As a poet and writer, I deeply love and I deeply hate words. I love the infinite evidence and change and requirements and possibilities of language; every human use of words that is joyful, or honest or new, because experience is new. ... But as a Black poet and writer, I hate words that cancel my name and my history and the freedom of my future: I hate the words that condemn and refuse the language of my people in America.
-- June Jordan

Who We Are

The Writers Inside:

The most important agents of the Writers in Prisons Project are the individuals who attend the classes. At Oakhill, participants are writers, rappers, musicians, scholars, farmers, businessmen, fathers, husbands, and on and on. They are men between 18 and 80-something in age. Some are there for several months, others have been in the system for thirty years. Because the identity of the participants is as a writer, scholar, artist, or musician (whatever they have the bravery to lay claim to) volunteers usually do not know, and never ask, what they are serving their sentences for. Sometimes, however, after continued participation in the classes, students will reference the actions that led to their sentence, which have ranged from non-violent drug-related offenses to property crimes to homicide. Though they come from widely varied backgrounds, one thing almost all of them express is that the classes help them be more honest with themselves and help to remind them of who (or who else) they are as humans. The classes, and volunteers, do that by holding a safe space with well-defined boundaries and by bringing in interesting materials. But the participants do much of the remaining work. For some participants, that work has meant writing around the acts they're serving time for, the lives they lived before being sentenced, the lives that are going on outside without them, and the lives they hope to build or resume following their release. For others, that work means a deep focus on craft, close reading, expanding themselves as artists. For others still, that work has meant writing to their parents, their partners, or their children with more openness and expressivity. For most, that work means getting to experience their peers and themselves as writers and men in the classroom in a different way than they experience each other/themselves on the yard. Frequently these new or changed peer relationships carry over outside of the classroom, and many participants share their writing, readings, and thoughts about both with each other between classes.

The Writers Outside:

As a collective of writers and teachers, our intent is also to act as support to individuals who wish to start similar programs in their communities. As a consequence, we've been eager to learn from others with experience in similar settings and have been willing to freely share the library of exercises, handouts, and other materials we've used in a correctional setting. We are glad to use our writing networks to help you contact writers in your area who may be interested in partnering with you if you're near an underserved institution. And we're always glad to share thoughts on making the experience as enriching, safe, respectful, and dynamic as possible.

Past Instructors:

Laurel Bastian founded the volunteer collective and co-facilitated the poetry class and the Afro-American Studies class, served as a resource and mentor for volunteers, and coordinated the program for several years. She has taught writing and communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Madison College, and serves on the Arts/Culture Grant Advisory Panel of the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission. She works to enforce civil rights law with the Fair Housing Center of Greater Madison.

Courtney Becks volunteered for the poetry and Afro-American studies classes while enrolled as a student in the Journalism graduate program at the UW-Madison.

Maria Bibbs co-facilitated the Afro-American Studies class. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Liberal Studies at the Memphis College of Art, and holds graduate degrees in English and Afro-American Studies.

Tracy Brimhall, nominated for two Pushcarts in the last year, and recipient of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award, has work just about everywhere, including the Kenyon Review, New England Review, Field, and the Virginia Quarterly Review. She also volunteered with the poetry class at Oakhill.

Miriam Cohen volunteered with the poetry class while she was a fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. She received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College.

Lydia Conklin is a fiction writer who volunteered with the Fiction/Playwriting class. She graduated from Harvard University in 2007, was awarded a Pushcart Prize in 2011, and earned her MFA in fiction from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Jesse Damiani volunteered for the Fiction/Memoir class while an MFA candidate in poetry at UW-Madison, where he also taught creative writing and English composition. He also worked as a consultant with Madison Writing Assistance.

Julia Dauer co-facilitated the Afro-American Studies class. She is a graduate student at UW-Madison, where she teaches and works in the Writing Center. She studies American literature and is especially interested in affect, citizenship, and political community.

Christopher Earle co-facilitated the Afro-American Studies class and is especially interested in critical race theory, cultural studies comp pedagogies, and the relationship between rhetoric, emotion, and hegemony. He is working towards an PhD in Composition and Rhetoric within the English department at the University of Madison Wisconsin.

