Guest Blogger is back – Rachel Levitsky, post no. 1

In Progress: Thinking Notes on Writing and Confinement

Stacy asked me to do the February web log, the first one due today and I said yes, what might you like to see me log about? Stacy said, ‘your work teaching in prison.’ I can’t probably do that very directly but, since last semester’s teaching at Woodbourne and Arthur Kill, two New York State Medium Security Correctional Facilities (NYS has 67 facilities, housing between 60,000 and 90,000 people, depending on the report), I am beginning to think more coherently and/or obsessively about confinement. On one hand how could I not—just last week a friend was arrested and processed because the police had no record of her payment of a speeding violation (which she had paid but that seems moot—they picked her up on 5th Ave in Brooklyn’s Park Slope and kept her for five hours). But also I have come to realize that in fact I think about confinement all the time anyway, that this thinking is always already before my thinking on liberation. I understand confinement to not only be the condition of the massive prison population in this country (600% growth since 1970s despite declining crime rates–more stats listed below), the massive incarceration of young men of color from cities, the 1 in 3 African American males that are predicted to go prison at the time of their birth, and the fact that they are/will be mostly ‘kept’ by white non-urban prison guards—but also the condition of our policed cities and bodies on the outside, the disciplining of the emotions implicit in pumping psycho-pharmaceuticals into children and students and now their professors too, and also the condition of gates and walls built against those these ‘unruly’ policed cities and borders and migrating bodies looking for food and work and home. Fear run amok making room for surreal and politically/humanly horrific experiments in safety. I like the way that Jena Osman talks about this in her introduction to the Chain Links book Refuge/Refugee while discussing the constricting aspect of ‘sanctuary’ (writing adjacently about camps designed for both animals and humans): “In order for a refuge to keep its contents safe, contained, and “carefree,” it must maintain a radical separation from that which exists outside of its frame.” And while as Osman notes, “such detachment is impossible,” it is these more and more radical efforts to hold the lines that increase our state of confinement. The computer poses another question: does the internet/world wide web obliterate or proliferate the razor wires we find ourselves writing behind?

And then there is the question of what we as poets do when we enter and intervene in conceptions of reality. I have a rough thought that one of the things we do when we represent reality, is to delimit it, and by doing so imagine what it is not, or what is outside of it, and that it is possible to view representation as a craving for liberation/autonomy from the world and its heavy totality. Here, I would like to place Gertrude Stein’s book The Making of Americans, and her attempt to construct “an orderly history of every one who ever was or is or will be living” alongside consideration of the refuge or refugee camp, psycho-pharmaceuticals, police arrest for traffic tickets, and the generally increasingly radical efforts being made to contain human and animal lives.

I propose that by in this exercise, Stein, in putting down entirely the whole of what was inside her (the there no longer in Oakland as Joan Retallack aptly points out, refining the sense of that famous comment) imagines she might then step outside, exist separately from that whole, become the unrecognized (by ‘little dog’) “figure” wandering “on alone.” (The full quote from “Identity a poem” is “I am I because my little dog knows me. The figure wanders on alone.”)

In this vein, I’ve long been confounded while tickled by Walter Benjamin, who at the crossroads between centuries (writing on the Nineteenth century in the Twentieth), identifies the writing process as so much perpetuation of the notion of the isolation, singularity and genius, i.e. the poet of the original in “The Task of the Translator” separated and protected from any consideration of the work’s “receiver”, writing in “the true language”; or those adorable rules for writers of the “major work” in the “Post No Bills” section of “One Way Street”; i.e. don’t read from the work until it is complete, have the right pen around at all times, let no thought pass without writing it down in the notebook you always carry, etc.

Echoing Benjamin’s sentiments in this century, Giorgio Agamben has a great piece in Profanations on how the god Genius is profanely and dangerously bowed down to in secular society. And yet this is the same 21st century that, in poetry at least, begins with a massive proliferation, even might I say fad, of conceptualisms, and full on use of the internet as medium for generation and distribution, where we claim no ego, no defining difference, no authorship (well, we still put our names down, as the authors of ‘projects’ but who’s counting?). The notion of waiting until a piece or a project or a conception is finished before considering the audience seems ridiculously solipsistic and absurd, since there wouldn’t be a piece without the audience there to begin with, and we all know it, feel it, pressing on our in-boxes, blogs, facebook pages. And in our desire for nothing special, no extreme emotions or political stances we get confused by that which moves us, when we find ourselves feeling it or calling it especially beautiful and well-wrought: god Genius rearing profane head.

