This is the first in the Poets Union interview series. Our aim in this series is to document those working at the intersection of literary culture and leftist politics, especially where this leads to changes in publishing or writing practice; serious critique of literary cultures; and engagement with committed political work outside of purely literary spaces. Currently, we have multiple interviews in the works, and we expect to post these interviews regularly in the coming year. If you have a recommendation for an interviewee who would fit with the aims of this series, or if you yourself would like to participate in one, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Below, we are happy to share an interview with the Arts Working Group of Abolition Apostles. Operating in New Orleans, Louisiana — the most incarcerated place in the world — Abolition Apostles performs outreach, advocacy, and support for incarcerated people with the stated aim of “[contributing] to the destruction of the prison-industrial complex.” More specifically, the Arts Working Group helps individuals start dialogues with incarcerated people as penpals to offer comradeship as well as support for their writing. Additionally, they raise funds for incarcerated people and help them publish their written work.
If you are interested in supporting Abolition Apostles and/or the Arts Working Group, please consider contributing to the ongoing fundraiser for Candice, an incarcerated writer who will be released in a couple of years. You can offer donations through Venmo: David-Brazil-7 ; memo: Candice. Additionally, if you would like to be a penpal with an incarcerated person, please reach out to Franziska at email@example.com.
The following interview was conducted via email in the fall of 2021.
Could you tell us a bit about Abolition Apostles and how you came to work with them?
Abolition Apostles is an explicitly anti-capitalist ministry that stands in solidarity with the movement for Black liberation. We view prison abolition as inseparable from the struggles for Black self-determination and freedom from state violence and criminalization. Our mission is to offer moral and spiritual support to members of the incarcerated community and to contribute to the destruction of the prison-industrial complex through solidarity, prophetic witness, and inside-outside organizing. We are a Christian ministry, but it is not necessary to be a Christian in order to participate or to find community with us.
—Franziska: I found Abolition Apostles through Twitter. Some of the earlier abolitionist texts I read were actually from a Christian perspective, grounded in the understanding of Christ as a colonized subject murdered by the carceral state. God, in assuming this form and finding divinity in a criminalized body, thus marks anti-state transgression as inherently divine. (Here I’m thinking specifically of Nikia Smith Robert’s “Penitence, Plantation and the Penitentiary: A Liberation Theology for Lockdown America.”) I actually had very little interest in Christianity prior to encountering these sorts of texts, and they made me want to seek out people who were making these kinds of connections, people who were interested in theological perspectives on liberation. I was also increasingly disheartened by the number of organizations out there that espouse seemingly radical politics and use a lot of terminology and language associated with militant anti-state movements, only to spend most of their time engaging with electoral politics and other fundamentally reformist tactics. It was important to me—particularly as someone still new to this work—to find people who were vocally opposed to the nonprofit industrial complex, who were willing to name the NPIC for what it is, and so far I’ve found that to be the case with Abolition Apostles.
—Dan: I joined the AWG after spending a few years organizing with a NYC-based prison abolitionist collective while concurrently co-running a small press. While I am not Christian, myself, I appreciate the mission and commitments of the organization, and I see this project as a way to support incarcerated comrades and amplify their voices using the knowledge and skills that I have accumulated through previously separate organizing and publishing roles.
So what is the Arts Working Group (AWG) and how did it form?
We are a small group of abolitionists continually learning how best to support writers and artists on the inside, whether through fundraising, artistic feedback, publishing opportunities, or responding to particular requests for artmaking materials/books. We came together because we saw a lot of creative and theoretical work—particularly over the past summer—engaging with the prison-industrial complex and the people held captive within it, the majority of which was produced by people on the outside. Obviously, one need not be held captive to work against captivity, but we think it’s important to grapple with the ways in which radical, anti-state theories are often watered down and appropriated by people with greater access to structurally violent institutions like nonprofits or universities, many of whom not only lack the experience of incarceration but might in fact benefit professionally from the continued existence of the PIC. We felt it was really important to focus on supporting people on the inside who, while surviving some of the most brutal conditions possible, are making their own creative work, political education, and more, many of which do engage with the PIC. Of course, our work together is not an attempt at a “solution” to structural violence; we simply recognize that traditional publishing models are unlikely to devote the time and strategy necessary to centering incarcerated people as creators and recipients of distributed publications. We hope our particular vision of such an alternative will also function as a mutual aid project.