Gabriella Ekman co-facilitated the Afro-American Studies class while working toward a PhD in English Literature at UW-Madison. She's taught writing and literature at community colleges, environmental education in the Oregon desert and is writing a novel about trees. She believes in the transformative power of the humanities: that they empower individuals and enable the reflection and dialogue requisite for political life to be accessible to all.

Sara Gelston volunteered with the poetry class while she was the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. She received her MFA from the University of Illinois. Her work has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Indiana Review, Poetry Northwest, and elsewhere.

Christine Holm is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Arizona. She volunteered with the poetry/spoken word class.

Josh Kalscheur volunteered with the poetry class. Originally from Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, Josh now resides in Madison where he teaches at Madison College and UW-Madison. His poems have appeared in, or are forthcoming from Hayden's Ferry Review, Georgetown Review, Mid-American Review, Many Mountains Moving and Copper Nickel, among others.

Ron Kuka co-facilitated the Fiction/Memoir class and is a Faculty Associate & Creative Writing Program Coordinator at the UW-Madison, where his teaching has been recognized with the Chancellor's Hilldale Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Marysa LaRowe is a fiction writer and graduate of the UW Madison's Creative Writing program who has done much work in the non-profit sector and is currently getting her MFA at Vanderbuilt. She co-facilitated the Fiction writing class, led a book donation drive for the prison library, and proposed the Writers in Prisons Project panel at the 2011 Wisconsin Book Festival.

Phillip Lee recieved his Bachelors degree in Afro-American Studies program at the University of Wisconsin Madison. He volunteered with the Afro-American Studies class.

Colleen Lucey is working on her Master's Degree in Slavic Languages and Literature and has a background in theater and art in community. She led the Fiction/Playwrighting class and co-facilitated the Fiction Reading group.

Maggie Messitt started and led the Memoir/Creative Nonfiction class. Maggie is an American writer and editor focused on narrative and immersion journalism in middle America & southern Africa. She lived in rural Africa for more than six years and split her life between two continents for two more. She returned to the US as a full-time resident in early 2011. Maggie also teaches writing workshops with the Midwest Center for the Arts. When she gets back to southern Africa, Maggie reports from rural communities in Mozambique, Swaziland, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. She also continues her work as a media educator and newspaper consultant in underserved regions. Maggie lived in Limpopo, South Africa, from 2003-2011, during which time she was the Founding Director of Amazwi, a non-profit media arts organization for African women, editor of its community newspaper and magazine, and a freelance international correspondent.

Chris Mohar was the Carol Houck Smith Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing and is currently on the faculty of the Division of Continuing Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He taught fiction at Oakhill from 2009 to 2011 and volunteered with the fiction/memoir class.

J. D. Nordell, whose nonfiction has appeared in Slate, Salon and The New York Times, facilitated a poetry class.

Hannah Oberman-Breindel volunteered with the Fiction-Memoir class while earning her MFA in poetry at UW-Madison.

Meghan O'Gieblyn is an MFA candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Before coming to Madison, she taught ESL in Detroit, wrote comment for a radio station in Ecuador, studied theology and picked up the banjo. She volunteered with the Fiction/Playwrighting class.

Naomi Olson is a Ph.D. candidate in Slavic Languages and Literature at UW-Madison. She initiated and facilitated a fiction class and brought in her unique perspective on Russian Literature. Naomi also secured a grant through the University of Wisconsin Madison's HEX (Humanities Exposed) program to purchase materials for her course and Oakhill's library.

Janelle Pulczinski has a Master's Degree in English, a Master's Degree in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, and is currently working towards a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She led a reading group which discussed novels and short stories and examines how those stories speak to the experiences of students. Janelle secured a grant through the University of Wisconsin Madison's HEX program to buy books for the Afro-American Studies class and for the reading group.

Amanda Rea, Pushcart Prize recipient, whose fiction and nonfiction appears in Kenyon Review, The Sun, Indiana Review, Iowa Review and others, volunteered with the poetry class.

