The Pen Cries Power

A Feature with PEN America Prison Writing Program

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect freedom of expression in the United States and worldwide. Founded on the heels of the Attica prison uprising in 1971, PEN America’s Prison Writing Program believes in the restorative, rehabilitative, and transformative possibilities of writing, and we support free expression, encouraging the use of the written word as a legitimate form of power. We provide hundreds of imprisoned writers across the country with free writing resources, skilled mentors, and audiences for their work. We strive toward an increasingly integrative approach—aiming to amplify the voices and writing of imprisoned people to expand beyond the silo of prison and the identity of prisoner.

Soft Things Don't Grow Here, by Daniel Carter

Every day the convict rakes rocks the desert repels from inside itself
into fine single file lines to match the march of the subjugated as they shuffle to main line.
            One at a time! Yells the screw as though reciting from a script manufactured
By crooks who call shots for the Man who pulls their strings.
We all know these things.
Soft things don’t grow here.

My next-door neighbor needed a soup
So I gave him one of mine.
That infraction only cost me three days of solitary that time.
We are expected to get along
As long as we’re not too polite;
No one cares if it doesn’t make sense,
            Just keep your fucking mouth shut and keep to the right!
            If you turn your head around or make any sudden movements,
            We will take you down to the ground and spray
            (You Fucking Animal!)
Shackles leave scars only the soul sees.
Soft things don’t grow here.

A tumble weed struggles to free itself
From razor wire wrapped around my world.
The wild horses roaming the arroyos beyond the cyclones
Fill my teenage heart with a longing for what is illegal for me for nearly two more decades.
An old guard reads what’s in my eyes.
            Soft things don’t grow here.

Stir the Eggs, Scrambled, by Charles Patrick Norman

Early morning: the sun not yet shining.
Still dark. Breakfast.

My Father sits across from me
        at the small square kitchen table
        covered with a red-and-white-checked
        oil cloth, spooning hot grits
        onto his plate—white, steaming,
        swirls of orange sharp cheddar cheese
        stirred into eddies with the melted butter,
        a shake of salt, then pepper.

He takes two buttermilk biscuits from the
        small round pan, hot from the oven,
        breaks each one open with his fork,
        dabs soft churned butter onto each one,
        sets the biscuits next to the grits,
        then scoops a spoon of molasses,
        from the little jar, dips one biscuit into
        the thick brown sweetness,
        bites, chews, and smiles at me.

He spoons hot buttered cheese grits
        onto my plate. I take two biscuits from the pan and copy him,
        move for move, as my mother turns
        from the hot stove two feet away
        black cast-iron skillet handle wrapped
        with a striped dish towel, and slides
        two fried eggs, soft, over easy,
        with the spatula, onto my father’s plate of grits.

He stirs the yellow yolks into the grits,
        dabs a biscuit into the mix
        and eats, pleased.

She turns back to the gas stove,
        blue flames flowing from the burner,
        grasps two brown eggs from
        the bowl in one hand.
        With practiced ease she cracks
        the eggs against the skillet edge,
        drops the yolks and whites
        into the bubbling bacon grease,
        stirs the eggs, scrambled­—
        I do not yet like the runny eggs
        like my father does,
        but one day I will,
        perhaps in homage to him,
        or yearning to return to that time
        when there were but the three of us
        in that little white house
        on the hill, happy, content, alive,
        before he kissed Mama goodbye,
        squeezed my shoulder,
        and drove to work,
one more time.

My Co-Worker, by Edward Ji

My coworker makes parole.
No goodbyes. Just disappears one day.
We wish him well in our hearts,
Like among the dead, one resurrected.
He’ll forget about those still dead;
Shake off the gray dust,
While here, we still sleep,
An island away from the world.
I file my departed friend
Into my memories of the gone,
and inherit his work boots
As if I were the living,
And he the dead.

