These are Hard Times for Dreamers, Writing from Rikers Island
Edited by Deborah Clearman
NY Writers Coalition Press, 2015
The NY Writers Coalition (NYWC) has been leading creative writing workshops for women in the Rose M. Singer Center (Rosie’s) on Rikers Island since 2010. This year they published a new chapbook of writing from the workshop called, These are Hard Times for Dreamers. I attended a reading at Rosie’s this week along with NYWC staff, workshop leaders and other supporters of the NYWC.
I led a creative writing workshop at the Bedford Hills correctional facility a few years back, so this was not my first time “inside.” But entering a space surrounded by rolls of razor wire remains a bit of a shock. As does the moment when they ask you to step into a small space bounded by two metal doors and after stepping in to that small space (this time with 20 people), both doors shut before they open the door on the other side. It’s like the package window at the post office, but for humans.
But the facility was brighter and cheerier than I had expected, given all the recent press, with windows running along the tops of the walls and a big open yard for the women to exercise in. And all the officers we encountered were friendly and welcoming
The reading was in an auditorium in the Programs Corridor and we gathered with about 25 of the inmates, and a few officers, for the event. Eight women read and it was moving to hear their poems and stories about childhood, motherhood, divorce, favorite foods and what it is like to be incarcerated. Two of the women had work published in the book and others read new pieces they had created recently. The work was honest and open. Some of the pieces were hopeful, noting the power of love and how love can’t be taken from a women, even when she is incarcerated. Others were less so, noting the dark matter that the world is made of. Together the works created a collage of lived experiences, of what comes before, during and after their time at Rikers.
After the reading, the women who had work published in the book signed the books for us and spoke about how important writing was to them. One woman said to me, “I have always been a writer. I never thought I would get my writing published.”
Writing is an act of hope and the work in These are Hard Times for Dreamers is both hopeful and brave. The collection was edited by Deborah Clearman, a volunteer who leads the workshop for NYWC at Rosie’s. On May 7th, as part of the PEN World Voices Festival, Deborah will be on a panel of prison writing mentors and formerly incarcerated writers talking about their experiences working together.