The University of Arizona Poetry Center has landed a $500,000 grant that will fund the creation of new poetry that sheds light on this country’s criminal justice system.
“One of the big goals is to change the racial inequities in the prison system,” says Tyler Meier, the executive director of the Poetry Center.
The grant is from the Art for Justice Fund, formed earlier this year by philanthropist and art collector Agnes Gund. Spurred by a desire to do something about the inequality and injustice that has led to mass incarceration in this country, she sold a painting and established the fund with $100 million.
The first round of grants were awarded earlier this month; the Poetry Center was one of 30 organizations from around the country to receive one.
The three-year project will fund the commission and presentation of new poetry, the publication of the works, and the creation of a digital archive of the new works.
“We want to change how people imagine what the future of incarceration is,” says Meier. “Poetry does an incredible job of seeing beyond.”
A key element to the project, he says, is the center’s collaboration with poet and lawyer, Reginald Dwayne Betts. Betts has several poetry books to his credit, many academic and literary honors, and last year received his law degree from Yale. He has been in the news lately because the Connecticut bar refused to admit him as he is a felon — as a teen, he carjacked a car and spent nine years in prison. The decision was reversed in September and he now works in the New Haven public defender’s office.
In each year of the grant, which begins in July, four of the writers commissioned will come to Tucson to present their new works.
Another aspect of the grant is to commission found-text poetry — found-text is a type of poetry collage, where the words, phrases, even passages are pulled from other sources and shaped into poetry.
The sources that will be used for found-text poetry: legislative bills and laws. Think Jim Crow laws. Or the Separate Car Act (passed by the Louisiana State Legislature in 1890, it called for separate train cars for whites and blacks).
“We will explore legislation that has most disproportionately affected people of color,” he said. “We will ask poets to use that language to create found text. … Literally, we’ll use the language to form an artistic response.”
The Poetry Center has long been involved in bringing poetry to people who are incarcerated. It administers the Arizona prison writing workshops, which are led by Richard Shelton, Ken Lamberton and Erec Toso, and currently sponsors a poetry program for youths at the juvenile detention center.
“It’s exciting to think about how that work aligns with some of what we are hoping to do with this new grant,” says Meier. “We see this (grant) as an extension of what we’ve done.”