United Booksellers celebrates MLK Day with a reading of poems by incarcerated authors

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Huddled at the back of Alley Cat Bookstore on Jan. 20 was a gathering of poets, supporters and activists ready to honor Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy. Denise Sullivan, co-founder of United Booksellers, organized a poetry reading of “As I Hear the Rain,” the second anthology in a collection of poems written by incarcerated individuals as part of the PEN America’s Prison Writing Program. To help those in prison be heard, San Francisco poet laureate Kim Shuck, Chicanx poetry legend Josiah Luís Alderete, wordsmith Tongo Eisen-Martin and UC Berkeley alumna Thea Matthews were all in attendance to read from the anthology and recite a few pieces of their own. 

Reading first for the event, Shuck selected a few meditative poems from the anthology and read each with gravity and emotion, stressing the tone of each individual author. The poem “Time Reversal Invariance” by David Pickett was a perceptive study into the flow of time and physics. Shuck expressed how moving it was to read through the works and noted that they are some of the best poems she has read, delving into topics in crucial need of discussion. 

To finish her segment, Shuck read the titular poem of the anthology by Douglas Weed, which describes the beauty of nature beyond walls and the sound of rain “pitter-patting/ On the glass like tiny tap dancers with/ Their shiney steel-tipped black shoes.”

Alderete was spirited and lively as he came to the microphone. He expressed appreciation for the opportunity and read “My Co-Worker” by Edward Ji, a piece about the author’s fellow inmate being put on parole. Ji reflects, “Like among the dead, one resurrected./ He’ll forget about those still dead.” Ironically, although the imprisoned speaker identified as one of the dead, they were the one who received their co-worker’s inheritance: In this case, a pair of work shoes. Alderete emphasized this irony with his tone of voice and use of inflection. 

Alderete then gave audience members a taste of his own Mission-rooted poetry. Although he was evicted from the Mission District in San Francisco in the early 2000s, he still proudly represents the San Francisco district and what it stands for. His poem “En la Calle 24” tackles the subject of gentrification in a delightfully inventive Spanglish tongue, chronicling the neighborhood’s transformation over time. 

There was a quick pause in the reading to acknowledge Nancy Frank, a part of the Adobe Books to Prisoners initiative, who was instrumental in the publication of “As I Hear the Rain.” Frank was sincere when she spoke about how her involvement in the project came by surprise — she teared up when mentioning how one of the anthology’s writers was executed on death row before the book could be published.

The somber mood continued as Eisen-Martin harnessed the bravery to read the introduction of the deceased inmate Frank mentioned. The moment was emotional but simultaneously liberating. Although the prisoner did not live to see their work published, they live on in their words. Eisen-Martin transitioned into his signature stream-of-consciousness style, wheeling out his work “The Course of Meal” with remarkably smooth flow and occasional chuckles to and from the audience. The piece jumped from personal vignettes to musings on racism and inequality in the United States. 

The final reader of the evening, Matthews delivered heavily charged, intimate readings of several poems, one of which was “Young Girl Twenty” by Vaughn Walker. The author utilized creative wordplay throughout the poem to symbolize the girl’s descent from innocence to exploitation and crime. Matthews’ own poems were deeply personal and raw, laying bare the trauma of sexual assault and revealing the raw fragility and humanity of homelessness. 

The evening was beautifully fruitful, bringing forth the voices of incarcerated people and speaking their words into existence. Although the authors may have been behind bars, their imaginations and creativity were liberated as their poetry was brought to life in celebration and recognition of Martin Luther King Jr’s impact.

Luna Khalil covers culture and diversity. Contact her at [email protected].