Institute of American Indian Arts Faculty Member & Renowned Poet James Thomas Stevens Reaches Out to Inmates of New Mexico State Penitentiary 

The IAIA Health and Wellness Trail

Published June 9, 2017 

Five Incarcerated Poets Have their Works Displayed on the IAIA Campus

SANTA FE – IAIA Associate Professor of Creative Writing James Thomas Stevens (Akwesasne Mohawk), recently contacted IAIA alumna Roseanna Andrade (Mexica/Nahua) ’16, to participate in one of IAIA’s community outreach programs — the collection of poems that are posted on the IAIA Health and Wellness Trail. As the poetry instructor in the Creative Writing Program, Stevens is responsible for collecting original poems from invited groups and posting them in wooden display posts along the IAIA Health and Wellness trail, utilized by IAIA students, staff, faculty, and members of the surrounding community. In the past, works from IAIA undergrad writers, graduate students, and students from local Native high schools were utilized; but Stevens recognized that not all writers come from educational institutions. In an effort to reach out to other groups, he wrote to Andrade and requested poems for display on the trail from April 1, 2017 through August 1 2017.

Andrade was recently hired to work in the library at the New Mexico State Penitentiary, and Stevens felt that there was an opportunity to invite writers in the incarcerated community to contribute poems. The Mission Statement at the Institute of American Indian Arts is “To empower creativity and leadership in Native arts and culture through higher education, lifelong learning, and outreach,” and Stevens felt this was the perfect opportunity to put that into a practical application.

Andrade received her Associates Degree in Native American Studies and Bachelor of Arts Degree in Indigenous Liberal Studies from IAIA. During her time at the school, she worked in the library and according to her, “my passion for books and literacy led me to this new position, providing library services for the community at PNM. As the prison librarian at PNM, I provided a program which inspired positive, creative self-expression that inmates could share with others in the larger community.”

The requirements for inclusion in the program were simple: one-page poems, no use of vulgar language, poems must speak to the theme of “Nature,” and all identification of the writers was by pseudonyms or first names only.

One of the submitted poems on display

After receiving permission to participate in the program from Deputy Warden Clarence Olivas of the Minimum Restrictive Unit facility, Andrade placed flyers in the library where she works as well as in the inmates’ housing units. Poems were submitted by five writers: John Lujan, Larry Walters,Christopher Paige, Felix Moriel, and Jose Gamez — which are now on display. Andrade was excited about the invitation because of the stipulation that “the poem must speak to the theme of ‘nature’. This gave writers the opportunity to reflect upon nature and the natural world from their perspective. Furthermore, Mr. Stevens offered an accessible forum in which writers from diverse communities can express themselves and communicate their ideas.”

Four of the five writers had previously written poetry and were enthusiastic about participating in the project. One of the writers, John Lujan, had experience writing poetry but had never shared his work with others before submitting it for this project. His piece is displayed along the trail and he also mailed a copy of the poem home to share with his family.  Another of the poets, Jose Gamez, stated that participating in this project has brought him closer to his family because they now have the opportunity to physically view his writing. When his family comes to visit him in May, they will also visit the nature trail on the IAIA campus. His mother plans to surprise his niece and nephew, who grew up without him in their lives, by bringing them to his poem on the trail. He says this is his way of showing those members of his family the person that he really is and the writing that he does.

Andrade summed up her participation in the program by saying, “Many of the writers were happy to share their work with others. One of the writers explained that there is a stigma in prison that prisoners need to block their feelings and emotions; but writing allows them to express themselves in a real way and that these programs are good for personal growth and a positive way to learn how to communicate with people. Additionally, I placed 8×10 color photographs of the nature trail with the posts that display the poems around the library to recreate the trail for the library patrons. This had a positive impact for the library because the writers and patrons were able to view the work of their peers and it also brought in a lot of first time users to the library. This program was the first of its kind at the PNM library. There is a lot of potential for programming and I am looking into ways for the inmates to become more involved with the library through reading and writing projects. I would also like to include projects in which artists have the opportunity to share their work as well. The library is fortunate to have the support of the Deputy Warden Olivas and staff that recognize that these types of programs are beneficial to the inmate population.”

Librarian Roseanna Andrade and poet Jose Gamez in the MRU library at PNM

Stevens, who is also a mentor in the IAIA Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program,  summed up the results of his efforts by saying, “Poetry, which allows us to express what we often believe inexpressible, is born of silence and contemplation. These are things that the incarcerated have plenty of, so it makes sense that there are emotions and feelings pondered and re-pondered that are waiting to spill out on the page. My old professor and mentor, Arthur Sze, used to say, ‘Poetry gives us the ability to orchestrate our silences, to give silence the same weight as words.’ We see this in the poems that were submitted by writers in the penitentiary, the line breaks, the pauses – the results of thought and silence.”

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