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Complicating the Narrative: Listening to Works From Minnesota Prisons' Best and Brightest

Event emcee Peter Pearson conducts a panel discussion with prison writing instructors following the reading

Event emcee Peter Pearson conducts a panel discussion with prison writing instructors following the reading

Prison's spartan, isolating conditions are designed for self-reflection.

Writing after spending days, months, years with almost endless time to sit and think or stew or plot or reminisce sans everyday distractions can create powerful work.

See also: AWP Book List: Read Now, Thank Us Later

"In a lot of these facilities the inmates have a lot of time in their cells, all day long, really, unless they have a job," said Cody Leutgens, an instructor with North Carolina-based prison writing program Revised Sentences. "So when they get a chance to take a creative writing class, they're coming in there and they're not going to miss a day."

Leutgens was speaking at Beyond Bars: Voices of Incarceration, one of the multitude of readings that took place around town last week for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs convention.

Standing on a brightly lit stage in the Pohlad Room in the Central Library, he told an audience of a couple dozen about one of his students, Gerald, a huge, intimidating man who sat and combed his hair the entire class.

"When he wants to speak, everyone stops and listens to this man," said Leutgens.

Then Leutgens began reading a hilarious, touching story Gerald wrote about escaping the dentist's office when he was six.

At the core of all of the readings there was that juxtaposition. How could these criminals, some of whom committed terrible crimes, possess such mirth, intellectual firepower, and raw talent?

"Having a reading like this really complicates the simplistic narrative we create when thinking about prisoners," said event emcee Peter Pearson.

Some of the pieces were staggeringly good. The night ended with a reading from a writer who goes by the pseudonym of O'Brien.

An Iraq war veteran incarcerated in Lino Lakes, he wrote about developing a friendship with his Somali cellmate, also a war veteran.

His piece was funny, enthralling, thoughtful, and full of more beautiful lines than this reporter had the time to scribble down. O'Brien is serving a five-year prison sentence and will be released in a few months.

"It's possible for someone to do something very awful and still possess great depth, perception, and ability," says Pearson.

Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop holds readings scheduled throughout the year. For more information check out mnprisonwriting.org.

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