What are some projects the AWG is working on currently? And what do you see as the more long term goals of AWG?
Right now, our major project is creating and distributing a series of zines by and for incarcerated people. Because the zine is going to be extremely low-budget—prisons have strict mailing regulations, so it will be printed on regular paper, and won’t require any kind of binding—we’re going to do some fundraising prior to its release, and all the money we receive will go directly to contributors’ commissary accounts. This is why we mentioned mutual aid in our last answer—we want this project to provide material assistance to people on the inside rather than fetishize or exploit their work for our own gains.
Long-term, we hope that more and more organized collectives will devise similar methods of publishing. While hardly perfect, anti-capitalist models of publishing are more environmentally sustainable than traditional operations, don’t require the exploitation of book workers, and ideally disavow the myths and logics of meritocracy, genius, and elitism.
Mostly, though, we recognize that the most effective and militant resistance against the PIC often takes place on the inside, and that our incarcerated comrades need support and solidarity. This can take a lot of different forms, and we hope the AWG becomes a meaningful contribution to the work being done today by abolitionist formations across the country.
In your view, or the view of the AWG, what is the role of literary writing in the work of abolition?
Literature—both written works as well as the people and institutions that determine their visibility—is generally as susceptible to replicating exclusionary and oppressive dynamics as any other artistic form that participates in capitalism. We see writings by incarcerated people, however, as inherently radical, regardless of whether we share immediate principles with their makers or are aware of the harms they may or may not have perpetuated prior to their sentencings. These writings are, in essence, records that both perilously confirm and have barely escaped the conditions of disposability and erasure that the carceral state tirelessly enforces.
People held captive in government-run cages and subject to constitutionally protected slavery are not just physically disappeared and tortured. They are also stigmatized as permanently unfit to live among community, receive basic resources, or have autonomous voices worthy of being heard. Even the vocabulary assigned to people ensnared in the prison-industrial complex (“guilty,” “convict,” “inmate,” etc.) is intentionally designed to sanitize and depersonalize the horrific operations of carcerality while conveying revulsion and inevitability to those outside of the system.
While writings by incarcerated people—from active political prisoners to self-taught jailhouse lawyers to those engaged primarily in day-to-day survival—are most often associated with correspondence, essay, political demands, and legal documentation, literary works may also carry liberatory potential. An incarcerated person’s writing might overtly reflect on the struggle for abolition or attempt to locate the parts of the mind that are irrepressible by confinement; it might pointedly analyze the systemic injustices that led to their targeting by police or replicate the notions of undeservingness inculcated by white supremacy; it might be composed out of hopelessness or to sustain the practice of hope; it might speak to life on the inside or on the outside. Either way, the state has devoted complex processes and infrastructure to silencing the voices of incarcerated people, but, as allies on the outside, we can choose to use our privileges and resources to amplify them.
Given the extent to which prison overseers censor and destroy the physical mail that passes through prison walls, the very receipt of an incarcerated person’s words or images affirms a radical truth: that people on the inside exist, deserve safety and healing, and have remarkable things to tell us about life under criminalization and captivity. For one thing, literary works by incarcerated people represent a credible way to break down many of the state’s myths about the prison system: that it protects society from violence, that it brings justice to survivors of harm, that the people inside of it deserve to be there, that it should operate in secrecy, that it cannot be fought.
Nicole R. Fleetweed, scholar and curator/author of Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, said something striking in 2020 to Artforum. “Although prison art is often called outsider art, in fact the opposite is true: This art is all about institutional relations. When one considers the outsize impact carcerality has on society, it becomes apparent that artists who are or have been locked up are absolutely at the core of cultural production.”
What aspects of literary writing and publishing do you find harmful and counterproductive to such work?
