By Aubry Ellison, Free Minds Intern

Every year, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) offers the largest literary conference in the nation with over 12,000 participants from across the country. This year, Free Minds was invited to lead the AWP 2017 Service Project at the conference, in addition to participating in a panel and poetry reading.

Two AWP attendees comment on poems

Conference attendees write feedback for incarcerated poets

Free Minds ran a large “On the Same Page” booth at the AWP Bookfair during the 3-day conference. Just like our monthly On the Same Page: Write Night poetry feedback gatherings, tables were lined with poetry by incarcerated writers and conference attendees were invited to respond to the poems. Some people were able to make deeply personal connections with the poets’ work, while others were able to answer questions like “Forgotten?” with “Hang in there, you are not forgotten.” Each thoughtful response sends the same message: you are heard. The written feedback motivates incarcerated Free Minds poets along their journeys of change. As our motto says, when a Free Minds poem is read, hope is spread.

“I’m trying not to cry,” said one parent, who came with her daughter enrolled in an MFA program in Virginia, as they commented on the work of incarcerated poets. The room was filled with people from across the country excited about the power of writing to connect people from different life experiences. Many shared what they were doing in their communities or discussed how they could incorporate the Free Minds model in their hometowns. Locals excitedly got information about how to attend DC area Write Nights.

Nokomis smiling at camera

Nokomis was all smiles after speaking on a panel at AWP

Julia Mascioli (Director of Development & Communications) and Poet Ambassador Nokomis kicked off the conference by speaking on a panel called “Degree of Change” with Kathy Crutcher (Executive Director, Shout Mouse Press), Emma Snyder (Executive Director, PEN/Faulkner), and Danielle Evans (author, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self). Each panelist discussed how an MFA can influence your career in the nonprofit sector, and how writing can be used to promote social justice. Nokomis added his experience of finding his voice while in prison. Now Nokomis helps others find their voice through our On the Same Page program, sharing his poetry and personal stories with students and community members.

On the third and final day of the conference, Poet Ambassadors Anthony and Terrell participated in a poetry reading and discussion with Shout Mouse Press called “Black Lit Matters: Unheard Voices on Race and Criminal Justice.” Anthony recalled his experience being unable to read and write before joining Free Minds: “I was unable to let my lawyers know anything there was to know about me. I was being scrutinized by judges, prosecutors and things of that nature because I didn’t know how to express myself. But at this point, right now, I’m able to express myself.”

He then shared his poem “I Was You.” that he wrote for children struggling in school and in life.

I was you
I struggled to read
I struggled to write
That’s right, I, the person who wrote this poem
Can read and understand these words!
I’m here to let you know
just cuz you are here in this situation
Doesn’t make you or break you.
You’re young and strong
Mentally, physically, and at heart
And if anyone tells you anything different
Then I’m here to tell you
That only the strong survive
I know this
Because I was you

“I Was You” is published in the Free Minds poetry collection, The Untold Story of the Real Me: Young Voices from Prison.

Terrell speaking at a podium

Terrell speaking to the audience at “Black Lit Matters”

Terrell followed Anthony’s reading with “Where I Come From,” a poem he worked on with 7th graders at M.V. Leckie public school. Terrell said sharing his poem with other people excited about writing “brought him to a whole other level.”

Throughout the weekend, Free Minds was reminded that we are part of a large supportive community of writers. Thank you to the supportive staff at AWP, and to all the attendees who shared their time and energy. Thank you also to the dedicate volunteers who assisted Free Minds at the conference.

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