Interview by Sarahlynn Lester
A 2015 Graduate of the Stonecoast MFA program in Poetry, Joseph Jackson is Director of Leadership and Development at Maine Inside Out, a nonprofit organization through which incarcerated youth collaborate with facilitators to create and hold theater productions at their correctional facility. Jackson also works with the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, Maine Youth Justice, and RAW Restorative Art Works in Belfast. He was the first incarcerated person to matriculate in any graduate program in Maine. Jackson was honored last spring with the Constance H. Carlson Public Humanities Prize from the Maine Humanities Council.
In this interview, Jackson talks about his important work using poetry and theater as art, therapy, support, and awareness for kids who are struggling.
SL: You work with some really interesting organizations–what’s a typical working day like for you?
JJ: Meetings from the time I get up. [Laughs] Communications. I don’t know how I navigate it, but it’s a lot of meetings, peer group supports, crisis management. There’s a whole host of things you do when you work with people who are system-impacted, particularly young people.
I talk about Maine Inside Out, Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, Maine Youth Justice as a formerly system-impacted person; a person who’s spent time inside the Maine Department of Corrections. The dysfunction of that institution is something that needs to be challenged, and my medium is art. I’m a poet, and we use theater, and we’ve been able to raise awareness around this issue in our state.
I’m in it for the people who are locked up and the people who are out and trying to navigate a system that has imposed lifetime sanctions and barriers for folks who have been touched by the system. My work with young people–particularly young people in schools–has shown me that the school-to-prison pipeline is real. One-hundred percent of the young people who find themselves incarcerated were first suspended from school. How do we begin to put a bottleneck on the system that is detrimental and harmful to not only the people who are touched by it but also to society itself?
SL: The work you do sounds grueling, and you must hear heartbreaking stories. How do you keep from getting beaten down by it?
JJ: You don’t. You get beaten down, you take a break, and then get your breath back, your energy back, and you dive back in. It’s highly emotional work. I find myself witnessing people who are having great success, but at the same time as someone’s doing really well, someone’s not doing so well. They’re really struggling, and I’m trying to bear witness to that as much as I can–to celebrate those who are succeeding and hug and support those who are struggling.
SL: How did you come to the world of creative writing, theater, art?
JJ: I was introduced to poetry when I was a young person. I come from Tyler, Texas, and the center of my community was a church called Sunshine Baptist Church. My mom took me and my siblings there as young children. The community would gather there for Easter, or Mother’s Day, or Father’s Day. Young kids were part of the services and would memorize poems. I fell in love with poetry, having to stand up nervously in front of the congregation. Sometimes I messed up, and sometimes I did good.
As a teenager, I just played with poetry. It was my way of trying to get girls. Roses are red, violets are blue.
SL: [Laughs] I imagine that was effective.
JJ: Once I got inside the Maine Department of Corrections, I used poetry as therapy for the grief and hurt I felt. I was really just trying to make sense of the insane situation and insane world. As I continued with my education, poetry helped me understand all the new ideas, new thoughts, and new perspectives I was being introduced to.
And then moving past Stonecoast, I was using poetry and writing as a way of art and therapy for young people. I met with the founders of Maine Inside Out. We started an open mic night as a way to support people who were going to transition back into society, because there was really nothing.
That led to us forming groups. You’ve got to go where the kids are going. We had four youth groups at one time in Portland, Biddeford, Lewiston, and Waterville. I was driving all over the place. We were creating scenes and plays, talking about people’s lives and creating art around that. What was really important was young people not only getting to talk about and hear their stories, but also putting their stories outside themselves and examining them in a whole different way [through performance].
I’m using advocacy, but I’m really telling the stories of what’s impacting folks on a visceral level: this is what’s going on behind the scenes, behind the doors. These are the people who find themselves locked up. Now these kids have become adults and they can’t shake the trauma they experienced when they were first introduced to the system. They weren’t given the supports they needed. Our state wasn’t a guardian and didn’t provide for the real needs of young people who grow into older people who are still carrying those same things.
We’re making a difference. In our state, there are a lot of people talking about criminal justice reform and the need for transformational justice, and really looking at the systems we have erected in a critical light.