As with many sectors of cultural production, professionalized literary publishing—whose most visible and monied organizations are staffed largely by white, college-educated liberals—responded to the 2016 presidential election by retroactively casting itself as a long-running factotum of social justice in America. While this isn’t altogether false (before writing her first novel, for example, Toni Morrison published Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton, Muhammad Ali, among others, as an editor at Random House), it is an inconsistent proposition. Most major publishing houses are parented by media corporations that are profit-driven and answerable to shareholders. As such, they view the ever-broadening outrage over racial capitalism, heteropatriarchy, and economic austerity as a market, and a box to be checked through diverse author lists and internal DEI initiatives.
Simon & Schuster, for example, is happy to sign and then cancel book deals with Milo Yiannopoulos and Josh Hawley as its interpretations of audience shift. If picking on overt white nationalists is too easy, then consider Flatiron Books’ preposterous 2020 publication American Dirt, whose author Jeanine Cummins was fittingly lambasted on grounds of racist, careerist cultural appropriation and yet wrote exactly the kind of novel that Ivy-League liberals have, for decades, published under self-congratulatory delusions of para-activism. This is the same class of people who “resist” today’s very real fascist threats by rehabilitating Bush-era neoconservatives, cheering on the increasingly explicit alliance between the security state and the mainstream media, and creating celebrity authors out of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, each of whom deported more people and approved bloodier military interventions than Donald Trump did.
While this answer has so far focused on conglomerates, literature even at the scale of independent publishing has only recently begun to reckon with the space and power taken up by white individualism. Writers considered preeminent within the avant-garde have found it trenchant to keep parasitic relationships to Black trauma, like poet Kenneth Goldsmith, who in 2015 “remixed” the autopsy report of Michael Brown for a performance at Brown University. Analyses by Cathy Park Hong, John Keene, and others saw this particular travesty as marking a sea change: the white conceptualist approach of authorlessness and writing-as-content was dangerous, soul-sucking, and exhausted, and renewed attention was due to writers living through the very systems of power and oppression that Goldsmith sought to flatten. This notion was especially resonant given the publication, a few months prior, of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, a book-length lyric that explores, in personalized and sociological detail alike, the class-transcending hostility that Black people in America live through.
Despite this important shift, literature and publishing are, like the art world, academia, or progressive political campaigns, given to empty rhetoric and market-researched solutions that conceal an unfortunate yet predictable preservation of structural injustices. As awareness of abolition grows in mainstream circles, cooptation is inevitable and already in process. There is no shortage of big-name, “left”-adjacent authors whose work demonizes anti-capitalist militancy. So much of this writing is lauded as “nuanced” and, ironically, “revolutionary,” which speaks to the ideological tendencies that “literary” writing is expected to reify as well as the audiences its authors must satisfy in order to gain access to professionally relevant periodicals and institutions. Abolition, however, is neither a trend nor a special-interest imprint. It is incompatible with concerns of profit-making and branding, aesthetics and trends, careerism and clout. It requires committed engagement with and resourcing of people who have been deemed undesirable and unmarketable according to consumerist ethos. The lack of imagination that endures across liberalism today, including in publishing, would sooner leave the PIC an irrevocable part of our society. Prison abolition, after all, is inseparable from the abolition of capitalism and the destruction of this settler-colony. It does not seem ideal, then, that so much scholarship and creativity is bound to actors who hold a vested interest in the maintenance of the current system.
In Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela Davis argues that our perception of prisons as inevitable facets of society is produced in part through our consumption of narratives which locate the prison as a “natural” and permanent fixture of the American landscape. Novels in particular are indicted not merely for their representations of prisons, but for their mediations on interiority and penitence which indeed helped to produce the prison-industrial complex. Here, Davis is working with John Bender’s 1987 study Imagining the Penitentiary: Fiction and the Architecture of the Mind in Eighteenth-Century England, in which Bender proposes “that the emergent literary genre of the novel furthered a discourse of progress and individual transformation that encouraged attitudes toward punishment to change” (21). Put simply, those invested in literature must close the distance between the form and the possibilities of direct action, collectivism, and healing outside of state domination and its perpetuation across sites of cultural production.