Michael Sheehan was the James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing and was also a co-editor of the Sonoma Review. Michael volunteered with the fiction class.

Jacob Tootalian volunteered with the poetry class while he was a graduate student in English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, studying Renaissance literature and rhetoric.

Angela Voras-Hills earned her MFA at The University of Massachusetts-Boston and was awarded the 2011 Emerging Writer Fellowship at the Writers’ Room of Boston. She currently lives in Madison, where she works in student services and teaches writing workshops through UW-Madison's Division of Continuing Studies. Her work has recently appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Cimarron Review, and Barnstorm, among others.

Steel Wagstaff works as an instructional technology consultant for L&S Learning Support Services and is a dissertator in English literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he studies 20th Century American poetry and environmental criticism. He led the poetry class and coordinated the program and volunteer training.

Notable Visitors:

In addition to exceedingly generous instructors, we have also brought wonderful visiting writers, community members, and academics to the classes to share their love of writing and to hear the writing of the men. Every visitor has (unprompted) said that the experience was extraordinary; those who teach say they wish their students had the same level of enthusiasm and insight, and all comment on the talent of the participants. Some notable visitors have included:

Fabu Carter Brisco, Madison Poet Laureate and author of several books of poetry and prose.

Ryan Browne, a poet, educator, brewer, and football official who earned his M.F.A. in poetry from The University of Alabama and now lives in Madison with his wife and dog. While in Alabama, he taught poetry and literature classes in medium- and maximum-security prisons with the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project.

Richard Davis, legendary bass player who has performed/recorded with Van Morrison, Sarah Vaughan, Eric Dolphy, Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Miles Davis, and many others, and who still teaches music to adults and young people in Madison. Mr. Davis also runs the Madison chapter of the Institutes for the Healing of Racism.

Bruce Dethlefsen, the Wisconsin Poet Laureate for 2011 and 2012, and author of two poetry chapbooks and two full-length collections: Breather (Fireweed Press, 2009) and Unexpected Shiny Things (Cowfeather Press, 2011).

Jason England, fantastic fiction writer and teacher.

Matthew Guenette, a poet and full-time instructor at MATC. His most recent poetry collection is American Busboy (University of Akron Press, 2011), a book inspired by his years busing tables at a vast warehouse of a seafood restaurant where the food was mostly fried and always served on disposable dinnerware. His first book, Sudden Anthem (Dream Horse Press, 2008), won the 2007 American Poetry Journal Book Prize.

Melvin Hinton, producer of community radio station WORT's Radio Literature program and member of the Radio Literature Collective.

Roland Jackson, faculty member of Madison College, who taught a recidivism prevention course for individuals incarcerated in the Dane County Jail, and who holds a Masters in Afro-American Studies.

Dennis Trudell, poet and fiction writer, and longtime professor at UW-Whitewater. He won the Felix Pollak Prize for his collection Fragments in Us: Recent & Earlier Poems (University of Wisconsin Press), edited the book Full Court: A Literary Anthology of Basketball (Breakaway Books), a definitive selection of short stories and poems about the sport, and has published 10 chapbooks of poetry. Trudell has also participated in poets-in-the-schools programs in two states, taught Extension Division courses at University of Wisconsin-Madison and University of Chicago, led workshops for seniors, and taught and tutored at a state and federal prison.

Devin Trudell, an artist, political cartoonist, and founder and publisher of Art Night Books. He grew up in Madison and attended the University of Texas in Austin where he had a comic strip called 'Bleedproof Paper' for two and a half years. He currently lives in Milwaukee with his wife, poet Angie Trudell-Vasquez.

Angie Trudell-Vasquez, Latina activist poet from Des Moines, IA by way of Seattle, WA where she was a member of Los Nortenos and a featured reader at the Bumbershoot Arts Festival. Angie currently lives and writes in Milwaukee, where she is a board member at Woodland Pattern Book Center.

Wendy Vardaman, author of Obstructed View and co-editor of the online and print publication Verse Wisconsin.