For now, here is my question: Is our recycling of material, our full embrace of technology and networking devices, our DIY culture in which it’s really hard to get anyone to actually show you how to do anything toward mastery because you are supposed to be able to figure out how to do it yourself or pay someone to teach you—do they represent merely a continuation of the modernist urge to capture the world and wander on as autonomous figures alone or is there a new urge to mix and merge, be one with the political and metaphysical world as it is presented to us? Am I correct when I sense that poets no longer crave an outside? Is that a capitulation or radical participation?

And what has this to do with our condition of confinement?

Next Week: the singer Melanie and the bleak outside-less landscapes of our favorite 1970’s movies.

-Rachel Levitsky

Prison Statistics as compiled for me by Dana Greene, a professor of Criminal Justice at NMSU:

Race & Prison/Corrections:

Figures vary significantly by state, however, nationally:
5,000 per 100,000 African-American men are incarcerated
2,000 per 100,000 Latino men are incarcerated
800 per 100,000 White men are incarcerated

African Americans comprise 40% of the prison population but about 13% of the U.S. population.

Self-report studies consistently show little difference in criminal behavior across race.

Almost 1 in 10 (9.3%) of all African American children have had a father in prison or jail; 3.5 percent of Hispanic children and 1.2 percent of white children.

U.S. Adult inmates by race: (national data)
36.5 African American
48.3 White
9.8 Hispanic
5.8 ‘Other’

Correctional Officers:
30% of all correctional officers are from racial and ethnic groups labeled ‘minorities’ (21.7 African American; 6.3 Hispanic; 3.2 other; 69.7 White).
23% of all correctional officers are women.

There are under 1 million correctional officers in the United States (between 800,000 & 900,000 thousand).

Prison Growth: (data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics most of this is copied verbatim)
Between 1940 & 1973 the incarceration rate held steady. Since 1975 continuing exponential increase is the norm.
The incarceration rate in 1973 was 96 per 100,000 United Statesians
The incarceration rate in 2006 was 497 per 100,000 United Statesians (a growth of about 600%)

The U.S. incarceration rate is the highest on the globe. The U.S. spends about 70 billions dollars a year on corrections (probation, parole & prison) About 7.5 million United Statesians are under correctional supervision. About 2.5 are in prison.

Of today’s men in their 30s 1 in 28 has been to prison; 11% of male children born this year AND a third of male African Americans born this year) will go to prison.

Crime rates between 1993 & 2005 fell by more than 50%.

The Big Four:
4 states dominate U.S. corrections (2006 data)
California (largest in the country) 170,676 prison inmates; 384,852 on probation; 110,262 on parole
Florida: prison = 62,743
New York: prison = 89,768
Texas: prison = 169,003

Women and prison:

Since 1960 the feminization of poverty has accelerated = women and children currently comprise 80% of the poor in the United States.

The growth rate of women in prison has surpassed that of men since 1995. From 1995 to 2005 the male population in state and federal correctional facilities increased by 34 percent & that of women 57%.

Feeding the prisons:
The Children’s Defense Fund have an interesting report called the ‘Cradle To Prison Pipeline’ the url is

What fuels the pipeline: (from the report)
Pervasive Poverty
Inadequate Access to Healthcare
Gaps in Early Childhood Development
Disparate Educational Opportunities
Intolerable Abuse and Neglect
Unmet Mental Health needs
Substance Abuse
Juvenile Justice System

(The source for much of CDF data is the U.S. Department of Justice)

Lifetime risk of a boy born in 2001 of going to prison:
Black boy: 1 in 3 chance
Latino boy: 1 in 6
White boy: 1 in 17

Lifetime risk of a girl born in 2001 of going to prison:
Black girl: 1 in 17
Latina girl: 1 in 45
White girl: 1 in 111

While more white children are poor in the United States Black and Latino/a children are more likely to be poor:
1 in 3 Black children is poor
1 in 4 Latino/a children is poor
1 in 10 children is poor