/personal weave. I’m twenty pages into Sing Unburned Sing, and I wish could cancel my day to finish it.
On my shelf: I want to read Joynful Militancy: Building Thriving Resistance in Toxic Times for what it has to say about rigid radicalism and friendship(s) in struggle, but the type is too tiny and I can’t find my reading glasses. I guess you have to have perfect vision if you want to change the world.
SYS: Is there something you’d love to see in the Twin Cities literary community that hasn’t happened or manifested yet? Is there anything you need or want people to know about you as a writer, and your writing community/genres that you believe are misunderstood or not understood?
JBH: Yes. Why don’t we have a mobile home park in the city for artists? Cheap rent, low upkeep, and some sculptor sculpting a sun from the snow in our yards? I’m serious, I want this. Don't you think this could happen in the Twin Cities?
And no. I’m not sure where I belong: community/genre/otherwise. I’d prefer people not consider my writing at all until after I finish it; if I feel eyeballs on me I’ll be paralyzed. Look away, friends, look away!
SYS: What advice would you offer to others who want to develop, start, and sustain a literary activist project? What do you wish you had known before you took the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop into its non-profit status? :)
JBH: To be frank, I’d caution that literary activism feels part symbiotic, part autophagic. When it’s in harmony it is the loveliest confluence ever. When it’s out of whack, the activism side can eat its own literary arm.
When people from out of state call about starting a prison project, I advise them to join an existing program when possible. When they ignore that, I advise them to start small and pilot often. Piloting is helpful so you can learn on a micro level how to tweak failures and contain successes without burning through all your resources.
In the early days, I loved when a great idea was met with a “yes” from the universe. I’ve learned to be more critical of that rush of excitement because starting is exhilarating. Innovating is thrilling. Sustaining is an entirely other beast, from a funding standpoint of course, but also in time and stamina. It’s easy (a joy, even) to overextend in the early days when the work is fresh and the support is blossoming, but years into a project, all that adding/innovating just becomes the actual shape of your org and sometimes your arms…barely…reach around it.
We actually received incredible support from the nonprofit community before heading into nonprofit status. I’d encourage people to go to MRAC, MN Council of Nonprofits, and especially Nonprofit Assistance Fund, where I got guidance about the under-the-hood parts of the nonprofit world: lawyers (yes), accountants (please do), budgets (learn), individual giving (vital), individual giving (hard), contracts (hold off), etc.
Along those lines, find someone who is smart and deeply devoted to the mission to master the things you suck at. (See above re: budgets, lawyers.) My colleague, Managing Director, Mike Alberti shares the load beautifully, but please do not poach him. Go find your own Mike Alberti.
Mostly, I’d say just dig in and follow your energy. Running a nonprofit is like dancing with an octopus. Or having two sets of triplets a year apart. If I’d known all this stuff before starting, I would’ve been too daunted to begin. Sometimes I think it works best to keep your head down and your hands in the work then look up once in a while to feel surprised at what has happened.
SYS: Thank you so much for your time and talent!
Sun Yung Shin is the author or editor of six books including two books in 2016: Unbearable Splendor (poetry/prose), which won a Minnesota Literary Award, and the best-selling A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota (an anthology of essays). She co-founded the Native Women Artist and Women of Color Artist Collective with filmmaker and writer Xiaolu Wang, as well as Poetry Asylum with poet Su Hwang. She lives in Minneapolis and can be found on Facebook, twitter, sunyungshin.com, and agoodtimeforthetruth.com.