SL: That is really important work. When were you released–when were you at Stonecoast?
JJ: I am the first prisoner to be accepted into a Masters degree program while still a prisoner. I was at Stonecoast from 2013 to 2015. I was released October 1st, 2013, and the reason I was released was so I could attend Stonecoast.
It was not an easy journey to get there, but Stonecoast was an eye-opening experience. To be introduced to all the genres of writing! I was already playing with poetry and into plays. At Stonecoast, I was introduced to so many different creative aspects. I started reading Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. Everyone is an expert in their own lives and we’re all playing characters already.
This is something I really believe in–the power of art. I believe if you want to see anything real happen, real societal change, you’re going to see it first on stage. You’re going to see it acted out creatively in some fashion or form before it manifests itself as a real thing in our world. I believe in the power of art and creativity to change society and the way we look at things.
SL: I agree with that. I also don’t always know what I feel until I read what I’ve written. I don’t know if it’s like that for you. Sometimes, I don’t realize what I’m processing until I get it down.
Was there anything you learned at Stonecoast, or any particular way Stonecoast helped prepare you for the work you’re doing now?
JJ: The whole thing. Stonecoast introduced me to a whole world of different types of writing. I’ve never seen so much talent in one place. When I left Stonecoast, I wasn’t seriously thinking about theater and playwrights. But there were a lot of folks [at Stonecoast] who were showing the power of that form. You’ve got professors sharing their work, other alums sharing what they’ve written. I’ve been up there, and I’ve shared some of my poetry on that podium. Seeing all that different talent opened my mind and my eyes to so much. That was one of the most valuable experiences I’ve ever had. I came out of that a better writer, and confident in my craft.
For my thesis, I drew on a lot of people and poets who have been system-impacted, and one of those people was Reginald Dwayne Betts. He was an abstract figure and character from a book I picked up, and now I’m getting to meet him. He’s a real-life person, just like me. Betts has this one-hour, one-man show that he does. When I look now at the show, I can see the craft he put together. The interweaving of poetry and prose. Storytelling. It’s an amazing thing to watch. It takes all those pieces to create the package. I’m learning how we can use these different mediums.
SL: Last question. Thinking of all these people you’ve worked with who are system-impacted–How can poetry and art help them?
JJ: A few years ago, Maine Inside Out performed a play we created for the teachers [at Lewiston Middle School]. Two of our members actually had gone to that school, and then later found themselves in a youth detention center. There was a scene in the play where they talked about their experience in school. One of the kids said, “Nobody really knew I needed help. Here I was, screaming that I needed help, I wanted help, but nobody wanted to give me help.” And there were teachers in that room who had been his teachers. They walked up, tears in their eyes, and apologized to him.
Another way I can answer that question is different, a flip of that story. There was one kid who’d gotten in trouble. Got drunk, vandalized the school, got arrested. We really had to fight to keep him from going to jail, to find a restorative method instead. And the thing that was agreed upon was that he would apologize to the student body. So he asked his Maine Inside Out family if we’d go with him. We’d been working on a play, had the bones of something. We like showing our plays a little bit before we go out on a big stage. So I introduced him, brought him up. He’d had time to prepare, but I don’t think he did. He just got up there and apologized. I was standing in a corner, and I felt like he was apologizing for me. I felt like he was apologizing for everything every young person had ever done wrong. And that’s kind of how it felt for everybody. It was that sincere. And then he went back and did the play, and the play was great. At the end, there was a chance to engage with the audience. The very last person to stand up was this young girl. She said, “The play was great and all, but I wanted to say something to the young man and let him know that I heard him and I accept his apology. Anybody who accepts his apology, I invite you to stand.” And the whole auditorium stood. We had one guy, this vice principal, who was adamant that this kid not get restorative justice. Adamant. At the end, he was bawling. The power of theater.
[We do] regular work in that school with these same young people who might otherwise have been suspended, their lives thrown away. And now they get to tell their stories, tell their tales, perform this play in front of an audience that’s going to include their teachers and decision-makers. What better way to express your experiences of transformation and what’s going on in your life than through art?
The art is an end to itself, and it’s also a form of growth for both sides–for the audience member, and for the performer.