In the nighttime dew
Twisted shady trees
Climb to find the fruit
All the apples in my eyes

Behind the library
Stalking service berry section
Invisible I consume
Medicinal amounts of wild fruit

Coaxing plentiful branches
Through my kitchen window
Mullberry tree in the streetlight
Let the city grow wild…

I am everythang
that signifying Monkey say I be      So they say: I am
      a comet rider, planet hurdler, Milky Way maker   I am
      beyond, I Kant’s   theory of knowledge
            I am, a celestial transcendent time traveler, who
walked with Wisdom and Knowledge
and debated the inherited fallacy
of religion, but founded common ground      in principles, I am
the Alpha and the Omega
and all the time in between
      I am, the father, the son, and the Holy Spirit
I am in the midst      of the burning bush and called-to:
Adam, Noah, Abraham
      Moses, Marcus, Malcolm
Martin, Mandela “Here I am!”
the fourth man loose walking in the midst of the fire
who made Nebuchadnezzar shout out:
Ni Na Moto Ndani Yangu, I am, I am, I am!
The North Star       master builders set the Great pyramid
underneath me, I am
the low moaning—strangled song, from a bilious bilge,
sung by kidnapped African nationals. I am the revolt, I am
the escape; I am
the dive, into the icy blue   death.
I am, the bones that littered the middle passage, I am
what the white man: stung up and hung out
the slave. I am underfed and destitute
I am what the Negro forgot, so he shouted:
“I am somebody,” I am    everything
that- that nigger Stagolee is not, I am
the black power, the Sixties sought, I am
rhythm in four/four time    laid over
eighth and quarter notes, I am
Blues-bent soul cries, I am
jazz, funk      on the one, soul, and hip-hop,
I am the bass drum       of the heart. I am
the graceful H that played
like Donny Hathaway running
warm and cool        at the same time
wild, through Coltrane’s veins
(through Coltrane’s veins)
I am, back-flips   no-hands, on mattresses
laid out, in Mad Dog 20/20 battlefields. I am
the threat police officer perceive, in the presence of unarmed black men, I am
the roll call on black mothers      for slain
children by white police officers’    violence, I am
incandescent with rage, beyond the point of pleading, I am
2.2 million Hostages, struggling forward    from government owned property
up to, I am. I am as much of a man, as you think you are
I am compassion; I am love.       I      am    Peace. I am
the black soil underneath your feet, I am
the Rebel without Pause, PE warned you about me, I am
the statue of liberty in Chains, (stop)
I am the American flag    painted in blood. (stop)
I am the future       the fire within,
on the eagle’s wings, which bore you to myself,
so I shall be     I am!

Daniel Carter, Charles Patrick Norman, Edward Ji, Evan MK Ecklund, Ward Allen Yont

Edward Ji is a 28-year-old Chinese-American in Texas who writes fiction, poems, and essays about prison. He was sentenced to life at age 16 for attempted murder, and writing is his sole artistic outlet. He will soon release a 1984/Clockwork Orange-style novel. He work can be found under “Edward Ji” on


Charles Patrick Norman was born in 1949 and has survived nearly 40 years of imprisonment in some of Florida’s most violent and dangerous prisons, maintaining his innnocence of the 1975 murder for which he was convicted. Over 30 years of teaching creative writing, horticulture, art, and many other classes for prisoners, he has become an award-winning writer of poetry, short stories, plays, essays, and memoirs. Mr. Norman’s writings are read by thousands of people in over 85 countries on his blog, He enjoys visits from his wife, Elizabeth, and has a July 2017 parole date that has been suspended by the politically-influenced commission.


Due to the difficulty of getting mail in and out of the prison system, we regretfully were unable, as of press time, to include biographies for Daniel Carter, Evan M.K. Ecklund, and Ward Allen Yont. The editors thank these three poets for their contributions. 

Tyler Champion

Tyler Champion is a freelance illustrator and designer. He grew up in Kentucky before moving to New Jersey to develop his passion at The Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art. After graduating in 2010, he headed back south to Nashville, TN, where he currently resides with his girlfriend Melissa and his son Jude. Tyler has produced work for magazines, comics, design companies, and children’s books, including work for Sony, Capstone Publishing, and Tell-a-graphics.

First Featured In: No. 12, winter 2018

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